Taught by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, this course explores the communist movement at its zenith between the 1920s and 1970s, covering the regimes of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong in China, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Marxist-Leninist governments in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. At the time, communism looked like the unstoppable wave of the future.
Communism in Power: From Stalin to Mao
Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Liulevicius served as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. Professor Liulevicius has won many awards and honors, including the University of Tennessee's Excellence in Teaching Award and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. At the university he teaches courses on modern German history, Western civilization, European diplomatic history, Nazi Germany, World War I, war and culture, 20th-century Europe, nationalism, and utopian thought. Dr. Liulevicius has published numerous articles and two books: War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I and The German Myth of the East, 1800 to the Present.
Professor Liulevicius participated in The Great Courses Professor Chat series. Read the chat to learn more about diplomacy and war
01: Joseph Stalin: The Soviet Man of Steel
Trace the rise of Joseph Stalin after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924. As the second leader of the new Soviet state, Stalin fulfilled Lenin’s goal of transforming the economy and culture of the old Russian empire, bringing communism to the country at a cost of millions of lives. Learn how Stalin emerged from obscurity to outwit his rivals, including the renowned revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
02: The Stalinist Gulag State
Stalin’s rule descended into mass terror, culminating in the Great Purge. At its height from 1936 to 1938, this campaign of political repression saw an estimated 600,000 executed and millions more deported to brutal labor camps known as gulags. No one was exempt from possible denunciation and conviction. Hear some of the dark jokes that ordinary people told to cope with the uncertainty.
03: Pilgrims to Utopia: Foreigners in the USSR
“I have seen the future and it works,” declared American journalist Lincoln Steffens after visiting Soviet Russia in 1919. Many notables from the West traveled to the new communist state and came away impressed—or rather deluded by Soviet propaganda. Lenin called these credulous foreigners “useful idiots.” Also learn about those who immigrated to the Soviet Union only to discover the truth.
04: World War II: Steel Tempered in the Furnace
Chart Stalin’s plan for world domination in light of international politics in the 1930s. Then, see how his strategy was upended by Nazi Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941—the most devastating campaign of World War II. Near defeat, Stalin appealed to Allied help and Russian nationalism to turn the tide, ending with Germany’s surrender in 1945. The Cold War with the West followed.
05: American Communists: Beyond the Red Scare
Track the growth of communism in the United States, where the Great Depression was a golden age for recruitment, especially since the party treated all workers—whatever their race, sex, or ethnicity—as equal victims of capitalism. Note how espionage often went hand in hand with party membership, and survey successive “red scares” such as the McCarthy period, and the punitive response of US authorities.
06: The Soviet Elephant and the Secret Speech
The Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazism gave the communist movement enormous prestige, heralding imminent global triumph. See how this ambition started to unravel through brewing discontent, spurred by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, three years after the dictator’s death. Disillusioned intellectuals further opened the eyes of the world to communism’s flaws.
07: Building East Germany, Albania, and Romania
Despite claims that communism was a universal ideology, it developed differently in different countries. Focus on three post-World War II communist regimes: East Germany, which remained rigidly loyal to the Soviet Union; Albania, which cultivated isolation; and Romania, which broke with Soviet patronage and sought ties with the West. One trait common to all was an imperial style of leadership.
08: Mao Zedong and Communist China
No one reshaped Marxist-Leninist dogma as much as Mao Zedong, who led the communist takeover of China in 1949. And no one’s policies killed more of his own people, with estimates ranging from 20 to 40 million dead during Mao’s 27 years in power. Study the first half of his tumultuous reign, which saw China transformed in a bid to bring a sprawling peasant society into the modern industrial world.
09: China’s Cultural Revolution
One participant in Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” conducted from 1966 to 1976, called it “neither cultural nor revolutionary.” Instead, it was “nothing but a 10-year-long disaster.” Investigate Mao’s motivation for unleashing this nationwide chaos. Also, see how the backlash against it launched China on its present course, which combines rigid state control with private enterprise in the economy.
10: Dynastic Communism in North Korea
Focus on the world’s last remaining Stalinist state, North Korea, which is also a dynasty with rule passed down through the same family, just like in hereditary kingdoms. Starting from the same point after the division of Korea following World War II, Western-oriented South Korea became one of the richest countries in the world, while communist North Korea became one of the poorest. Explore why.
11: Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese Nationalism
Follow the career of Ho Chi Minh, schoolteacher, pastry chef, communist, and revolutionary. An ardent Vietnamese patriot, he led the struggle against French, Japanese, and American control of his country. Dying in 1969, he didn’t live to see the unification of North and South Vietnam under communist rule in the 1970s. Since then, Vietnam has veered away from pure socialism, much like China.
12: Pol Pot and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge
Delve into the nightmare of slaughter unleashed by the communist leader Pol Pot on taking over Cambodia in 1975. In 1978, neighboring Vietnam invaded Cambodia to end the anarchy, followed by China’s brief invasion of Vietnam in 1979. In other words, communist states pledged to world revolution and international brotherhood were now fighting each other—just like the imperialist powers they scorned.