The Fall of Communism: How the Soviet Empire Lost the Cold War


Twenty-eight years ago, on November 9, 1989, a bureaucratic mix-up allowed crowds of East Germans to cross the Berlin Wall. The subsequent scenes of dancing and celebration have become familiar, but how did they come about? Why did the Wall fall when it did – and did it have to fall at all? This course will examine the roots, causes, and aftermath of communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. We will consider economic stagnation and abortive attempts at reform; political crises and the rise of dissident movements; cultural exchange and the influence of mass media; and the role of social and nationalist activism.


Throughout, we will pay particular attention to the meaning and impact of the Cold War. Communism aspired to be a systematic alternative to the capitalist world, with its own principles of morality, work, and leisure. For this reason, communist regimes were constantly engaged in competition with the West, from the Russian Revolution through the fall of the USSR. We will explore how this competition drove policies at home and abroad; how communist leaders tried to respond to Western influences; and how the Cold War framework continues to shape Russian politics today.


Class meetings will be a mix of lectures and discussion. Students should expect to read 50-70 pages a week, and to attend four movie screenings over the course of the semester. Assignments include a midterm, a final exam, and two creative five-page papers, written from the perspective of a fictional character.

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
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