Short Course

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The central text of the Josef Stalin-era party catechism, The History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks)Short Course was compulsory reading for Soviet citizens of all walks of life between 1938 and 1956. This textbook traced the origins of the Russian revolutionary movement to tsarist industrialization efforts after 1861. Early agrarian populists gave way during the 1880s to Marxist Social Democrats, who acted in the name of the nascent working class. By the mid-1890s, Vladimir Ilich Lenin had emerged to guide this movement through police persecution and internal division (versus the Mensheviks, "Legal Marxists," and Economists); his leadership allowed the Bolsheviks to seize power in 1917. Subsequently, Lenin plotted a course through civil war and foreign intervention toward the construction of a socialist economy. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin navigated the USSR successfully through shock industrialization, agricultural collectivization, and the defense of the revolution's gains against internal and external enemies. All but several sections on dialectical materialism were actually drafted by E. M. Yaroslavsky, P. N. Pospelov, and V. G. Knorin before being edited for publication by Stalin and members of his entourage.

A seminal text, the Short Course epitomized a belief held by Soviet authorities after the early 1930s that history ought to play a fundamental role in party indoctrination efforts. This was signaled by a letter Stalin wrote to the journal Proletarskaya revolyutsia (Proletarian Revolution ) in 1931 in which he denounced party historians for daring to question even minor aspects of Lenin's leadership. Party historians floundered in the wake of this scandal, forcing Soviet authorities to clarify the party's new expectations on "the historical front." Existing party histories were too inaccessible and insufficiently inspiring for what was still a poorly educated society. A long-standing focus on anonymous social forces and abstract materialist analysis was to be replaced by a new emphasis on heroic individuals, pivotal events, and the connection of party history to that of Soviet society as a whole. These demands reflected the Soviet leadership's intention to treat both party and state history as motivational propaganda.

Editorial brigades under Yaroslavsky, Knorin, P. P. Popov, Lavrenti Beria, and others struggled to address these new demands, although the situation was complicated by the Great Terror. Repeated exposure of traitors within the Soviet elite between 1936 and 1938 made it difficult to write a stable narrative about the party. A lack of progress led the party leadership to ask Yaroslavsky, Pospelov, and Knorin to combine forces on a single advanced text. Knorin's arrest during the summer of 1937, however, forced Yaroslavsky and Pospelov to focus exclusively on the jointly authored manuscript, redrafting it under the supervision of Stalin, Andrei Zhdanov, and Vyacheslav Molotov.

Released in the fall of 1938, the Short Course was hailed as an ideological breakthrough that succeeded in situating party history within a broader Russo-Soviet historical context. Moreover, its tight focus on Lenin and Stalin ensured that the text would survive future purges (although at the cost of conflating party history with the cult of personality). Ubiquitous after the printing of more than forty-two million copies, the Short Course reigned over party educational efforts for eighteen years, authoritative until Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and the personality cult in 1956.

See also: stalin, josef vissarionovich


Brandenberger, David. (1999). "The 'Short Course' to Modernity: Stalinist History Textbooks, Mass Culture, and the Formation of Russian Popular National Identity, 19341956." Ph.D. diss, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

David Brandenberger