Pearson Edexcel as and a level in History Topic booklet

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Edexcel AS and A Level

in History

Topic booklet

Route E: Communist states in the twentieth century

Route E: Communist states in the twentieth century

This topic booklet has been written to support teachers delivering Route E of the 2015 AS and A level History specifications. We’re providing it in Word so that it’s easy for you to take extracts or sections from it and adapt them or give them to students.

For the route as a whole and for each topic within it, we’ve provided an overview which helps to provide contextual background and explain why we think these are fascinating topics to study. These overviews could be used, for example, in open evening materials or be given to students at the start of the course.

You’ll also find a student timeline, which can be given to students for them to add to and adapt, a list of resources for students and for teachers, and – where possible – information about overlap between these topics and the 2008 specification.

For more detail about planning, look out for the Getting Started guide, Course planner and schemes of work.


Overview 1

Overview 3

Content guidance 3

Themes 3

Historical interpretations: What explains the fall of the USSR, c1985–91? 5

Mapping to 2008 specification 5

Resources and references 6

Overview 12

Content guidance 12

Mapping to 2008 specification 14

Resources and references 18

Overview 20

Content guidance 21

Mapping to 2008 specification 23

Resources and references 27

1E: Russia, 1917–91: from Lenin to Yeltsin with 2E.1: Mao’s China, 1949–76 31

1E: Russia, 1917–91: from Lenin to Yeltsin with 2E.2: The German Democratic Republic, 1949–90 36

Communist states in the twentieth century


This route investigates the history of three countries that experienced communist rule at some time during the twentieth century. Although communism is a modern political idea, its roots go back into antiquity: in 380 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato proposed a republic whose people would share all their property. This idea of living and working together became popular in medieval monasteries, then with the Diggers in the English Civil War, and later in the French Revolution. These people were known as utopian socialists who wanted to create an ideal society.

In the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Karl Marx developed scientific socialism. Marx believed that the whole of human history was shaped, not by emperors and kings, or wars or religion, but by the constant struggle between classes. This idea became very popular in nineteenth-century Europe, where rapid industrialisation led to wide divisions between middle-class factory owners and merchants (the bourgeoisie) and the huge numbers of working class people (the proletariat).

Marx predicted that the proletariat would revolt against the bourgeoisie and overthrow them and their political system. He believed that an industrialised country such as Britain would be the first to experience revolution, but in fact the first communist revolution broke out in Russia, where in 1900, 80% of the population worked on the land. In November 1917, Lenin and the Bolshevik party seized power in Petrograd and rapidly imposed their rule on Russia. After the Second World War, communist rule spread throughout Eastern Europe, including the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany, which became the German Democratic Republic in 1949. Perhaps the greatest triumph for communism came in 1949, when Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, with the Chinese Communist Party ruling over 540 million people.

A study of this route will show that communist rule differs from one country to another and at different times in the same country. In the Soviet Union, for example, Marxism-Leninism differed from Stalinism, while Khrushchev and Brezhnev developed their own interpretation of communism; and Chinese communism is perhaps better understood as Maoism. What these states do have in common is rule by one party, the abolition of private property, and state control of both industry and agriculture.

Students of the Cold War will know that most Cold War crises concerned the spread of communism, and attempts by the USA and its allies to contain and even roll back communist influence. Conflicts such as the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, were all part of the global struggle between capitalism and communism.

For most of the twentieth century, communism seemed a permanent feature of global politics. However, the fall of communist power was dramatic and unexpected. Communist governments in Eastern Europe collapsed in the ‘Autumn of Nations’ in 1989, and the German Democratic Republic vanished as Germany was reunified in 1990. Despite the best efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union crumpled and broke up in 1991. In 2014, only a few small countries such as Cuba remain as communist states. Although China remains under the rule of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong would not recognise China today.

In this route, students study:

Russia, 1917–91: from Lenin to Yeltsin

and either Mao’s China, 1949–76

or The German Democratic Republic, 1949–90.

The following resources may be useful on the overarching theme of communism:

  • Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism (Vintage, 2010)

  • David Priestland, The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World (Penguin, 2009)

  • Robert Service, Comrades: Communism: A World History (Pan Books, 2009)

  • Mark Sandle, Communism (Seminar Studies Series, Routledge, 2006)

  • Dan Stone, Goodbye to all that? The Story of Europe since 1945 (Oxford University Press, 2014)

  • Chapters 1, 4 and 6 cover Eastern Europe and make reference to the USSR as well as the German Democratic Republic. Alongside themes of consensus and the Cold War runs that of communism: for example, Chapter 4 includes sections on De-Stalinization and on ‘Everyday life under communism’ (pages 150–58). Chapter 6 includes sections on ‘Late communism’ (pages 205–13) and ‘From reform to collapse’ (pages 213–28)

  • Roger Spalding, The Communist Manifesto, History Review, 2000:

Paper 1, Option 1E: Russia, 1917–91: from Lenin to Yeltsin


Paper 1 covers the whole history of communist rule in Russia and the Soviet Union, from the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 to the collapse of communist rule and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In 1913, Tsar Nicholas II celebrated 300 years of Romanov rule in Russia, and Tsarism seemed secure. Four years later, however, the whole Tsarist system collapsed when revolution in March 1917 swept away the Romanovs and ushered in a republic. The new rulers of Russia stayed in power for just six months before they too were overthrown, by Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Communist rule would last for over 70 years.

Lenin spent most of his time in power defeating domestic and foreign opposition to Bolshevik rule, and it was under his successor Stalin that communist policies were introduced. The state operated a command economy through a series of 12 Five-Year Plans that operated until 1990. These focused on the expansion of heavy industry and primary products such as coal and steel, but from the 1950s there was some diversification into light industry and consumer goods. Private farming was abolished, with land organised into collective farms. These dramatic changes were achieved through huge propaganda campaigns coupled with attacks on the government’s opponents, especially the kulaks, so-called rich peasants.

Control over people’s lives was a principal feature of communist rule. Educational provisions grew and illiteracy was reduced, but teaching in schools and universities was rigidly controlled from Moscow, and young people were forced to join communist youth groups. Culture and the arts were also regulated, with an emphasis on Socialist Realism, which was accessible to all and underlined the achievements of party and government. Nonetheless, the government did have substantial achievements to its credit: unemployment was unheard of, and most people had access to housing and social benefits, however limited these might be.

Stalin’s achievements, though often imposed by force and the use of the KGB (the secret police), had made the country a superpower by 1945. However, from the 1960s, especially during Brezhnev’s rule (1964–82), many aspects of national life stagnated and even declined in comparison with the USA and other capitalist states.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Party and promised wide-reaching reform of the whole communist system. However, he made only limited progress in both areas before nationalist demands for greater independence, both within the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, helped force his resignation in 1991, and the end of the Soviet Union.

Boris Yeltsin was President of the Russian state in the 1990s, as the country became more democratic. Since 1999, the most influential Russian politician has been the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Putin seems less interested in democratic government than Yeltsin, as shown by his actions against the Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

Whether the content for Paper 1 is taught mainly chronologically or primarily through themes will be the decision of individual teachers. However, whatever the approach taken to teaching, it will be important that students develop a secure grasp of the chronology. At the end of this document are two timelines that can be given to students for them to use and amend: one combines Russia and China; the other Russia and the GDR. The combined timelines for Paper 1 and Paper 2 are designed to help students make links between their topics.

Content guidance

This section provides additional guidance on the specification content. It should be remembered that the official specification is the only authoritative source of information and should always be referred to for definitive guidance.


The four themes identified require students to have an overview of political, social and economic change in the USSR over the period.

Students need to have knowledge of the specified themes and be able to analyse and evaluate cause, consequence, key features and change and make comparisons over and within the period studied in dealing with factors which brought about change.

Theme 1: Communist government in the USSR, 1917–1985

In studying Theme 1, students need to understand the nature of the communist government created by Lenin and its growing power under Stalin in the years to 1953. They need to investigate the extent to which de-Stalinisation was carried out under Khrushchev, and the reluctance of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko to tamper with the existing system of government.

Theme 2: Industrial and agricultural change, 1917–1985

In studying Theme 2, students need to be aware of Lenin’s policies of War Communism and the New Economic Policy. They will investigate the aims and methods of the first three Five-Year Plans, but should treat them as a set rather than examining each plan in detail. They should examine the dramatic transformation of Soviet agriculture from individual farming under the New Economic Policy to the imposition of the collective farms in the late 1920s and 1930s, and should be aware of the long-term effects of collectivisation on the rural population and on agricultural output. They should understand the dramatic success of the fourth Plan in the post-war reconstruction of the economy. They should understand the limited effect of the reforms introduced by both Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Theme 3: Control of the people, 1917–85

In studying Theme 3, students need to be aware of the ways in which the communist authorities imposed conformity on the Soviet people by force and by other methods of control such as propaganda and personality cults. They need to understand the pervasive influence of the secret police and other organisations throughout the period. Students do not have to study actions taken against the non-Russian republics. They should explore attempts to impose a uniform culture through Socialist Realism, and the growth of independent cultural activity after 1953.

Theme 4: Social developments, 1917–85

In studying Theme 4, students will need to examine the ways in which communist rule improved the lives of the Soviet people, and also consider the failures of government policy. For example, although employment and housing were both available to all, the quality of provision was often very poor. Students need to be aware that the life of women under communist rule was not uniform, but differed depending on circumstances such as employment, marital status and education.

Historical interpretations: What explains the fall of the USSR, c1985–91?

The four issues identified in the specification highlight key aspects of the debate.

This topic focuses on the conditional and contingent factors which influenced the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Students will need to understand the structural problems which affected the economy and government, and the reasons for the failure to reform. They will need to know the main features of perestroika and glasnost, and the extent to which these policies destabilised both the economy and society. Detailed knowledge of events in Eastern Europe is not required, but students should be aware of the growth of nationalist sentiment in Eastern Europe, and the course of events in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin after the attempted coup of August 1991 should be considered and the role of each in bringing about the end of the Soviet Union in December of that year.

Mapping to 2008 specification

There is some content overlap between this option and the following two Unit 1 topics from the 2008 specification:

  • Unit 1, Option D, Topic D3: Russia in Revolution, 1881–1924: From Autocracy to Dictatorship. There is overlap with the end of this topic — bullet points 3 and 4 — and the 1917–24 content of the new option, particularly in themes 1 and 2. Aspects of the state and cultural change and social developments may not have been covered previously.

  • Unit 1, Option D, Topic D4: Stalin’s Russia, 1924–53. There is overlap with this topic and the 1924–53 content of each theme in the new option.

    The 1953–91 content will be new to centres that have previously offered these Unit 1 topics in the 2008 specification. It should also be noted that whereas breadth was met in Unit 1 of the 2008 specification through two topics — assessed discretely — Paper 1 of the new specification is a single breadth study, with students looking at themes across the period.

There is also overlap with the following two coursework programmes from the 2008 specification:

  • CW38: The Making of Modern Russia, 1856–1964

  • CW45: Dictatorship and Revolution in Russia and the Soviet Union, 1825–2000

Resources_and_references'>Resources and references

The table below lists a range of resources that could be used by teachers and/or students for this topic. This list will be updated as and when new resources become available: for example, if new textbooks are published. New textbooks covering the topics in this route are expected to be published by Pearson and Hodder in 2015.

Inclusion of resources in this list does not constitute endorsement of those materials. While these resources — and others — may be used to support teaching and learning, the official specification and associated assessment guidance materials are the only authoritative source of information and should always be referred to for definitive guidance. Links to third-party websites are controlled by others and are subject to change.



For students and/or teachers?

Chris Corin and Terry Fiehn, Communist Russia under Lenin and Stalin (SHP, Hodder Education, 2002)


Written for students.

Andrew Holland, Russia and its Rulers 1855–1964 (Hodder Education, 2010)


Written for students. Strong on change over time.

John Laver, The Modernisation of Russia 1856–1985 (Heinemann Advanced History, Heinemann, 2002)


Written for students, but tailored to previous specifications (with AS/A2 sections). Covers the period up to 1985.

John Laver, Triumph and Collapse: Russia and the USSR, 1941–1991 (Nelson Thornes, 2009)


Written for students. Written for a unit in AQA’s 2008 specification.

Jane Jenkins, Years of Russia, the USSR and the Collapse of Soviet Communism (Hodder, second edition, 2008)


Written for students.

Second edition goes up to the fall of the Soviet Union.

Derrick Murphy and Terry Morris, Russia 1855–1964 (Flagship History, Collins, 2008)


Written for students.

Peter Oxley, Russia 1855–1991: From Tsars to Commissars (Oxford University Press, 2001)


Written for students. Covers the full period and based on a wealth of research. Most detailed on the Stalinist era. Despite publication date, is less obviously tailored to previous specifications than some.

Mike Wells with Nick Fellows, Russia and its Rulers 1855–1964 (Heinemann, 2008)


Written for students studying a module for OCR’s 2008 specification. Strong on change over time.

Peter Callaghan, Russia in Revolution (1881–1924) (CGP, 2011)

Revision textbook

Aimed at AS students. Written for Edexcel 2008 specification.

Stephen J Lee, Russia and the USSR, 1855–1991 (Routledge, 2006)

Essays and sources

Written for students but less easily accessible than some academic works.

Abraham Ascher, Russia: A Short History (One World, second edition, 2009)


Accessible for students. Very clear, concise overview.

Orlando Figes, The Whisperers (Penguin, 2007)


For teachers and students.

Based on an oral history project; insights into life under communism in Russia, notably in the communal apartments. Although centred on the Stalinist era, covers the whole period of the topic and includes brief summaries of the key events at the start of many chapters.

Gregory Freeze, Russia, A History (Oxford University Press, 2009)


For teachers.

Covers history of Russia from 1450.

Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: the Age of Social Catastrophe (Vintage, 2007)


For teachers and students.

Very readable. Emphasises the violent methods of Lenin and includes very interesting material on responses to German invasion in 1941 (pages 487–90).

Peter Kenez, A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End (Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2006)


Accessible for students as well as useful for teachers. Offers a clear and concise overview of the full period covered by the topic.

Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, Russia and the World 1917–1991 (Bloomsbury Academic, first edition, 1998)


For teachers.

Covers whole period of topic; focused on foreign policy but also refers to domestic developments.

Alistair Kocho-Williams (editor), The Twentieth-Century Russian Reader (Routledge, 2011)

Academic reader (reprinting a series of selected, influential essays)

For teachers

Mary McAuley, Soviet Politics 1917–1991 (Oxford University Press, 1992)


Accessible for students.

Martin McCauley, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917–1991 (Longman, 2007)


For teachers

David Priestland, ‘Cold War mobilisation and domestic politics: the Soviet Union’ in Melvyn P Leffler and Odd Arne Westad (editors), The Cambridge History of the Cold War: Volume I – Origins (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pages

Academic (various contributors)

For teachers.

Covers c1945–64.

Chris Read, The Making and Breaking of the Soviet System (History in Perspective, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001)


For teachers, but many sections could also be used by students. Particularly strong on the role of the party in society and the state.

Richard Sakwa, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union 1917–1991 (Routledge Sources in History, Routledge, 1999)

Academic – sources and commentary

For teachers.

An extensive collection of source material.

Richard Sakwa, Communism in Russia (Studies in European History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)


For teachers.

Covers the full period of the topic.

Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Tsardom to the Twenty-First Century, Robert Service (Penguin, third edition, 2009)


For teachers and students.

Includes an overview of historiography of Russia since 1900 in the introduction.

Ronald Grigor Suny (editor), The Cambridge History of Russia: Volume III – The Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Academic (various contributors)

First half adopts a chronological approach and contains many chapters which should be accessible to students. Second half surveys themes across the century and could be useful for aspects of the topic which focus on change over time.

Graham Darby, The October Revolution, New Perspective for Modern History Students (1997)


Written for students. Good on the position of the Bolsheviks in October 1917.

Chris Read, Dealing with Stalin’s Legacy, New Perspective, Volume 15, Number 1, September 2000, pages 13–17


Written for students. Covers Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev.

History Today and History Review

Martin McCauley, Stalin and Stalinism, History Review, 1995:

Bill Wallace, The Democratic Development of the Former Soviet Union, History Today, Volume 44, Issue 7, July 1994:

Vincent Barnett, The Soviet Economy – an Experiment that was Bound to Fail?, History Review, 2005:


Accessible for students. A subscription is required to read articles online (£).

Historical Association

Podcasted history of Russia and the USSR (2010):


Accessible for students.

Covers 1855 to 1991.

‘Meet the Historians’ podcasts:

Episode 1: Professor Bill Taubman on Khrushchev.

Episode 3: Dr Martin McCauley on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.


Aimed at students.

Question and answer session with Dr Martin McCauley:


Accessible for students.

Soviet posters:


Accessible for students.

The National Archives on Stalin and industrialisation of USSR:


Accessible for students.

Revelations from the Russian Archives:


Accessible for students.

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