A Review of ‘The Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism: A History of 20th Century Russia’ by Gary Hamburg

This is a series of lectures by The Great Courses. It was about Communism in Russia, from it’s foundation in the Tzar era to it’s dissolution in the modern era. It discusses the major movers and shakers in Soviet-era politics, from Lenin to Stalin to Trotsky, what they did, what they believed in, and how so often (always) they failed to live up to the potential of what they believed. From Stalin’s reign of terror, to the establishment of the worker’s soviets and the White War, to some facts about the Cold War, this series provides the broadest overview of Russian communism.

Honestly, I came away from this lecture series wanting more, and not in a good way. I felt as though the lecturer didn’t do as good of a job as I wanted in discussing the private lives of the major actors. He briefly mentioned that Stalin was perhaps abused as a child, but didn’t talk any more about him after that. I wanted to know what Lenin’s life was like, who Trotsky was married to, what happened to the leaders of the communist party after communism failed and Soviet Russia became the Russian Federation. The lecturer did a good job of talking about The Communist Party as a unit, but a bad job of talking about individual communists.

The second thing I didn’t really like about this is the lecturer’s anti-communist perspective of soviet politics. The lecturer didn’t hide his disdain for the soviet era’s failures- which he was right to do as the communists killed a lot of folks deliberately (see Stalin’s reign of terror) and accidentally (google Ukraine starvations). However he was so universally negative I was left feeling that the lecturer was biased against the soviets to the point of lacking perspective.

I am a botanist by training, and I know that in the soviet era there was some really groundbreaking agricultural research done by soviet scientists, research which continues to be valuable to this day. This lecture doesn’t mention anything of that sort. The lecturer was so focused on the negatives of the political scene in soviet Russia that he completely neglected talking about the everyday lives of normal Russians. Did the life of the average Quality of Life for the Russian peasantry improve or decline under soviet rule? The author didn’t explore this facet of discussion, which he really should have because politics are important because they impact the everyday lives of people.

Was it worth listening to? Definitely. It was so info-dense that I’ll be listening to it again in the future. Listen to this if you want a blunt explanation of the kill-or-be-killed political scene of soviet-era Russia. I’m no expert on the subject, but I imagine this is as good a starting place as any for exploring the topic.

(NOTE: Upon doing research, I’ve noticed that this lecture series was originally recorded in 1996- aka when the memory of the iron curtain falling was still fresh in people’s minds. As this lecture is 25+ years old, I imagine the historical perspective of this story has change some in the years since. A lot of the glaring oversights I noticed are more understandable given the 4 year gap between 1996 and the fall of the Union and the 25 years since then today.)

STARS: 3 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 stars=perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)

GRADE: Has some flaws, but what it does do well is portray the flaws and tragedy of the soviet era in Russia.

Overall Rating: Recommended with Reservations (How I Rate Books)


Genres/Tagwords: Nonfiction, Lecture Series, The Great Courses, Communism, History of Russia,

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

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