ERIC Identifier: ED286818
Publication Date: 1987-09-00
Author: Citti, Lori A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Teaching about the Soviet Union. ERIC Digest No. 42.
Since the end of World War II, the United States and the Union of
Soviet Socialist Republics have engaged in cultural, political, and
technological rivalries of unparalleled international importance. Given the
global significance of Soviet-American relations, elementary and secondary
school students should learn about the institutions and peoples of the Soviet
Union. However, curriculum studies and assessments of learners suggest that most
students graduate from high school with little knowledge and many misconceptions
about the Soviet Union. How can curriculum developers and classroom teachers
improve education on the Soviet Union? This digest addresses three topics: (1)
the importance of teaching about the Soviet Union; (2) the place of the Soviet
Union in the curriculum of elementary and secondary schools, and (3) strategies
for teaching about the Soviet Union.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO TEACH ABOUT THE SOVIET UNION?
--As a major world power, the Soviet Union figures prominently in the
American media. Hardly a day passes without reference to the Soviet Union on
national television or newspapers. The media, however, often present events
without providing the historical or political background necessary to understand
and interpret these events. As a result, many American impressions of Soviet
politics, economics, and daily life remain outdated or inaccurate.
--The size and cultural diversity of the Soviet Union make it significant.
The Soviet Union consists of 15 republics and covers 8.5 million miles, roughly
two and one-half times the size of the United States. This makes the Soviet
Union a country of considerable geographical, national, and cultural diversity.
Ameicans often fall into the trap of the "Great Russian" bias, referring to all
Soviet citizens as Russians, when in fact Russians make up only 52 percent of
the total population (approximately 280 million people).
--The Soviet Union contains an abundance of the world's natural resources.
The regions beyond the Ural mountains and Siberia have proven rich in natural
resources. The U.S.S.R. possesses half of the world's reserves of iron ore, as
well as tungsten, nickel, copper, lead, zinc, gold, silver, and diamonds. The
Soviet Union is the world's largest exporter of oil. Despite these riches,
geographical location and climatic conditions make resource use difficult and
expensive. Most of the U.S.S.R.'s energy resources (coal, oil, gas, and
hydroelectric power) are located in the east, while the major industries and
population centers are located in European Russia.
--Russia and the Soviet Union have made important cultural contributions to
life in the United States. People around the world enjoy the writings of
Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekov, and the music of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and
Stravinsky. In the United States, Russian immigrants have added much to the
cultural development of America. In the early nineteenth century, Russian
fur-traders played a significant role in the settlement of the Pacific
Northwest. More recently, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and other
emigres have made important contributions to the dance repertoires of American
ballet companies. Most major U.S. cities also contain large Russian communities
where one can find stores and restaurants specializing in traditional Russian
foods and delicacies.
WHERE DOES THE SOVIET UNION BELONG IN THE CURRICULUM?
Teaching about the Soviet Union is appropriate at every level of the social
studies curriculum as part of a global perspective in education. Gradually, good
elementary and secondary classroom materials are becoming available, although
many still retain obvious factual and interpretive biases. As with the study of
other societies and cultures, the study of the Soviet Union should be used to
introduce new perspectives. Viewing life through Russian, Ukrainian, or Kirgiz
eyes can be exciting, as well as enlightening, and can dispel the monolithic
image many people have of Soviet citizens.
--At the elementary level, consider comparing and contrasting regions and
communities of the United States with communities and regions in the Soviet
Union. Both countries have a rich diversity of geographical regions and a
variety of ethnic, cultural, and religious traditions. Studying immigrant
communities within the United states, such as the Russians, Ukrainians, or
Armenians, provides an obvious way of integrating material on both the United
States and the Soviet Union.
--The study of history, geography, and current events in the middle school
allows a more focused and detailed examination of the Soviet Union. Detailed
treatment of the history and contemporary society of the Soviet Union becomes
possible at this time. Despite the numerous differences in their histories,
political systems, and cultures, many of the problems faced by the United States
are also faced by the Soviet Union. Looking closely at environmental issues,
alcoholism, the plight of agriculture, or unemployment provides a way of seeing
both similarities and differences in the United States and the Soviet Union.
--The high school curriculum offers a major opportunity for the study of the
Soviet Union in world history courses. History plays an important role in our
understanding of the politics and official culture of the Soviet Union. Many of
our biases and misinterpretations about life and politics in the Soviet Union
stem from an inadequate or simplistic view of Soviet history. Some problems
faced by the Soviet Union today existed during the Tsarist period and can be
ascribed to highly centralized governments in general. Content on the Soviet
Union might be infused into standard high school government or economics courses
in the form of lessons on centrally planned economics or government bureaucracy.
WHAT STRATEGIES MIGHT BE USED TO TEACH ABOUT THE SOVIET UNION?
--Emphasize a historical approach to the study of the Soviet Union. History
is one of the keys to understanding institutions and patterns of culture in the
Soviet Union today. Above all, it is necessary to understand that the Soviet
Union has not followed a direct line of development. Like other nations, the
Soviet Union has gone through periods of crisis, reform, and conservative
reaction. A close examination of the domestic policies of Soviet leaders reveals
government uncertainty, stasis, and attempts to reform an often cumbersome
system of political administration.
--Use geography as a means of interpreting and understanding some of the
problems facing the Soviet Union today. The geographical location of the Soviet
Union affects agriculture, transportation, and the use of natural resources.
Moscow and Leningrad are located on northerly latitudes roughly equivalent to
points in Ontario Province and Anchorage, Alaska, respectively. Agriculturally,
this means the Soviet Union has an extremely short growing season. Weather
conditions are often severe and highly variable. As a result, food supplies vary
dramatically from city to city and region to region. Large areas of the Soviet
Union remain frozen in winter and undergo surface thaw resulting in swamplike
conditions during warmer months, hindering road construction and transportation
to the outreaches of Siberia.
--Compare and contrast governmental and economic systems and the social
values underlying these institutions. Comparing the American and Soviet
constitutions provides one important exercise. Much can be learned by examining
the content, beliefs, and traditions surrounding these documents.
--Emphasize the cultural and ethnic diversity of the Soviet Union as a means
to counteract commonly held stereotypes. The U.S.S.R. is made up of fifteen
union republics, each containing a number of ethnic and minority groups. Spend
time looking at the different ethnic groups, religions, and languages of Soviet
citizens. There are approximately 130 different languages spoken. Ethnic groups
within the U.S.S.R. include Russians, Armenians, Belorussians, Ukrainians,
Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Georgians, Moldavians, Tartars, Kirgiz, Jews,
Chuvash, Bashkirs, Poles, and many others. Aside from official atheism, Soviet
citizens practice Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Lutheranism, and a
variety of other world religions.
--Take advantage of GLASNOST and use primary sources to develop skills in
critical thinking. In 1987, the Soviet Union has figured prominently in the U.S.
and world media. The NEW YORK TIMES, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, LOS ANGELES
TIMES, and other major newspapers and magazines regularly feature articles on
life in the Soviet Union. Primary sources in English, such as MOSCOW DAILY NEWS,
PRAVDA, and CURRENT DIGEST OF THE SOVIET PRESS, can be used to introduce the
Soviet perspective on world events. Glossy magazines published in English and
printed in the Soviet Union, such as UKRAINE, SOVIET LIFE, and SOVIET
UZBEKISTAN, can be used to introduce the Soviet nationalities into the
classroom. Using materials such as newspapers and magazines enables students to
deal with primary sources and discover first-hand the differences in U.S. and
Soviet news coverage.
--Avoid superficial conclusions, examine exceptions to generalizations, and
present a balanced picture of the U.S.S.R. Emphasizing both the positive and
negative aspects of daily life in the Soviet Union is important in any study of
the U.S.S.R. Remember, the Soviet Union suffered destructive wars during the
first forty years of its existence. Lifestyle, goods, and services have improved
steadily, albeit slowly, for the average citizen during the span. Many economic
and social problems that continue to confront the Soviet people, such as housing
shortages, growing urban violence, and alcoholism, are also faced by people in
the United States.
Teachers can help students understand the dual nature of Soviet government by
studying both the party structure and the government structure of the Soviet
Union. Bear in mind, however, that only 6-10 percent of the population holds
membership in the Communist Party. Students should study the party hierarchy,
the centrally planned economy and government, and the bureaucratic
administration. Many of the problems confronting the Soviet Union today can be
ascribed to most highly centralized forms of government throughout the world.
Visualizing the difficulty of coordinating goods and services for a country the
size of the U.S.S.R. from one central location (Moscow) will help students see
why reformers like Khrushchev and Gorbachev have tried to introduce experiments
with decentralized control.
History of Russia - Offers a good overview of Russia including the Soviet period.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Brown, Archie, and others, eds. THE CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RUSSIA AND THE
SOVIET UNION. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Gilbert, Martin. ATLAS OF RUSSIAN HISTORY. Great Britain: Dorset Press, 1985.
Goldman, Minton. THE SOVIET UNION AND EASTERN EUROPE. Connecticut: Global
Studies, Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1986.
Howe, G. Melvyn. THE SOVIET UNION: A GEOGRAPHICAL STUDY. Second edition.
Great Britain: MacDonald and Evans, Ltd., 1983.
Jones, Dianna. RUSSIAN STUDIES: TEACHING AMERICAN ELEMENTARY-MIDDLE SCHOOL
CHILDREN ABOUT RUSSIA. ED 252 492.
Katz, Lev, and others. HANDBOOK OF MAJOR SOVIET NATIONALITIES. New York: The
Free Press, 1975.
Keetz, Frank. "Theory vs. Reality: Use of The Soviet Constitution of 1977 as
a Primary Source." SOCIAL EDUCATION (1985): 233-235.
LEARNING ABOUT THE SOVIETS: SELECTED TEACHING RESOURCES. Cambridge: Educators
for Social Responsibility, 1985. ED 268 031.
US/USSR TEXTBOOK STUDY PROJECT: INTERIM REPORT. Social Studies Development
Center. Bloomington, IN. 1981. ED 210 213.
Westwood, J.N. ENDURANCE AND ENDEAVOR: RUSSIAN HISTORY 1812-1980. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1981.