Background for Educators

Every nation plays a role in shaping the lives of its citizens through laws and policies, and every government must define its own idea of the public good when writing those laws. This is as true today in the United States as it was at the time that our Constitution was drafted. And this was certainly true in the USSR from 1917–1991; the socialist Soviet state was driven by a strong vision of a just society, and the government attempted to make this vision a reality through social, economic, and political policies. But this project required shaping more than policies and behaviors; creating a collective reality required shaping each individual’s values, beliefs, and worldview.

The ways that Soviet individuals understood themselves and their role in the world was central to the larger project of building the Soviet state. This idea was woven into the very start of the Soviet revolution and continued throughout its seventy-plus years. But changing historical moments and a highly diverse Soviet population meant that living in the Soviet Union was a very different experience at different times, in different regions, and for different people. In this introduction we will look at some of the changing ways that the Soviet government informed the identities and worldviews of its citizens. The classroom activities that follow will investigate the ways that some individuals responded to these efforts, inviting students to ask questions about the relationship between personal and national identity, and our ability to understand and document the private selves of individuals in history.