The Socialist City: Urban Life in the 20th Century from Havana to Pyongyang

History R1B

Fall 2015
Day & Time: 
MW 4-530P


In the twentieth century, socialist governments came to power, first in Europe and then in countries throughout the world. From the USSR to China, Cuba to Mozambique, leaders sought to radically transform the daily lives of their citizens. This transformation was to be achieved in large part through urban redevelopment and planning schemes. In this class, we will explore the history of attempts throughout the socialist world to build “socialist” cities, distinct in their appearance, economy, and infrastructure from capitalist urban spaces. We will read and discuss primary sources (including letters, memoirs, and urban plans), secondary sources (written by historians, geographers, and anthropologists), and fiction. In the course we will cover a wide geography, traveling in our readings each week from the streets of Moscow and East Berlin, before moving to other cities, including Havana with its state-owned ice-cream parlors and Dar Es Salaam, home to the world’s only socialist drive-in cinema. Key questions that we will pose throughout the semester include: How did city planners deal with the legacy of pre-socialist urban spaces? How did socialist architecture and plans shape people’s everyday lives in the twentieth century? And how does socialist urban design continue to shape cities today, long after the end of the Cold War?

This course satisfies the second half of the university’s reading and composition requirement. We will focus on developing the basic skills of a liberal arts education: reading critically and writing persuasively. The course will also serve as an introduction to historical research and will focus on the components of historical thinking: change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency. The first half of the class will require students to write brief essays focused on developing these basic skills. These short writing assignments will ask students to analyze one or more of the assigned texts. In the second half of the course, students will write a longer research essay based on texts of their choosing. At the end of the course students will demonstrate their mastery of the various components of historical thinking in a clearly written essay.

Course Books

Mao's New World: Political Culture in the Early People's Republic by Chang-tai Hung Cornell University Press. ISBN: 978-0801449345 Required
Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0199855766 Required