BACK IN THE USSR Discussion Guide

This guide is for classrooms and book clubs reading Back in the USSR. You’ll find discussion questions, activities, and a list of key terms, people, and places.

NOTE: If you haven’t read the book yet, this page contains spoilers!

Back in the USSR hardcover

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS 

  1. What did you know about the Soviet Union and the Cold War before reading this book? Did you look things up while reading? Did the story or characters change what you thought about them?
  2. In the Soviet Union and other communist countries of the 20th century, rock music was restricted or outright banned by the government. What impact do you think that had on its meaning and value to fans?
  3. Nations, governments, and communities, both large and small, make choices about the music and art they encourage or discourage. Can you think of examples? How do they express these choices? What do their choices say about them?
  4. How much did you know about The Beatles before reading this book? Has it changed your impression of the band or their music?
  5. Music today is easy to find. You can listen to anything, anywhere. That wasn’t always so. What happens to music when it’s scarce? What happens to it when it’s everywhere? Does it become less important or more?
  6. What do various characters in the book say about the power of music, as a source of inspiration or danger? Who do you agree with?
  7. Prudence finds herself in a difficult position in Soviet school. She represents the West to her Russian classmates, but strives to maintain her own uniqueness. She occupies an in-between position due to her mixed identity, but senses that people want to use her racial background for their own purposes. To paraphrase Max, what boxes do people try to put her in?  How do different parts of her identity affect her perspective and choices?
  8. Harrison says, “All families have secrets. Some more than others.” He and Prudence have to make choices about how much and what to share with their parents, and each other. Sometimes it feels like you have to keep a secret instead of sharing it for someone else’s best interest, and sometimes for your own. How do you decide when and what to tell?
  9. Gospodin is a KGB officer, but Harrison decides to trust him anyway. Why? Under what conditions would you trust someone like that?
  10. Tatyana Nevskaya and Aleksey Gospodin often seem locked in a never-ending battle that began long ago. How might their story have happened differently in another time and place?
  11. The story of Tatyana Nevskaya and Aleksey Gospodin echoes the one in Pushkin’s great poem, Eugene Onegin, making it quintessentially Russian. Find out more about the poem. How are the two stories similar, and how are they different?
  12. Harrison’s daydreams provide him with companionship, distraction, and warnings. How can our imaginations help us make important choices in our daily lives? 
  13. At the end, Harrison imagines what might ultimately happen to Gospodin and Nevskaya. Do you agree with him? What do you think will happen to them? 
  14. Can you think of a song that has personal meaning for you, but also reflects something about the world around you? What would happen if the government banned the song, so people couldn’t listen to it any longer? 
  15. The incident at the Bolshoi Theatre revolves around two vastly different but iconic representatives of their respective cultures, a 20th century British rock band and a 19th century Russian poet. What do they have in common, and what makes them different? 

ACTIVITIES

  1. Listen to the song “Back in the USSR” by The Beatles. What is it about? What is the tone of the lyrics? What does it say about the Soviet Union? What does it say about The Beatles? 
  2. The German rock band Scorpions released a song in 1991 called “Wind of Change,” which immediately came to represent the aspirations of millions of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Listen to the song. Reflect on the lyrics and the tone. What was happening in the Soviet Union and Europe at the time? Why do you think the song held such power for so many people? Can you think of other songs that have captured moments in history? How does “Wind of Change” compare to “Back in the USSR”? (The band now plays a version of the song with altered lyrics about the war in Ukraine.) 
  3. BONUS ACTIVITY: Listen to the podcast “Wind of Change,” which investigates the possibility that the CIA was involved with producing the Scorpions song.  

KEY TERMS

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, Soviet Union)
Bolshevik Revolution
Communist Party
Central Committee
Politburo
Committee for State Security (KGB)
Melodiya
Matryoshka doll
Soviet Socialist Realism
The Gulag
The Iron Curtain
The Thaw
Pravda
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
U.S. Department of State (Secretary of State, Foreign Service, Embassies, Ambassadors)
U.S. Information Agency (USIA)
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Walkman
LP records & tape cassettes
The White Album

NOTABLE PLACES

Moscow
Gorky Park
Lenin Hills
Lubyanka Prison
The Kremlin
Red Square
Lenin’s Tomb
The Arbat
Bolshoi Theater
Spaso House
Leningrad
Kazakhstan
Siberia
The Cavern Club
Abbey Road Studios

NOTABLE PEOPLE

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr
Alexander Pushkin
Tchaikovsky
Karl Marx
Vladimir Lenin
Nikita Khrushchev
Leonid Brezhnev

Updated 2022-11-25