This guide for book clubs and classrooms reading Back in the USSR contains discussion questions, activities, and a list of key terms and notable people and places.
NOTE: If you haven’t read the book, this page contains spoilers!
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- How much did you know about The Beatles before reading this book? Has it changed your impression of the band or their music?
- 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?
- Harrison says, “I’d never thought twice about dubbing music, copying albums, making mix tapes. Here, the simple act took on significance, and urgency.” What do various characters in the book say about the power of music? As a source of inspiration, and danger?
- 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?
- 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?
- Gospodin is a KGB officer, but Harrison decides to trust him anyway. Why? Under what conditions would you trust someone like that?
- 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?
- 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?
- Harrison’s daydreams provide him with companionship, distraction, and warnings. How can our imaginations help us make important choices in our daily lives?
- 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?
- 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?
- The incident at the Bolshoi Theatre revolves around the works of two vastly different but iconic artists, one a 20th-century British rock band and the other a 19th-century Russian poet. In what ways do you think the Beatles and Alexander Pushkin reflected their respective cultures? How were they similar as national symbols, and how were they different?
- The Oxford American Dictionary defines revolution as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” For Harrison, a revolution is something that happened long ago, whether in the United States or Russia. Soviet Communists, on the other hand, referred to the Revolution as an ongoing social process they hope will lead to an ideal society. And a member of the underground tells Harrison and Prudence, “Our revolution is music.” What does the word mean to you?
- 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?
- Listen to the Beatles song “Revolution.” What was John Lennon’s perspective on revolution? Why do you think he felt that way? Compare the single version with the version on the White Album. How do their different musical styles affect the meaning? Then listen to “Revolution 9” on the White Album. What does it have to do with revolution, and why do you think the Beatles called it that?
- 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.) BONUS ACTIVITY: Listen to the eight-episode podcast “Wind of Change,” which investigates the possibility that the CIA was involved with producing the Scorpions song.
- We usually think of revolutions as seeking radical change in the realms of economics or politics. But some see it as even more fundamental. Music critic Ian MacDonald called the cultural change ushered in by The Beatles in the 1960s a “revolution in the head.” And the Czech activist (and later president) Vaclav Havel argued that the totalitarianism of Communist states demanded an “existential revolution.” Read excerpts from MacDonald’s book introduction and Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless.” What did they mean? How are their arguments similar and different? Why is music so important to both perspectives?
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, Soviet Union)
Committee for State Security (KGB)
Soviet Socialist Realism
The Iron Curtain
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)
LP records & tape cassettes
The White Album
The Cavern Club
Abbey Road Studios
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr