Knox College political science class

Students Put Historical Figures on Trial

Credit or blame for collapse of communism: Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Reagan, Gorbachev?

October 26, 2010

Knox College political science classWho is responsible for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union?

Does the blame go to Karl Marx, because of flaws in his 19th-century ideas? Or to Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin for their dictatorships through the first half the 20th century? Can the "Star Wars" policies of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan be credited with weakening the Soviet Union? Or did it all come down to Mikhail Gorbachev's "glasnost" and "perestroika" reforms?

Photos: above right, Anna Meier as prosecutor critiques the ideas of Karl Marx, portrayed by Christina Colman, who (below right) brought a well-worn copy of The Communist Manifesto to class. At top of page, Samantha Claypool (left) with mustache portrays Stalin on trial.

Knox College political science classA political science class at Knox College used mock trials to explore the reasons for massive historical transformations.

Students in the course Russian and East European Politics portrayed five "great men" of modern history -- Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev and Reagan. Other students took on roles as prosecutors, who sought to pin responsibility on the historical figures; as witnesses, such as a peasant farmer, factory worker and political dissidents; and as judges who weighed the arguments on each side.

Knox College Political Science Class"Stalin and Gorbachev were found guilty -- the judges concluded that their actions were responsible for the demise of Soviet communism," reports Daniel Beers, visiting instructor in political science and international relations, who organized the mock trials in October.

"Marx, Lenin and Reagan were found 'not responsible.' The students argued that they may have played a role, but ultimately, their policies and actions could not be credited, or blamed, for the collapse of communism," Beers said.

In addition to their oral presentations, students prepared written summaries of their positions.

Photos: above, Aneze Chinwuba as judge wields gavel; below, Samantha Claypool with mustache as Stalin, before judge Toma Tanev at desk, with student Elliot Madison observing.

Knox College Political Science Class"It's almost too easy to say that great historical events have so many causes that they can't be understood," Beers explained. "By focusing on the roles of key individuals in this assignment, we're trying to break down this incredibly complex event into bite-sized pieces that we can analyze and understand more easily."

Beers joined the Knox faculty in 2010. His research focuses on political transition in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Beers has studied post-communist judicial reform in Romania and the Czech Republic. A graduate of Northwestern University, he is completing a doctorate at Indiana University.

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 45 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Knox College Political Science Class

Photo: Above, Lucas Molina states the case against Lenin, as other prosecutors (left) and defendants (right) observe; below, the gang of four: Gregory Noth as Lenin, Samantha Claypool as Stalin, Audrey Todd as Gorbachev, Stephen Spence as Reagan.

Students and roles in the mock trials:

Knox College Political Science ClassBritt Anderson - Prosecutor in case against Reagan
Gordon Barratt - Prosecutor in case against Stalin
Aneze Chinwuba - Judge of case against Lenin
Samantha Claypool - Josef Stalin
Christina Colman - Karl Marx
Sarah Juist - Political Dissident
Kristin LeCour - Judge of case against Gorbachev
Elliot Madison - Factory Worker
Kimberly Marciniak - Judge of case against Reagan
Elizabeth McRill - Judge of case against Marx
Avery Meier - Prosecutor of case against Marx
Lucas Molina - Prosecutor of case against Lenin
Aryn Norton - Prosecutor of case against Gorbachev
Gregory Noth - Vladimir Lenin
Lauren Reid - Gulag Prisoner
Stephen Spence - Ronald Reagan
Carl Svensson - Bolshevik Activist
Emma Swanson - Peasant Farmer
Toma Tanev - Judge of case against Stalin
Audrey Todd - Mikhail Gorbachev