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How America Helped Build The Soviet Machine
To bring their nation to the leading edge of technology, Soviet leaders are turning to the United States. Their grandfathers did the same thing.
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
Our usual picture of the Soviet Union and its history is strictly political and economic. We trace the many struggles for leadership power and the ups and downs of the Soviet economy. We chart the rise of Stalin and the battles for party domination that followed him, and we watch Mikhail Gorbachev avow glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring). And we hope that our fundamentally different values in these spheres can increasingly influence the Soviets—just as the Soviet Union believes its own values have long influenced the world.
But beyond politics and national economics, another America has been making a profound impression on Russians for about a century. That is technological America, the developer of the most creative and fecund system of production the world has ever known. Although the idea of America as a moral force has never faded, many foreigners think mainly in terms of inventive, productive America. Witness the thousands of visitors from overseas who headed for the automobile factories of Detroit in the 1920s, the hydroelectric plants of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, and Silicon Valley in the 1980s. A fair test of where our greatest national prestige lies would be to ask Mikhail Gorbachev which he would prefer: two weeks in the Cradle of Liberty or three days in Silicon Valley.
V. I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin all opted for technological America. One of the momentous and almost forgotten chapters of modern history concerns the Bolsheviks’ fierce determination between the two world wars to adopt the industrial legacy of the United States: to re-create the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, behind the Urals; to duplicate Ford’s River Rouge plant in Nizhni Novgorod; to erect a copy of the great dam and generators of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on the falls of the Dnieper River—all using American methods and American engineers, planners, and managers. Few Americans today can identify Frederick W. Taylor, the father of scientific management, but he and Henry Ford and other modern American industrialists and engineers influenced Soviet history deeply and permanently. For the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, Fordism plus Taylorism equaled Americanism. And Americanism, in that sense, was crucial to the success of the communist state.
Mikhail Gorbachev may know about this chapter of Soviet-American relations; the Soviet press and historians have publicly forgotten it. But in any case Gorbachev seems determined to repeat it. Perestroika without American technical and managerial input is probably no more conceivable to him than was a socialist future without Fordism and Taylorism to Lenin. Likewise, many Americans do not know about one of the most remarkable episodes of technology transfer in history. The American engineers, architects, and industrialists who helped build the productive base of communist Russia swept the record under the rug. Their successors, like Lenin’s, seem poised to do it all over again.
In the 1920s the cream of American firms involved with automobiles, electricity, and workplace management were eager to sell the state of their art—give or take a few years—to the “Reds,” despite powerful anticommunist voices on the right. The Soviets were ready to buy, despite their aversion to capitalism. (They distinguished, as many Americans cannot even today, between America’s history-shaping means of production and our free-enterprise economic superstructure.) The United States had never enjoyed greater worldwide respect—or envy—than after World War I. The Soviets believed that the American system of production could consolidate the Bolshevik Revolution.
Lenin embraced American scientific management, and Americans visiting in 1926 found the Russians obsessed with diagrams.
By 1926 dreams of “Americanization” were mesmerizing Soviet engineers and managers. Soviet planners believed that their future required large systems of production on a regional scale, larger even than those in the United States; they would be feasible because socialism would not be burdened by the political and economic “contradictions” of capitalism, which constrained the full development of modern production technology. Lenin understood that modern industrialization involved more than machines, processes, and devices; it involved order, centralization, control, and systems. And so the regime drove peasant workers mercilessly to gather grain and cut wood and dig minerals that were exchanged in prodigious quantities for foreign, especially American, technology.
Stalin summarized the Soviet celebration of American technology and management in 1924: “The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism.”