- Historic Sites
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
Lenin and Krzhizhanovsky embarked on a campaign in 1920 and 1921 to push through a national plan for electrification. Lenin proclaimed to the Congress of the Soviets that electrification and modern large-scale production would secure the ultimate victory of communism over capitalism, and he predicted that “if Russia is covered with a dense network of electric power stations . . . our communist economic development will become a model for a future socialist Europe and Asia.” He called for the widest possible propaganda, including the conversion of “every electric power station we build into a stronghold of enlightenment to be used to make the masses electricity conscious.” He asked that a copy of the national electrification plan be sent to every school; illiterate peasants should learn to read using it as their basic book.
Electrification proceeded throughout the twenties by means of a massive transfer of technology. As in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when Peter the Great tried to Westernize Russia, the Soviet government resorted to the tried and tested ways of importing technology, including the translation of technical and scientific books, the hiring of foreign experts and skilled workers, and the purchase of machines and processes. But the Soviets also made the unprecedented move of importing entire systems of production and incorporating them in hydroelectric complexes. Albert Kahn, the American architect who designed Ford’s Highland Park and River Rouge plants, observed: “It is indeed difficult to understand the Russian psychology which dictates the erection of such huge establishments. We in this country would begin with a smaller lay-out, so arranged as to make expansion easily possible. . . . Not so in Russia . . . where they say, ‘We haven’t time to learn to run, we must fly.'” In building large electric-power stations, the Soviets unwisely assumed that capacity would be well utilized and load curves—demand—would keep pace. Any American power magnate could have warned them that this wasn’t likely unless demand was as carefully built up as supply.
The falls of the Dnieper River, once dominated by a fortress of Ukrainian Cossacks, was chosen as the site of the most ambitious of the new construction schemes, a mammoth hydroelectric plant and regional complex. Often compared to the Muscle Shoals hydroelectric project of 1917 to 1925, which became the first unit in the Tennessee Valley Authority system, the Dnieper effort was done in American style. The Soviets named the American Hugh Cooper as chief consulting engineer. I. Aleksandrov, a Soviet engineer, headed the project. American companies supplied equipment and engineers. International General Electric built five of the nine giant generators needed; the rest were built in Leningrad under American supervision. The Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company constructed the nine 85,000-horsepower turbines, the world’s largest. German and Swedish firms assumed responsibility for other major items, but about 70 percent of the hydroelectric equipment was American. Steam shovels, hoists, locomotives, rock drills, and construction steel also came from the United States. One American who saw the site said it looked like a “Little America” —the only unfamiliar part being the presence of women workers. When the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White visited the construction, she observed four soft-spoken Virginians in charge of the Soviets installing the turbines.
Construction, by tens of thousands of workers, began in 1927. On May 1, 1932, the V. I. Lenin power station was dedicated and began operation as the largest hydroelectric plant in the world. The project schooled countless Soviet engineers and workers in Western technology. Hugh Cooper believed that the experience gained on the Dnieper would enable the Soviet Union, with its abundance of human and natural resources, to take a commanding position as a world power.
In line with Lenin’s insistence on the large-scale, the Dnieper planners proposed to erect a power system like the one that had mushroomed around Niagara Falls and make it the core of “a unified industrial complex economically and technically inter-connected.” They projected a nitrogen-fixation plant, a cement works, an aluminum-production plant, and a steel-producing complex, all knit together by high-voltage power lines and an electrified railway. They built a complex of canals around the falls and dam that made possible unbroken navigation on the Dnieper from northern Russia to the Black Sea—a dream of Catherine the Great. And they planned high-transmission lines to carry power to industry in the Don Basin two hundred miles away. They also envisioned a new city for 150,000 workers in the heart of the Dnieper complex, predicting that the population in the area would grow to as much as eight million.
At the ceremonies dedicating the hydroelectric station, in 1932, the government awarded Hugh Cooper its highest honor, the Order of the Red Star. He was the first foreigner so honored. Born in Sheldon, Minnesota, in 1865, Cooper had built hydroelectric projects throughout the world, including the mile-long Keokuk dam and power plant on the Mississippi and the U.S. government installation at Muscle Shoals. While under contract to the Soviet government, from 1927 to 1932, he spent one or two months each year at the Dnieper site. He and his American staff lived in a special foreign section, with comfortable housing, excellent imported provisions, and access to a swimming pool and a golf course.