- 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
In Stalingrad the Soviets built an immense tractor plant designed by Albert Kahn. Its construction was supervised by John K. Calder, of Detroit, and International Harvester provided technical advisers and the design of the tractor to be made there. Approximately 380 American engineers and foremen helped run the plant. The plant began producing tractors in 1930—and soon became known for poor quality, late delivery, and gross mishandling of machinery by workers, many of whom had never even seen an electric light before. Calder also supervised the construction of a tractor plant at Chelyabinsk, whose assembly building, which the Soviets boasted would be the largest building in the world, was to turn out fifty thousand Stalinets tractors a year. Production began in 1933 with a replica of a Caterpillar crawler; the Soviets, typically, paid no royalties to the American patent holder. Leon A. Swajian, who had supervised construction of Ford’s great River Rouge plant, presided over the expansion of a small tractor plant in Leningrad and the building of a plant in Kharkov to produce a copy of an International Harvester tractor.
The frustrations experienced by American managers, engineers, and foremen trying to bring the tractor plants into production while dealing with Soviet functionaries and workers hardly exceeded those encountered by the Americans who helped the peasants use the machines. Harold M. Ware, an American, traveled to Russia with his wife and eight American farmers in 1922 to teach the peasants how to operate tractors. Trotsky himself greeted the group. He noted that they were nearly all first-generation Americans of Scandinavian descent and remarked: “So, in one generation you make Scandinavian peasants into American farmers and American tractor experts. Well, we can make Russian peasants over like that too.” That one generation proved a very long and hard one for the Soviet Union.
The increasing number of tractors made in the Soviet Union after 1930 suffered from leaking radiators, poorly cast cylinder heads, loose bearings, and broken valve springs. One returning American instructor wrote: “I can’t begin to tell how the Russians mistreat their machinery. . . . Tractors good for ten years hard work will last through three seasons there. . . . [The Russian worker] does not care whether it runs or not. In fact, if it doesn’t run he has more time to sleep, and sleep is one thing he loves.”
Frantic efforts to meet production quotas broke down many machines; one Soviet farm manager received American experts with a revolver on his desk—not a very scientific management tool. A five-man delegation from the Ford Motor Company making a seven-thousand-mile tour of the country in 1926 found the Soviets obsessed with charts, diagrams, and colored tables of figures that meant nothing. After being shown a chart identifying a large number of tractor repair shops in the Ukraine, the delegation was unable to locate a single acceptable facility there. They found modern machine tools and logical layouts, but in dirty factories manned by lazy, poorly supervised workers. In a confidential report to the Ford company the group expressed its shock that political considerations had been allowed to outweigh technical ones.
But through it all, skeptical and recalcitrant peasants were gradually won over and began demanding more tractors. By World War II the American experts and predominantly American-designed tractors had substantially facilitated Stalin’s brutal collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union.
In addition to tractors, the Russians craved the famous Ford automobile and truck. A delegation from the Soviet Union’s Amtorg Trading Corporation and the Moscow Automobile Trust visited Detroit in 1928, the year after Ford changed over from the Model T to the Model A. The Ford company had shown interest in negotiating with the Soviets as worldwide sales of the Model T waned and Soviet orders for Fordson tractors dropped. In May 1929 the Ford Motor Company signed a contract with the Supreme Economic Council of the Soviet Union in which it agreed to furnish detailed construction plans and equipment for plants that would eventually produce one hundred thousand Model A cars and Model AA trucks a year. The Austin Company, a Cleveland engineering and consulting firm, would supervise erection of a production plant, assembly plant, and model city for workers at Nizhni Novgorod (renamed Gorky in 1932). Albert Kahn directed construction of a smaller assembly plant in Moscow. These factories were to assemble imported parts until the Soviet production plant began operating. An exchange of several hundred Soviet and Ford foremen and engineers smoothed the process.
Henry Ford’s attitude had changed since he had written My Life and Work. “Russia is beginning to build,” he announced, adding, “I have long been convinced that we shall never be able to build a balanced economic order in the world until every people has become as self-supporting as possible. . . . The nations will do as Russia is doing.” He believed that the contract would give the Soviets a half-century’s worth of experience; industrialization meant prosperity, and prosperity would build world peace. Those who recalled Ford’s ambitious venture with his peace ship in World War I could hardly doubt his sincerity, as well as his determination to sell cars.