- 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
An emotional cult grew up around Henry Ford as the Soviet Union bought tractors and then the means of producing them.
When the Nizhni Novgorod assembly plant began production in February 1930, townspeople celebrated enthusiastically, but Soviet officials shrewdly insisted that the Ford supervisor take a luxurious vacation on the Black Sea for two months, until they were sure the assembly plants in Nizhni Novgorod and Moscow would run without him.
In January 1932 the large production plant began operation. River Rouge was established on the Volga; Muscovites could own Model A’s. On paper Ford lost money on the arrangement; the Soviets purchased less than half the vehicles they had contracted for. But since the company was then changing over to V-8 engines, the Nizhni Novgorod experience allowed it to unload three million dollars’ worth of production equipment that would otherwise have been scrapped.
The forcers of a technological revolution also dared the prodigious feat of constructing a steel complex based on the one at Gary, Indiana. It stretched behind the Urals at Magnitogorsk, a village near two small mountains rich in magnetized iron that had aroused superstition and interest ever since early explorers had noted how their compass needles were deflected there. The mountains had been mined since the eighteenth century, but primitive transportation and the great distances from behind the Urals to markets in western Russia had kept their iron output small. Now the Soviet leaders planned to build nothing less than the world’s largest and most modern iron-producing facility. It would include facilities for magnetic separation, concentration, and sintering of ore; eight giant fifteen-hundred-ton blast furnaces; twenty-eight (later forty-two) open-hearth furnaces; three Bessemer converters; forty-five coke ovens; and three rolling mills. These facilities would be only part of a larger regional complex that included gold, platinum, silver, copper, nickel, lead, and aluminum mines; machine-building and armaments plants; tractor and railway-car works; oil fields and refineries; and transportation lines to coal sources as far away as Siberia. This scheme, which also called for socialist working communities on the barren landscape, was called the Ural-Kuznetsk-Kombinat. The Soviets meant it to show that they could learn from and transcend the capitalistic system of production.
Peasants from Russia and nomads from Siberia—some of them escapees from newly collectivized farms—streamed into Magnitogorsk seeking work even before engineers from the Soviet Union and abroad appeared. Arthur G. McKee & Company, of Cleveland, was the principal foreign contractor. A German firm built the rolling mill; the coke plant was erected by the U.S. firm of Koppers and Company. Various Soviet organizations supervised construction of the open-hearth furnaces, transportation system, water supply, and other facilities. Freyn Engineering, another U.S. consulting and engineering firm, joined with Soviet engineers in designing and constructing the Kuznetsk ironworks, another part of the regional plan. Fourteen Freyn engineers had already, since 1927, been advising the Soviets on the development of their metallurgical industries.
John Scott, a young American who worked in Russia’s city of steel, left an account of his experience. He wrote that he saw much sweat and blood but also “a magnificent plant built.” Scott had left the University of Wisconsin in 1931 to apprentice as a welder at General Electric. He had been disillusioned by the Depression in the United States; finding little use for his energy and enthusiasm at home, he decided to “lend a hand in the construction of a society which seemed to be at least one step ahead of the American.” He lived with the workers building the Magnitogorsk blast furnaces and saw many of them die or suffer terribly from cold, hunger, fatigue, and industrial accidents. Thousands of political prisoners and dispossessed peasants worked at Magnitogorsk under secret-police surveillance. Special representatives of the Communist party came from Moscow to enforce schedules and quotas; Scott described them as sources of initiative and energy, able to force the work forward despite their intrigues and heresy hunting. He concluded in 1942 that “Stalin’s indomitable will and his ruthless tenacity were responsible for the construction of Magnitogorsk and the entire Ural and Western Siberia industrial areas.”
Most high-level personnel for such projects had been educated in both political dogma and technical skills. Engineers from the old regime were always suspect but tended to be much better trained than young engineers fresh from Soviet schools. But engineers with diplomas from Soviet technical schools were paid six to eight times as much as unskilled workers; upper-level managers made up to thirty times as much as laborers; and foreign engineers, including Americans, had the highest pay and living standards of all.