- 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 American was chief consultant on the Dnieper dam; U.S. firms supplied steel, heavy equipment, turbines, and more.
The Soviet planners brought in the German Ernst May, one of Europe’s foremost avant-garde architects, to plan the workers’ city for Magnitogorsk. May had used factory techniques to build modern housing settlements in Frankfurt in the 1920s, and the Soviet leadership clearly wished to establish not only modern industry but also a modern way of life. The Socialist City he built was not, according to Scott, “really a very good example of a Socialist city.” It consisted of some fifty large, balconied apartment houses three, four, and five stories high, surrounding open squares, fountains, flower gardens, and playgrounds. By 1937 the apartments were desperately crowded, accommodating as many as five people per room. The apartments had electricity, central heating, running water, and bathtubs, but the tubs were usually used for storage; the Russians preferred their traditional community bath-houses.
Despite all the foreign consultants, advisers, and equipment, despite intense efforts at training and education, and despite the resolve of party representatives, Magnitogorsk experienced unending frustrations. Unskilled labor misused imported machinery; unrealistic schedules bred shortcuts and distorted progress reports; transportation and material-handling facilities became overwhelmed; supplies often ran out disastrously yet unexpectedly. At the end of the First Five-Year Plan period, work was so far behind that schedules were moved forward to the end of the subsequent Second Five-Year Plan.
Around 1934 emphasis began to shift from building the plants to actually producing. The transfer of responsibility to Russians was well under way in 1936 and 1937. Foreign engineers who had been pampered by the Soviet Union now began to be accused of obstructionist tactics. Young Soviet engineers had gained experience and were beginning to enjoy the prestige and respect that had formerly been reserved for foreigners. Russian laborers began to prove themselves too. A blooming mill that shut down frequently in 1934 began processing all the steel its open-hearth furnaces could turn out by 1935. A rolling mill that could not be efficiently operated in 1934 likewise ran at capacity the next year. By 1938 Scott estimated that the Ural-Kuznetsk-Kombinat regional plan was still only producing about 45 percent of its projected output, but he was impressed by the miracle that had been wrought in a desolate wilderness. Magnitogorsk was producing more pig iron than all the plants in Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland combined. Nevertheless, its full capacity for the near future could not even produce enough metal for the steel rails needed to build the railroad system required by the giant regional complex it was part of.
With the deepening of the Depression in the West and the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, Stalinist policy changed from dependence on foreign engineers and industrialists to reliance on the new wave of Soviet engineers trained after 1917. Stalin always intended that Soviet technology and industry should catch up with and surpass that of the West; as war approached, the Soviet Union became even more determined to establish its self-sufficiency. During World War II the Soviets leaned heavily on the massive systems of production that had been established with American aid, and production was supplemented by lend-lease equipment from the Allies. After the war Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev tried to maintain their nation’s impressive power while relying entirely on its own engineers, scientists, workers, and managers. Soviet military and space technology provided evidence of success, yet despite those peaks of technological excellence, there were myriad valleys of technological and industrial mediocrity, especially in the production of consumer goods. Central planning—a command economy—did not work for the sprawling national economy of the Soviet Union as it had for tight organizations like the Ford Motor Company in the 1920s.
Now in the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev, as determined as Lenin once was to rebuild the Soviet Union as a modern nation based on science and technology, is imaginatively seeking the sources of stagnation. He has already proposed institutional, social, and psychological changes; he has also encouraged greatly increased contacts with foreign technology and science through joint Soviet-foreign—including U.S.—technological and industrial ventures. United States companies now involved in or planning industrial projects in the Soviet Union include Archer-Daniels-Midland, with its advanced corn-processing technology; Honeywell, which has agreed to help modernize about a hundred Soviet fertilizer plants; Dresser Industries and Combustion Engineering, Inc., both involved in joint ventures to manufacture equipment for the petroleum industry; and Occidental Petroleum, a longtime leader in Soviet-American trade currently involved in helping build a six-billion-dollar petrochemical plant near the Caspian Sea.