December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
To bring their nation to the leading edge of technology, Soviet leaders are turning to the United States. Their grandfathers did the same thing.
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.
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.”
The Soviet economy passed through several phases between the world wars. From 1917 to 1921, the period of War Communism, the Bolsheviks attempted desperately and unsuccessfully to turn industry over to trade unions and committees of workers. The country overcame the foreign and civil wars of these years only after the authorities began to restore managers and engineers to their old jobs. Then, in 1921, with the country near exhaustion and industrial production stalled, Lenin called for a New Economic Policy. It involved a temporary retreat from centralized planning and control. The regime now tolerated substantial private and market enterprise while retaining control of the “commanding heights,” which included heavy industry, transportation, and electricity supply. During these years the government embarked on the national planning process that culminated in 1928 in the First Five-Year Plan. With it came a drive to eliminate private enterprise in both industry and agriculture.
During the period of War Communism, the importation of Western technology and experts was impossible, but under the New Economic Policy, Western manufacturers were allowed to establish and operate plants in the Soviet Union. During the First Five-Year Plan, the Soviets turned to the outright purchase and import of foreign production plants. Foreign experts, especially American, supervising Soviet workers and engineers, set these plants into operation and then turned them over to Soviet managers; always fearful of dependence on the capitalist world, the Soviet leadership was struggling to avoid the import of manufactured goods by pursuing instead the adoption of the means of producing them. The large-scale transfer of technology that followed was the most intense in history, and it should be recognized as a major chapter in the Soviet past. Before then Russia still resembled a preindustrial nation, with a lingering reliance on human and animal power and an agricultural economic base. Joseph Stalin later claimed that he had found Russians using wooden plows and left them with nuclear reactors. That, of course, was rhetoric; railroads, iron and steel production, textile manufacture, and foreign loans were rapidly industrializing many regions of Russia before the 1917 Revolution. But the speed of change was multiplied after 1921 by the forced adoption of foreign technology.
When in 1916 V. I. Lenin, the Russian political revolutionary, discovered Frederick W. Taylor, the American technological revolutionary, there was a paradoxical meeting of the minds. Taylor, born in Philadelphia in 1856, had introduced time-and-motion studies of workers when he was a foreman and manager at a steel plant in his twenties; these formed the basis for his widely influential theories of management science. He believed that with close observation of individual workers, any mechanical job could be divided into precisely prescribed individual movements, eliminating wasted time and energy. The activities of a factory as a whole could likewise be minutely organized. His system often provoked fierce opposition among workers, who lost virtually all freedom and control over their work, but it did often lead to great economies. It mechanized individual labor just as Ford’s assembly line mechanized factory organization. Taylor died in 1915, but the influence of his system of scientific management is still felt throughout industry.
Lenin was also impressed by the work of Frank Gilbreth, another American time-and-motion pioneer, who seemed less intent on speeding up—or exploiting—workers than on finding the one best, energy-saving way of doing work. Lenin wrote in the margin of one Gilbreth article that scientific management could provide a transition from capitalism to socialism.
Lenin insisted that in his socialist state Taylorism would no longer exploit the worker for the profit of greedy capitalists but would instead greatly increase the fruits of production for the benefit of workers and peasants and would make useful his country’s large pool of unskilled peasant labor. He also perceived that Taylor’s centralized control of the workplace, work process, and workers would allow politically reliable experts to monitor the system closely during the transition from capitalism to socialism and would help root out “bourgeois saboteurs.”
In the spring of 1918, as his country lay disorganized and demoralized, Lenin said: “The task that the Soviet government must set the people in all its scope is—learn to work. . . . We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our purposes.” He intended to recruit American engineers to help install the system. Soviet labor unions and some members of his own party opposed the plan, but Lenin preferred management by experts to chaotic worker control, even if the experts were, for a time, bourgeois holdovers or foreigners. He was also prepared to pay higher wages to experts and more productive workers. When American businessmen heard of his advocacy of Taylorism, they took it as proof that the American way was the one best way.
Leon Trotsky, head of the Soviet war department and the leader best known after Lenin, also embraced Taylorism. He tried to introduce scientific management into the Red Army and the decimated armaments industry. In a magazine article he wrote, Trotsky recalled his reliance on “Kili,” an American engineer, perhaps named Kelly, who went to the Soviet Union in about 1918 to help Taylorize industry. Kili told Trotsky that soldiering—loafing on the job—absorbed about 50 percent of all productive time in Soviet industry. Trotsky, facing total industrial collapse during the period of War Communism, endorsed a “militarization” of labor that amounted to extreme Taylorism on a national scale.
Drawing up their First Five-Year Plan, in the mid-1920s, the Soviets raised Taylorism from mere factory organization to the grand scale of the national economy. The Communist party translated and published Taylor’s book The Principles of Scientific Management, and high authorities brought over Walter Polakov, an American follower of Henry L. Gantt, one of Taylor’s most fervent disciples, to provide a liaison with American scientific-management experts and to prepare production charts for the entire First Five-Year Plan.
Alexei Gastev, a Soviet union leader and poet, helped give Taylorism an exotic Soviet flavor. He saw industrial workers as extensions of the engines they tended, and he lauded the fusion of man and machine: “I grow iron arms and shoulders—I coalesce with the iron form.” Fascinated by Taylor’s and Gilbreth’s work, he became the bard of scientific management.
Lenin found Gastev’s ideas and enthusiasm appealing, so the poet received support for what he called his ultimate artistic creation, the Central Labor Institute. The institute became in the 1920s the fountainhead for Soviet Taylorism, and time-and-motion studies became Gastev’s idée fixe. His critics complained that the institute neglected the full complexities of scientific management, but Gastev was reaching beyond. He wrote: “Many find it repugnant that we want to deal with human beings as with a screw, a nut, a machine. But we must undertake this as fearlessly as we accept the growth of trees and the expansion of the railway network.” He predicted that Taylorism would usher in a new era in which society itself would be mechanized, run by social engineering. In the workplace and in society alike, the seats of authority would be the offices of managers and engineers. Writing that “Taylor was an inventor, Gilbreth was an inventor, Ford was an inventor,” Gastev spoke of Russia transformed into a “new, flowering America.” The Stalinist purge that decimated social scientists eliminated Gastev’s institute in 1940. In 1941 it was reported that he had been shot and killed.
The Soviet embrace of Taylorism created countless problems. A system of management developed in and for a highly industrialized and productive nation was being imposed on a backward nation. American engineers and management experts returned home with horror stories of frantic and harsh efforts to implement Taylorism. Many peasants-turned-industrial workers failed to arrive at their Taylorized jobs on time because they had no clocks in their homes. Party officials demanded speedups in one part of an integrated factory system while neglecting others, creating monumental bottlenecks and logjams. Pressed by unrealistic quotas, workers overworked newly imported machinery, cut corners, and turned out shoddy products. Engineers and managers found that honest mistakes might be labeled criminal sabotage by high-level functionaries protecting their own jobs. Irrational speedups and quota increases became a lasting characteristic of Soviet Taylorism and of Soviet technology in general.
Lenin decided early on that nationwide electrification would, like Taylorism, be necessary for building a modern Russia. He agreed with Marx that steam power and the factory system had helped create industrial capitalism, and he reasoned by analogy that electrification and the growth of large regional systems of production would promote the next great social change, the formation of socialist society. The engineer G. M. Krzhizhanovsky, an adviser to Lenin, persuaded him that electrification could never be fully developed where competition prevailed; only collective enterprise could bring about a nationwide system of energy production with a grid that would function like a single machine. The vision of American utility magnates paled by comparison.
Lenin had been interested in electrification since the 1890s, when he had shared exile in Siberia with Krzhizhanovsky. Like many Western reformers of the time, Lenin saw electrification as a step toward an ideal society: it would “accelerate the transformation of dirty, repulsive workshops into clean bright laboratories worthy of human beings, and electric light and heating of every home would ease the life of millions of ‘domestic slaves.’” He often showed himself to be more enthusiastic than knowledgeable, as when he called for the installation of electric lights in every rural district within one year and the acquisition of copper for wiring by gathering scraps in rural areas. H. G. Wells, the British author and social reformer, visited him in 1920 and concluded that “Lenin, who like a good orthodox Marxist denounces all ‘Utopians,’ has succumbed at last to a Utopia, the Utopia of the electricians.”
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.
Cooper, a dry and cautious man, once said that he did not accept any “isms” except good, old-fashioned American common-sense-ism, but he added that he found all the Soviet leaders with whom he dealt—including Joseph Stalin—men of great intellectual ability, committed to improving living conditions through technology. He commended their forthright business dealings and their lack of corruption, and he also liked Russian workers, whom he found eager to help on his huge project. Trying to teach peasant laborers to use complex equipment could be heartbreakingly frustrating, but he made headway. The Soviet managers’ clear authority over their workers and their use of piecework wages also pleased Cooper.
In the United States Cooper was a backer of Soviet-American relations before his country formally recognized the Soviets. He headed the American-Russian Chamber of Commerce, whose directors came from leading American corporations eager for business. Among those represented in 1932 were International General Electric, Westinghouse Electric International, General Motors, W. Averell Harriman & Company, and the Chase National Bank. President Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union in 1933. According to the historian Herbert Feis, “economic calculations brought the question of recognition to the fore. . . . Prevailing conditions in the United States made the lure of any new foreign market attractive; and the Russian market was thought to be potentially a great one.” Ultimately, however, “the hope of economic benefit was scantily fulfilled.”
By 1928, when the Soviets inaugurated the First Five-Year Plan, Henry Ford had become an even greater hero to the Soviets than Frederick Taylor. An emotional cult grew up around Ford’s methods and even his person. By 1925 his autobiography, My Life and Work, had had four printings in the Soviet Union, and one American in Russia reported that plant managers were studying Ford with as much enthusiasm as they had had for Lenin. More than one village adopted the name of the Fordson tractor, and the New York Times reporter Walter Duranty wrote in 1928 that “Ford means America and all that America had accomplished to make her a model and an ideal for this vast and backward country. . . . Cheap mass production is a Soviet goal, more precious from the practical standpoint than world revolution.”
The Soviets invoked their massive Ford-designed plants, along with the Dnieper hydroelectric project, to symbolize modern Soviet technology. And Ford’s social philosophy, espousing both mass production and mass consumption, fired as much enthusiasm as did his machinery and plant layouts. In 1919 a Soviet delegation had asked for a meeting with Henry Ford, stating, “We believe we could make you understand that Soviet Russia is inaugurating methods of industrial efficiency compatible with the interests of humanity.” Ford’s role as a Soviet hero and provider of technology must have caused him at least a minor identity crisis, for in My Life and Work (1922) he wrote: “Nature has vetoed the whole Soviet Republic. For it sought to deny Nature. It denied above all else the right to the fruits of labor.”
Ford’s views on the Soviet regime never penetrated Soviet consciousness the way his Fordson tractors did. By 1926 the Soviets had ordered 24,600 Fordsons, and most had been delivered. The Ford Motor Company boasted in 1927 that 85 percent of the trucks and tractors in the Soviet Union were Ford-built. Whereas in 1924 there had only been about 1,000 tractors operating in all the vast Russian countryside, by 1934 there were 200,000, most of them of U.S. manufacture.
Trotsky said that “the most popular word among our forward-looking peasantry is Fordson.” Indeed, the peasants celebrated Fordson days and Fordson festivals in their villages. But superb as the Fordsons were as a symbol, they served less well as real tools. They were often too light to plow Russian soils deeply enough. The Soviet Union had no Ford service system to repair them when they broke down. And the Fordson turned out to be an inappropriate technology in any case because it burned benzene, a fuel in short supply. The Russians needed naphtha-burning engines. After 1928 they imported larger and sturdier tractors from International Harvester, John Deere, and Allis-Chalmers. After 1931 imports of tractors dropped sharply as the Soviet Union finally began to increase its own production—mostly in plants of American design.
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.
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.
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.
America’s past role in building up the Soviet Union contributed to both magnificent success and agonizing failure in an effort propelled by both true idealism and ruthless drive. Analogies can actually be drawn between Russia’s transformation and the earlier growth of technology in our own country. Until about 1850 Europeans, especially the British, considered American technology crude. Collapsing wooden bridges, rickety railroads, and exploding steamboat boilers were common. Though American inventions at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851 were judged ingenious, and talk of a new American system of production was then spreading, Britain still felt secure and superior in its technological preeminence. Americans had been heavily borrowing technological knowledge from Europe for a century. But only half a century later, the rise in American production and patents was making Britain a second-rate power. Mikhail Gorbachev might be encouraged by the fact that more than a century passed between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of American technological and industrial preeminence. Perhaps he looks forward to 2017.
The Soviet Union today remains a mammoth stage on which the technological drama of creation and construction can be enacted. If history should repeat itself and large-scale transfer of American technology occur once again, perhaps Americans on the right of the political spectrum will see it merely as another ruthless power grab by the Evil Empire, and perhaps those on the left will discern only a profit-motivated sellout by Western industrialists. More likely the main motivation will be the same as last time. Since the 1917 Revolution many Soviets, especially those who see themselves as the heirs of Lenin, have pursued a destiny of technological transformation that casts power struggles and economic maneuvering into the shadows. They have deeply admired and envied the United States because for more than two centuries it was a building site on which a mostly poor and aspiring people transformed a wilderness into a mighty system of production.
Countless remarks by the early Bolsheviks testify to this. Soviet leaders have always hoped to capture this spirit and imbue their people with it. In the 1920s conservative American engineers and industrialists recognized in their Russian counterparts this kindred spirit of invention and development. They even sensed that the Soviets, like ordinary Americans, believed that technology could help bring them both goods and a good life. Perhaps that technological spirit reflects more in common between the two peoples than we have realized. It could be a bridge for a lasting creative dialogue between two nations of builders.