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Why The Soviet Union Died

March 2023
1min read

The Ghost of the Executed Engineer

by Loren R. Graham, Harvard University Press, 128 pages

This is not a book about American history by any definition; it is about Russian history. But the story it concisely tells throws such sharp light on a main event of this century—the fall of the Soviet Union—that the editors recommend it unhesitatingly. The ghost of the title is that of Peter Palchinsky, a prominent civil engineer who, advising on some of the Soviet Union’s biggest early industrialization projects, lobbied hard for balanced, thorough study of all the economic and human costs of each undertaking and alternative ways of doing it. The Party simply wanted its illconceived, grandiose orders followed, its five-year plans carried out at any price. “More than a little irony exists in the professional engineer’s call for attention to human needs over technology while the Party leader emphasized technology over all else,” observes the author, a professor of the history of science at MIT. In 1928 Palchinsky was seized from his home and executed. Soon engineers no longer felt any freedom to criticize or even adequately study projects that the state ordered. Graham shows how their pervasive fear helped gradually reduce the most rapidly industrializing nation in the world into a paralyzed, impoverished monster that by the 1980s could have no idea how even to deal with freedom and real opportunity when they finally came. The story is as gripping as it is tragic and important.

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