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Brezhnev's Folly

Brezhnev's Folly: The Building of BAM and Late Soviet Socialism

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 256
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    Brezhnev's Folly
    Book Description:

    Heralded by Soviet propaganda as the "Path to the Future," the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) represented the hopes and dreams of Brezhnev and the Communist Party elite of the late Soviet era. Begun in 1974, and spanning approximately 2,000 miles after twenty-nine years of halting construction, the BAM project was intended to showcase the national unity, determination, skill, technology, and industrial might that Soviet socialism claimed to embody. More pragmatically, the Soviet leadership envisioned the BAM railway as a trade route to the Pacific, where markets for Soviet timber and petroleum would open up, and as an engine for the development of Siberia.

    Despite these aspirations and the massive commitment of economic resources on its behalf, BAM proved to be a boondoggle-a symbol of late communism's dysfunctionality-and a cruel joke to many ordinary Soviet citizens. In reality, BAM was woefully bereft of quality materials and construction, and victimized by poor planning and an inferior workforce. Today, the railway is fully complete, but remains a symbol of the profligate spending and inefficiency that characterized the Brezhnev years.

    InBrezhnev's Folly,Christopher J. Ward provides a groundbreaking social history of the BAM railway project. He examines the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of workers from the diverse republics of the USSR and other socialist countries, and his extensive archival research and interviews with numerous project workers provide an inside look at the daily life of the BAM workforce. We see firsthand the disorganization, empty promises, dire living and working conditions, environmental damage, and acts of crime, segregation, and discrimination that constituted daily life during the project's construction. Thus, perhaps, we also see the final irony of BAM: that the most lasting legacy of this misguided effort to build Soviet socialism is to shed historical light on the profound ills afflicting a society in terminal decline.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7121-4
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE (pp. vii-viii)
  5. [Illustrations] (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. 1 Introduction: The Project of the Century (pp. 1-11)

    Within only two decades, the assessment of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) and its effects on the Soviet Union transformed radically. In 1974, Leonid Brezhnev addressed the Seventeenth Komsomol Congress: “The Baikal-Amur Railway will transform the cities and settlements of Siberia, the North, and the Far East into high-culture centers while exploiting the rich natural resources of those regions!”¹ By 1993, however, theMoscow Newstold a different story: “What is the railway like today? It is in a state of ruin and desolation. Rarely does a train whistle disturb the surrounding silence. The stations are deserted. The passenger terminals,...

  7. 2 Prometheanism versus Conservationism on the Railway (pp. 12-41)

    An elaborate, officially generated propaganda apparatus heralded the construction of the BAM Railway as the vanguard of Soviet Prometheanism. This ideology promoted the notion that humankind would conquer nature by using technology to push BAM through Siberia and the Soviet Far East. But within the railway’s large construction force (known collectively in Russian asbamovtsy,best rendered in English as “BAMers”), some workers espoused a conservationist consciousness in the struggle to determine the fate of the BAM Zone’s ecology. These BAMers’ experiences mirrored a larger trend felt throughout the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years. By the early 1970s, some...

  8. 3 Crime and Corruption in BAM Society (pp. 42-68)

    As the BAM project progressed, the attitudes of BAMer youth became increasingly restive as their attention turned away from the building of a Communist society to the more practical goal of improving their own material status. As one report stated: “When asked the question ‘Why did you come here [to work on the BAM railway]?’ several young men working with SMP-391 in the settlement of Magistralnyi replied: ‘To make connections and seek our fortunes.’”¹ BAMer Vladimir Poleshak responded similarly: “I am already past Komsomol age, and I don’t need your romantic notions of camaraderie. I need money and only money,...

  9. Illustrations (pp. None)
  10. 4 Working Alone: Women on the Railway (pp. 69-97)

    Through its official propaganda channels, the Soviet government emphasized the equal ability and dedication of male and female BAMers in all aspects of the railway’s construction. The Soviet Union was still concerned with solving the long-debated “women’s question” (zhenskii vopros)—namely, the dilemma of achieving economic and social parity between the sexes. But official recognition of women’s accomplishments within a project that severely lacked tangible results was rarely forthcoming. The so-called women’s question was debated openly in the pages and airwaves of various media outlets in the BAM Zone, reflecting a growing national trend of discussion on the issue. By...

  11. 5 National Differentiation and Marginalization on the Railway (pp. 98-125)

    Among the BAMer representatives of the USSR’s multiple nationalities along the railway project, there were many tensions as well as constructive relationships. Soviet officialdom was keenly aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of ethnic tension within the railway’s population and, by extension, throughout the USSR. Through its propaganda network the state consistently proclaimed the BAM project to be a forum where the center’s claims to multinationalism and ethnic equality were visible. Despite these claims, however, Slavic labor formations dominated and non-Slavs were relegated to tasks of little importance. The Komsomol BAM construction headquarters put quite a propaganda spin on these...

  12. 6 The Rails of Fraternal Cooperation: BAMers Abroad and Foreigners at Home (pp. 126-150)

    Another impetus behind BAM construction and its attendant propaganda campaign was the need to impress the Soviet Union’s allies and enemies, particularly the People’s Republic of China, with the USSR’s ability to undertake and complete this massive endeavor as an expression of Soviet geostrategic and military might. In culling labor from the youth of those “fraternal nations” that were within the Soviet sphere of influence, the BAM administration attempted to amass an additional workforce to supplement the poorly trained and insufficiently motivated domestic BAMers. These fraternal nations included Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, and Vietnam, which...

  13. 7 Conclusion: Brezhnev’s Folly in Perspective (pp. 151-156)

    Colonel-General G. I. Kogatko, the former head of BAM Zone Military Forces, wrote: “The history of BAM is not only one of a heroic accomplishment as many people have already written and said, but also of a serious martial undertaking. On the BAM everything happened, from the heroic and tragic, to the serious and amusing, to the happy and sad.”¹ Although the world of the “project of the century” grew during BAM’s decade of prominence, the “path to the future” itself did not lead to any concrete accomplishments in the industrial or social development of the USSR. Soviet officialdom was...

  14. NOTES (pp. 157-180)
  15. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 181-206)
  16. INDEX (pp. 207-218)