Published by EH.NET (September 2000)
Anthony Heywood, Modernising Lenin’s Russia: Economic Reconstruction,
Foreign Trade, and the Railways, 1917-1924. New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1999. xviii + 328 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-62178-X.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Oliver Hayward, Department of History, University of
Wisconsin-Parkside, Kenosha WI.
“Railroads of the World, Unite.” This slogan, enjoying some support in Russian
official circles in 1919-20, advocated changing Russia’s railway track gauge of
1524 mm. to make it compatible with the standard European gauge of 1435 mm.
Strongly opposed by the Red Army and Cheka leadership on security grounds, the
change was never implemented. But the controversy illustrates the extremely
fluid situation of Russia’s railroads during the critical post-revolutionary
period, the subject of Anthony Heywood’s very useful monograph, Modernising
In the course of preparing his 1991 University of Leeds Department of Russian
Studies dissertation under the direction of David Collins and Richard Davies,
Heywood gained access in the Leeds Russian Archive to the papers of Professor
Iurii Vladimirovich Lomonosov. Lomonosov becomes the primary player in the
dramatic events Heywood recounts, and appropriately so.
Born in 1876 to a Smolensk landowner of modest means, Lomonsov studied with
distinction the somewhat esoteric subject of design and operation of steam
locomotives, applying rigorous scientific standards to his research. During
World War I Lomonosov also demonstrated command of the practical aspects of his
subject, reorganizing railway traffic in Moscow (and Romania!), and
representing the Directorate of Railways on the Imperial Special Council for
Defense. By 1917 he was acknowledged as a leading Russian authority on
Yet there was another important dimension to Lomonosov the official: his
radical politics. In 1905-6 he helped Leonard Krasin prepare and distribute
bombs for the Bolshevik Central Committee. Krasin would become the Bolshevik’s
leading authority in foreign trade matters after they took power. In addition
to this close friend and political ally, Lomonosov enjoyed the support of other
important patrons close to Lenin, notably Lev Kamenev and Felix Dzerzhinski
(one of the rare errors of fact in this work is spelling Dzerzhinski’s last
name as though he were Russian rather than Polish). Dzerzhinski’s support was
particularly important after he left the Cheka to assume the post of People’s
Commissar of Transport, a post he held until he became head of VSNKh after
Lenin’s death in January 1924.
Lomonosov also had considerable though varying support from both Trotsky and
Stalin, although their increasingly bitter rivalry by the mid-1920’s would
complicate his efforts to continue government support for an aggressive
expansion of Russia’s railroads. By January 1927, Lomonosov perceived that his
position in Stalin’s Soviet Russia had become untenable. He defied a recall to
Moscow and became an emigre in the West. At first, he deliberately
disassociated himself from White emigre circles, and proudly maintained his
Soviet citizenship. But Stalin’s execution of his friend and patron Lev Kamenev
led Lomonosov to take British citizenship shortly before the outbreak of World
War II. He died in 1952 in Montreal at the age of seventy-six.
Lomonosov’s most enduring accomplishments included expanding Soviet Russia’s
railroad capacity under the extremely difficult, sometimes treacherous
conditions Heywood describes. His efforts brought into Russia some 1200 new
foreign steam locomotives plus 70 reconditioned locomotives, 1500 tankers, and
80,000 tons of rails and fittings, as well as numerous other items. This was
accomplished at the considerable cost of over 220 million gold rubles,
approximately 30 percent of Russia’s gold reserves during the years immediately
after the civil war.
With gradually increased production of railroad stock in Russia’s own factories
(a source increasingly favored by the Soviet government, especially as Stalin
took firmer control over the country), plus a substantial one-time windfall of
railroad equipment seized from the collapsing White forces toward the end of
Russia’s civil war, the new Soviet government managed to survive what some
called “supercatastrophic” conditions in the economy from 1918 to 1920. In
turn, the rapid expansion of the Soviet economy under the Five Year Plans owed
a great deal to the dramatic improvement in the country’s transportation
infrastructure, for which Lomonsov deserves considerable credit.
Exploring in some depth this hitherto neglected subject, Heywood throws light
on a variety of related topics. Although the reader needs a rather substantial
grasp of the international diplomatic background, Russia’s relations with a
variety of nations are directly related to Lomonosov’s success or failure in
negotiating contracts with various foreign companies for production of rolling
stock and supplies and rehabilitating existing equipment. Of particular
importance were his efforts with considerable success to finalize contracts
with Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, and later Estonia.
The United States could have been the largest beneficiary of Russia’s attempts
to purchase rolling stock and supplies abroad, for the tsarist and Provisional
government had both entered into significant contracts with American companies,
and the Soviets attempted to reach additional contracts after they took power.
But after the US government prohibited further shipments to Bolshevik Russia in
early 1918, most American-built railroad equipment originally intended for
Russia were either sent to the White forces by way of Vladivostok or remained
in the US, as property of the US War Department. US railroads took over much of
that equipment after World War I.
Various struggles within Soviet Russia seriously complicated Lomonosov’s
efforts. Heywood’s analysis throws light on a number of the controversies
Bolshevik leaders confronted in their efforts to rebuild Russia’s feeble and
trouble-plagued economy during and after the civil war. They had to seriously
1. Under conditions of serious financial weakness on the part of the Soviet
government combined with considerable hostility toward the new regime on the
part of most western governments, to what extent could (and should) Russia rely
on imports from the capitalist countries to prime its economy, especially its
industries; or should priority be placed on placing orders only in Russian
factories, even if they were short on capacity and often were less efficient
than their western counterparts? and
2. What branches of Russia’s industry were in most desperate disarray and
which branch or branches were most likely to be of greatest value in improving
the rest of the country’s troubled economy as well?
Initially the Soviet leadership leaned toward the approach Lomonosov favored:
extensive reliance on foreign factories in support of an all-out drive to bring
Russia’s railroad system back to its earlier pre-eminent role as a springboard
to the rebuilding of the entire national economy, as had been earlier advocated
by tsarist Finance Ministers Reutern and Witte. But, with a certain degree of
irony, that policy peaked in support and effectiveness in late 1920 and early
1921, just as the Soviet government was about to promulgate the New Economic
Policy ostensibly designed to expand, albeit reluctantly, Russia’s economic
ties with the capitalist world. Thus, despite the expressed goals of NEP, in
the area of transportation policy, political, economic, and diplomatic
realities brought the government to seek relief domestically. And with the
promulgation, in late autumn 1920, of a new program drawn up by the Goelro
Commission, calling for primary emphasis on electrification of the country as
the driving force behind expanding the national economy, Russia’s railroads
lost their primacy in the struggle for scarce resources in the country.
Heywood’s study brings well-deserved attention to the role of important
individuals in the unfolding of the events described above. Lomonosov’s
administrative competence and sound grasp of the technical aspects of the
complex subject of railroad management initially served him well in winning the
support of Lenin and his inner circle. But Heywood vividly illustrates that in
his personal relations Lomonosov was often arrogant and unsympathetic to
alternative points of view. His shortcomings in interpersonal relations were
exacerbated at times by the involvement of his even less diplomatic spouse,
Raisa, whom he installed as his personal secretary. He involved her in some
delicate negotiations that went seriously awry, hastening his rather rapid fall
from his position of influence. Raisa appears, although Heywood’s evidence here
is admittedly somewhat sketchy, to have engaged in some rather questionable
financial maneuvers which, when they began to come to light, considerably
weakened Lomonosov’s bargaining position in a setting of serious, often
cutthroat political infighting.
Surprisingly absent, in the supposedly highly ideology-driven period in Soviet
history often labeled “War Communism,” is evidence of significant ideological
influence on decisions in this matter. References to Marxist-Leninist thought
are conspicuous by their absence in the debate on the importance of
strengthening Russia’s railroads in the immediate post-revolutionary years.
Perhaps the desperate situation and the high stakes involved made ideology a
luxury the Bolsheviks felt under the circumstances they could ill afford.
Oliver Hayward is completing a study of the life and policies of M.Kh.
Reutern, Minister of Finance under Alexander II. He is currently researching
the periodic flooding of the city of St.Petersburg/Leningrad and efforts to
control that flooding.
|Subject(s):||Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|