Kara Bogaz and the life and death of the USSR

Engineers of the Soul by Frank Westerman offers an interesting view of the former Soviet Union as an Oriental Despotism (after Kurt Wittfogel) where the hydraulic engineers were second in importance after the military establishment in the bureaucratic hierarchy`. Lenin’s early formulation was that Soviet power plus national electrification equals communism. The hydraulic engineers were charged with bringing the national electrification side of the equation into effect, as well as being tasked with accomplishing Stalin’s dream of making Moscow a “seaport” through the construction of canals.

After the Russian Civil War between the Reds and Whites, Stalin set himself to maintain and bolster Soviet power. One tool used to help achieve this was propaganda: the corralling of writers into supporting the Soviet project through their writing. Maxim Gorky, the founder of Socialist Realism (disparaged by Western critics as ‘boy meets tractor’), was an early funder of Lenin’s Bolsheviks after the failed 1905 revolution. Nevertheless, he had a problematic relationship with the early Soviet state in which he detected incipient signs of authoritarianism (Lenin was a ‘thinking guillotine’) even while he generally supported the Bolsheviks. After spending most of the 1920’s exiled in Italy Gorky was wooed back to Russia in the late 1920’s, and in 1932 was placed in charge of the Union of Soviet Writers; in effect Stalin’s literary patron in chief. It fell to Gorky to dispense favours, patronage and cash to Soviet writers.

One theme of the book is the compromises different writers made with the Writer’s Union and the regime in order to continue to be published and perhaps be rewarded with a dacha in Peredelkino. Westerman also notes the fates of some writers who did not survive the purges of the 1930’s. In particular the book looks at the works and fates of such writers as Konstantin Paustovsky, Boris Pilnyak and Andrey Platonov.

In a 1932 speech at Gorky’s house to a select group of writers Stalin said that:

“Our tanks are worthless if the souls who steer them are made of clay. That is why I say: the production of souls is more important than that of tanks …

Writers must not sit still, they must be familiar with the ways of life in their own country. Man is reshaped by life itself, and those of you here may assist in reshaping his soul. That is what is important, the production of human souls. And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, to the engineers of human souls.”

One of the first of the major Soviet canal building projects was the Belomor canal which connected Leningrad to the White Sea. The Belomor Canal was built in 18 months by conscript labour from the gulags, many of whom died in the process.  While it was being built Gorky assembled a group of 120 writers to visit Belomor and produce an instant narrative history of socialism. “If workers can pour concrete in brigades, why can’t brigades of writers produce a collective book?” The Encyclopaedia Britannica described Soviet literature as reaching a ‘moral nadir’ with the publication of Belomor.

Konstantin Paustovsky was a botanist and author needing to rebuild bridges with the Soviet regime in the 1930’s after his early writings were not deemed sufficiently pro Soviet to be approved for publication. He visited the Caspian Sea region and crafted a suitably proletarian tale about the conquest of nature by the workers at Kara Bogaz where salts and minerals were harvested from the evaporating salt pans and processed at a chemical plant. This was a significant industrial success in the early industrialisation of the USSR and was closely watched by the planners in Moscow. Paustovsky’s book was published in 1933 and became a popular hit, and was made into a film two years later. Timing is everything: even as the film was being made in 1935 salt was slowing the machinery and production was declining. The level of the Caspian was dropping, partly as a result of dam construction and irrigation works on the Volga, and the water entering Kara Bogaz was falling, lowering chemical production even further. By 1938 the manager of the chemical works, once a hero, was executed for Trotskyite industrial sabotage.

Paustovsky had a brush with mortality in the late 30’s when he co-wrote a biography of a General just prior to his being purged. He and his wife left Moscow until the storm blew over. After this, he became more cautious in his writing while Stalin was alive. In his last years in the mid 1960’s he became a mild dissident, pushing for greater literary freedoms.

Andrey Platonov could not write according to the dictates of the regime and in the approved socialist realist style. He was a dissident hydraulic engineer who was concerned with the impact of large scale projects on people and the environment. Many of his works remained unpublished until well after Stalin’s death. His novella, Epifan Locks, was about Peter the Great’s failed attempt to construct a canal between the Don and the Volga, enabling a link between the Black and Caspian Seas. Similarly, his novel Soul took the side of the local people against the engineers building dams in the Aral Sea region. Platonov remained obscure up until his early death in 1951, but his novel The Pit has since been recognised as a masterful satire of the early Soviet era. Platonov died relatively young as a result of his son being persecuted in the 1930’s and sent to the gulags where he contracted TB, which he then passed on to his father.

The Stalin era effectively silenced Soviet writers and the brief late 50’s, early 60’s thaw (Ivan Denisovich) was soon shut down again once Krushchev was deposed.  Many Soviet writers retreated into personal and nature concerns far from Moscow on the basis that little was to be gained from opposing the Soviet approved reality. Ironically, the environmental concerns of these writers proved pivotal in mobilising opposition to the last grand hydraulic scheme of the Soviets; turning the waters flowing north back to the Aral and Caspian Seas and the ‘Stans.

The first step in these plans was to shut off Kara Bogaz from the Caspian Sea, thus slowing or stopping the decline in sea levels. This took place in 1980 and within two years Kara Bogaz had evaporated and vanished from satellite photos. The salts from the saltpans then blew across the Ukrainian and Russian croplands. Fortunately, the Soviets were so bankrupt by then that they could not proceed with the rest of the project. The connection with the Caspian Sea was re-opened by the Turkmenistani dictator Turkmenbashi shortly after independence.

Westerman shows that the environmental debacles of the Aral Sea region, the 1150k Lenin Canal and the cotton growing monocultures forced upon Turkmenistan and its neighbours were easily predictable but were accepted as collateral damage in the name of the greater Soviet industrialisation project.

This book is a sobering account of the triumph of ideology over science and the use of censorship to enforce conformity with the objectives of the state. And, in the end, it demonstrates that neither policy is very effective in the long run, although they can do great damage to people and places subject to the exercise of power in the cause of bad ends.

The good people at http://www.sovlit.net/ have vast amounts of information about Soviet era literature – the good, the bad and the knowingly complicit, and the website is well worth a look.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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