Chelyabinsk. View of the street from the beginning of the 20th century.

Reviews The Urals. From tractor manufacturing city to armorer’s workshop

+ Lennart Samuelson Tankograd. Den ryska hemmafrontens dolda historia 1917–1953 [Tankograd: The Secret History of the Russian Home Front, 1917–1953]. Stockholm: SNS Publisher 2007. 368 pp., illustrated.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 43-44, Vol I:I, 2008
Published on on February 16, 2010

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This book is about the city of Chelyabinsk in the southern Urals, and the region surrounding it, which became the center of Soviet tractor manufacturing, and which, later, during World War  II, was transformed into a giant armaments workshop where the bulk of Red Army tank production took place. After the war, the region was also where most of the development of Soviet nuclear weapons took place.

This is the story of how an agricultu-rally dominated and, in many respects, backwards country rapidly industrialized, and how the economy was militarized. It can reasonably be said that the military-industrial capacity that was rapidly built up in the Ural region, which would have been too distant for a German attack to be able to reach, is one significant explanation for the Soviet victory in the war. Germany under-estimated the military-industrial potential that the Soviet Union managed to build up in the East in a relatively short time.

Author Lennart Samuelson, who works at the Stockholm Institute of Transition, Ecoconomics and East European Economies (SITE) at the Stockholm School of Economics, is a prominent expert on the Soviet defense industry and, in a number of previous works, including Röd koloss på larvfötter. Rysslands ekonomi i skuggan av 1900-talskrigen (1999) [Red Colossus on Caterpillar Treads: Russia’s Economy in the Shadow of the Wars of the 20th Century], has delved into questions concerning the military-industrial mobilization.

During the war, Chelyabinsk became known in popular parlance as ”Tankograd” — hence the title of the book. The depiction of how Chelyabinsk emerged as a major arms production center is also a history of Soviet society in general, with a primary emphasis on the role that the home front played in the war effort.

Samuelson has had access to material in both the central and local archives not previously available to researchers. (For a long time, Chelyabinsk was closed to foreigners.) Samuelson can thus identify and chart Soviet defense planning, and demonstrate how civilian production from the very start was organized so that it could quickly be adapted to wartime needs. In the case at hand, we have an account of how the plant for the manufacture of caterpillar tractors for agricultural use is rapidly transformed into a giant tank factory where, based on the experience the army had on various fronts, new tank types can constantly be developed. For example, many lessons were learned from the experiences of the Winter War against Finland.

Chelyabinsk, which during the 19th century was a small, insignificant city in the Russian Empire, began to become more important with the Trans-Siberian railway, the western branch of which, from Chelyabinsk to Kurgan and Omsk, was completed in 1894. The city became an important gateway to Siberia. It was only after violent conflicts that the Bolsheviks became established in the southern Urals, which for a long time — much like Siberia — had been controlled by the White Army. Kolchak’s troops suffered a decisive defeat in the battle of Chelyabinsk in the late summer of 1919, which would be the bloodiest and most extensive on the eastern front of the civil war. Peasant revolts and a major famine occurred in the region at the beginning of the 1920s.
The construction of the tractor factory in Chelyabinsk began in the late 1920s with an eye towards producing 40,000 tractors per year. The technology was obtained primarily from the U.S. The first tractor was a copy of the American Caterpillar.

Starting in the mid-1930s, the Soviet leadership regarded another great war in Europe as inevitable. Although the principal aim was to concentrate the weapons manufacturing in areas far away from the western part of the country, because of a lack of investment capital, a large part of the defense industry ended up being built up where it was cheaper, that is, in European Russia and the Ukraine. This meant that, when the war came, a great many industries quickly had to be evacuated. Over 700 businesses were moved to the Urals.

During the conversion of the tractor factory in Chelyabinsk into a tank and ammunitions factory, equipment and trained technical staff from companies in Leningrad and Kharkov were utilized. During the war, the total work force grew to 50,000. During the years 1941–1945, the Soviet Union produced a total of some 100,000 tanks and mobile artillery pieces.

Policy makers didn’t care about developing infrastructure at the pace that the rapid expansion required. Samuelson devotes considerable attention to an analysis of living conditions in Chelyabinsk. The lack of food and housing was legion. A significant portion of the workers lived in dug-outs.

Stalin’s repression also affected Chelyabinsk. On several occasions, the entire political and economic leadership was arrested. Presentations of the life stories of individuals within the so-called nomenklatura offer interesting insights into how members of the local elite, both the political and technical elite, were recruited, trained — and in many cases weeded out. Samuelson, however, sees a certain rationality in the seemingly arbitrary acts of persecution. In many cases it was a matter of ”tightening up the industry with more careful technological discipline as a benchmark”.

Samuelson by no means belittles all the human sacrifices, but, in general, he believes that previous research (by Conquest and others) gives an exaggerated picture of the scale of the terror. In addition, he believes that the development of anti-tank weapons and artillery suffered less under the repression than, for example, aircraft manufacturing did.

The role that forced labor has played in Soviet industrialization has been a contentious issue in academic research. According to Samuelson, new archival research shows that the role of forced labor has been exaggerated. His argument is that the gulags accounted for only a few percent of Soviet industrial production. That is not a convincing argument. For an assessment of the entire significance of forced labor, one should take into account the central role prison labor played in the extraction of a number of metals that were important in industrialization (work often done in remote, inhospitable regions), in the building of the infrastructure (such as channels), and in the utilization of natural resources as an important means of increasing the necessary foreign exchange earnings. One example is the exploitation of forest resources in Soviet Karelia and northern Russia, which has recently been studied in a monograph by the Finnish historian Sari Autio-Sarasmo.

The study concludes with an overview of how historical memory is formed in today’s Chelyabinsk. So much secretiveness, so many historical falsifications, and so many taboo issues have existed regarding the history of the Chelyabinsk region that this contribution is welcome and justified. One can only hope that the readiness to come to terms with one’s history evidenced by the efforts of the inhabitants of the region might also exist in official Russia.

This is an impressive book in many respects. It is packed with facts and rich in documentation. The partly unique illustrations deserve special mention. Samuelson’s knowledge of previous research and the way he makes use of it is exemplary. This book is a welcome example of a study that sheds light on the interplay between center and periphery in the Soviet empire. ≈

+ Lennart Samuelson Tankograd. Den ryska hemmafrontens dolda historia 1917–1953 [Tankograd: The Secret History of the Russian Home Front, 1917–1953]. Stockholm: SNS Publisher 2007. 368 pp., illustrated.