My Four Years in Russia

J. K. CALDER July 15 1933

My Four Years in Russia

J. K. CALDER July 15 1933

My Four Years in Russia



Five years ago the Russian Soviet Government sent a commission to the United States to find an engineer capable of taking charge of the constructional end of their five year plan, a programme involving an expenditure of some $25,000.000,000. They selected J. K. Colder, a Canadian born at Ingersoll, Ontario, who still travels on a British passport, and who was at that time chief construction engineer for the Bryant and Detwiler Company. He had erected the Ford Company's River Rouge plant.

Colder went to Russia in 1929. He came out in May of this year. In four years he supervised construction of the Stalingrad tractor plant om the Volga; the Cheliabinsk tractor plant in the Ural mountains; the Magnitogorsk steel mills and blast furnaces the latter the secmid largest in the world; the Saida bridge and structural iron fabricating plant; the Ixtke Bal hash copper smelter in Central Asia near the Tien Shan mountains; the Chimkent lead smelter, and variims smaller jobs in the teildernesses.

He has had as many as 18.000 men. from all parts of Russia, under him. He has travelled front end to end of a country (Kcupying one-sixth of the earth’s surface. He has seen more óf conditions under Soviet rule than probably any other foreigner. "Maclean’s” presents herewith the first of two articles by Mr. Colder dealing with conditions in Russia as he found them.

A WEEK or two ago the editor of Maclean's handed me a cabled dispatch from Moscow to the New York Times. It announced that the biggest tractor plant in the world was officially opened on June 1. at Cheliabinsk, in the Ural Mountains, and that it was designed to produce 40,000 sixty-horsepower caterpillar tractors a year.

“You built the plant,” he said. “How

about it?”

I told him that I believed it to be a positive fact that this plant was not ready to .ommence operations on that date; that, like all similar announcements regarding new projects, made for the effect they will have on public opinion, a time is set for the opening of a plant, and. regardless of why, where or when, something has got to happen on that date.

During my four years work in Russia. I noticed that the state planning department allows altogether too little time to get the plants in operation. At the same time, in many cases, completion schedules would compare favorably with schedules in this country when one takes into consideration the vast difference in conditions. Here we have qualified labor, plenty of material, and everything that is necessary for the starting of a plant of this kind. Russia never was an industrial country. They had very few plants of any size. They embarked on the most ambitious industrial programme in the history of the world with practically no qualified labor, and no equipment that was adaptable.

Take, for instance, Magnitogorsk. This project calls for blast furnaces, open hearths, rolling mills, etc. W;hen completed it will be the second largest steel plant in the world. It is now four years since the project was started, and up to date I am advised that only two of the scheduled eight or ten blast furnaces have been put in _ _

operation. The open hearths and rolling mills are not completed and won’t be for some time.

Not a Trade Name


realize the immense amount of work that the Russians have completed in the past five years, even with the little they have had to work with, you could not help but say that it is nothing short of marvellous. But, on the other hand, so

much has been written and told about Russia, that it is very difficult for anyone to understand exactly what has been going on. Many tourists and writers visit Russia for a stay of three to five weeks and on their return attempt to give an idea of what is transpiring throughout the country. Many of these articles are ridiculous. The writers in most cases visit the larger cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov and Stalingrad. They base their opinions on what they have seen in these centres, forgetting that Russia is a large country; that it takes eleven days by the best trains to cross from the eastern to the western borders. The trouble with most writers is that they will not endure the hardships of travel, lack of food, etc., to make a general survey of the country.

A great deal has been written condemning the Government for not allowing writers in certain sections of the country. I absolutely agree with the Government in this policy. First, because railroad transportation is not what foreigners are used to in their own countries. Second, it is necessary in a great many cases to carry your own food and bedding. I have known foreign writers to get into sections off the beaten path and become a source of trouble not only to the Government but also to mvself.

Another point to be considered is that there are 147 different tongues spoken, and it is impossible to find an interpreter who can understand all of these languages.

I gather that a great many people are under the impression that by dealing with Russia we are hastening our own downfall industrially. My personal opinion is that Russia will not be a factor in world trade for the next twenty-five years and possibly longer. So much has been written about what they have accomplished in the first five year plan that it has thrown more or less of a scare into the outside world. I believe that I am safe in saying that if the first five year plan and the three or four following five year plans were accomplished one hundred per cent. Russia would even then not be able to supply her own needs.

Poor Workmanship

THE FIRST five year plan was devoted almost entirely to the heavy industries, including steel mills, open hearths, blast furnaces, cement mills, chemical plants, heavy machinery, the development of coal mines shipbuilding, truck and automobile plants, and other plants of this description. I understand that on the second live year plan

they will not push the heavy industries but will pay more attention to the light ones. They will try to give the people some of the comforts to which they are entitled, paying particular attention to factories for the manufacture of wearing apparel and general household supplies. In the heavy industries, outside of a few plants, the new five year plan will lx taken up principally with the proving of the quality of their work, which up to this time lias not been an important factor.

There are many reasons for the |xx>r quality of workmanship. First is that they have not sufficient trained mechanics. Most of the labor being used is drawn from the peasant class. Many of these workers have never seen a machine of any sort before. The results are bad workmanship and a great deal of material spoiled.

In our plants engaged in mass production a very short time is required to train operators because our machines and systems are built foolproof and in most cases are automatic. In Russia their machines are from different countries, principally from England. Italy and Germany. These machines are not built as are ours for one operation, but are universal machines which require a trained mechanic to operate them. I have talked with some of the Red directors

regarding the poor quality of workmanship and the large amount of scrap, and their argument is that this is the price they must pay for knowledge.

It is not only the fault of the workers but in many cases that of the men in charge of the work. The Russian engineer, according to his theory, is not supposed to work. I have had them tell me that they were there to give orders and look. Their assistants were the ones responsible for the actual work. I have

found in a great many cases that the engineer or his assistants do not understand the work. In the matter of making a refX)rt or drawing up a schedule for a five year plan the Russian engineer cannot be commended. A report that our engineers would condense to one sheet the Russian engineer would run out to ten.

I recall one instance that happened at Magnitogorsk during the erection of the blast furnaces there. I was asked by the party for a report on general conditions, covering percentage of material received, percentage of material erected, completion date. etc. I turned this work over to my assistant four days before this meeting was to take place. The day before the meeting I asked for the report so that I might check it. My assistant advised me that he would not finish it until the following morning, which was the day of the meeting. I asked for the work that he had completed and he handed me fourteen sheets. I became so disgusted that I went out. got my own information and completed the re|x>rt in five hours with only two pages. This is just one example of the way the Russians work.

How Not to Drive Rivets

I HAVE KNOWN of cases where the overhead would run I as high as forty ixr cent. In other words, it cost within ten ix r cent as much for unproductive labor as for productive labor. This fact seems to run all through the Soviet industrial programme. Their idea is to get as many men on the job as they possibly can. then they think the job is bound to go. In most cases they would be much better off with half the force, then they would not lx in one another’s way. In the past two years they have started hundreds of trade schools in all parts of the country, taking the young communists after finishing school at the age of sixteen and starting them in to learn different trades. This has been a very difficult task for them, due to the shortage of competent instructors. I recall one instance on a large steel erection job where they had turned sixty students over to me. all of them supposed to be first-class rivetters. At the end of the first day's work I had our inspector test the rivets. He found eighty-two per cent loose and they had to be cut out. I talked this over with their instructor and asked him where he had

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ever learned to drive rivets. He informed me that he was a carpenter and had never driven rivets in his life. He added that it was not necessary for him to drive rivets for he had an American handbook which explained it in detail. This is just another instance of the unpracticability of the Russian.

Since the starting of the five year plan the Soviets have made many changes. They have found out that some of their ideas were not practical and it was impossible to get the men to work. At one time every worker was supposed to get the same rate per day.

I made a very strong fight against this, as I found it impossible to pay a mechanic the same wages a common laborer received. There was a great deal of opposition, but finally the change was made on orders from the Central Executive Committee.

Now everything is based on a piece-rate system, but I must confess that after four years in Russia I can’t explain the working of this system, and I defy the Russians or any one else to explain it. I do know that it takes tons and tons of paper, a large office force and a young revolution every pay day — that is, when there is a pay day. The first and the fifteenth of each month are supposed to be such days, but on some of the contracts that I have been on, three months have passed between one pay day and the next. This goes to show that the Russians are the most patient people in the world.

Lack of Equipment

HTHE QUESTION has been asked me I many times why is it so difficult to organize a construction job in Russia. Most of the trouble is due to an absolute lack of equipment. On one large job, running into many millions of dollars, we did not even have a concrete mixer. Heavy construction machinery such as steam shovels, cranes for the erection of steel, etc., was something to dream about but not to possess in sufficient quantities to be of much use. Small tools such as the ones used on all construction jobs - saws, hammers, etc.—were something that quite often had to be made right there on the job before any work could be done. Foreign engineers often would draw the design for a claw-toothed hammer, and then the small hand-operated foundry and forge would attempt to make something along this order. The resulting tools were often far from the original idea, but they had to be used. Very often, on the specifications for equipment, English or American machines would be specified and German machines would be substituted. In many cases this equipment was absolutely useless, for it could not be assembled or operated by Russian workmen.

The next thing to look for was material to use in the construction of the job. Such things as brick, clay, sand, gravel, limestone, water, etc., must all lx? found within or close around the site for the new job. The trouble really begins here, for limekilns, brick plants, stone quarries all have to be constructed and put into operation before any actual work can lx? done on the job. There is no such thing as sending in an order to a certain company for the various materials needed. Almost everything has to be produced right there on the job itself.

As for the labor, all that one gets are peasants who have to be instructed from the ground up. Each and every one has to be taught the task that he has to perform.

It is a hard job to break the Russian away from the old German design. Although in the past couple of years they have made some attempts to follow English and American ideas, for the most part the more fancy and complicated a design is the better they are satisfied. They do not take into consideration the cost or the unskilled labor which has to be used to complete the work they draw up. I once asked a Russian designer why he made such expensive drawings, and he informed me that if he submitted such a drawing as we made in Canada or in the

States his chief would either lire him or force him to make a new set of drawings in his own time. A> he explained to me, the drawing must be beautiful regardless of its practicability.

Bad Food Conditions

THEN, food conditions have been very bad for the past year. I believe the impression in Europe, as well as in this country and in the United States, is that it is due more or less to crop failure. In the Ukraine, which is the granary of Russia, last year the farmers absolutely refused to work. The reason they gave was that the Government the previous year had taken all their grain for export, leaving them without enough for their own requirements. Having this in mind, the farmers decided that the Government would do the same thing in 1932. The result was that they did not put the crops in, hence there was a shortage of grain. I have been told by prominent Russians that the leaders of this movement have been shot or banished to Siberia and Kazakstan.

The Government this year, in order to make sure that the same thing won’t happen again, has sent leaders of the party and G. P. U. to the Ukraine to supervise the seeding on the State and collective farms.

Except in one area which I shall describe in my next article, I have never heard of many actual deaths from starvation, but I do know that the people have little or nothing to eat. The Russians can get along on less real food and do more hard work on it than any other people that I have ever seen. Their main articles of diet in most cases are black bread, cabbage soup and tea. On rare occasions fish or meat might be included. Their black bread is like nothing else in the world, for I believe one could live on it entirely.

In the cities the food situation is not quite as bad, though even there the average Russian finds it very difficult to get enough to eat. The prices are so high that his income will not cover the cost of what food there is to be had. Eggs are selling in Moscow at the rate of ten eggs for fifteen rubles. Meat costs forty rubles a kilogram. Butter is impossible to get except in very rare cases. All other foods are proportionately high. In the past year the Government has opened Torgsin stores in practically all the large cities. Food can be bought at these stores for foreign currency only. This has been a godsend to many of the Russian people. Of course they are not supposed to have foreign currency; in fact it is not well for them to be caught with it in their possession. To show' how afraid the Russian |)eople are of being caught carrying foreign currency, the day before I left Moscow I was {»ying a small bill and had run out of Russian money. 1 offered the Russian $1.25 in United States money. He refused to take it and told me that if I would buy $1.25 worth of Torgsin bonds he would accept them.

Torgsin bonds are sold for foreign currency only and can be bought through any of the Russian agencies in practically every country. At the present time the Government is getting a good many million dollars every year out of selling these bonds to friends and relatives of the Russian people. When such a person purchases some of these bonds for a Russian, the latter can then take them to the Torgsin stores and redeem them for food. This is just another method that the Russians are using to get foreign money for what they sell, for these stores are of course Russian and any money they get is just so much profit. There are some foreign goods in these stores, but these have already been paid for with goods shipped out of Russia.

Editor's Note: In his next article Mr. Colder will tell of his experiences in Kazakstan, where typhus and starvation in one year caused 6,000 deaths among 15,000 work people. He will also deal with the Soviet’s transportation problems.