Saturday, April 01, 2006

American Engineer in Stalin's Russia

As an American Engineer (with an education in Civil Engineering) I was very interested in reading An American Engineer in Stalin's Russia, The Memoirs of Zara Witkin, 1932–1934. So this is part of what I did online last night, instead of sleeping. The memoir tells the story of a young Zara Witkin, a socialist, an idealist, and a civil engineer. Witkin was a California-born Jew of Russian heritage (his surname is an Americanized form of the Russian Utkin). Something of a engineering genius, Witkin began attended the University of California in 1917, at the ripe old age of sixteen. He graduated with honors from the College of Civil Engineering at the age of twenty and was elected valedictorian of his class.

Due at least in part to his Russian heritage, Witkin had early career interest in the Soviet Union, having addressed a civil engineering society meeting regarding The Fifteen Year Plan which contained the first, second, and third 5-Year Plan. Through these meetings, he is introduced to the manager of Amtorg Trading Corporation, commercial agents
in the United States of the principal trusts, syndicates, trading agencies and other economic organizations of the U.S.S.R. Amtorg represents U.S.S.R. heavy industry; during 1927-28 Amtorg made purchases in the United States of industrial equipment, agricultural machinery, non-ferrous metals, etc., for shipment to the Soviet Union, to the value of $33,100,000 and sold Soviet products worth over $12,000,000. Young Witkin soon learns that he may be on the shopping list also.
Some days later, this official requested me to act as technical consultant to Amtorg. In this capacity I assisted in the selection of qualified construction engineers for the Moscow subway and in the repackaging and distribution of Soviet candy and caviar, which were imported in bulk. I also arranged for the use of some Soviet granite in our building industry. Finally, I prepared a comprehensive program for the construction of cold-storage warehouses throughout the U.S.S.R. The Amtorg manager frequently discussed with me the enormous potentialities of applying in the U.S.S.R. methods of pre-fabricated housing which our organization had developed.
So many of my favorite (Metro, konfeti, ikra) and least favorite (polished granite stairs and pre-fabricated Soviet apartment buildings) Russian things in one brief paragraph - the mind boggles!

As unlikely as it may sound, in 1929 Zara Witkin fell in love with the Russian actress Emma Tsesarskaya when he saw her on screen in Village of Sin. His idealized desire for Tsesarskaya, combined with disillusionment with the capitalist failure in the USA during the Great Depression, leads to Witkin's departure for the USSR.
The vast panorama of Soviet engineering possibilities unfolded before my eyes. I saw its far-reaching significance. For the first time in history a great nation was rationally remolding itself. The Soviet Union planned to reconstruct human society. A nobler human life was to be developed on a vast new technological foundation.

Engineers were vitally needed. Their creative powers, perverted by the crass exploitation of capitalism, were to be used for the benefit of society. This great call to the socially minded technical brotherhood of the world rang in my soul, a challenge to the best energies of mind and imagination. Never before had such illimitable horizons opened to engineers. Spiritual and social elements of such work would, I felt, surpass any material compensation. My decision was made to participate in it. If it fulfilled my anticipations, I proposed to bring over a staff of the ablest of my technical colleagues, who could make untold contributions to the new life.
Witkin is prone to this sort of self-aggrandizing. No matter what potential he saw in Soviet Russia, he saw even greater potential for himself, and writes in bold terms of this new socialist spirit and his role within it. With increasing boldness, he confronts the bureaucratic process of the Soviet Union, which he finds restraining his path to accomplishments for the Soviet people. His constant reminders to the reader of his altruistic efforts in Soviet Russia sound like hollow extensions of his growing ego. With time however, even a mighty mountain of egotistical energy such as Witkin is worn down to a pebble by the flow of Soviet lethargy and corruption. Faced with repeated plagiarism of his work by Soviet central planners, Witkin finds his role in the implementation of the 5-year plan pushed to the sidelines.
The walls of bureaucracy shutting me off from work grew thicker and more impenetrable with every day. Procrastination, outright lying, indifference and tremulous fear of responsibility blocked industrial progress. The occasional courageous and mentally organized engineer was helpless against these barriers ...

... I wrote several articles for Tekhnika , the technical newspaper issued under the general direction of Bukharin. Borodin arranged an appointment for me with Bukharin and also communicated with the editor of Tekhnika, Bogashevsky.

One afternoon, after work, I brought the articles to the office of the newspaper. Two of Bogashevsky's assistants received me; one a young man, the other a woman in her thirties. The latter was exceptionally courteous and helpful. She avidly accepted the articles. In a few days, she said, as soon as they would complete the translations (some were already in Russian), she would send for me to proof-read them and they would be printed. I went away well satisfied.

Two weeks passed without any call from Tekhnika. I telephoned to the paper. They told me that the lady who had taken the articles was ill at home. I called again in a few days and received the same information. I made a practice of calling every day. In this way a month went by. No one knew what had happened to my articles.

Meanwhile I had prepared ten more. Finally, exasperated, I returned to the R.K.I. I told Clark about these articles and their "disappearance." He immediately telephoned to Tekhnika. A new editor, Tall, had been installed in place of Bogashevsky, who had been ousted. Clark made an appointment with Tall for me.

Tall received me graciously. Our conversation was carried on in French and Russian. He was extremely sorry, he said, that such confusion and delay had occurred in connection with my writings. He took the second group of articles I had written and declared that he would see personally that publication would begin immediately after the May Day holiday.

The holiday came and went. By May the tenth nothing had yet appeared. I telephoned again to inquire. Editor Tall was very apologetic. The articles, he said, would be published at once. I waited several more days. Again I telephoned, and again. Each time he made a different excuse for the delay. Almost another month went by.

One day Tall told me that the articles would not be printed in his paper, but in a construction magazine with whose staff his colleagues would collaborate. I waited another week.

I then telephoned to Tall. Nothing had yet been done. I asked him to return all of my articles. He tried to mollify me and dissuade me from my request. However, I felt there was no hope in his quarter and insisted on getting back my articles. At length, he reluctantly agreed to send them. But they were not sent to me!

Five days later, I went to the office of Tekhnika. I did not wait for the secretary to announce me, but walked into the editorial room. Tall's assistants were caught off guard. I had come at a peculiar moment. Some of the articles were being read for the first time! One assistant told me that Professor Nekrasov, a well-known consultant in construction, had strongly recommended some of my methods described in an article as being applicable throughout Soviet construction.

"Give me all the articles!" I demanded.

The staff scurried around. Tall came in and fluttered about trying to smooth over the situation. He made all sorts of new promises. My secretary quietly urged me to let the articles stay for a few more days. I paid no attention whatsoever to these overtures and did not answer Tall. I waited for the articles, refusing to enter any discussion. Finally, they were assembled and brought to me. I took them and with my secretary left the newspaper office. No one knew that I had arranged for their publication by the Government Technical Book Trust.
The memoir is also notable for other figures that Witkin meets during his time in the USSR. Most infamously, he describes an evening which the Moscow news correspondents were discussing how to get out the story of the Stalin-made Russian famine. To get around Soviet censors, the UP's Eugene Lyons was telephoning the news of the famine to his New York office, but was ordered to stop because the news reports were antagonizing the Kremlin. Witkin was witness when Ralph Barnes, the New York Herald Tribune reporter, turned to the notorious Walter Duranty and asked him what he was going to write. Duranty replied:

Nothing. What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this? Quite unimportant. This is just an incident in the sweeping historical changes here. I think the entire matter is exaggerated.

This was at a time when Ukrainians were dying of starvation at the rate of 25,000 a day. Quite a telling remark (among many others) from the controversial Pulitzer-prize winning Duranty.

Witkin eventually meets the object of his more carnal desires, his "Dark Goddess" Emma Tsesarskaya (Эмма Цесарская) as well. He embarks on a romance with her, despite their lack of a common tongue - he begins to teach her English and she teaches him Russian. In the end, the love affair is doomed to failure. In typical fashion, Witkin blames Soviet authorities for interfering with his love affair with Tsesarskaya. In other works, Tsesarskaya herself says she simply fell in love with another, more interesting man.

Witkin's memoir remains a timely and interesting read even today, despite the author's flaws. It is perhaps most interesting for the continued themes in post-Soviet Russia - themes which began at least as early as 1930's Stalinist Russia.


Further Resources:

Stalin's Russia
Woman of Character (Девушка с характером) 1939 with Emma Tsesarskaya
Emma Tsesarskaya Filmography




Zara Witkin Partial Bibliography
  • Special Structural Features of San Francisco Theater. Engineering News-Record , 1 February 1923.
  • Efficient Lumber Handling on Los Angeles Building Construction. Engineering News-Record , 24 July 1924.
  • Economic Study of Plant Layout for Building Construction. Engineering News-Record , 17 June 1926.
  • Worth-While Construction Wrinkles on a Building Job. Engineering News-Record , 21 July 1927.
  • Deep Foundation Pit in Earth Dug on a Novel Plan. Engineering News-Record , 27 October 1927.
  • Bad Building Habits (letter to the editor). Engineering News-Record , 13 September 1928.
  • Falsework for Construction of 104-Ft. Dome. Engineering News-Record , 15 August 1929.
  • Efficient Concrete Plants on Two Building Jobs. Engineering News-Record , 16 January 1930.
  • Tests of Concrete (letter to the editor). Engineering News-Record , 1 May 1930.
  • Printsipy i metody upravleniia stroitel'nymi rabotami (The Principles and Methods of Construction Management). Amerikanskaia tekhnika i promyshlennost' 8 (1932).
  • Only after Long and Persistent Efforts Were This Engineer's Proposals Accepted. Moscow Daily News , 15 September 1932.
  • U.S. Consulting Engineer Describes Bureaucracy. Moscow Daily News , 15 November 1932.
  • Engineer Relates Detailed Story of Lack of Official Responsibility. Moscow Daily News , 16 November 1932.
  • Engineering Analysis of Five-Year Plans for Russian Rehabilitation. Engineering News-Record , 9, 16, 30 August 1934.
  • The Home of the Future: What Will it Look Like? How Will It Be Built? How Much Will It Cost? California Monthly , October 1934.
  • Famous Engineers (letter to the editor). Engineering News-Record , 11 April 1940.
  • Thin-Shell Dome (letter to the editor). Engineering News-Record , 4 July 1940.

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