In painting the communist era, it would be tempting to change the dominant color from red to gray. Large technological projects are a defining feature of Soviet rule, and huge slabs of concrete are among the most persistent post-Soviet relics. They reflect socialist ideals as well a dire reality; and Klaus Gestwa, professor of Russian history at Universität Tübingen, explores these projects in a number of dimensions. He centers his narrative on the two postwar decades, spanning late Stalinism and the early Brezhnev years. The result is a major contribution to the history of the Soviet Union in general, its environmental history, and its history of technology.
Gestwa’s book draws on five case studies, all of them hydrological: the Volga–Don Canal (completed in 1952), the Kuibyshev reservoir and its hydroelectric station (1957), the Volgograd reservoir (1961), the Novosibirsk reservoir (part of a larger Ob River reclamation project that never materialized), and the Bratsk hydroelectric power station, the largest project of its kind worldwide until it was surpassed in size by another Soviet project in 1970. After thumbnail sketches of these five projects and a chapter on the general history of hydrological grand projects, Gestwa proceeds with thematic chapters on politics, the economy, culture, society, and the environment. In so doing, he moves from one place to another, highlighting common problems and thereby avoiding repetition and exhausting chronologies.
Reading the fine print in Gestwa’s book is worthwhile, and this review can only hint at some of these gems. For instance, he suggests that electric dams had a noteworthy tendency to push other goals to the margins. In the Soviet Union, rural electrification remained incomplete until Brezhnev put forward an action program in 1964 (229). Meanwhile, the dust storms of the late 1940s did not discourage Soviet leaders from expanding irrigation. To be [End Page 477] sure, afforestation efforts were part of the response, but they also reflected an unwillingness to tackle the problem at its roots.
One of the book’s most interesting findings—and, I suspect, one that is applicable only to the Soviet Union—is that the “scientific and technical revolution,” proclaimed in the mid-1950s, ended up having unintended, environmentally beneficial results. It created opportunities to discuss environmental problems and nudged the economy toward a bit more moderation in the exploitation of nature (552). Gestwa also asserts that when it came to large technological systems in the Soviet empire, any economic rationale was ultimately secondary to ideological and symbolic considerations. Fittingly, the cultural chapter is the book’s longest. Indeed, in this chapter there is plenty of fodder for historians of all stripes; the topic goes to the heart of Soviet rule and opens a window onto the sclerosis that befell the Soviet Union in its final years. What is more, the book clearly calls for a sequel to study the role of these megaprojects in the regime’s demise. Could one argue that the Soviet Union collapsed, among other things, under the weight of concrete, since the many problems attendant to the grand hydroprojects kept accumulating, taking on ever greater proportions?
Gestwa’s approach has some drawbacks, however, which are highlighted here merely to draw attention to the opportunities that the book opens for future scholars. In particular, it is regrettable that the different groups, in particular the scientists and engineers who were both designers and builders of technological megaprojects as well as a recruiting base for political leaders, never quite come into focus. Gestwa notes a remarkable divergence: on the other side of the iron curtain, the engineer-turned-politician was a rare beast. Yet he makes little out of this finding, instead concluding with remarks about Soviet leaders’ “technological euphoria” (561). How helpful is it to point out that party leaders “acted like drug dealers addicted to progress narratives” (561)? A more sustained treatment of this group of engineer-politicians would have...