We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Brezhnev's Folly

The Building of BAM and Late Soviet Socialism

Christopher J. Ward

Publication Year: 2009

Heralded by Soviet propaganda as the “Path to the Future,” the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) represented the hopes and dreams of Brezhnev and the Communist Party elite. Begun in 1974, and spanning approximately 2,000 miles after twenty-nine years of construction, the BAM project was intended to showcase the national unity, determination, skill, technology, and industrial might that Soviet socialism claimed to embody. More pragmatically, the Soviet leadership envisioned the BAM railway as a trade route to the Pacific, where markets for Soviet timber and petroleum would open up, and as an engine for the development of Siberia. Despite these aspirations and the massive commitment of economic resources on its behalf, BAM proved to be a boondoggle-a symbol of late communism's dysfunctionality-and a cruel joke to many ordinary Soviet citizens. In reality, BAM was woefully bereft of quality materials and construction, and victimized by poor planning and an inferior workforce. Today, the railway is fully complete, but remains a symbol of the profligate spending and inefficiency that characterized the Brezhnev years. Christopher J. Ward provides a groundbreaking social history of the BAM railway project. He examines the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of workers from the diverse republics of the USSR and other socialist countries, and his extensive archival research and interviews with numerous project workers provide an inside look at the daily life of the BAM workforce. We see firsthand the disorganization, empty promises, dire living and working conditions, environmental damage, and acts of crime, segregation, and discrimination that constituted daily life during the project's construction. Thus, perhaps, we also see the final irony of BAM: that the most lasting legacy of this misguided effort to build Soviet socialism is to shed historical light on the profound ills afflicting a society in terminal decline.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press


pdf iconDownload PDF (76.5 KB)
pp. 6

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (98.2 KB)
pp. 8-9

My interest in the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) dates back to 1988, when I by chance encountered a videocassette copy of director Mikhail Pavlov’s 1987 documentary film...

List of Acronyms and Terms

pdf iconDownload PDF (470.7 KB)
pp. 10-15

read more

1. Introduction: The Project of the Century

pdf iconDownload PDF (172.0 KB)
pp. 16-26

Within only two decades, the assessment of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) and its effects on the Soviet Union transformed radically. In 1974, Leonid Brezhnev addressed the Seventeenth Komsomol Congress: “The Baikal-Amur Railway will...

read more

2. Prometheanism versus Conservationism on the Railway

pdf iconDownload PDF (373.0 KB)
pp. 27-56

An elaborate, officially generated propaganda apparatus heralded the construction of the BAM Railway as the vanguard of Soviet Prometheanism. This ideology promoted the notion that humankind...

read more

3. Crime and Corruption in BAM Society

pdf iconDownload PDF (346.6 KB)
pp. 57-83

As the BAM project progressed, the attitudes of BAMer youth became increasingly restive as their attention turned away from the building of a Communist society to the more practical goal of improving their ownmaterial status. As one...

read more

4. Working Alone: Women on the Railway

pdf iconDownload PDF (362.9 KB)
pp. 84-112

Through its official propaganda channels, the Soviet government emphasized the equal ability and dedication of male and female BAMers in all aspects of the railway’s construction. The Soviet Union was still concerned with solving the long-debated...

read more

5. National Differentiation and Marginalization on the Railway

pdf iconDownload PDF (366.4 KB)
pp. 113-140

Among the BAMer representatives of the USSR’s multiple nationalities along the railway project, there were many tensions as well as constructive relationships. Soviet officialdom was keenly...

read more

6. The Rails of Fraternal Cooperation: BAMers Abroad and Foreigners at Home

pdf iconDownload PDF (301.3 KB)
pp. 141-165

Another impetus behind BAM construction and its attendant propaganda campaign was the need to impress the Soviet Union’s allies and enemies, particularly the People’s Republic of China, with the...

read more

7. Conclusion: Brezhnev’s Folly in Perspective

pdf iconDownload PDF (120.4 KB)
pp. 166-171

Colonel-General G.I. Kogatko, the former head of BAM Zone Military Forces, wrote: “The history of BAM is not only one of a heroic accomplishment as many people have already written and said,...


pdf iconDownload PDF (310.0 KB)
pp. 172-195

Selected Bibliography

pdf iconDownload PDF (312.9 KB)
pp. 196-221


pdf iconDownload PDF (183.5 KB)
pp. 222-233

Photo Insert

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.5 MB)
pp. 235-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780822971214
E-ISBN-10: 0822971216
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822961383
Print-ISBN-10: 0822961385

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 21 b&w Illustrations
Publication Year: 2009