Stalin's Railroad by Matthew Payne

Newly-tenured Associate Professor Matt Payne here presents the subject of his book, Stalin’s Railroad: Turksib and the Building of Socialism, which is in press at Pittsburgh University Press.

Turksib tells the story of how tens of thousands came to the empty Kazakh steppe, not just to build a railroad but to build a completely new civilization, to build socialism. During the Soviet Union’s radical and violent leap into socialist modernity, the First Five-Year Plan, Moscow set out to transform the Kazakh steppes with the construction of one its great hero “shock projects,” the Thurkestano-Siberian Railroad (Turksib).

Far from its industrial heartland, Soviet civilization confronted a radically different “other” as the object of its social engineering, the nomadic Kazakhs. Acting as a “forge of the native proletariat,” the Turksib served as a powerful agent to recast Kazakh identity. But it did much more. Like the other major construction projects of the era, the Turksib acted as a grandiose and all-encompassing engine of modernity that shifted class identities, authority structures and the meaning of work itself. But this tremendous social change did not arise from the will of the regime alone. Workers and managers, politicians and peasants, tribesmen and party activists acted to shape and resist the newly emergent industrial order.

This monograph uses recently opened archives, newly available periodicals, and secondary sources to investigate one of the “heroic” constructions of Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. Put simply, it is a grass-roots social history of one of the more momentous events of the century, the Soviet drive to industrialize. Soviet social identities, ethnicity, industrial authority, and politics of production were fundamentally recast. In a period of little more than three years, the regime transformed Soviet industrial culture beyond recognition.

Unfortunately, these profound transformations have been studied mostly from the perspective of the Communist rulers. Although my study does not dismiss the realm of high politics, it concentrates on how policies and tactics evolved on the ground. During its construction, the Turksib was wracked by a large-scale strike, violent witch-hunts of class enemies, destructive ethnic pogroms, tremendous hardships and unexpected achievements. Whether told from the vantage point of a Communist activist hunting down anti-Soviet tribesmen from horseback, of a peasant navvy bewildered by the attack on his ancient traditions, or of a highly educated but “class alien” engineer attempting to negotiate the treacherous sands of Soviet loyalty, the story of the Turksib cannot be told from above alone.

My study should be of value to anyone who wants to understand how the Soviet state acted in the sphere most important to it—industrial modernization.