Professor's book examines late Soviet society

By Curt Yeomans


Former Soviet Union Premier Leonid Brezhnev's portrait hangs over two rows of books - many of which are about Russia - in the office of Clayton State University History Professor Christopher Ward.

Tucked away in a corner of the small office hangs a banner with a large red star and two gold hammers in the center, and phases that are written in Russian. The banner is a commemorative piece that was handed out in 1984, during the driving of a gold spike to commemorate the "completion" of the former Soviet Union's Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway, Ward says.

The BAM was a public-works project started in the Soviet Union in 1974, under Brezhnev's leadership, according to the history professor.

But the banner contains a lie - a piece of misleading Soviet propaganda - because construction on the railway continued beyond 1984, and it was not truly completed until 2003, Ward says.

"Soviet history is filled with big projects designed to boost national morale," he says. "World War II was one of those big projects, but by the 1970's, it was 30 years in the past. It was stuff for history books. A whole generation had grown up without knowing what World War II was like. The BAM was supposed to be a new project that would motivate young people to feel pride in their county.

"Instead, it killed what pride was left," Ward says.

Ward, who has a doctoral degree in Russian history from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and teaches a course on the subject at Clayton State, spent 13 years researching and writing a book on the railway. The book, entitled "Brezhnev's Folly: The Building of BAM and Late Soviet Socialism," was published last month by the University of Pittsburgh Press. It is available through online book sellers, such as Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

Ward says his interest in Russian history grew out of fear, induced when he was a 10-year-old in 1983, and watching the television movie "The Day After," which depicted a fictional nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He says that for people who grew up in the 1970's, "Brezhnev represented the Soviet Union," and that Russia was "the evil empire."

That ignited an interest in the Soviet Union that grew as Ward got older. He says he lived in Russia, off-and-on, for most of a two-year period that lasted from 1998 to 2000, while he did research on the BAM.

In the book, he says, he makes a case that the events surrounding the building of the BAM, which was going to be a back-up rail line, in case the People's Republic of China invaded the Soviet Union and seized control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, represented the failings of the later period of Soviet history.

In the book, he looks at the impact of national prejudices. There were 180 nationalities in the Soviet Union, he says. Different ethnic groups were brought together to build the railway. Women were separated from men and given easier jobs, as the project cut a path through what was considered "virgin territory," at a time when a burgeoning environmental movement was developing in the Soviet Union.

Over the actual 29 years that it took to build the railway, approximately 500,000 people labored in its construction, he says. It is hard to determine the exact cost of the project in U.S. dollars, because of frequent changes in the exchange rate for roubles and dollars. He says that the cost equaled roughly one percent of Russia's gross domestic product for every year it was under construction.

Wards also examines how a simultaneous renovation of the Trans-Siberian Railroad "made BAM obsolete before it was even finished." Shifting ground meant some sections of the tracks were bending in a way that made then look like a roller coaster.

"It [the railway project] is a way of seeing all the fault lines of the late Soviet era, in a small confined area," Ward says.

"In hindsight, it's easy to say, 'Didn't they see this coming,' but people really believed in this project," he says. "In talking to people on visits over there, I found that a lot of them believed in the railway - they just thought it was poorly planned."