Peter Palchinsky, Technocrat

b 1875 Kazan, Russia, d 1929 Moscow

Like Gerald Bull, Peter Palchinsky was an engineer in his fifties who was shot by the secret police. Unlike Bull, Palchinsky was killed for thinking too much about the consequences of his work instead of too little.

Peter and Nina Palchinsky

Here he is with his wife Nina in 1916.

His story was covered up for decades by the Soviets, until it was ferreted out by Loren Graham, an MIT professor specializing in Russian technological history. It was published as "The Ghost of the Executed Engineer - Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union", Harvard University Press, 1993. For Graham, Palchinsky's story epitomizes everything that went wrong with Soviet industrialization.

Palchinsky was born in 1875 in a city on the Volga, Kazan. He studied mining engineering at the prestigious Mining Institute in St. Petersburg. His family was poor, so he worked his way through school in a variety of manual labor jobs. His formative professional experience, though, was his first major assignment out of the school. In 1901 he was instructed to investigate the living conditions of the workers in the coal mines of the Don basin as part of an overall report on why coal production was declining.

He was appalled by what he found. Single workers were housed in barracks with 68 men to a room. Families were crowded into single rooms with four to six families per house. The houses often had dirt floors and no toilet facilities. Small wonder that the workers weren't motivated if this was all that their work brought them.

At first his work was well received, but then the political implications sank in to the czarist ministries. Improving the lot of the miners would require reform up and down the system. Palchinsky was sent on administrative exile to Siberia, where he continued to do good work as a mining consultant. He escaped in 1908, first to the Ukraine, and then to western Europe.

In Europe he worked as a consultant on the design of seaports. To him, a port was more than an arrangement of docks and railways; it was an entire system, including housing, schools, and medical care. He wrote extensively on the ports of Europe and worked on the systems of Amsterdam, London, and Hamburg. He missed Russia, though, and returned in 1913 when he was pardoned by the czarist government. He established a think tank for mining called the Institute of the Surface and Depths of the Earth, and founded a journal.

He worked with the Provisional Government set up after the collapse in 1917, which got him into trouble again. When the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, he was arrested as a collaborator. He was in and out of prison for the next two years, until they finally realized his innocence and his talents. He was allowed to resume control of his Institute, became head of the Russian Technical Society, and consulted on a wide variety of projects.

His honesty continued to get him into trouble, however. He was quite critical of the direction of Soviet industrialization. His main objections were:

  1. Top-down planning was too rigid. No allowance was made for local conditions.
  2. There was too much emphasis on large systems and large results. Although there are economies of scale in factories and mines, it is also possible for small enterprises to efficiently exploit small markets and ore beds.
  3. Not enough attention was paid to the overall system. It made no sense to build a steel mill close to iron ore but not close to coal or to users of the steel, as was done at Magnitogorsk.

teenage worker at Magnitogorsk

Here is one of the workers at Magnitogorsk in 1931. People went from being sheep herders to steel workers. Dressed in rags and working in horribly unsafe conditions, they still got things done. The Soviets portrayed their sacrifices as heroic, but most were prisoners and many were killed in senseless accidents. For a fascinating and horrifying account of Magnitogorsk, have a look for "Behind the Urals - An American Worker in Russia's City of Steel" by John Scott, 1942. Scott is a sympathetic to what the Soviets are doing, but sees very well the cost of this kind of development.

None of Palchinsky's dissents made him a capitalist, though. He believed strongly in central planning and disdained the profit motive. He was also critical of American innovations such as time-motion studies, believing that they were another means of over-stressing workers, even though Taylorism was popular with the Bolsheviks.

Overall he called for engineers to have a broader view of their activities, and for engineers to have broader participation in the planning process. This is what killed him. Throughout the twenties, Stalin systematically eliminated independent sources of political power. Technocrats like Palchinsky were associated with Bukharin, one of Stalin's rivals. By arresting him and his comrades, Stalin could discredit his rival and remove a challenge to his authority.

Palchinsky was arrested in April 1928. After a secret trial, he was executed by firing squad in May 1929. The first news his wife Nina had of his death was a short newspaper article charging him with being an enemy of the Revolution. She was left friendless and alone. She fled to a remote province and took a job as a nurse's assistant. As she sat in a movie theater one evening, she was horrified to see a film describing her husband as one of the leading counter-revolutionaries in 1917. A person she barely knew stood up and shouted "We have a Palchinsky among us!" She was arrested, sent off to the camps, and never heard of again.

Engineers are quick learners by profession, and here was a lesson no one could miss. Engineers kept their heads down and meddled no more in wider issues. Specialization became extreme. Graham tells of one young woman who told him she was a ball-bearing engineer for paper mills. He responded "Oh, you must be a mechanical engineer." She rejoined, "No, I am a ball-bearing engineer for paper mills", and in fact had a degree in that exact subject.

Management by ignorant commissars, total disregard for local conditions, total disregard for the attitudes and abilities of workers, and extreme compartmentalization of function - these are ingredients for massive failure. That failure is by now familiar. In Graham's metaphor, dissidents like Palchinsky are the ghosts that haunted the regime, reminding them of the consequences of their actions and predicting dire results. Those warnings have all come true, resulting in the crippling and impoverishment of a great nation. This is one spirit that the Soviets should have listened to.

(c) John Redford, Feb-96

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