An achievement of Stakhanovism: increasing the speed of trains

In a long and important piece on the Stakhanovite movement, Stalin has this to say about the speed of trains. Keep in mind that the movement was part of the extraordinary and rapid transformation achieved through industrialisation and collectivisation:

We shall have in the first place, to persuade these conservative elements in industry, persuade them in a patient and comradely manner, of the progressive nature of the Stakhanov movement, and of the necessity of readjusting themselves to the Stakhanov way. And if persuasion does not help, more vigorous measures will have to be adopted. Take, for instance, the People’s Commissariat of Railways. In the central apparatus of that Commissariat, there was, until recently, a group of professors, engineers, and other experts – among them Communists – who assured everybody that a commercial speed of 13 or 14 kilometres per hour was a limit that could not be exceeded without contradicting “the science of railway operation.” This was a fairly authoritative group, who preached their views in verbal and printed form, issued instructions to the various departments of the People’s Commissariat of Railways, and, in general, were the “dictators of opinion” in the traffic departments. We, who are not experts in this sphere, basing ourselves on the suggestions of a number of practical workers on the railway, on our part assured these authoritative professors that 13 or 14 kilometres could not be the limit, and that if matters were organised in a certain way, this limit could be extended. In reply, this group, instead of heeding the voice of experience and practice, and revising their attitude to the matter, launched into a fight against the progressive elements on the railways and still further intensified the propaganda of their conservative views. Of course, we had to give these esteemed individuals a light tap on the jaw and very politely remove them from the central apparatus of the People’s Commissariat of Railways. (Applause.) And what is the result? We now have a commercial speed of 18 and 19 kilometres per hour. (Applause.)

Works, vol. 14, pp. 107-8.


The core of Stakhanovism

I am delving now into the profound shifts in the understanding of human nature during the 1930s in the Soviet Union. Stakhanovite passion and the repeated purges of ‘red terror’ were two sides of the same process, which we may understand as a tension between the Pelagian and Augustinian approaches to human nature. They were driven by extraordinary and widespread enthusiasm for the massive project of industrialisation and collectivisation. On the Stakhanovite side, the underlying motive is best expressed by the following, from a talk with metal workers in December, 1934:

We must cherish every capable and intelligent worker, we must cherish and cultivate him. People must be cultivated as tenderly and carefully as a gardener cultivates a favourite fruit tree. We must train, help to grow, offer prospects, promote at the proper time, transfer to other work at the proper time when a man is not equal to his job, and not wait until he has finally come to grief.

Stalin, Works, vol. 14, p. 48.

Revolutionary church bells

In the midst of the frenetic enthusiasm of the collectivisation drive, Stalin published his famous article, ‘Dizzy with Success’. It called on comrades not to get carried away with enthusiasm, not to run too far ahead and damage the process. At one point, even village church bells appear:

I say nothing of those “revolutionaries”—save the mark!—who begin the work of organising artels by removing the bells from the churches. Just imagine, removing the church bells—how r-r-revolutionary! (Works, vol. 12, p. 204)

While working through this material, it is becoming increasingly clear that Stakhanovite enthusiasm is the framework in which the waves of purges of the 1930s should be understood. These purges are not merely cynical eliminations of rivals, nor are they merely the manifestation of fears (both real and unreal) of plots to overthrow the government. They are a major dimension of Stakhanovite enthusiasm, in which people threw themselves with extraordinary energy into the revolutionary changes taking place. The upshot is that those who lagged behind or who actively resisted the process became the focus of another and more negative dimension of that enthusiasm.