Preferred Citation: Witkin, Zara. An American Engineer in Stalin's Russia: The Memoirs of Zara Witkin, 1932-1934. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

The Memoirs of Zara Witkin 1932–1934


The sweep of events immediately carried Garry back into fighting activity. He quickly familiarized himself with all details of the situation of my work. On August 12, 1933, Izvestia published another article by him, with the same heading as the first. It read:

The editor has received the decision of the conference called by the Rationalization Section in the Commissariat of Heavy Industry, regarding the rationalization proposals of Foreign Specialist Witkin. Present at this meeting were representatives of the Soyuzstroi, the Second Trust, the Bureau of Inventions and the Revolutionary Council of Labor and Defense. This conference verified the correctness of the facts stated by Comrade Garry in the article of June 18, published in Izvestia . It was decided that the action of Soyuzstroi in sending the projects to Leningrad was sheer formalism, and that an expert investigation in Moscow could have greatly speeded realization of the project. Reprimands were issued to Director Khlamov of the Leningrad Institute and to Engineer Ivanov of the Bureau of Inventions, and Engineer Vinakur.

The Party cell of Soyuzstroi also confirms the information given in the article by Garry and states that it had been decisive in focussing attention on invention and rationalization. Since the previous article almost two months have elapsed. Since the passing of resolutions of the conference, one month. Yet the case of Engineer Witkin has not moved from dead center!

The grave political mistake which has been made by Soyuzstroi in the case of Engineer Witkin is their continued failure, despite all their facilities, to use this important foreign specialist as effectively as possible. The final decision of an expert investigation of his work, set within a period of fifteen days by the conference, has not been fulfilled.

There is no doubt that these deplorable facts will be interesting to the Party Cleaning Commission of Soyuzstroi and the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry. They will be critical also for those comrade colleagues who were bound by decisions participated in by themselves which had to be fulfilled within a fixed time. These comrades are Feinhouse, chief of the Rationalization Section of Heavy Industry; Nikitin, chief of the Section for Rationalization and Reconstruction of Soyuzstroi; and Borminsky, representative of the Revolutionary Council of Labor and Defense.


This article was published on a rest-day. No warning preceded it. The quiet which had descended upon Soyuzstroi after Garry's departure for the Donbas had stifled efforts for realization of the work. Officials who had been seriously perturbed by the events following the first article had hidden from the storm at first and then were lulled to rest. Gradually they came to consider the matter closed. Everything would go on as before. In the attitudes of some I detected an air of malicious triumph, which they did not express openly.

This second article burst like a bombshell upon the officials. There was much panicky scurrying. Meetings were called. Comrade Feinhouse of Heavy Industry rushed his assistant to my office, requesting me to confer with him at once.

This mumbo-jumbo no longer deceived me. I began to understand the full effect of the bureaucracy which blighted the character of official men. No reliance could be placed upon their statements. Out of this new flurry of excitement two conferences were called to consider the application of the interlocking blocks to construction, and the problems involved in their manufacture and use.

The second article was also a terrific shock to the Soyuzstroi administration. Again there were profuse demonstrations of official interest in my work. I made use of the aid offered, even though I felt it was merely a reaction to pressure, the product of fear, and would be only temporary.

Soyuzstroi, through a subsidiary trust, was then building four great housing developments in Moscow: Donskaya in the southern portion, Annunevsky and Meshchanskaya in the eastern, and Leningradsky Chaussee in the northern district. My work in America and in the U.S.S.R. had been, in part, standardization of housing construction. The management of Soyuzstroi was apparently secretly instructed from above to utilize me on these projects. Chief Engineer Vorobieff made arrangements for me to inspect them and report on the best methods of completing them and correcting defects in their construction.

Donskaya, I found, was virtually finished. My inspection was practically for final acceptance. Details of the mechanical system, especially plumbing and heating, and the finish, including the hardwood floors, were unsatisfactory. Wood floors in the U.S.S.R. were usually made of short pieces of parquet. The material sent to Donskaya was inaccurately


sawn, making it too difficult and expensive to lay. One electric hand-saw could have reworked this parquet property for use. There was no such equipment, however, and many loads of flooring were abandoned on the job.

The Meshchanskaya project was a group of regular five-story apartment houses with brick walls and wooden floors, of the kind being erected all over Russia. There were no special difficulties, except those of delay in delivery of materials, and poor organization. Work had been stopped because of lack of plumbing pipes, bath-tubs and other mechanical equipment.

The Annunevsky project differed radically from the other two. Its structure was only two-thirds complete: five stories were erected of an eight-story building. It was of reinforced concrete, built by the use of sliding forms, which were rarely employed except in special industrial construction like grain elevators and silos. The workmanship was exceedingly poor. The walls were rough and irregular, with much honey-combing of the concrete. The job had been stopped and the jacks holding the yokes on the forms around the building were exposed to the rainy weather and were rusting.

Sliding forms require continuous operation twenty-four hours a day, with short lifts of the forms at each turn of the jacks, usually not exceeding one-eighth or one-quarter of an inch. On this building, only one eight-hour shift had been employed. The jacks had been turned infrequently, jerking the forms a couple of inches each time. This dragged the surface of the wall, disturbed the setting of the concrete, and formed rock pockets. Hand-finishing of the wall, just below the forms, while the concrete was still green, which is the way to produce a fine surface on a sliding-form job, was not done at all in this case. The forms, instead of being built of one-and-a-half-inch or two-inch-thick plank, so as to be rigid and unbending, were made of flimsy panels of three-quarter-inch, unselected boards, which warped and bent out of shape. I recommended the necessary changes in the operating methods and the cleaning and covering of the jacks to protect them from corrosion.

The appointment to inspect the Leningradsky Chaussee development was never made. Though I saw this project, it was in an unofficial capacity, and I made no report on it.

These projects were practically at a standstill, as were most others in the Moscow region, for lack of labor. All available man-power had been


drawn away from construction and sent to the fields to bring in the harvest. This was a vital necessity then confronting the nation.

Insistent rumors of famine in the North Caucasus and the Ukraine had been current in Moscow for some time. In the capital we foreigners had felt the food shortage keenly in our sharply reduced rations. The mass of the native population suffered far more drastic curtailment of food supplies. Extraordinary measures were taken by the Communist Party leaders to bring in a harvest adequate to overcome this critical condition. Great drives were organized in which students and white-collar workers went to work in the fields on their rest-days. Fuel, especially kerosene, used for cooking on the Russian primuses, became very scarce in the cities, as all supplies were diverted hysterically to the farms for the tractors. Long lines of women stood all night to get a cupful of kerosene and often went home exhausted and empty-handed.

By the middle of August, the harvesting was in full swing. The Party had taken another extraordinary measure. On each collective farm an O.G.P.U. unit was formed, with summary powers to direct and supervise all operations and "bring in the grain" at all costs. These were the so-called politotdels .[55] Terrible stories were circulated about the acts of these groups. Picked especially for their dangerous and difficult task, these men were the most intrepid and severe members of the O.G.P.U. organization. They went armed at all times. Where they found dishonesty in the accounts, or laziness in work, they reputedly never hesitated to shoot on the spot. Even minor infractions of the working discipline became, under the stress of circumstances, "sabotage," and were dealt with accordingly.

In Moscow, the foreign correspondents, watching this unprecedented, grim process, asked each other repeatedly if it were possible for a nation to raise food with bayonets. With the stories of starvation pouring into the capital, and engineers and travellers from south Russia telling of dead bodies lying in the roads, the correspondents prepared to visit these areas and see the conditions at first hand.

Lyons returned from Italy on August 21. He immediately requested permission to visit the Ukraine and North Caucasus. The other correspondents did likewise. All were denied the privilege by the Soviet Government. This was the first time that correspondents had been barred from a civilian area in peace-time. The government had adopted a policy of concealment!


Lyons then asked the Soviet Foreign Office to select an area for him to visit—one which they were satisfied to have him see as an example. This recalled the notorious historical incident of General Potemkin, the favorite of the Empress Catherine, who hurriedly built the false "happy villages" in the countryside along the route she was to take, to conceal from her the misery of the masses. This request was also denied. William Henry Chamberlin, the soft-spoken, hard-thinking correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor , who had for years taken walking trips in the Caucasus during his vacation, was now also barred from that area.

While the correspondents were bottled up in Moscow, the government proceeded with its desperate effort to bring in the harvest and avoid the recurrence of the starvation early in the year. The wildest rumors of death by famine and terrible suffering of millions had reached the outside world. In a vague way the world was aware of the horrible famine which was destroying millions of lives. But the Kremlin had succeeded in confusing the issue through alibis, lying denials and frantic secrecy.

The fuming American correspondents, prevented from getting or sending any of this grave news, met to consider the situation. The conference was held in the home of Ralph Barnes. Walter Duranty, Eugene, Maurice Hindus, who happened to be in Moscow, and William Stoneman of the Chicago Daily News were present while I was there. Chamberlin, Louis Fischer of the New York Nation , Stanley Richardson of the Associated Press, and Linton Wells of International News Service had been there earlier.

Barnes put the question. What should be done? Their duty was to "get the news," to which access was denied by the Soviet Government. Barnes turned first to Lyons.

"What are you going to do?" he asked. (I knew that Lyons felt keenly about the suffering of which he was amply informed.)

"I want to send this story," Lyons replied, "but I am blocked. I have evaded the censorship several times by telephoning 'out.' My agency has asked me not to antagonize the government by doing this any more. With the Soviet Government barring investigation, the censorship stopping all dispatches and my own agency not backing me, I am helpless!"

Barnes then turned to Duranty.

"What are you going to write?" he asked.

"Nothing," answered Duranty. "What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this? Quite unimportant. This is just an incident in the sweeping historical changes here. I think the entire matter is


exaggerated. Anyhow, we cannot write authoritatively because we are not permitted to go and see. I'm not going to write anything about it."

At this brutal cynicism, Lyons and Stoneman flared up. Duranty merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled, then turned to Mrs. Barnes to resume his brilliant conversation that had been so unpleasantly interrupted.

"What are you going to write, Hindus?" Barnes asked.

"I am not in the same position as you men are," Hindus replied. "I do not write for a daily journal. I do not have to send any dispatches. I am a novelist. Besides, as you know, I was permitted to enter Russia this time on my definite pledge not to visit the villages. My visa was granted solely on that basis. Also, since I have not seen these conditions myself, I cannot write authoritatively about them."

"I propose," said Barnes, "that we demand, as a group, the permission to see these conditions."

Stoneman and Lyons immediately expressed approval. Duranty and Hindus made it clear, however, that there could be no unanimous action. It was also recalled that Fischer, of the Nation , would not support any such suggestion. A queer light played in Barnes' eyes and his football chin stuck out. He left the room abruptly. The other correspondents continued to converse. Under the friendly spell of Mrs. Barnes' hospitality the ugly question was temporarily relegated to the background.

Suddenly Barnes re-entered the room. His face was flushed with excitement.

"I shot the story!" he announced.

Consternation reigned in the room. Barnes had telephoned a sizzling dispatch about the famine despite the restrictions of the censorship.

"What did you send?" the men chorused.

"I estimated the deaths by starvation to be at least a million."

The meeting broke up at once. Barnes' message could not fail to have the gravest consequences abroad in world opinion for the Soviet Union, and upon the correspondents themselves.

The reaction, as expected, was immediate. The New York Herald-Tribune carried front-page headlines. Every paper in America queried its correspondent at once for confirmation of the frightful story. The august New York Times sent a strong message to Duranty, which in effect demanded profanely where he was when these terrible conditions were developing and why he had remained silent.

The situation forced the hand of every correspondent. They had to


confirm Barnes' daring dispatch. The Soviet Foreign Office immediately summoned Barnes and threatened him with expulsion from the Soviet Union. But the confirming dispatches of the other correspondents were now pouring across the Atlantic.

Duranty the next morning in his cablegram estimated three million dead "of causes due to malnutrition," the now notorious euphemism which he coined for the famine. The Soviet Government had to expel all the American correspondents en masse, or let Barnes stay.

In this dilemma it had only one practical course. The antagonism of the entire American press was too great a risk to run. Barnes remained in the U.S.S.R. on sufferance.[56]


The Memoirs of Zara Witkin 1932–1934

Preferred Citation: Witkin, Zara. An American Engineer in Stalin's Russia: The Memoirs of Zara Witkin, 1932-1934. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.