May 01, 2011

How the East Was Won

How the East Was Won
An AMO-3.

Eighty years ago, on October 25, 1931, the first Soviet-made truck, the AMO-3, rolled off the new production line at Moscow’.s ZIS factory (ZIS = Zavod imeny Stalina; Stalin Factory). Soon, output was ramped up and the factory, under the leadership of Ivan Likhachyov, was proclaimed a showpiece of Soviet engineering prowess. The Soviets had been producing F-15 trucks (photo above), the design licensed from Fiat, since 1924. In 1927, the plant was retooled to build a 2.5 ton truck, the AMO-3, based on an American design. &lduo;The first in the line of giant plants that we are building,” bragged Pravda in a banner headline the day after the ceremonial opening in October 1931.1

A few months later, the paper gleefully reported Detroit’.s troubles when American autoworkers were laid off in the Great Depression. And just after the factory’.s first anniversary, Pravda ran a cartoon proclaiming that it was now Russian tractors that ploughed Russian fields and Russian automobiles that carried comrades on Russian roads. The cartoon depicted an AMO-3 truck and a Russian-built tractor. The banner flying behind the truck held a quote, purportedly from Stalin, that reminded readers how tough it was going to be for the capitalists to keep up with a motorized Soviet Union on wheels.

What Pravda overlooked, however, was Russia’.s roadlessness (&lduo;rasputitsa”). In fact, by 1931, the absence of decent Soviet highways was already being widely debated, even satirized. That year, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov resurrected Ostap Bender (murdered at the end of The Twelve Chairs) in The Little Golden Calf, their shrewdly comic sequel. At the start of the novel, Ostap Bender makes a reckless drive through Russia, affecting to be traveling in the lead vehicle of a road rally designed to highlight the paucity of roads in Russia.

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