Back in the 1960s, a rather humorless economics-geography teacher at the university I attended posted a new course titled “A Breakdown of the Soviet Transportation System.” We undergrads thought it hilarious since he clearly meant “overview” not the rather negative “breakdown,” but he never got the point of his own unintended pun.

Colby College history professor Paul R. Josephson would not only have gotten the point, but in his new book, “Would Trotsky Wear A Bluetooth?: Technological Utopianism Under Socialism, 1917-1989,” he takes the willing reader on a grand tour of Soviet bloc economics from the October Revolution to the breakdown of the Soviet system and beyond. This is not right-wing polemic, but a serious, engaging read.

It is my third review book in a row that has cost $65, and it is difficult to see how some publications will flourish at that kind of price. I might have passed this by in spite of its delightful title.

Alas, it seems academic, judging from its cover. Yet it is notable for its readability, deep and wide knowledge of subject and ability to bring it all together into meaningful popular context. In seven measured essays, Josephson sorts through the long experiment of the Soviet bloc nations.

The book begins with the early Bolshevik ideals and visions of improving life for everyone, including the worker, the peasant and women. Early on, Communist leaders Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin became convinced that the way for Russia, the newly anointed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, to emerge from a backward agrarian estate (the world’s major exporter of wheat before World War I) to a modern rival of the great powers was to become an industrial giant.

Thus the Soviet leaders began a love affair with heavy industry, especially American-style industry which produced machinery and other material in vast quantities.

Central planning made great use of new technologies. Parts of Russia, especially in the Urals and near the White Sea, began to turn out incredible numbers of tractors, machines and materials for dams and shipyards. In the span of three-quarters of a century the USSR saw revolution, world war, civil war, internal political killings, World War II and the Cold War. Along the way it became one of the world’s two superpowers.

However, the original utopian ideal, as Josephson argues far more subtly than this, was derailed by the very technology that was supposed to change the lives of the common folk forever. Tractors by the millions poured out, but they were one model, good only in one climate; they broke down and farmers discarded them and turned back to traditional methods. This angered the Party. As things moved on everything focused on production and the motherland. Things like housing, safety in the workplace and women’s rights went by the boards.

Each national experiment (North Korea’s ongoing regime is fascinating in a horrific way) is subtly different. The cost to the present society for the massive Russian industrialization is the appearance of huge brown fields and dead rivers. Now in preparation are PAES, or floating nuclear power stations. Built in the Archangel region using old submarine materials, these are intended to be set up in river mouths to provide energy.

This is a way of moving from military to peacetime market opportunities and thought to be great for many things: “The Moroccan government wants to buy floating reactors to turn ocean into drinking water. Namibian officials may also acquire a floating reactor.”

And so the transition from socialism to the free market goes on. To be fair, the author does not let us forget the impact of capitalist nations’ utilization of technology, but a look at the fall of the Soviet bloc, its substance and possible consequences, is sobering indeed.

 

William David Barry is a local historian who lives in Portland.