The Soviet Union: The “Project of the Century?”

“The stagnation of BAM propaganda after its initial formulation indicated the ideological staidness that, by the early 1970s, had gripped the corpus of Soviet governance like some form of mental rigor mortis. While official representations of BAM remained stagnant, the real world around these representations did not. Perhaps this helps to explain the events of the Brezhnev era, a time during which the government refused to acknowledge reality to a greater degree than any regime before it in Soviet history.” – Christopher Ward, Brezhnev’s Folly

The excerpts we read from Brezhnev’s Folly demonstrate how the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) construction project, which Brezhnev proclaimed to be the “project of the century,” perfectly mirrored the social and political environment of the Soviet Union at the time. Social unrest and change was abundant both on BAM worksites as well as across the Union. The organization and oversight of BAM was in the hands of the Komsomol, and ultimately the youth group did not prove equal to the task. In fact, many youths who joined the BAM project did so in order to be a part of the next great product of the Soviet Union, and were sorely disappointed and therefore disillusioned.

There were several ideas behind BAM, most notably to build a transportation system that would connect Western Europe to East Asia, making Russia vital to the expanding economic systems on the two continents. A second driving factor was to spark a new “soviet” flame in the Union’s youth. Like so many of the Soviet’s plans, BAM had the near-opposite effect as officials hoped, and much of the failure can be attributed to the Party’s stubborn blindness towards the reality of the situation.

I chose the title of this post because as I repeatedly read the phrase “project of the century,” I kept asking myself: is the author talking about BAM, or about the Soviet Union? And I realized it applied to both. The idea of creating a communist state was certainly a mighty project, and as we know, a project that ultimately failed. But no one can deny that the Communist Party put forth an immense amount of human, financial and material capital in an attempt to attain their goal. Indeed, one could call their dream the “project of the century.”

The Dissident Movement in the Soviet Union

Soviet intellectuals in the late 1960s and early ’70s decided it was high time to voice their opposition to the current political situation in the Union. The movement had roots in the Khrushchev era when the state loosened controls ever so slightly, but by the time Brezhnev came to power and tried to restrict expression yet again, the movement was already taking off.

It was a period of both hope and desperation. For the dissidents, there was hope. Their public protests and demonstrations against the Soviet state system only further emboldened their radical thinking; they believed they were the “conscience of society” and had a duty to stand up and demand freedoms for the people of Russia. The dissidents sought democratic socialism and political liberalism, while condemning western ideologies that overshadowed Russian Orthodox values.

Roy Medvedev, a dissident movement leader.

For the Soviet authorities, desperation was in the air. Their legitimacy was being called into question and they could not afford that. Their attempts at controlling the dissidents were tried and true Soviet tactics: confiscating literature, exiling leaders, condemning offenders to prison or mental institutions, removing dissidents from their occupations, and launching propaganda campaigns to counter and delegitimize dissident ideology.

The actual number of dissidents may have been small, but their impact was disproportionately large. The Soviet’s attempts to regain control of public thought were desperate and futile, and if there is one thing I have learned from studying history, it is that desperate actions of a government mark the beginning of the end. I would not go so far as to credit the dissident movement with being the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union. However, it was another blow to their ideology and power, and it is a movement that ought not to be overlooked.