Stalin ordered his execution, but here Peter Palchinsky has the last word. As if rising from an uneasy grave, Palchinsky’s ghost leads us through the miasma of Soviet technology and industry, pointing out the mistakes he condemned in his time, the corruption and collapse he predicted, the ultimate price paid for silencing those who were not afraid to speak out. The story of this visionary engineer’s life and work, as Loren Graham relates it, is also the story of the Soviet Union’s industrial promise and failure.
We meet Palchinsky in pre-Revolutionary Russia, immersed in protests against the miserable lot of laborers in the tsarist state, protests destined to echo ironically during the Soviet worker’s paradise. Exiled from the country, pardoned and welcomed back at the outbreak of World War I, the engineer joined the ranks of the Revolutionary government, only to find it no more open to criticism than the previous regime. His turbulent career offers us a window on debates over industrialization. Graham highlights the harsh irrationalities built into the Soviet system—the world’s most inefficient steel mill in Magnitogorsk, the gigantic and ill-conceived hydroelectric plant on the Dnieper River, the infamously cruel and mislocated construction of the White Sea Canal. Time and again, we see the effects of policies that ignore not only the workers’ and consumers’ needs but also sound management and engineering precepts. And we see Palchinsky’s criticism and advice, persistently given, consistently ignored, continue to haunt the Soviet Union right up to its dissolution in 1991.
The story of a man whose gifts and character set him in the path of history, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer is also a cautionary tale about the fate of an engineering that disregards social and human issues.
In this gem of a book, Loren R. Graham, our foremost authority on Soviet science and technology, draws the reader into the life story of Peter Palchinsky, a remarkable Soviet engineer who was executed in 1929 for treason...Like all memorable books, [this one] leaves the reader wrestling with large questions. The fate of Palchinsky was specific to Stalinist Russia, but the story Mr. Graham tells prompts us to reflect on the tenuous position of the state-supported social critic in all places, at all times.
Loren Graham has written a wonderful book about the relationship between technology and society. He has woven together an account of the life and work of a Russian engineer, Peter Palchinsky, and an analysis of the failures of Soviet engineering projects. The result is an elegant and concise essay on the dangers of engineering which ignores human values...This superb book distills in a vivid and moving way the results of Graham’s many years of research on Soviet science and technology.
Loren Graham clarifies important questions concerning the interface between politics and technology, the significance of which extend beyond the Soviet experience. Among the most striking of these is the way his examples illustrate how arbitrary political power can be deployed both to impose irrational policies, which flew in the face of scientific laws, technical parameters and human capabilities, and to misrepresent their consequences for public consumption...This book will provide an invaluable insight into the long-term impact of Stalinism on Soviet technical culture.
[A] provocative and engaging volume.
This remarkable book by Loren R. Graham deals with one of the many independent minds crushed by the Soviet government.
A terrific read, and a needed reminder of what happens when technology is loosed from social responsibility.
- 154 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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