A picture of how the Soviet people lived

By Pat Turnbull

In 1984 the Soviet publisher Novosti Press brought out a short book by Georgi Kublitsky called "The Soviet People". Kublitsky was born in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on the eve of the First World War. He became a land surveyor but in 1939 published his first book; "The Soviet People" was his forty-third. At various times he had visited all the Soviet republics, and wrote this book to give people abroad a picture of the people of the Soviet Union. What follows are edited extracts.


Looking back at life before the revolution, which shaped out differently for different peoples, I have attempted to trace the radical changes that came about after the establishment of Soviet rule.

The State Department Store in Moscow, or GUM, is the largest of its kind in the country. I went there to check some of my impressions. At least every third person spoke a language I couldn't understand. There are over a hundred nationalities and ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. I managed to exchange a couple of words with at least three dozen people. I did not understand their language but they all spoke Russian. In all I spoke to people of thirteen nationalities, not counting Russians.

What if the people of the Soviet Union were suddenly to forget Russian? I am afraid we would have a modern version of Babel.  How would an Uzbek and Estonian, for instance, understand each other, when their mother tongues have only one thing in common - the technology of the scientific and technological revolution? Supposing this happened during the construction of a large factory, the kind of project usually employing builders of up to forty nationalities?

The federal state of the Soviet Union, which came into being in 1922, brought together some peoples whose development was at the average European level and others who were ethnic groups retaining elements of primitive society.

The new Soviet government inherited from tsarism a very difficult situation. The extreme variety of peoples, the great differences in the way of life, living standards and in religion, the consequences of the tsarist government's great-power chauvinism and the nationalist tendencies cultivated by the aristocratic and capitalist classes among some non-Russian peoples - these and many other circumstances greatly complicated the carrying out of the policy, proclaimed by the Soviet government, of equality and the drawing closer together of nations.

Russia, or the Russian Federation, is only one of the fifteen constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The other Soviet Socialist Republics are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Tajikistan, Turkmenia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

After the revolution of October 1917, the new fully independent state entities - at the time Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, and the Transcaucasian Federation (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) - emerged and developed in difficult conditions. Weakened and devastated by the long imperialist First World War, the country was in the throes of a bitter civil war and also had to counter the attacks of foreign interventionists. Surviving maps of civil war operations show that there was a period when the Soviet-held territories shrank to the size of a small red patch. If there had been no military alliance between the republics, the enemy would probably have attained his end.

When the three-year civil war ended in the defeat of the forces of counter-revolution, the peoples felt a natural desire to build a peaceful life by joint effort. At the end of 1922 delegates from the republics began to gather in Moscow for a congress that was to proclaim the formation of a multinational state.

Apart from the consequences of wartime devastation, the country had not yet recovered from the horrible famine of 1921. Caused by a disastrous drought, it took millions of lives. The railways were not working normally and it took delegates from remote places three to four weeks to get to Moscow.

In 1922, when the Congress of Soviets proclaimed the formation of the USSR, the country was producing not more than one per cent of the world's industrial output. Its coal output was one-thirty-fourth and oil output one-twelfth of the US figures. Iron and steel output had sharply decreased. Cars were a rarity in the streets. Most people in the countryside had never seen a tractor.

The Soviet Union was certainly not in the best shape when it was launched. Today it holds first place in the world for output of oil, iron ore, iron, steel, cement, coke, tractors and electric locomotives, and accounts for twenty per cent of world industrial output.

Just one example - Azerbaijan

The name of Transcaucasian republic Azerbaijan means the Land of Flames.

At Surakhany, in Azerbaijan, there is an extant ancient temple of fire worshippers. Pilgrims from neighbouring Persia and even distant India would flock here. Crowding in the courtyard they would devoutly gaze at the bluish tongues of fire flickering in the air. The name, the 'land of flames' would probably have got lost in the turbulent flow of centuries but for a very earthly circumstance that explained the phenomenon of the undying flames: it was natural gas, the companion of oil, that was burning as it escaped from the depths of the earth.

Oil was first obtained at Baku in the 8th century AD. Doctors prescribed the sticky dark liquid for treating skin diseases. Later, Baku oil was used in Russia by icon painters as a paint solvent and also by army technicians for making combustible hand grenades. When people learned how to produce kerosene and petrol from oil, the world was seized by an oil fever from which it has not recovered to this day.

In the 1870s Baku became the main oil producer in Russia. At the beginning of the 20th century its oilfields yielded almost as much oil as all the other oil regions of the world. Orange tongues of flare gas blazing in the dark night now justified the old name - the 'land of flames'.

The Baku oilfields attracted both labour and capital, which sped the construction of railway lines and ports. At the same time, while supplying the whole of Russia with oil, Azerbaijan imported even kerosene lamps, evidence of a lopsided economic development so typical of a colonial province. The October 1917 revolution and the subsequent formation of the USSR put an end to this situation by creating conditions for the comprehensive economic and cultural development of each autonomous republic.

When the region between the Volga and the Urals, and later Western Siberia, outstripped Baku in oil output, Azerbaijan already had its own chemical, engineering, metallurgical and ore-mining industries. Radioelectronics and instrument making also developed on a par with the manufacture of natural silk fabrics, carpets, cotton wares and many other consumer goods.

Azerbaijan has very great experience in oil production and readily shares its know-how with other fraternal republics. One can see its expert oil workers in any new oil-bearing region of the USSR. Southerners were foremost in developing Siberia's oil deposits in conditions of eternally frozen ground and bitter frosts. The Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences and research institutes have devised new methods of drilling wells and of off-shore oil extraction. Baku oilmen began to drill in the sea shortly after the revolution. Isolated ventures gave way to large-scale production in keeping with established technology.

The Caspian is a very unquiet sea and not without reason its main port was named Baku, which means 'city of winds': up to 280-300 stormy days are recorded here annually. In olden days no one had a good word to say about Baku. Maxim Gorky, the famous Soviet writer, who travelled much in his youth, crossing vast Russian expanses on foot, said that the Baku oilfields impressed him as 'the worst of hells', while when viewed from a distance the city outskirts resembled a heap of ruins. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who called at Baku in the 1920s, was unpleasantly struck by the complete absence of vegetation in its streets.

Local people like to show their city from a vantage point, from Nagorny Park, for instance, to which one can get by cable car. It affords the view of the city descending in an amphitheatre to a crescent-shaped bay. Mayakovsky would surely change his opinion, were he to visit the city today. A garden promenade runs all along the bay and greenery spreads as far as the eye can see, making up twenty square metres of planting per head of the city's population. As for the total, the city's population has hit the 1,500,000 mark.

Since the soil on which the city stands is virtually barren, earth is brought here from faraway foothills to plant olives, figs and cypresses. Saplings are watered every day until they take firm root.

The Caspian is an inland sea with no exit to the ocean. Some people are inclined to regard it as a huge salt lake. Nature's 'error' has, however, been partly rectified by man.

Among the ships in Baku harbour you will probably see those of the river-sea type which call at many European ports, getting there via the Volga, the river that flows into the Caspian. The water reservoirs of the Volga's eight large hydropower stations have transformed Russia's main river into a deep waterway connected by canals with the Baltic, White and Black seas and, through them, with the Mediterranean and Adriatic. During the construction of an auto plant in the town of Togliatti, ships suitable for river and sea navigation brought various cargoes from Italy directly to the local port.

Another Caspian problem, however, is pending solution. The falling level of the Caspian is a grave problem that concerns both Azerbaijan and the adjoining lands of the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Turkmenia. The southern coast is Iranian territory.

The 1930s saw a drop by more than 2.5 metres.  As a result, the approaches to the ports have grown shallow and only dead beacons amid sandy dunes indicate that the sea was once here. As a result of the last lowering of the water level, the Caspian has lost an area roughly equal to 1.5 times that of the Sea of Azov or one-third that of the Adriatic Sea.

Is there a solution? A costly project has been under consideration for more than ten years. The plan is to transfer part of the flow of the country's copious northern rivers to the basin of the Volga, the Caspian's main tributary. The steady flow of northern waters into the Volga, the longest river in Europe, with a series of hydropower stations, is expected to increase electricity output by thousands of millions of kilowatt-hours and, most important, build reserves for irrigating arid Volga lands. This measure will also stabilize the level of the Caspian.

Now that the data has been collected and research completed, the government has taken a decision to start the first stage of the work, to be completed by 1990.

"The Soviet Union - in 1984 - holds the first place in the world for output of oil, iron ore, iron, steel, cement, coke, tractors and electric locomotives, and accounts for twenty per cent of world industrial output."

Circa 1895: Azerbaijani oil workers digging an oil well by hand in the Bibi-Heybat suburb of Baku