Selling the "Project of the Century": Perceptions of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) in the Soviet Press, 1974-1984

By Ward, Christopher J | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Selling the "Project of the Century": Perceptions of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) in the Soviet Press, 1974-1984


Ward, Christopher J, Canadian Slavonic Papers


The first months of 1974 saw a phenomenon not experienced in the Soviet Union for almost twenty years-the mobilization of the nation in a colossal struggle between humans and nature in a distant sector of the country. As with the Virgin Lands Campaign of the 1950s, which sent young Soviet men and women to introduce mechanized agriculture to the and Kazakh steppe, this new endeavor asked for self-sacrifice and "fraternal cooperation" (bratskoe sotrudnichestvo) in order to achieve a common goal of the Soviet people. By constructing a "Second Trans-Siberian Railway" (vtoroi Transsib) between Eastern Siberia and the Soviet Far East, the people of the USSR could exploit the vast natural resources of the region and bring civilization to a once desolate place.1

This new "Path to the [Pacific] Ocean" (put'k okeanu) would run nearly 3,600 kilometers, from west of Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean, across some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet.2 It would rival and eventually surpass the scope and renown of the tsarist Trans-Siberian Railroad that connects Moscow and Vladivostok.3 The tracks of this new railroad, however, would be laid down with "Leninist enthusiasm" (Leninskii entuziazm) through the forlorn taiga toward the promised land of communism. During the decade that the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway's (BAM) image pervaded society, the Soviet press presented this monumental project to the populace as "The Project of the Century" (stroika veka) and "The Path to the Future" (put' k budushchemu).

BAM represented an important political, social, and cultural icon of the 1970s and early 1980s, much like the Trans-Siberian Railway during the late nineteenth century, the Turkestano-Siberian Railroad, the Moscow metro system, the city of Magnitogorsk, and Dneprostroi electrification project of the 1930s, as well as the Virgin Lands Campaign.4 At its height, the $15 billion BAM involved over 500,000 Young Communist Youth League [Komsomol] members and some professional railway workers known as bamovtsy (singular bamovets (masc.)/bamovka (fem.)"BAMer"] laboring in a 1.2 million square mile area known as the "BAM Zone." BAM was the last example of Soviet 14 gigantomania" and shared with earlier endeavors a massive allocation of human and material resources, a highly inefficient utilization of them, and a general disregard for any impact on the environment. Along with the Virgin Lands, BAM was the foremost model of post-Stalin Soviet Prometheanism, in which the conquest of nature through technology was seen as a panacea for various political, social, and economic problems. The personal influence of Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, who believed BAM could serve as a beacon of "developed socialism," represented a strong force in the push to popularize the projects Brezhnev had served as party secretary in Kazakhstan during the Virgin Lands Campaign and thought of BAM as his own "project of the era of developed socialism" (stroika epokhi razvitogo sotsializma), as Brezhnev's predecessor Nikita S. Khrushchev had with the Virgin Lands. Although the highly inefficient and still unfinished BAM ultimately failed to live up to official expectations as "The Key to the Twenty-First Century," the mainline is remarkable not for its actual construction, but for its massive and intricate publicizing campaign.7 I maintain that this propaganda system, the last to be developed in the Soviet Union, represented the apex of the Soviet legitimization narrative that had itself begun in 1917.

This article explores the campaign to promote the "Project of the Century" through the creation of what I term the BAM "myth," an official legitimizing perspective on the railway that contained tropes, imagery, and metaphors already familiar to those working on the railway and to the population at large.8 An examination of BAM media coverage, primarily from the widely-read Communist Party newspaper Pravda and the government paper Izvestiia, as well as the organ of the Union of Professional Railway Workers Gudok (The Whistle), from the project's beginning in March 1974 to its announced completion in September 1984, reveals that Soviet journalists produced an image of BAM whose core message evidenced little change over time. …

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