Adam Curtis, 1992
1. The Engineers' Plot
To those who began the revolution in Russia, seventy-five years ago, science was a grand liberating force. They believed Karl Marx had discovered the scientific laws of society, which they would now use to unlock the gates to
a new world, where everyone would be equal and free.
But within twenty years, the revolution was taken over by technocrats, who looked down on the crowd below as though they were atoms. They were inspired not by Marx, but by the laws of engineering. They believed they could transform the Soviet Union into a giant rational machine, which they would run for their political masters.
[Evgenii A. Ivanov (subtitled)]
[Overlooking a street] Each of those people down there is unique, yet each is part of some
cluster or group in society. And each group is governed by a set of iron laws, as unchanging as
the laws of nature, physics and the mechanical sciences.
We wanted so desperately to make our people happy. To give them, if not affluence, at least a
decent standard of living.
THE ENGINEERS' PLOT
A fable from the age of science
This is a story of science and political power; [of] how the Bolsheviks' vision of using science to change the world was itself transformed. What resulted was a strange experiment, far removed from the original aims of the
From the beginning of the revolution, modern technology was central to the Bolsheviks' plans – above all, the new power of electricity. In 1920, Lenin unveiled in the Kremlin a huge map studded with lightbulbs to show the planned electrification of the country. To illuminate the bulbs, all electricity in the rest of Moscow had to be shut off.
Vitalii Semyonovich Lelchuk, USSR Academy of Sciences [subtitled]
The electrification plan was unlike any before in history. It wasn't just about building power
stations. Its aim was to construct a new type of human being.
"Communism", said Lenin, "is Soviet power plus electrification." The aim of the Bolsheviks was to transform the people they ruled into what they called "scientific beings": people able to understand and control the machines of the modern world, rather than become enslaved by them. They organised mass parades, where the machines symbolically crushed the irrational dogmas of the past. Moscow became what Lenin called a "talking city", its walls adorned with geometric perspectives, giving glimpses of a new, rational world; its statues surrounded by parallelograms and futuristic structures. Even music was used to transform the way people understood the
world. Electrical machines made what was called "rational music".
The most extraordinary project of all was the Central Institute of Labour, set up on Lenin's orders. It was run by Alexei Gastev, who photographed and studied workers as though they were parts in a machine. It was far more than mere time-and-motion; Gastev believed he could teach people to think and behave in a rational way. To do this, he built the "social engineering machine", a giant structure of pulleys, cogs and weights. How it worked is, today, a mystery, even to his son.
Alexei A. Gastev [subtitled]
A social engineering machine was built at the Central Labour Institute. The aim of social
engineering was to make society rational and train the state for maximum efficiency in the
same way as my father trained workers. He believed society could be controlled like a machine.
The aim was to install these social engineering machines all over the USSR. These machines
would make society function totally rationally. Man would become a rational component of the
"Such is the power of science", said Trotsky, "that the average human being will become an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx; and, beyond this, new peaks will rise." In fact, the power to shape the Soviet Union was passing to those who could build the new industrial society that the Bolsheviks wanted so much. They were known as the "bourgeois specialists"; engineers from before the revolution who had the skills needed to master the modern technology. Many had actually opposed the revolution, but, by 1923, they made up over three-quarters of the powerful state planning committee. Under the Tsar, their plans for factories and power stations had remained on the drawing board – now, they were being given the chance to build them; and they became influential figures.
Nikolai Vassilievich Chernobrovov, electrical engineer, 1920s [subtitled]
We all admired these pre-revolutionary specialists, whose engineering skills built our power
stations. The ordinary people didn't really comprehend electricity, but their instinct told them
it was the way to a better world.
Lenin saw how his dream of control over this new technical world was slipping away. "To tell the truth", he said,
"the Communists are not directing anything; they are being directed."
But, in 1924, Lenin died. After a bitter struggle, Stalin seized power. He was determined to recapture the momentum of the revolution. To do so, he decided to send Russia on a crash course of industrialisation. It would bring even more power to the bourgeois engineers.
Alexei Leontevich Shatilin, Hero of the Soviet Union [subtitled]
The train took seven days to reach Magnitogorsk from Moscow. People came in their thousands.
In 1927, Stalin began the "Five Year Plan". Hundreds of thousands of volunteers travelled to the remote and desolate parts of the Soviet Union. Millions more were forced off the land at gunpoint to join them. They had five years, Stalin told them, to build a modern, industrial state.
[Alexei Leontevich Shatilin (subtitled)]
On arrival, we went straight to the site manager's office. We were told to get to work immediately.
Bucket-loads of alarm clocks were issued so we wouldn't oversleep. "Stick at it, lads", we were
told, "this place will soon be a great industrial centre with every facility." Back then, it was just
Magnitogorsk, built in the far-off Ural Mountains on the edge of Asia, was to become one of the largest steel plants in the world. At the centre of these gigantic projects were the only engineers the Soviet Union possessed: the bourgeois specialists.
Lev Emmanuilovich Razgon, former Bolshevik [subtitled]
The bourgeois engineers were eager to run these grand projects, but, in the process, they
bartered their own freedom. The engineers didn't see the trap. They saw only limitless horizons
of opportunity and creative freedom. None of them imagined, even in their wildest dreams,
that they, the men who had striven to rebuild our shattered economy, would be put on trial for
treason and sabotage.
At the end of 1930, the engineers' dreams suddenly became a nightmare. Stalin ordered two thousand of them
 arrested and eight of the most senior were put on a public show trial.
The charges were fantastic. The prosecutor alleged that the bourgeois engineers were leaders of a political organisation – the "Industrial Party" – and had plotted to seize power. Their government would've been
composed solely of technical specialists and scientists. Their confessions were carefully rehearsed.
But behind this public charade was a very real struggle. Stalin, like Lenin before him, had come to realise that with technology came power. A year before, a group of these engineers had publicly challenged him to give them more control of the Five Year Plan. The future, they had announced, belongs to managing engineers. Instead,
they were led away from the cameras, condemned to death or to continue to work on their schemes in chains.
A week later, Stalin announed: "Bolsheviks must master technology. It is time for the Bolsheviks themselves to become specialists. In the reconstruction period, technology decides everything." He ordered engineering schools to be set up across the country to train thousands of the young Party faithful. But, in the process, the aim of the revolution was redefined. Ten years before, technology was to've been a radiant means of liberating millions of people. Now, it had become an end in itself. For these young Red experts, it was simply large-scale industrial production.
[Vitalii Semyonovich Lelchuk (subtitled)]
Hundreds of thousands of engineers had been trained. To them, society was a machine. Stalin
once referred to human beings as tiny cogs and the engineers adopted this terminology. Deep
down, they believed that this machine-like society could be made to grow by purely technical
means. More and more factories were built, requiring more and more engineers. In the process,
a strange thing happened. Engineers bred engineers. We became a nation of engineers. We had
more than any other country.
The education the engineers received was of the narrowest kind. Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Education, pleaded with Stalin. "There is a certain minimum of general scientific culture", he said, "which an engineer must master and which we cannot dispense with. It is as if discovering that it is possible to live with four fingers, we
have decided to cut off the fifth one." But he was dismissed.
The model for this new, simplified world was America, the most successful industrial state in the world. Stalin was determined to overtake it. The prototype was Magnitogorsk, which had been based on a particular American city.
Gary, Indiana, USA
Michael J. Grisak, Gary steelworker, 1930s
[Reading from an old pamphlet about Gary, Indiana] "We invite you to a city which has the largest
steel works, the largest tin plant in the world. We invite you to a city of blazing furnaces, of
handsome homes, of magnificent schools, of splendid churches, of towering hotels and fraternal
temples, of shining beaches, of restful mews, of winding drives of flashing water and dazzling
sands" – this is the sea – "...that we invite you..." – and, truthfully, it is called "The Magic City"...
it is called "The Magic City" for these reasons...
Like many cities in America's northeast, Gary, Indiana is now almost derelict. But, seventy years ago, it was a new kind of model city, planned in an ordered way around a giant steel mill. To its builders, it was a chance to break with the complexities of the past.
[Michael J. Grisak]
We were building that city and we took pride in that. We started fresh; we didn't have to undo
anything... see – and we picked up what was the best all over. Even the steel mills – we didn't
have to destroy something to put something better in; we started with something better right
along. We got the best out of the catalogues that were available. Those were some of the things
that was [sic] a "magic city" – there was a magic in doing this thing; you took pride in something
They were all building the new world.
Magnitogorsk was a copy of Gary. These plans for the works [shown onscreen], with the city radiating out from beyond, were drawn up by the same American designers that built Gary. Inspired by one of the most ambitious construction projects in the world, some American engineers even came to Magnitogorsk to take part in the building of Russia's "city of steel".
Rosa Dmitrievna Inkina, construction worker, Magnitogorsk [subtitled]
They inspired our dreams. We imagined a magnificent city, just like America. We dreamed of
palaces, houses and parks.
The workers made a lovely park. The first trees in the park were all of metal, because there wasn't
a single tree growing on the steppe.
The dream gave hope to our working lives. We believed in it passionately. I hope we weren't wrong.
As in Gary, a planned city began to grow up around the plant. But in a quiet valley nearby, a very different city was constructed, where the American engineers lived.
From "Behind the Urals" by John Scott; memoirs of an American engineer in Stalin's Russia
[Voiceover:] "Designed by a young Russian architect named Saprykin, these dozen large houses were
copied almost exactly from American architectural catalogs. The result was something very much
approaching Mount Vernon, New York, or Germantown, Pennsylvania. And in what everyone
called "the American city", the atmosphere of a summer evening held the suspicion of the smugness
of Park Avenue; yet, less than two miles away, the wolves howled and the wind blew across the
endless Russian steppe..."
[Rosa Dmitrievna Inkina (subtitled)]
When we visited the American city, we heard lovely music and singing. It was like setting foot in
Those who lived in "the American city" were the new elite: a mixture of old Bolshevik commissars, foreign technicians and an ever-increasing number of young Red engineers. By the mid-thirties, the engineers had become the heroes in Soviet society. Praised by Stalin, they flaunted their new status, relaxing in the shadow of the modern industrial world they had built for him. Soviet man – who was once to have surpassed Aristotle, Goethe and Marx – had been replaced by the image of a zealous engineer taught to think of everything in
technical terms; and completely loyal to Stalin.
In the thirties, thousands travelled to the Soviet Union to marvel at this dream come true. But what they saw was not communism. Instead, it was an orderly society administered by technocrats. George Bernard Shaw, like many other fellow travellers, made it clear that what he admired was the benevolent despotism of these enlightened
technicians. "In Russia", he said, "the leaders have been scientifically educated for their job."
In 1937, Stalin began another series of purges. This time, his targets were the tens of thousands of old Bolsheviks. Once he had fought the revolution with them; now, they ran the country as commissars and plant directors. In a notorious wave of show trials, Stalin destroyed them.
[presumably from Scott's Behind the Urals, as above]
[Voiceover, as before:] "The purge struck Magnitogorsk with great force. No group, nobody in the
works, was spared."
[Alexei Leontevich Shatilin (subtitled)]
Word came through that all experts were to be arrested. Zavenyagin, who was the head of the
steelworks, received a telephone call. It was Korobov at the blast furnace, saying: "The specialist
engineers are being taken away." Zavenyagin asked him: "If the experts all leave, who's going
to run the plant?" – "The young cadres", Korobov replied – "Let them go, then", said Zavenyagin.
And then they were gone.
[Alexei A. Gastev (subtitled)]
They arrested my father in 1938. A year later, he was tried and shot.
I feel the social engineering machine would have forseen the impending cataclysm. It was as
if a warehouse manager suddenly decided to liquidate whole sections of his stock. The social
engineering machine would have grown frantic as it sensed the approaching doom. But nothing
was done. History rolled on.
The beneficiaries of these purges were Stalin's Red engineers. As the thirties drew to a close, they were in charge throughout Soviet industry. Among them were young men like Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin and Nikita Khrushchev. Unlike their predecessors, the bourgeois engineers, they were completely unquestioning of Stalin's political aims. Their narrow specialist training now led them to approach the task of planning the Soviet Union as
though it were a piece of engineering. There would be technical solutions to everything.
The [Second World W]ar seemed to prove the engineers right. It was their organisation of the industrial plants that ultimately saved Russia from the Nazis. Victory left large parts of the country utterly destroyed. Those now in charge were convinced that to rebuild the Soviet Union, an all-embracing plan would be needed – one in which everything would be taken care of in a rational way. It was a vision of a planned utopia.
[A clip from a post-WWII Soviet propaganda film starts, featuring ranks of women marching and singing (subtitled)]
"Comrades, comrades, to work, as in war; All that we dream of, all we wish and crave for,
we will have! We'll prove ourselves at work just as we did at war ..."
Everything in the new Russia was to be designed and controlled from the centre of Moscow. As the women [in the propaganda clip] sing of the future, they march past the giant headquarters of this organised society: Gosplan ("State Plan").
Evgenii A. Ivanov, Senior Manager, USSR Gosplan [subtitled]
We receive information here on all facets of life in the Soviet Union. It is channelled to this very
floor from the remotest corners of our vast country. Behind these doors are the offices of our
department. I'll open one so you can see inside. [He opens a door and the camera looks in] The
comrades are busy. Our presence has gone unnoticed.
As the flow of information migrates through the building, it becomes more and more
concentrated. This subsection receives the most distilled data; the definitive numbers, the
ultimate information. Then, once the plan has been decided, it turns into a vast surge of
information which falls like rain on every worker, controlling all the industries in the Soviet
Gosplan's managers built a world that was simple, like a machine. Everything society needed, down to the smallest object, was constructed to their design. Their instructions were called "plan indicators"; rational predictions of what they knew society needed.
Valerii Nikolaievich Blinov, Managing Director, Moscow Toothbrush and Plastic Comb Factory [subtitled]
We manufacture 70 million toothbrushes a year; enough for the entire population of the Soviet
Union. Until recently, we had a huge number of plan indicators imposed on us. Every toothbrush
was planned, like all the products we made.
Alexei Sergeevich Vassiliev, Deputy Managing Director in Charge of Quality [subtitled]
The tiniest details of our range are controlled by government agencies. This includes the planning
of quantities for each toothbrush.
By the early fifties, vast reconstruction projects had changed the face of Soviet cities. Rationing ended six years earlier than in Britain. The Soviet Union was now an advanced industrial society. It was the golden age of the plan. But in its grandeur, the sweep of its ambitions, lay the seeds of its downfall.
Vitalii Semyonovich Lelchuk, USSR Academy of Sciences [subtitled]
In itself, the idea of planning is not in the least absurd. But when it's undertaken by the state on
a vast scale and it rules all aspects of life, then it's absurd. Even the KGB was told the quota of
of arrests to be made and the prisons to be used.
The demand for coffins, novels and movies was all planned. Things became increasingly absurd.
When Stalin died, much of the machinery of terror disappeared. The planned economy flourished. But, as it did so, strange things began to happen. The planners discovered that what seemed rational to them could lead to the oddest behaviour. Whole train-loads of output travelled thousands of miles for no reason, simply to fulfil a plan that measured success in tons carried per kilometre. Folk-tales about the plan began to circulate.
Leonid Pavlovich Katovskii, taxi driver [subtitled]
[While driving through Moscow] The plan is the plan. It's a pain in the arse. If you drive more miles
a month than the plan allows, you're penalized. So, if you want to stay within the permitted
mileage, you've to jack up the car, and wind back the clock till it shows the right figure.
Nikita Khruschev, 1931 graduate from the Moscow Industrial Academy, understood the problem. It was the growing complexity of Soviet society. What had made it manageable was not scientific planning, but Stalin's brutal terror. Khruschev's dilemma was how to change the plan and the thinking of those who made it.
[Leonid Pavlovich Katovskii (subtitled)]
There's Gosplan over there. They have endless meetings, but where they get their plan from –
God only knows. They should switch places with us. Then they'd think twice.
[Evgenii A. Ivanov (subtitled)]
[Back inside the Gosplan building] Here's another office. [He opens a door] Oh, they're out. In a
meeting, I expect.
In 1957, Khruschev attacked the planning bureaucracy publicly. He made a speech that laid bare the growing absurdities in Soviet life. Why, he asked, were sofas getting bigger and bigger? Why were the metal chandeliers that hung from the Kremlin's ceilings – and everywhere else in Russia – so heavy that they threatened to come crashing down? The reason, he said, was the planners' method of assessing the plan. The more metal, the more wood the factories used, the better the plan was working. As part of a whole series of reforms, Khruschev insisted that the bureaucrats must begin to take into account the price of things.
Sergei Mikhailovich Ulanov, Head of Organization and Methodology of Price Creation, USSR State Committee on
Here at the Prices Committee, we fix the price of everything. A total of 25 million items comes
under our scrutiny. We employ four-hundred highly qualified experts. Their job is to calculate the
prices, which are then logged in these handbooks [He indicates the tall pile of books on the desk behind
which he is standing]. These are just a few. There are many more. You could make a stack twice as
big as this one.
This shows quite clearly that the system is rational. The system is cumbersome, I admit. However,
with the aid of modern technology, all these price handbooks [the phone on the desk starts ringing]
will be reduced to just a few floppy disks which the staff can keep in their desk drawers... Excuse me
a second. [He answers the phone] Yes... Right away. [He replaces the handset] I'm awfully sorry, but I'm
required by the Minister on urgent business.
Despite his optimism, Khruschev's attempts to reform the planning system failed. Taking power away from Gosplan, creating regional plans, only added to the complexity. One senior scientist, Academician Glushkov, predicted that by 1980, the entire Soviet population would be employed in administering the plan. The solution, he said, was the new science of rational control from America: cybernetics.
[From an unidentified black-and-white film]
[Voiceover:] "Cybernetics is a young branch of science which has a tremendous future. Here is what
Director of the Institute of Cybernetics, Academician Victor Glushkov, says: "Cybernetics occupies
a central place in the developing scientific and technological revolution. What I have in mind is the
use of computers in planning the future, in forecasting scientific and technological progress.""
Academician A. S. Fedorenko, Director, Central Economico-Mathematical Institute of the USSR Academy of
Research was telling us our economy was in deep trouble. We racked our brains to design a
model that would help industry become more efficient. People would then work harder and
this would create a better life for everyone.
We did all in our power to apply real economic science to these problems. Not pseudo-science,
but real economic science.
Into this computer [presumably the one being shown onscreen], the planners fed all the information they could find about Soviet society. For a brief moment in the mid-sixties, it revitalised the hope that science could control society in a rational way.
Abel G. Aganbegyan, economist [subtitled]
Some of these people really believed that with computers, you could plan and predict
everything. It was a utopia, an illusion.
[A. S. Fedorenko (subtitled)]
I can't claim that it has worked yet. But we're getting there. The problem is that they didn't
take our scientific advice. [The Russian interviewer, off-camera, asks:] Why not? [Fedorenko replies:]
Because the people in charge didn't have a proper understanding of science... and its basic
The attempt to use computers on such a vast scale could not save the plan, or Nikita Khruschev. In 1964, he was replaced by Brezhnev and Kosygin. They were convinced that there were rational scientific solutions that could
still lead Russia to the promised land.
The country's new leaders realised that although the economy was still growing and living conditions still improving, the plan was badly out of control. The problem was the complexity of modern life; the intricacy of people's demands. The solution, the planners believed, was to find a scientific way of predicting what their people wanted.
All-Union Scientific Research Institute for the Study of the Population's Demand for Consumer Goods and the
Conjuncture of the Market
Dr. Alexander Nikolaievich Voronov, Director [subtitled]
Our task is easy and, at the same time, difficult.
Dr. Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Nefedov, Economist [subtitled]
Take the demand for pantyhose. A rise in demand is determined by certain
well-known factors: the number of women wearers, the duration of pantyhose
wear and the number of pantyhose worn. From that, we make a rough estimate
of demand. One of our chief sources of information is a nationwide network of
consumer correspondents, whose job is to observe and study what people want.
Each city has two observers. Each month they file a report. [He gets up and walks
off-camera] We process this data in a computer and it comes out like this [He returns
with a lengthy computer printout and unfurls it in front of the camera]. This tells us what
people are buying in all the basic categories. [He sits back down and Voronov begins
to help him fold the printout's pages back together] Other sources of data are special
consumer panels and nationwide... surveys.
Dr. Natalya Antonovna Cherkasova, Economist [subtitled]
The problem is that industry reacts very slowly to our scientific forecasts. For
instance, we decided people wanted platform shoes. By the time industry got
round to increasing production, they were out of fashion.
Nowadays, the Soviet consumer knows that if there is enough of a particular
item in the shops, it's a sure sign it's out of fashion.
[Abel G. Aganbegyan (subtitled)]
The late 1960s saw the most terrible period in our post-war history. We called it the "years of
stagnation". In 1978, stagnation turned into economic crisis. Food shortages began, factories
stood idle, standards of living slumped. They were grim years. Our industrial base began to
function purely in its own interest. All the progress we'd made in the 1960s was wasted.
By the mid-seventies, the Soviet leadership gave up attempting to reform the plan. As the economy finally began to slow down, much of industry degenerated into pointless elaborate ritual. What had begun as a grand moral attempt to build a rational society ended by creating a bizarre, bewildering existence for millions of Soviet people.
[Vitalii Semyonovich Lelchuk (subtitled)]
Why weren't we able to transform our dreams into reality? Why didn't we succeed in
creating a society where everyone could be free and fulfilled? Who is to blame? Not
science itself, but the men who mistook what science was [...glitch...]