I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets - V. Tchernavin

"One and a Half Million Tons"

After the President of the Board of Directors, Mourasheff, went to Moscow his assistant, the Vice-President, a canny peasant, in order to shift the responsibility from his own shoulders, called an "enlarged conference" of the Board, summoning to it all the "non-party" experts and department managers. The Vice-President, like his immediate predecessor, was a peasant from the Archangel district who had joined the party after the Revolution, an illiterate drunkard who had served in the GPU and, being a representative of the Archangel Executive Committee, was ready to bring about the ruin of the fishing business in Murmansk. He and his Communist associates knew nothing about the fishing business nor did they even try to learn; they knew well that they could obtain anything they desired through the GPU and that the chief thing in business was to avoid responsibility. One of the vice-presidents during this period became quite proficient in that respect. He learned to write on reports "Refer to So-and-So for resolution." A report can probably be found even now in the files of the North State Fishing Trust on which at the Leningrad office of the fisheries this vice-president made the notation "Refer to the Murmansk office," and a few days later, having returned to Murmansk and finding that the report had not yet been taken care of, he wrote underneath his previous notation the words: "Refer to the Leningrad office" and sent it back.

The Vice-President opened the "enlarged conference" solemnly by reading a telegram which the president had sent after reaching Moscow. In the telegram he repeated the requirements and stated that they were definite: 500 trawlers and 1,500,000 tons of fish per year by January 1st, 1933—and he called upon the entire staff to strain every effort and fulfill this plan.

Then came the Vice-President's speech. The real reason for the terrifically large assignment now came to light. It was plain, from his talk, that this assignment had come directly from the Political Bureau itself, and not from the Moscow organizations in charge of the fishing industry. The affair had deep roots. Peasants driven by force into Collectives (Communal farms) had destroyed their cattle and other livestock so thoroughly that the country was left without meat, butter, milk or poultry, and there was no hope of obtaining these products for the next few years. It was first decided to raise pigs, which multiply quickly, but that project had not succeeded. Then it was remembered that in 1919 and 1920 fish had saved the urban population from starvation. Fish are plentiful in the sea, do not require to be raised, watched or fed,—they need only be caught. Fish, therefore, must help the population to live through the period of "disorganization and growth" and thereby help to establish the foundation of Socialism. Thus fishing had become no longer simply an economic problem; it was now a political problem. So it was that the total amount of fish which had to be caught was figured out by the "Centre" and then allocated to the various districts, the share of the North State Fishing Trust coming to 1,500,000 tons. Each trawler must catch 3,000 tons per year and, therefore, the number of trawlers must be increased to 500. The money necessary for this expansion was assigned, or rather was promised.

From his two hour speech it was impossible to understand the Vice-President's own attitude towards the new demand. He announced the figures with exaltation: "One and a half million tons! Almost one hundred million pouds!  That's no joke! These scientists here (nodding at me) say that England has been developing its fishing industry for many centuries, has many ports and harbors and 2,000 trawlers—and her catch is only half a million tons a year, but we, in three years, will catch in our Trust alone one and a half million tons! One trust—three times more than all of England!"

At this point he evidently remembered that we actually had nothing, that seventeen of our twenty-two trawlers were obsolete, that the new ones built in Germany were unreliable, and that we had no harbor to accommodate the large number of proposed ships. Energetically scratching his head and other parts of his body, he then continued: "Well, it is necessary, in a word, to make a great effort. . . . It is necessary, in a word, comrades, to try and . . . and . . . brace up, and in the meantime, in a word, it is necessary to talk it over because the problem is very serious, very serious. Well, who wishes to speak, to talk it over, in a word?"

For us "to talk it over" was no easy task. The Vice-President and the other party men understood as well as we did that the assignment was impossible to fulfill and that it would unavoidably result in the ruin of the enterprise—and probably of the whole Russian trawling business. But what did they care about the enterprise and the Russian fishing industry! Yesterday this very vice-president had been in the lumber industry, had ruined it and given his experts away to the GPU; now he was about to take part in the wrecking of the fishing industry and would doubtless give us away; and so he would pass on to some other business. A "party" ticket, together with submission to the "general line," guaranteed him full immunity from responsibility. The "party" men knew perfectly well that we were the ones who would be held responsible. They were now waiting for us to speak, no doubt inwardly jeering, "What are you going to say now? Are you in a hole? Experts, scientists, how are you going to get out of it?"

They knew very well, that if one of us dared to express the thought each of us had in his mind—that the assignment could not be fulfilled—he would immediately be accused of sabotage, of "wrecking" the work of the North State Fishing Trust. Such views on our part would be called a "bold attack on the part of the class enemy" and then would come the GPU—prison—Solovki—or death. On the other hand, if we now remained silent, then in a year, or at the utmost in two, when the plan fell through, we would be blamed for not having objected to it, and the plan itself would be attributed to us as a "wrecking plan," and then—the GPU—prison—Solovki—or death.

To keep silent would at least defer the day of reckoning, but in spite of this we all spoke up and, without using the dangerous words "impossible" and "unfulfillable," conscientiously pointed out all the obstacles: that the Five Year Plan adopted in 1928, under which work had been already carried on for a year, together with the projects of new constructions actually under way would be cancelled by the new plan. All construction work would have to be stopped and a new plan and new projects in conformity with the new assignments would have to be drawn up. It would be fruitless to continue building a barrel factory and a refrigeration plant for a 175,000 ton catch when the assignment had now been changed to 1,500,000 tons. New construction plans, with all their preliminary drawings and specifications, would have to be drawn up. The new projects would necessarily be so complicated, varied and enormous that we would have to enlarge our offices to take care of it all. Moreover, such a huge construction would necessitate an extensive prospecting o the shore zone of the gulf and the adjacent region, and the cost of this new work would amount to approximately a thousand million roubles.

Under the most favorable conditions it would be possible to begin working on the preliminary projects in January 1930. One year would be needed to complete them; it would, therefore, be not until January 1931 that they, together with the new plan, would be presented for approval. They then would have to pass, according to the established routine, through a number of administrative organizations: The Fishing Directorate, the Construction Directorate, the Scientific Technical Committee, and receive their final approval by the People's Commissariat. Many of the projects would have to pass through additional stages: the Refrigeration Committee, the Port Committee, Public Health Commissariat, War and Navy Commissariat, and many others. If everything went smoothly and no project was turned down, this routine procedure would take a half a year, so that the preliminary projects would be finally approved in July 1932 and only then work on final plans, working drawings and specifications could be started. They would be completed in 1933. But the Five Year Plan, as every one of us was only too well aware, had to be fulfilled by January 1, 1933. So by January1, 1932 we were required to have in use 300 trawlers and increase our catch up to 1,000,000 tons per year, at which time even the preliminary projects would not yet be ready. How could such difficulties be overcome?

Attention was drawn to the fact that the Murmansk single-track railway, even as things were, found it difficult to handle the available freight, and the projected expansion would require the daily movement of two hundred cars of fish alone, not to mention the other freight. A second track would have to be built,—no easy job—1,500 kilometers over hills and through swamps.

And the labor problem! Murmansk had a population of only 12,000 to 15,000 and already living quarters were greatly over-crowded. With the projected expansion the number of workmen would have to be increased at least to 50,000 men who, with their families, would bring the total population up to 200,000 people. For such an increase it would be necessary to build not only houses, but also bath-houses, schools, stores, canalization, an electric power station, and so on, and this building development, in its turn, would lead to a further increase of the population. The building of a new town and a railroad could not be undertaken by a fishing enterprise, yet without this construction the fishing plan could not be fulfilled.

The training of ships' crews would also present considerable difficulties; 25,000 men would be needed for the servicing of the 500 trawlers, including 2,000 pilots and as many mechanics, and 300 skippers and 300 mechanics would be required yearly for filling vacancies. Futhermore, the skippers would have to be specially trained to know not only navigation, but also how to hunt for fish banks, how to catch the fish and how to handle it. Already, with only twenty-two ships we were having difficulties in keeping a full staff of captains and mechanics. Now, in the remaining three years of the Five Year Plan we would have to build up a whole fleet. How could it be done? A skipper's diploma, or that of a mechanic, required graduation from a high school, and a special four years' course at the marine school of technology. Only the Archangel Technology prepared skippers for navigation in northern seas and it graduated every year only twenty-five skippers and twenty-five mechanics. To have a sufficient supply of captains we would need eighty such technologies, with buildings, instructors, school supplies and so on, not to mention the four thousand healthy young men with a high school education, who would be willing to give their lives to navigation on the rugged Arctic Ocean in small, dirty fishing vessels. Furthermore, we would have to have radio operators, specialists in trawling, salting, and many other secondary specialists and technicians.

All this, we pointed out, should be brought immediately to the attention of the Government, for we had no right to conceal the true situation. We knew very well that in spite of convincing arguments, in spite of all the evident absurdity of the Plan, nobody would listen to us, but we were doing our duty.

One of the representatives of the "workers-ownership" replied to us. He was just a boy, a real Communist and a "confirmed Marxist." He sat with his cap on, his face dull and cruel. What he said was well known to everyone and could serve for every occasion, chiefly quotations from editorials of provincial "Pravdas"  published in every town from Vladivostok to Murmansk. [Pravda  is the Russian word for "truth." This newspaper is the official organ of the Communist Party. ]

"Comrades! Our party and government positively under the leadership of our leader, Comrade Stalin, are certainly making unheard-of strides in the development of our industry as such. They certainly are realizing the motto 'overtake and outstrip' the capitalistic countries struggling in the clutches of a world crisis which, due to the joined efforts of the proletariat, is becoming a real fact.

"It is necessary, comrades, to strain every effort and as correctly pointed out by Comrade President—in a word—to brace up. Unquestionably the assignment of the party and government must be fulfilled and exceeded, accomplishing the Piatiletka  as such in a minimum of four years." (Words like minimum and maximum were always being wrongly used by such orators.)

"Here we have listened to various references and various facts. Of what use are they? Bourgeois parasites insert themselves into the ranks of the proletariat by means of sallies of the class enemy; this is of no use either.

"Comrades, we must unite into a steel wall and fight with all our proletarian determination and healthy self-criticism. We must strike a hard blow against those who deserve it. We must engage in a pitiless fight against Leftist deviations as well as against Rightist leanings which represent the chief danger in the given stage of development whatever side they come from. Certainly we all, as one man, will defend the plan and the 'general line' of workers' enthusiasm as such. 'Shock work' and 'Socialistic competition' should, certainly, be carried out without forgetting for a minute leadership and workers' initiative and inventiveness. We unquestionably must, comrades, not only fulfill . . ."

"Shut up, Kolka, stop agitating," interrupted his neighbor, also of the same species of the "self-conscious." "We have been sitting here for four hours and I have two more meetings to attend to-day. Keep closer to business, present the workers' resolution."

"All right, comrades. As it is getting late, unquestionably, I offer concretely not only to fulfill but, of course, even to exceed by 120 per cent the government's assignment; also to decisively disregard the objections raised by the opponents and to accomplish the Piatiletka  as such in a minimum of two and a half years." So saying, he sat down.

The workers' resolution was not discussed. The Board, however, decided to send a report to the Moscow Fishing Directorate pointing out all the difficulties which lay in the way of fulfillment of the assignment and asking for instructions.

The meeting adjourned. The Vice-President, with a worried expression on his face, went up to the "representative" who had spoken at the meeting; one could hear that he was scolding him.

"What's all this nonsense you were talking? We don't know what to do. This isn't the time to antagonize these experts—it's exactly the time we need them."

The representative gave the following as his defense: "In the true Bolshevik spirit of not dodging an issue, Comrade President, I must recognize my mistake, but all this is unquestionably the result of my having a headache. I was drunk yesterday."

And so the meeting ended.