The Building of BAM and Late Soviet Socialism
Pittsburgh University Press 2009
At the Seventeenth Komsomol Congress in 1974, Leonid Brezhnev announced the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway, or BAM. This “Path to the Future” would prove to be the Soviet Union’s last flirt with socialist gigantism. The cost, poor planning, waste, and environmental damage associated with the construction BAM’s 2,687 miles of track served as an allegory for the Soviet system as a whole. To say that the BAM, which was to serve as an alternative to the strategically vulnerable and aging Trans-Siberian Railway, was a colossal failure is a colossal understatement. It’s troubles linger even today.
But BAM’s story is not merely tragic. As Christopher Ward‘s book Brezhnev’s Folly: The Building of BAM and Late Soviet Socialism demonstrates, the tale of BAM is also a window into the complexities of the Brezhnev era. Historians commonly view this period as one of “zastoi,” or stagnation. The BAM project, however, suggests a rather different interpretation. As Ward shows, we find a lot of things in the BAM initiative that are not captured by the “zastoi” interpretation, for example: a nascent Soviet environmental movement at loggerheads with the ecological destructiveness of Soviet Prometheanism; a flood of young volunteers driven by enthusiasm, opportunity, and a desire for freedom in the more libertine Soviet Far East; and, finally, a lot of crime, corruption, and sex (together with futile attempts to regulate and punish all of them). Ward’s study of BAM suggests that the Soviet Union under Brezhnev wasn’t so much stagnating as it was running about without any real idea of where it was going.