History of the USSR was shaped by deliberately grandiose electriﬁcation plans. Lenin’s famous dictum that Communism equals Soviet power plus electricity was put into practice by the establishment of the State Commission for Electriﬁcation of Russia (GOELRO) and its plans for expansion of both thermal and hydro generating capacities (Nesteruk, 1963). These were not always the most efﬁcient ways to develop the country’s electric industry, and projects completed during the pre–WWII years also exacted a high price in terms of human suffering and death (many were built with forced labor from GULag). Even more grandiose plans followed after World War II but, fortunately, only some of them were realized: Perhaps the greatest unrealized project was, thankfully, the diversion of great Siberian rivers to the arid core of the Soviet Central Asia.
– Vaclav Smil, Energy Transitions
Why was electrification so crucial to Lenin’s plans?
Electrification was one of four network technologies to transform the urban environment in the late nineteenth century; the others were communications (telephone and telegraph), transportation (trains, trams, buses, and automobile s), and health (water and sewage). In a network technology, individual components-for electricity, generat ing stations, transmission wires, controi and distribution systems do not work unless the whole system functions.
In 1920’s, electrification was already relatively advanced in most Western countries and Russia desperately wanted to catch up.
This anecdote illustrates just how bad access to electricity was in Russia:
In December 1920, electrical engineer and Bolshevik Gleb M. Krzhizhanovskii displayed an illuminated map of a future electrified Russia to convince the 8th Congress of Soviets to approve a plan for state electrification. Moscow’s generating capacity was so low, however, that lighting the bulbs on the map resulted in blacking out parts of the city. Electrification had great political significance for the Communist regime, but dreams outpaced reality.
An interesting aspect of GOELRO was the political involvement of the electrical engineering community
After the war, proposals for centralized, large-scale, regional electrifation received growing attention as part of a technocratic movement by engineers. Only in Russia, however, did the economic and political upheavals that started in 1914 change the status of electrication as well as the govemment.