An American helped Soviet Russia mine gold for industrialization (part 1)

The Communists had cheap labor and plenty natural resources, but little cash and a bad habit of shooting engineers. To date, Russia continues to play down the role of thousands of Western specialists in its economic reconstruction.

One of them was John Dickinson "Jack" Littlepage. From 1928 to 1937 he was employed to coordinate the gold mining process in the USSR. There, he became a Deputy Commissar (deputy minister) of the Communist country's Gold Trust directorate. He was one of the few foreign recipients of the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. 

Many years later, he left the country as a rich man. More importantly – he made his way home alive and unharmed.


There’s a century-long tradition in Russia – kill, drive into emigration, or imprison native engineers and scientists, then waste the country, and employ western specialists and companies to rebuild it. Ultimately, the government kicks all the foreigners out, assumes their merits, and forgets about them – all part of a Communist tradition laid down almost 100 years ago. 

More to read:
In 1940-41, the Soviet Union was preparing to attack Nazi Germany. The Germans struck first

Between the power takeover by the Bolsheviks (later Communist party) and until the end of a terrible civil war in 1922, at least 1 million lives of intelligentsia were lost in mass repressions. Among them, hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, civil servants, military, nobility, and entrepreneurs, who were regarded as a hostile class to farmers and workers. 

Execution of an "anti-Soviet element" in CK basement. Illustration by Ivan Vladimirov. Credit: Wikipedia 

While a large part of specialists was executed or died in prisons, others survived hard labor in Siberia, and some were lucky to leave Russia. Two severe famines in 1921-22 and 1930-33 (which repeated in 1946-47), further stripped the country of qualified labor force and left deep scars on the Soviet economy.

The loss of human capital pushed Soviet Russia down below the levels before the World War One. This retardation was so embarrassing for the Soviet leadership, which had promised Communist heaven within two decades but instead turned incapable of feeding its own people, that the Kremlin instructed “red commissars” to search for foreign engineers. 

Importing foreign specialists

Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist between 1922 and 1953, was deeply concerned with the might of the armed forces and the sustainability of his regime, therefore he ordered a swift industrialization and closure of the technological gap with European countries. 

Moscow had plenty of cheap labor and natural resources, but little cash and few technical experts.

Therefore, Stalin sent special envoys to the United States, Germany, France, Great Britain, and other western nations to attract specialists and companies with big money in return for their expertise in rebuilding the Soviet economy.

Thousands of foreign specialists entered the country to help in the erection of industrial plants and machinery building sector. Germany was under the Versailles agreement’s sanctions and the US was suffering from the Great Depression, so the Soviets enjoyed a margin of bargain in negotiation with German and American engineers.

Who persuaded Littlepage?

One of the Soviet headhunters was Alexander Serebrovsky, a 45-year-old professor at the Moscow Mining Institute, who in 1927 traveled to Alaska with the mission to learn of the mining technologies and find engineers willing to move to Russia. There he met John Dickinson "Jack" Littlepage, 33, who at that time was working as a mining engineer and earned some sort of professional respect during his 14-year career.

John Littlepage and Alexander Serebrovsky (right). Credit: Wikipedia

Serebrovsky was the head of the newly-formed GlavZoloto Trust (Gold Trust) and a member of the Finance Ministry Board, so he was empowered to negotiate.

John Littlepage initially turned down Serebrovsky’s offer, stating that he did not like Bolsheviks for their “bad habit of shooting people, especially engineers,” but the Soviet envoy dismissed the reports about Soviet crimes, continued to court Littlepage, and ultimately persuaded him to emigrate to the USSR along with his family.

Littlepage with his wife and two young daughters arrived in the Soviet Union on 1 May 1928; he was met with grand fanfare in Siberia, where the gold mines were. The American engineer learned Russian and retained his US citizenship, without being forced to apply for a Soviet passport – unlike many other foreign specialists.

In the following six years, the USSR's gold production exceeded the United States' and the British Empire's.

Part 2 is here.


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