An American helped Soviet Russia mine gold for industrialization (part 2)

The Communists had plenty of cheap labor and natural resources, but little cash and a bad habit of shooting engineers. To date, Moscow continues to downplay the role of thousands of Western specialists in its industrialization.

Read part 1 here

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. 

In the years preceding the Bolshevik coup in 1917-18, the Russian Empire was the fifth largest economy in the world – and some sources claim it even ranked the third. The Soviet Union leaders were frustrated of their poor economic performance, realizing that the country dragged behind the West by 50-100 years and needed to industrialize “fast and furiously,” as dictator Joseph Stalin used to reflect loudly before his commissioners.

Therefore, he ordered them to complete the full industrialization of the Soviet Union – the largest country in the world that just experienced a brutal civil war – in just a decade.

Unemployment was high and hard currency was scarce, but there was plenty of gold in Russian mines across Siberia and in the Ural Mountains. The problem with the mines is that productivity was very low and engineers were very few.

Church paintings exhibited in a Moscow museum. Credit: Atlasobscura

By the time the Communists/Bolsheviks hired foreign specialists, they had secretly sold more than 6,000 tons (yes, they counted in tons) of rare and exclusive art from the national heritage – paintings, icons and other church items, historical exhibits and other artifacts – earning this way around 20 million in convertible rubles, or “3 rubles per 1 kilo of art,” as commissars liked to joke at that time.

This money was enough to pay up all foreign engineers, technical experts, managers, and machine operators, but didn’t cover the costs of industrialization.

The Russian rubles weren't – just like today – an easily convertible currency, so the Kremlin decided to push with gold mining as a national priority.

Just like California and then Alaska half a century before, Siberia too experienced a "Gold Rush" during the last years of the Russian Empire. However, the gold output in the early 1920s was far from impressive. The once-rich deposits had run empty, and no one discovered giant nuggets or new gold veins for a long time. All they had was gold-bearing sand, which, as before the Bolsheviks’ arrival, used to be extracted by hundreds of small artisanal cooperatives using the most primitive equipment.

This process yielded crumps only.

In the 1930s, Soviet headhunders trotted across North America and Europe in search for technologies and specialists, and one of them – Alexander Serebrovsky (right, in the picture above) befriended American mining engineer John Littlepage.

Missing the chance to see Stalin

Littlepage arrived in the Soviet Union, in 1928, he had poor knowledge of the country and its customs. The United States officially recognized the Soviet Union only in 1933, or 12 later than Germany and other European nations did. German specialists were already familiar with Communist Russia and were the first to instruct Littlepage during his stop in Berlin about what to say and do upon his settlement there. 

That’s how he learned that in the USSR an engineer must not spend time with his workers, hanging along instead with superiors and party officials. In that country, he was told, people disappear from time to time, but this is “normal” as the police were hunting down saboteurs and spies.

A week later, a bit puzzled by these instructions, Littlepage made his way to Moscow, where he and his family were accommodated at the Metropol Hotel. A translator was assigned to him, and literally the next day, he was called to participate in a rally – conveniently, it was 1 May, the Laborers’ Day, as Littlepage remembered in his memoirs

Early in the morning, the translator drove the unsuspecting American somewhere to the outskirts of the city, where columns for a festive procession were forming. He said he needed to step away for a moment to buy cigarettes and disappeared.

Knowing not a word of Russian, not aware where he was, Littlepage joined a lively group of people with banners and walked with them for several hours until he suddenly began to recognize the surroundings.

When he recognized his hotel, which was a few hundred meters from the Red Square, John slipped out of the crowd, slid through the doors past the porter, and disappeared into his room with great relief. Later, he sadly remarked that he missed the chance to see Stalin on the tribune of the Mausoleum.

To be continued…


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