E&T Archive: British power engineers' 1956 visit to the USSR

11 August 2014
By Josiah Eccles
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A British delegate’s personal pass to the 1956 First of May parade in Red Square

A British delegate’s personal pass to the 1956 First of May parade in Red Square

The itinerary for the 1956 trip

The itinerary for the 1956 trip

The magnet assembly inside the Synchro Phasotron

The magnet assembly inside the Synchro Phasotron

The Synchro Phasotron building

The Synchro Phasotron building

400kV isolators at Noginsk

400kV isolators at Noginsk

400kV switchgear at Noginsk

400kV switchgear at Noginsk

In the Spring of 1956, a delegation from the British electricity-supply industry paid a visit to the Soviet Union. The following year, Mr J Eccles (later Sir Josiah Eccles) reported on the group’s impressions of the country in this article, originally published in the March 1957 issue of E&T’s predecessor magazine, the Journal of the IEE.

It was in August 1955 that the British Council indicated to Lord Citrine that arrangements could be made for a deputation of Soviet electrical engineers to visit this country if an invitation were forthcoming from the Central Electricity Authority. In due course the Authority issued an invitation, at the same time making it clear that it was intended to be on a reciprocal basis. About two weeks before the date of their arrival, the Soviet Embassy in London told us that the party would be led by Mr. Malenkov.

Mr Malenkov is an important political figure in the USSR. He succeeded Stalin as Chairman of the Council of Ministers on the latter's death in 1953. This position is somewhat analogous to that of Prime Minister here. However after fifteen months he decided to stand down in favour of Mr Bulganin and resumed his role as a Vice-Chairman of the Council. He was also appointed Minister of Power Stations.

The Russian party arrived at London Airport on the 15th March 1956 and spent twenty-four days in an intensive study of British electrical power facilities and problems. Mr. Malenkov proved to be a man of considerable personal charm, and an astute and witty Minister with a grasp of electrical power problems. One consequence of this visit was that we were enabled to meet and discuss technology with a group of very able engineers and scientists, some of whom were to be our hosts later.

The journey out

On the 16th April a party of nineteen led by Lord Citrine and including one interpreter left London Airport for the return visit. We flew via Brussels, Prague, Warsaw and Vilno to Moscow, arriving there on the 17th. We spent the night of the 16th at Prague. There we were met at the airport by the Minister of Energetics (i.e. Fuel and Power) and his staff, who entertained us most hospitably in a private lounge at the airport, provided transport to the Alcron Hotel in Prague and for a sightseeing tour during the afternoon, and gave us dinner at a large well-appointed country house (now a home for writers) at Dobris, some thirty miles out of Prague. We received a very friendly official welcome and were invited by the Minister to come again, for, he said, 'power engineers had much in common'.

Next morning the Minister and his staff were at the airport to see us off. We left Prague at 9.36 a.m. in a Soviet plane in which there were no safety belts or smoking restrictions on take-off. This we were later to find was standard in all Soviet planes. We came down at Warsaw for an hour and again at Vilno, where we had a late lunch and put our watches forward two hours, to show Moscow Time.

There was snow just off the runways as we left Vilno at 5.06 p.m. and flew for 2\ hours over the waste lands. Snow lined the edges of the forests, lakes and rivers were frozen and very few dwellings were to be seen. The country was beginning to emerge from winter's grip and one could but reflect upon Napoleon's problem in extricating an army retreating westward across this terrain in 1812.

At 7.35 p.m. we touched down at a Moscow airport and taxied into the glare of floodlights near the airport buildings. Mr. Malenkov, Mr. Ermakov, his deputy, and a number of the members of the Soviet delegation were there to meet us, as was also the British Charge d'Affaires. We had arrived.

Moscow

The journey to Moscow by car traversed a smooth-surfaced wide road through open and later through suburban country. On entering the city, the noticeable features were the very large blocks of eleven-storey flats, and the feverish building activity by floodlight, to produce new ones. We passed through Red Square with the Kremlin on the left and the Gum stores on the right, on through Gorki Street and the Leningrad Highway to the Sovietskaya Hotel near the Moscow Dynamos' stadium. The streets were wide—capable of accommodating five lines of traffic each way—street lighting was good and the shops from the outside looked cheerful.

The Sovietskaya is a new hotel and is spacious and commodious. The lifts or wide marble staircases and ample corridors lead to panelled rooms or suites which comprise a lounge, breakfast room, bedroom, bathroom, etc., for the more favoured guests. Radio and television are laid on in the principal suites, telephones are provided in all rooms, the barber or manicurist comes to your room on request and there is a 24-hour service on each floor. There is a one-day-return laundry service in the hotel. The food was excellent and there was a dinner dance most evenings.

But, whilst paying full tribute for what' has been done to modernize the centre and the main arteries of Moscow, I must in fairness state that this forms but a skeleton of what remains to be done. From the windows of the Sovietskaya one looks down upon a vast area of timber shacks. These are constructed of unsawn tree trunks held together by dovetailing the side and cross members at the corners. Water is obtained from stand-pipes in the street. On one two-storey structure larger than the rest there were sixteen television aerials, which presumably denoted sixteen families resident within.

It was the same away from main roads in most districts. In the country districts around Moscow, this type of shack forms the vast majority of the human habitations. For the most part they are grouped along the roadside to form straggling and unplanned villages. There are no regular paths up to the front door and no attempt to create formal gardens. Mud abounds in the short season between winter frost and summer sun, and everyone wore Wellingtons.

The territory and government of the U.S.S.R.

The territory of the Soviet Union is so vast, the language barrier so formidable, and the principles of government so different from those which operate here, that it would be wrong to dogmatize about the impressions gained during a fleeting visit of three weeks to a small part of the Union.

The U.S.S.R. comprises one-sixth of the habitable land surface of the earth. The population of 200 millions is about one-twelfth of the world population. Geographically it stretches some 6 000 miles from east to west and 2800 miles from south to north. In summer the evening shadows are lengthening in Vladivostok when dawn is still tinting the Leningrad hills. The time difference between these two places is about eleven hours, and a Soviet express train takes 10 days to make the journey either way. The climate varies from subtropical in the south to arctic in the north. There are some 160 nationalities, national groups and tribes in the Soviet Union.

The highest organ of State power is the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. The country is divided into fifteen Union Republics of which the Russian Republic, occupying 75 % of the territory and including over 50% of the population, is the largest. Next comes the Ukrainian Republic containing 5% of the area and20 % of the population. Within these Union Republics there are a total of seventeen Autonomous Republics, eight Autonomous Regions and ten National Areas, the purpose of which is to take account of local circumstances where minorities within a Union Republic are distinguished by specific national features. Each of the fifteen Union Republics and the seventeen Autonomous Republics has its own constitution which must conform to the general pattern of the constitution of the U.S.S.R.

The Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. has a total membership of 1347 deputies. It consists of two chambers: the Soviet of the Union, and the Soviet of Nationalities. One deputy to the Soviet of the Union is elected for every 300000 of the entire population. This chamber, therefore, is intended to represent the common interests of all citizens irrespective of nationality.

The Soviet of Nationalities is elected by the people voting by Union Republics, Autonomous Republics, Autonomous Regions, and National Areas on the basis of twenty-five deputies for each Union Republic, eleven for each Autonomous Republic, five for each Autonomous Region and one for each National Area. In this way the Soviet of Nationalities is intended to reflect the specific interests of all the nations and national groups in the Union.

The two chambers meet separately, and together when as a combination they comprise the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Supreme Soviet meets about twice a year—to pass the budget, enact laws, approve the successive five-year plans and receive reports on their implementation. The Supreme Soviet elects a Presidium as a standing body to act between meetings. It also appoints the Government of the U.S.S.R., elects the Supreme Court and appoints the Procurator General. The Presidium consists of a President (at present Marshal Voroshilov), fifteen Vice- Presidents (one for each Union Republic), a Secretary and fifteen members.

It was pointed out to us that the President of the Presidium is not endowed with personal executive power as in the United States. He is simply the chairman of a committee. His appointment, therefore, does not cut across the principle of collective leadership. The Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. is the highest executive organ of state power in the Union. It is the Government of the U.S.S.R. and is appointed by, and responsible to, the Supreme Soviet. It issues decisions and orders within the law to implement the national economic plans; it guides the work of the Ministries, maintains order and guides foreign relations.

Economic organization

There is practically no private property in the U.S.S. R., and the whole of the economic, social and cultural life of the people is controlled and managed by the Council of Ministers through fifty-six Ministries. All land belongs to the State. There are minor distinctions between State ownership of industry, State farms, collective farms, peasant holdings and co-operatives, but in essence every enterprise is owned and operated by the State. A person may own his own house and car, and in country districts a peasant or a collective may own a few domestic animals and may grow crops on the piece of land allotted for his own use.

There is a Ministry for each industry and service, from the extractive industries such as coal and metal, through the manufacturing processes, wholesale and retail distribution, and the public services. For example, in the electrical power field there is a Ministry of Heavy Industry which manufactures boilers and turbines; a Ministry of Electrical Plant which manufactures alternators, switchgear, motors and transformers; a Ministry for Electrical Instruments; a Ministry of Power Station Construction; and a Ministry of Power Stations, which plans, designs and operates power stations.

There is no competition in the sense that two or more independent organizations are making and selling the same product. Output targets are set each year to conform to the national plan, piecework and group bonus schemes are prevalent, and the stigma of failure to produce the required quota as an organization is very real.

Prices are set so that with efficient operation and administration every enterprise should be able to make a profit. About nine-tenths of this profit goes to the Ministry of Finance, and this, together with sums set aside for depreciation of assets, the revenue from the State taxes on certain commodities and a small amount of income tax, is the source of Government income. The highest income tax was said to be about 13% of the highest salaries. It was stated that out of the income derived in these ways the Government meets all current State expenditure—military and civil—and is able to finance all its capital projects as well. No doubt, in an expanding economy, it is neces^ sary to keep the volume of currency or credit in step with production but there was no information available to us on this point. Capital expenditure is made by the various Ministries in accordance with the five-year plan, and no interest is charged on these investments.

Perhaps one of the most arresting features of the Soviet administration is that it operates as an interest-free economy. There are two minor exceptions. Interest of up to 3% is paid on personal savings invested with the Government, and interest at about 2% is charged on working industrial capital to the extent that this is above an amount approved in relation to the turnover. This latter charge was said to have a salutary effect in controlling attempted stockpiling.

The wage structure and the trade unions

Since there is virtually no private property and no private enterprise, everyone works for a salary or a wage. Each year the Government through the various Ministries estimates what* the global amount of salaries and wages will be in the next ensuing year. These estimates are vetted by the State Planning Committee of the Council of Ministers; the most senior trade-union officials are parties to the estimates, and after Government approval has been given they become the economic bible for salaries and wages during the next twelve months. The estimates are based upon basic wage rates and salary scales for the various grades and estimated piecework and bonus earnings.

The trade unions are thus committed at the highest level to a wage and salary bill that is appropriate to the national output and national economy. When, therefore, these estimates are translated into wage rates in individual establishments there is no room for further discussion, and the main duty of the local trade-union officers is to encourage workers to fulfil the plan. They also administer benevolent funds and are very active in helping to further the political education of their members.

There is one trade union for each industry, and in general everyone in that industry from the Deputy Ministers to the lowest-paid worker is a member of it. Each member pays one per cent of his earnings to the union. In addition a lump payment is made to union funds out of the profits retained by each establishment. From the proceeds of these two sources of income the unions meet their own expenses and mainly finance the personal rehabilitation service which exists in the form of rest homes and sanatoria.

A health service exists and is financed by the State, but, when special treatment at spas or a period of convalescence is recommended by a medical panel, the matter is organized and up to 70 % of the cost is defrayed by the union of which the person is a member. Membership of a trade union was said to be voluntary but the disadvantages of the non-member are great.

Equality of the sexes

There is complete equality of the sexes in the Soviet Union—equality in disadvantages as well as in privileges. There is equal pay for equal work. One result is that women do their share of rough and heavy work. Women sweep the streets, work as bricklayers, stokers, turbine drivers and as labourers on the great construction projects. About 40 % of the power station operators are women. On the other hand, women fill technical and administrative posts at all levels.

Wages and incentives

The wage structure is in two parts: basic wages and bonus. The basic wage of each grade from Deputy Minister to labourer is determined for each industry and appears in a printed schedule. The appropriate rate appearing in this schedule is the mim'mum entitlement of each adult person (over eighteen) fully employed on the particular job or grade. The wage increases with length of service. In addition there are the piecework or group bonuses. These are calculated in a complicated manner. For boiler and turbine operatives they are related to availability and efficiency of the plant. The itemized structure of the entitlement of each group is elaborate.

It is possible to double the basic wage by bonus earnings but, as far as could be ascertained, a bonus addition equal to about two-thirds of the basic wage was more normal. That is to say, on the average, the total pay packet was made up of 60 % basic wage and 40 % bonus. Bonus can be earned 6nly when the worker or group is making a contribution to the national output. Thus, if a boiler or turbine breaks down or is out of service from any cause, the group which operates that unit of plant ceases to receive the relevant bonus until it is restored to service. One effect of this practice is that the operators assist and encourage the maintenance staff to minimize the period of outage.

Non-contributory pensions are paid, subject to a qualifying period of twenty-five years for men and twenty years for women, at the following ages:

Men                 Women

Normal workers                      55                    50

Administrative workers          60                    65

The pension is 50 % of the basic salary or wage and is payable at pensionable age whether the pensioner continues to work or not. It was stated that the majority of workers continue to work beyond pensionable age.

The working week

The normal working week is forty-six hours—five days of eight hours and six hours on Saturday. Generally there is no distinction in this respect between workmen and staff but heavy workers in certain industries work a seven-hour day. Shift work is the rule in every organization where production requires it or the service extends beyond eight hours a day. Overtime working is not permitted except in very exceptional circumstances such as those following a national catastrophe or a serious accident.

Sunday is a rest day but has no religious significance. Extra pay is not given for Sunday working. If work is done on Sunday which is outside the normal working schedule the worker gets equivalent time off. All shops are open on Sundays, a practice which enables people to shop on their rest day.

Industrial development

The Soviet Union is engaged upon a great programme of industrial and technical development. The successive five-year plans set targets for each industry and each factory. Each programme is a fantastic exercise in forward planning. The objectives are determined first and the means are then worked out in great detail. The number and type of machine tools, the number and range of horse-power of electric motors, the number of tractors, etc., are scheduled, the factories where they are to be produced are listed, the location, size and type of the new factories are determined and, after aggregating all these activities, the motive power required to keep them going is calculated. This latter calculation determines the size and location of the electrical power stations to be included in the plan.

In the current (1955-60) five-year plan it is proposed to increase the installed electrical generating capacity from 37 000 MW to 75 000 MW. In Britain we propose to increase the generating capacity from 20 000 MW to about 30 000 MW over the same period. In the Soviet programme 64 % of the increase will be conventional thermal stations, 29% hydro-stations and 7% (or 2 500MW) nuclear stations.

The largest steam generating sets in operation at present are of 150 MW capacity, operating at 2 400 lb/in.2 and 1050° F with reheat to 977° F. The standard sizes in use are 25, 50, 100 and 150 MW. Designs have been completed for 200 MW sets, and larger units are thought to be possible. So far they have not adopted the principle of one-boiler/one-turbine even on reheat designs.

The largest hydro-electric sets in operation are rated at 105 MW. These are low-head installations operating at 68-2r.p.m. Designs are ready for 200 MW hydro-sets, which will operate at 250r.p.m.

The individual hydro-electric stations are of large capacity. Kuybyshev and Stalingrad—both on the Volga —will have a capacity of at least 2 100 MW (twenty 105 MW sets in each). There is a plan to divert some north-flowing rivers into the Volga, which would increase the flow and permit of a substantial increase in the capacity of each of these stations. Stations are planned on the Yenisei and the Angara rivers, each of which will comprise eighteen 200 MW sets, giving a station capacity of 3 600 MW

These large-capacity hydro-stations are for the most part located far from present centres of population; hence the Government is faced with the alternatives of transferring large groups of people to the power production centres and establishing industries to use the power locally, or transmitting the power to the people over long distances. In practice they are doing both of these things. A town of 50000 people is springing up north-east of Stalingrad with the appropriate quota of industries to absorb part of the power that will be produced by the new station there.

In addition they have built a 400 kV double-circuit line from Kuybyshev to Moscow (505 miles) and propose to build a similar line from Stalingrad to Moscow to carry part of the output to the metropolis.

The general pattern of power production seems to be:

(a) To build combined heat and power stations in the cities so as to provide a heating service in a big way. These stations are fired I v coal, oil or natural gas, which has to be transported a long distance —sometimes 800 miles. The capacity of these stations is governed by the industrial and domestic heating requirements. There are about 100 of these combined heat and power stations.

(b) To build normal (condensing) electric power stations near the coal fields and hydro-stations on the great rivers and transmit the energy that is not used locally to the cities and districts remote from these energy sources by means of very-high-voltage lines.

The 400 kV line already in operation between Kuybyshev and Moscow has been mentioned. Other lines at this voltage are being planned. An experimental 200 kV d.c. line is in service over a distance of 75 miles near Moscow. An 800 kV d.c. line (centre-point earthed) 300 miles long is being constructed between Stalingrad and the Donets Basin. If this is successful the Soviet engineers plan to standardize l000kV for their long-distance d.c. transmission between Siberia and European Russia. In all lines the centre-point of the d.c. circuit will be earthed.

Practically all the plant and equipment now being installed are manufactured in the Soviet Union. The delegation saw a turbine works and an electrical generator works in Leningrad, each employing 10000 workers. A transformer works employing 4000 at Zaporozhie, a switchgear works employing 7000 at Sverdlovsk, and cable factories at Moscow and Leningrad were also visited. Generally speaking the workmanship was good, but the tooling varied from very modern to mediocre.

Transport of heavy loads tp isolated sites seems to present problems. The core and windings of large transformers are transported in light gas-filled enclosures. The tanks are fabricated and assembly is completed on site. Extensive fabrication of sections of boilers is carried out on open sites adjacent to the power station, and these sub-assemblies weighing 30-60 tons are moved into the station on special bogies and placed in position with the aid of overhead cranes.

Research

Research is extensive and intensive. Part of the delegation visited a thermo-technical research institute where an experimental boiler was operating at 4 600 lb/in.2 and 1100° F. The institute was founded in 1921 to investigate the utilization of low-grade fuel. There are twenty-seven laboratories and an experimental power station associated with the institute. All types of boiler, turbine and control equipment are investigated.

A nuclear research institute was visited. Here a particle accelerator operating at 680 MeV had been in operation since 1949. A more powerful accelerator designed to operate at 10 000 MeV was in an advanced stage of construction. This is a race-track synchro-phasotron and comprises 88 electromagnets arranged in four quadrants on a track radius of 92 ft. The space between the quadrants is used to inject particles, to remove particles, and for measurement. The supply for the magnets is provided by four 12-phase motor-driven 750r.p.m. alternators equipped with heavy flywheels. These feed ignitrons. Each ignitron has an output of 800 amp. A peak current of 12 800 amp flows through all magnet coils in series. There are five impulses per minute, the current rising for 3.3 sec, decaying for 3.3 sec with a 5-4 sec pause between pulses. The peak value of the pulse was said to be 170 MW. The building, which resembles the Albert Hall in size and shape, is unshielded because the magnets are constructed to form a shield for the track.

The experimental nuclear power station was visited. This installation has been described in detail in several publications. Briefly it consists of a pressurized water reactor with 128 channels, the effective length of each fuel channel being 67 in. The water pressure is 1 500 lb/in.2, the inlet and outlet temperatures being 374° F and 554° F respectively. The rated electrical output is 5 MW.

Education

The educational system in the U.S.S.R. is making a vigorous effort to meet the needs of a rapidly developing industrial economy. There are 33 universities, about 800 technical colleges and 220000 general educational schools in the Union. Seven years' free education, from age seven to fourteen, is compulsory throughout the Union; in some cities ten years' education, from seven to seventeen, is compulsory, and the hope is that this will eventually become universal.

It was said that 37 million children were receiving a general education and that more than 1£ million students were enrolled in the schools of higher learning, which include the universities and technical colleges. One of the latter—the Molotov Technical Institute, Moscow—was visited. Here there is a student population of 11 000 of whom 32% are women. The college is divided into ten faculties: electric power; thermal power; hydro-power; design and construction of electrical plant and equipment; electrification of industry and transport; utilization of heat; electrical vacuum techniques; telemetering and computing; radio, radar and television; and a general faculty for evening studies. The average age at entrance is 17^- years. Candidates have to pass an examination in mathematics, chemistry, physics, Russian and another language. The pass mark is 80%.

During the first year the education is general. In the second year the student must choose between mechanical and electrical engineering, and during the third, fourth and fifth years, his studies are confined to the faculty in which he has elected to graduate. The course lasts five years with six months added for the preparation and presentation of the thesis. Each successful student is awarded a diploma, which indicates the branch of engineering in which he has qualified. This diploma is a common award for all technical colleges, but the name of the college is inscribed on it and this has some significance to employers, who seem to be aware of college reputations. Each session lasts 9\ months with two months' break in summer and two weeks in winter. Students are exposed to practical training for three periods of about two months each during their five year course. Eight per cent of the time in the early years is devoted to instruction in Marx-Lenin political economy. No fees are charged and most students receive maintenance grants of between 300 and 500 roubles a month. The Director administers these grants and the amount paid to each student is determined by his progress in his studies. Similarly, although the professors and teachers are paid higher salaries than those for comparable posts in industry, their period of appointment does not exceed five years and reappointment is preceded by an appraisal of performance. The carrot and the stick are used to stimulate teachers and students alike.

A list of situations vacant is posted at the Molotov Technical Institute about three months before the date of graduation. Shortly thereafter the final year students are interviewed by the Director and a panel of industrialists. If a student has a clear idea as to what he wishes to do and there is a suitable vacancy, the matter is settled, but if he has no positive ideas his future work is determined by the panel after about twenty minutes' discussion.

Return

The party left Leningrad by air for Helsinki on the 8th May and continued the journey home via Stockholm and Copenhagen, arriving at London on the 14th May.

Conclusion

The impression gained after three weeks' travel study and observation is that of a people pressing forward with an industrial revolution under a political doctrine which allows little scope for the expression of human personality or human waywardness. The whole system is dedicated to an idea which is expressed in the trite phrase 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his work'. This is said to be the first phase, the second and final goal being 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'.

In the process there is a degree of regimentation of effort and ideas of which there is no equivalent in western countries. Criticism is permitted so long as it is criticism of individuals rather than of the system. Knowledge of the outside world has not been made available to the public and foreign travel has been virtually prohibited.

Hence one sees a people with no basis for forming judgments other than that which has been communicated to them by the Ministry of Culture. They are a people who in the main exhibit a stolid acceptance-of things as they are, which merges into cheerful enthusiasm in those engaged on great construction projects. Unquestionably they are better off in a material sense than they have ever been before—even though the standard of life and comfort is considerably below that of the British people— and this to them is perhaps the strongest vindication of the system. Basic wages have remained constant since 1947, bonuses have increased during this period and the prices of commodities have tended to come down.

The people are very friendly and have a delightful sense of humour. Music and the arts play a large part in their cultural life. This characteristic and these expressions of the things of the spirit are perhaps the two most hopeful signs in a civilization which tends to regiment thinking and suppress opinion. Industrially, they are on the march. Soon they will be able to supply all their needs and enter the export market on a substantial scale.

We are witnessing a great experiment in a particular brand of civilization. What the future holds is anybody's guess but it seems inconceivable that it should remain insulated from that ebb and flow of ethical and political opinion and practice which moulds the sense of values in other lands. These visits may be an indication that there is an awareness of this need. On the other hand, their belief in the Tightness of their system is so profound and the missionary zeal to propagate it so evident that we shall have to show beyond a peradventure that ours is the better way before any liberalizing thoughts can begin to take root.

It would seem that the international problems of the future between east and west will centre upon competition in ideas for the satisfaction of man's spirit and upon competition in commerce to secure his bread and butter.

Originally published in the Journal of the IEE, March 1957 (Volume 3, Issue 27)
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