Soviet Oil Wealth in the Shadow of Bolshevik Energy Visions

Felix Rehschuh
Universität Zürich

25. Juni 2018
14:30 Uhr

Pavel Gorelyj:
Za 38 mln. tonn nefti s gazom v 1941 godu! (1941)

Since the early Cold War, the Soviet Union – as well as its successor, the Russian Federation – has been one of the world’s major oil producers. During the second half of the 20th century, a glut of liquid fuel not only strengthened the Eastern superpower’s position in its competition with the United States; hydrocarbon exports also became an inherent part of Soviet diplomacy and soon accompanied the rapprochement between East and West. Such a development, however, was far from foreseeable in the early Soviet period.

Despite countless rumours and speculations, most Bolshevik leaders highly underestimated the potential of their territory’s oil wealth as well as the benefits of liquid fuel. Lenin’s main energetic concept, the GOELRO plan, focussed on electrification and rated petroleum as a potential threat to the visions of the proclaimed ‘second Party Program’. Consequently, the Soviet oil industry was seen as an unwanted inheritance from the Tsarist past, too present to be ignored, but still not important enough for the Bolshevik project to receive political attention.

Despite growing confidence regarding Soviet oil wealth and the liquid fuel’s potential for socialist construction, the Bolshevik leaders’ attitude towards oil changed only slowly in the shadow of their early energetic visions, indoctrinated by none other than Lenin himself. This paper concentrates on Stalinist energy policy in the area of tension between internalized dogmas and energetic visions on the one hand and political as well as economic conditions on the other hand. It claims that for a long time Lenin’s mental heritage was too dominant in Soviet leaders’ thinking to even contemplate far-reaching deviations, until external conditions did not leave any choice: The political conditions after World War II urgently requested an energetic turnaround.