Revisiting International Economic Cooperation in the Stalin Era: The Case of Czeckoslovak-Soviet Cooperation in Energy Production, 1948-1953

Ondrej Fiser | 17 April 2023

Modern History | European History | Economic History | Environmental History

During the Stalin and Gottwald era (1948-1953), unprecedented intensive cooperation in the energy sector evolved between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, having a major impact on the development of the power grid of both partners. Through this blog post, I examine the extent of this mutual cooperation and consider its impact on the development of socialist economies. It is worth paying more attention to this topic as it reveals hitherto unknown contexts of the Cold War and shows the fundamental role of the USSR in the development of the Czechoslovak energy sector. It seems that even in the post-Velvet Revolution period, these ties often covertly persist and continue to significantly steer Czech foreign economic cooperation.

Czechoslovak-Soviet cooperation in the energy sector developed in several forms. In the first instance, direct commercial exchange took place between the two countries. Its significant intensification was envisaged in the long-term trade agreement concluded for the years 1951-1955. Under this agreement, the Czechoslovak Works of Heavy Engineering imported Soviet equipment for power plants, including boilers and fittings, as well as components for the transmission network.[1] Similarly, the archives of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism show that the export of Czechoslovak energy equipment to the USSR was also substantial. Under the long-term agreement, Czechoslovakia was to supply complete power plants, including special small-scale mobile power stations.[2]

Another important form of cooperation in the energy sector was the expertise provided by Soviet engineers, who were assisting with the elaboration of investment plans for the construction of Czechoslovak power stations and other related tasks. For instance, between 1952 and 1953, nine Soviet experts worked in Czechoslovakia in the energy and mining sectors on a long-term basis, ensuring the comprehensive development of the Czechoslovak energy industry according to the Soviet model.[3] One of the major tasks of these advisors was to coordinate the development of the Czechoslovak energy base with other socialist states. In addition, Soviet advisors also greatly contributed to the adoption of the Soviet system of organization and management.

The comprehensive recommendations of the Soviet long-term advisors were often followed by additional assistance of more technical experts to address specific challenges of the Czechoslovak energy sector. In this context, Czechoslovak projects for the construction of substations were consulted with Soviet engineers in Moscow, which resulted in an estimated saving of CSK 3 million per year.[4] Similar specific assistance was provided to Czechoslovak experts in the field of automation of hydroelectric power plants and protection against overvoltage. In 1951, Soviet experts visited the Štěchovice power plant, where they consulted on maintenance methods to reduce its breakdown rate.[5]

In addition to Soviet consultations, training provisions were also essential for the development of the Czechoslovak energy sector. For example, in 1949 12 Czechoslovak university students were granted scholarships to study electrical engineering at Soviet universities. This assistance was followed by the training of Czechoslovak experts in the operation of power plants, in the installation and automation of hydroelectric and thermal power plants, and in the management of control rooms.[6] Later, in 1953, Czechoslovak technicians in the USSR were given further training in power plant construction. Archives of Czechoslovak industrial ministries reveal that another common form of Soviet assistance was the provision of standards and guidelines that were incorporated into the Czechoslovak energy system. Soviet standards were used, for example, in the construction of the transmission network or in the water treatment in power plants.[7]

Following the Soviet model, a number of transformations were carried out also at the level of individual workplaces. Communication between the different levels of production units was streamlined, more women were employed, material participation was introduced and measures to improve work morale were put in place.[8] One of the specific forms of transfer of Soviet know-how into the Czechoslovak energy sector was its mediation through third parties.[9] For example, the Czechoslovak-Polish Commission for Scientific-Technical Cooperation managed to organize study tours to Poland, during which Czechoslovak energy engineers learned about the construction of power plants according to the Soviet model.[10]

As reports of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Fuels and Energy indicate, the significant intensification of Czechoslovak-Soviet cooperation was facilitated primarily by the comparable stage of development of Czechoslovak and Soviet energy sectors. This can be demonstrated by the fact that in the early 1950s, about 25% of the power plant equipment in both countries was installed before 1938.[11] This shared starting point created suitable conditions for intensifying mutual cooperation in the development of new technologies and the modernization of others.  

Another factor accelerating the development of Czechoslovak-Soviet cooperation was the pressure from the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the late 1940s, the Czechoslovak delegation within the Electric Power Committee of the Economic Commission for Europe maintained a proactive approach to the development of scientific-technical cooperation with the West, which was evident in its efforts to negotiate financial assistance for the construction of the Sokolov power plant or cross-border energy exchange with Austria and Bavaria. However, partly under the pressure of the Soviet leadership, these negotiations were abandoned and an alternative source of assistance was offered by Soviet enterprises.[12]

It is clear that this intensive cooperation would not have come about if it had not been for strong ideological motivation and the desire to outpace Western progress. Although the low productivity of the socialist model of international cooperation is often presented as an unquestionable fact, new archival findings suggest that the extent of mutually beneficial projects in the energy sector has not yet been fully recognised.

Ondřej Fišer is a historian and sinologist who currently works for Butler University (IFSA Institute). He holds a PhD degree in General History from the University of Geneva and his recent research focuses mainly on contemporary economic history and Cold War issues. You can consult his other articles here.  

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[1] National Archives., finding aid 835, fond 936, inventory no. 50, carton 8

[2] Ibid., archiv Ústavu marxismu-leninismu, fond 27, schůze HR ÚV KSČ, 13.7.1950; KAPLAN, K.: Československo v RVHP 1949-1956. Prague: ÚSD AV ČR, 1995, pp. 81, 342

[3] Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, TO-O, 1945-1959, SSSR, carton 54, consult also KAPLAN, K.: Československo v RVHP 1949-1956. Prague: ÚSD AV ČR, 1995; National Archives, finding aid 1204, fond 953, inventory no. 28, signature 056.2, carton 26

[4] National Archives, finding aid 835, fond 936, inventory no. 50, carton 8, SSSR, I. zasedání VTK

[5] Ibid., II. zasedání VTK

[6] Ibid., see also finding aid 684, fond 949, inventory no. 38, carton 165

[7] Ibid., finding aid 835, fond 936, inventory no. 50, carton 8

[8] Ibid., finding aid 1204, fond 953, inventory no. 28, signature 056.2, carton 26, Zápis o poradě u s. Fadějeva, konané dne 5.9.1952, Záznam z 1. porady se s. S. A. Spirinem, konané dne 30.8.1951

[9] DIENSTBIER, J.: Československo-sovětská spolupráce v hospodářství, vědě a kultuře. Prague: Svět sovětů, 1962; NYKRYN, J.: Mezinárodní průmyslová kooperace. Prague: SNTL, 1973; RUŽIČKA, A.: Medzinárodné ekonomické vzťahy ZSSR. Bratislava: Obzor, 1974

[10] National Archives, finding aid 1204, fond 953, inventory no. 28, signature 056.2, carton 26

[11] National Archives, finding aid 1204, fond 953, inventory no. 28, signature 056.2, carton 26, Záznam o 18. návštěvě el. Bratislava II, konané dne 17.9.1951

[12] Ibid., fond RVHP, zpráva o rozšíření obchodu ČSR se zeměmi RVHP, 20.11.1950, fond VM SÚP, archival units 146-2609, 147-2623, 153-2642