It was 1929, and chief construction engineer John Calder rode around the building site on a camel. He was watching Milwaukee’s International Harvester plant being built all over again—only this time it was twice as large and outside Stalingrad.

When “the architect of Ford,” Albert Kahn, designed the River Rouge complex outside Detroit in 1917, Calder was one of the field engineers, but he had never worked on a project on the Soviet scale before. Everything from steel to skylights was coming from the U.S. by boat, special-built train, trucks, and, yes, camels. In barely a year’s time the factory would begin pumping out 50,000 tractors per year, operated by workers who lived across a strip of lawn in government apartment blocks that Calder was also building. Close to 400 U.S. workers were supervising the job, mostly from Detroit. Though their families shivered through the Russian winter in underheated homes, Calder and the rest of Kahn’s experts thrilled at the challenge. And there were 500 more factories to go.

Though the collaboration has been all but forgotten, evidence suggests that more than 1,200 U.S.-based architects, engineers, designers, and foremen seeded the Soviet industrial revolution. In just three years, they built upwards of 500 factories, trained more than 3,000 Soviet staff, and brought lessons back home that have yet to be fully understood.

“It is truly extraordinary, finding out information such as this, that’s been lost, and writing up the history that it documents,” says Claire Zimmerman, associate professor of history of art and architecture. In October, she and other historians hope to recover these stories at U-M’s “Moscow x Detroit,” the first conference devoted to this literally groundbreaking partnership.

Soviet Detroit

In his first Five-Year Plan, Stalin envisioned a massively industrialized, economically self-sufficient nation that functioned independently of global capitalism. But he was starting with an agrarian land so underdeveloped that meeting those goals demanded enormous resources. So he went to the experts: the American entrepreneurs who had made the U.S. an industrial giant. They sent him to the architects.

Albert Kahn Associates was an obvious choice. Its airy, fireproof plants were must-see stops for Soviet delegations touring the U.S. The firm was the most prolific in the country, largely because Kahn applied factory mass production and efficiency techniques to architecture, resulting in modular designs whose inexpensive components could be swapped in and out depending on local conditions—an approach that was perfect for a country that needed to build a lot of factories, fast.

Stalin first hired Kahn to build plants at Stalingrad and Cheliabinsk. Then, from 1930 to 1932, he hired the firm as “consulting architects for all industrial construction in the USSR,” writes scholar Sonia Melnikova-Raich. Kahn opened an office in Moscow, and soon people were calling the new industrial city Nizhny-Novgorod “Soviet Detroit.”

The scope was massive. All over the country, Stalin was creating plot after enormous plot of railroad, factory, green space, and housing. The Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant in Siberia covered close to 2,500 acres above four miles of underground tunnels built with U.S. steel. Under government duress, local policemen, professors, and even children toiled without pay to put up another tractor plant at Kharkiv in Ukraine. And the sites inspired Soviet urban planners: If factories could be practically mass-produced, why not entire cities?  

Officially, the Stalingrad, Chelyabinsk, and Kharkiv plants were designed to produce tractors, replicas of U.S. models such as the International Harvester 15-30. However, the Soviet engineers asked the Detroit architects to build especially deep foundations—for the harsh Russian winters, they said.

According to Melnikova-Raich, Kahn was partly motivated by humanitarianism. “I don’t believe that the world can really get back on its feet until the other peoples help the Russians in transforming themselves into a modern industrial state, working in harmony with the remainder of the world,” he said. The Soviet contracts also saved his bacon. His firm was earning a base fee equivalent to $3.8 million per year, and each Kahn specialist in the U.S.S.R. drew an annual salary averaging $150,000 in 2019 dollars. There was more money for work done back in Detroit—and this was during the Depression. Though Russia had been an ally in the Great War, the U.S. government had not yet officially recognized the Soviets, meaning the Kahn employees had no official protection.

As quickly as the effort started, it fell apart over contract renewal terms—Stalin wanted to pay Kahn in rubles. Or possibly the Soviets didn’t need Kahn anymore, Zimmerman says. They now had their own set of Kahn-trained experts and modular plans. From those, they built what the Kahn firm estimates to be thousands more factories. The consequences were immediate and global. In the late 1930s, the U.S.S.R.’s first tanks rolled off those assembly lines on the reinforced floors of Chelyabinsk, Stalingrad, and Kharkiv. “What those plants have meant to the democracies in turning back Hitler’s hordes is a story only the postwar world will hear,” Kahn’s brother and colleague Louis wrote in 1944.

But the Cold War occluded that story because the U.S. had unwittingly helped create the Soviet military prowess that would make the next generation of U.S. children scurry to duck and cover under their desks. “One [country] in a sense armed the other, and then they fought each other,” Zimmerman says.  

Piecing the Puzzle Together

Historians are still piecing the picture back together. Researchers from Russia, Ukraine, and across the United States will examine various angles of the partnership, from the experience of African American workers in the U.S.S.R. and Soviet officials’ anti-racism efforts to Americanism in Soviet cinema at the “Moscow x Detroit” conference. Zimmerman is particularly excited about exploring reverse knowledge transfer: the lessons Kahn’s employees brought back home.

Zimmerman thinks the event will appeal more broadly than a typical academic conference, especially given the number of Detroit historians, professional and amateur, in the LSA community. She also hopes that attendees will draw connections to current geopolitics.

It’s instructive to see the similarities between two countries with such different ideologies, Zimmerman says “Very powerful regimes tend to work in similar ways no matter what their political stripe,” she says. “Massive military industry is similar all over the world.”


The Moscow X Detroit conference begins Friday, October 11 at 5:00 p.m. at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.


Images courtesy of Albert Kahn associates. Image treatment by Emma Bumstead