Arthur Ransome
Russia in 1919

The Centro-Textile

February 22nd.


This morning I drove to the Dielovoi Dvor, the big house on the Varvarskaya Square which is occupied by the central organization of the textile industry. The head of this organization is Nogin, an extremely capable, energetic Russian, so capable, indeed, that I found it hard to believe he could really be a Russian. He is a big man, with a mass of thick brown shaggy hair, so thick that the little bald patch on the top of his head seems like an artificial tonsure. Nogin sketched the lines on which the Russian textile industry was being reorganized, and gave orders that I should be supplied with all possible printed matter in which to find the details.

The "Centro-Textile" is the actual centre of the economic life of Russia, because, since textiles are the chief materials of exchange between the towns and the villages, on its success depends the success of everything else. The textile industry is, in any case, the most important of all Russian, industries. Before the war it employed 500,000 workmen, and Nogin said that in spite of the disorganization of the war and of the revolution 400,000 are employed to-day. This may be so in the sense that 400,000 are receiving pay, but lack of fuel or of raw material must have brought many factories to a standstill.

All the big factories have been nationalized. Formerly, although in any one town there might be factories carrying out all the different processes, these factories belonged to different owners. A single firm or bank might control factories scattered over Russia and, so that the whole process should be in its hands, the raw material travelled from factory to factory through the country, instead of merely moving about a single town. Thus a roll of material might have gone through one process at Jaroslav, another at Moscow, and a third at Tula, and finally come back to Jaroslav to be finished, simply because the different factories which worked upon it, though widely scattered, happened to be under one control. Nationalization has made possible the rational regrouping of factories so that the complete process is carried out in one place, consequently saving transport. There are twenty-three complete groups of this kind, and in the textile industry generally about fifty groups in all.

There has been a similar concentration of control. In the old days there were hundreds of different competitive firms with their buildings and offices in the Ilyinka, the Varvarka, and the Nikolskaya(1). The Chinese town(1) was a mass of little offices of different textile firms. The whole of that mass of struggling competitive units of direction had now been concentrated in the house in which we were talking. The control of the workers had been carried through in such a way that the technical experts had proper weight. (See p. 171.) There were periodical conferences of elected representatives of all the factories, and Nogin believed that the system of combined elective workmen's and appointed experts' representation could hardly be improved upon.

Nationalization had had the effect of standardizing the output. Formerly, an infinite variety of slightly different stuffs were produced, the variations being often merely for the sake of being different in the competitive trade. Useless varieties had now been done away with, with the result of greater economy in production.

I asked what he could tell me about their difficulties in the matter of raw material. He said they no longer get anything from America, and while the railway was cut at Orenburg by the Cossacks, they naturally could get no cotton from Turkestan. In fact, last autumn they had calculated that they had only enough material to keep the factories going until December. Now they found they could certainly keep going to the end of March, and probably longer. Many small factories, wishing to make their cases out worse than they were, had under-estimated their stocks. Here, as in other things, the isolation of the revolution had the effect of teaching the Russians that they were less dependent upon the outside world than they had been in the habit of supposing. He asked me if I knew it had been considered impossible to combine flax and cotton in such a way that the mixture could be worked in machines intended for cotton only. They had an infinite supply of flax, much of which in the old days had been exported. Investigations carried on for the Centro-Textile by two professors, the brothers Chilikin, had ended in the discovery of three different processes for the cottonizing of flax in such a way that they could now mix not only a small percentage of their flax with cotton and use the old machines, but were actually using fifty per cent. flax and had already produced material experimentally with as much as seventy-five per cent.

(Some days later two young technicians from the Centro-Textile brought me a neatly prepared set of specimens illustrating these new processes and asked me to bring them anything of the same sort from England in return. They were not Bolsheviks — were, in fact, typical non-politicals. They were pleased with what the Centro — Textile was doing, and said that more encouragement was given to research than ever formerly. But they were very despondent about the economic position. I could not make them understand why Russia was isolated, and that I might be unable to bring them technical books from England.)

Nogin rather boastfully said that the western linen industry would suffer from the isolation of Russia, whereas in the long run the Russians would be able to do without the rest of the world. With, regard to wool, they would have no difficulty now that they were again united with a friendly Ukraine. The silk industry was to be developed in the Astrakhan district where climatic conditions are particularly favourable.

I asked about the fate of the old textile manufacturers and was told that though many had gone abroad many were working in the nationalized factories. The engineering staff, which mostly struck work at the beginning of the revolution, had almost without exception returned, the younger engineers in particular realizing the new possibilities opening before the industry, the continual need of new improvements, and the immediate welcome given to originality of any kind. Apart from the question of food, which was bad for everybody, the social standard of the workers had risen. Thus one of their immediate difficulties was the provision of proper houses. The capitalists and manufacturers kept the workers in barracks. "Now-a-days the men want better dwellings and we mean to give them better. Some have moved into the old houses of the owners and manufacturers, but of course there are not enough of these to go round, and we have extensive plans in the way of building villages and garden cities for the workmen."

I asked Nogin what, in his opinion, was most needed by Russia from abroad, and he said that as far as the textile industries were concerned they wanted machinery. Like every one else to whom I put this question, he said that every industry in Russia would be in a better position if only they had more locomotives. "Some of our factories are stopping now for lack of fuel, and at Saratov, for example, we have masses of raw material which we are unable to get to Moscow."


Chapter 18: Modification In The Agrarian Programme


(1) Streets and a district in Moscow