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Bricks, Pigs and Asphalt – the Three Main Economic Fronts of the Soviet Army


During the Cold War, the Soviet Army was one of the two strongest armies on the planet. In the mass consciousness, the Soviet army is a powerful military organization, whose tank armada could defend the Soviet homeland, and, if necessary, carry out a strategic operation with access to the English Channel. But there existed several permanent fields of economic activities in the Soviet Army, and the volumes of those activities could be compared with the volumes of any civil ministry. That is why a brand new industry gradually rose inside the Defense Ministry, and why the officers, who were good at procurement, got promoted faster than the others. This article is about costless work force in the Soviet Army.

Commander-in-Chief of the Labor Army


First of all we would like to underline, that we are not speaking about post-WW 2 restoration of the ruined infrastructure of the USSR, or the Army taking part in liquidation of the consequences of the natural and technological disasters. Such cases sometimes stopped combat training completely, but these were the sphere of duties for which the forces were made for. The heavy, but indispensable mission of the Soviet army was taking part in extinguishing forest and peat fires, Chernobyl Nuclear Station breakdown liquidation, helping in restorations after earthquakes in Middle Asia and Caucasus republics. By the way – situation is also the same in the Western armies. For example – the elimination of the consequences of huge floods in the Netherlands several times was the main activity of the NATO Military Committee, and such a duty was of the highest priority, maneuvers were postponed, and the military warehouses became the sources of suppling the civilians with the high-priority supply.


Alexnder Polunin’s drawing reflects the real essence of many late Soviet commanders perfectly well.


In this article we will talk about the practice of using soldiers as a work-force in civilian crafts, which has been widespread since ancient times. Soldiers were used both by the Egyptian Pharaohs and by the Roman Emperors in peace-time to construct various infrastructure objects (temples, fortresses, roads and viaducts) and that was taken for granted. Eventually, that practice was abandoned, because the armies went small in numbers and elite in their structure. And in the modern armies of the third world the authorities do not risk forcing personnel to work – the military there are the governmental part and in response for being forced to carry cement they can make a coup. The military still did not work after the state apparatus decomposition in many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, preferring to turn into semi-bandit groups.

But the Socialist countries were the exception, because they were able to return to the ancient Roman tradition successfully. The last USSR Defense Minister and a Marshal of the Soviet Union Dmitry Yazov gave an interview shortly before his death and he told about the scale of the phenomenon:

“…When I was appointed as the Minister, Gorbachev called me and said: we need to reduce the army. Five army departments were reduced. Two departments of the military districts – the Volga department and the Central Asian one. Several divisions were diminished. And instead of all this, military construction formations and associations were created.

Gorbachev suggested then: let’s create a corps (road one) for the construction in Non-Chernozem region. The corps was created. In addition to that, four railway corps then worked for the people’s economy. Two of them, were occupied in the BAM construction and two more were carrying railways in Tyumen to oil rigs. One railway crew was working in Mongolia and another one was in Azerbaijan.

But that was not enough for him. He suggested: let’s make rice divisions. We had one in Kuibyshev, there were two rice battalions in the Crimea and six ones in the Krasnodar territory. We deliberately organized two military state farms, that grew rice for cosmonauts and for the residents of Leninsk (Baikonur). And 500 military construction units worked at industrial plants, especially chemical ones.”


“The 1st Economic Front”: construction


The office of the governance of the USSR Defense Ministry provided for the position of Deputy Minister of Defense for the construction and quartering of troops that controlled several senior Departments:

·   The main military construction department of the Defense Ministry;

·   The main department of special construction of the Defense Ministry;

·   The main housing-and-maintenance department of the Defense Ministry;

·   The central organization-and-planning department of major construction of the Defense Ministry;

Those departments acted both as customers and contractors of construction. Going down the hierarchy – at each military district and fleet – there were performers in the person of construction department. By 1991 there were several hundred construction organizations: more than 60 so-called engineering work departments (EWD), more than 400 head of works departments (HWD), around 500 separate military construction detachments as well as construction industry enterprise (reinforced concrete plants, brick factories etc.)


The construction troops subordination structure on the example of 529th Military construction department during the building of the chemical weapons destruction plant in the Samara region.


Sergey Akhromeyev, who was The Chief of the General staff and Marshal of the Soviet Union, confessed that in 1985 the number of the military builders reached up one million. It was supposed that they would construct military purpose objects but that was only supposed — in reality such a mass of military personnel worked in the interest of 22 civilian ministers and departments. A detailed examination of the situation was shocking. For example, in archival case with orders, reports and instructions of formation, re-formation of the Kiev Military District connections and units for 1982-1984 about 40% of documents are devoted to military builders. Almost half of them are the orders of sending construction units to the “construction sites of Socialism” at the disposal of other military districts. Here are some examples.

The order #15/1/04612 dated the 10th of March 1982 of the Organizational and Mobilization department of the KMD headquarters prescribed the 276th military construction detachment of the Ministry if Industrial Construction of the Ukrainian SSR (staff #41/109-B: 22 officers, 22 second lieutenants, one sergeant, 600 military builders and 19 employees) to relocate from the town of Lozovaya, Kharkiv region to the Astrahan region (the North Caucasus Military District) for funds and at the disposal “Astrahanpromgasstroy” organization that belonged to the USSR Industrial Construction Ministry.

The same Department order #15/1/04633 dated 21st of April 1982 prescribed the 1195th military construction detachment of the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Indastr#15/1/04633 dated 21st of April 1982 prescribed the 1195th military construction detachment of the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry of the USSR, contained according to the staff #41/109-B (19 officers, 18 second lieutenants, 1 sergeant, 464 military builders and 17 employees) to relocate from Krivoy Rog to the village of Sukhoivanovka in the Vasilevsky district of the Zaporozhye region (The Odessa Military District (OMD)) to the disposal of funds of “Zaporozhstroy” plant to take part in TAvrichesky mining and processing plant construction. It is interesting that the Warsaw pact allies also participated in the construction.

Soviet officers in front of their “tank”. The photo of the author’s archive


The units and institutions of the Main Department of special construction were intended for the construction of secret facilities. For example, in the 70s about 200 thousand of the Department personnel were employed in the construction of positional areas for intercontinental ballistic missiles deployment. Moreover, in 1978 thirty-six thousand soldiers and sergeants, and 3 thousand officers were directed to the construction of a ground-based complex of facilities for the Enrgia-Buran system at the Baikonur cosmodrome. Simultaneously, radar stations for missile attack warning were being constructed — 37-40 thousand people at each site! Parallel with all that, the Main Department of special construction if the Defense Ministry was involved into the erection of factories in the Ivanovo region by the agreement between the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Alexei Kosygin and the USSR Defense Minister, Marshal of the Soviet Union Andrei Grechko. Having built 10 such factories, the special constructors got a positive assessment from the Ministry of Light Industry of the USSR and an additional request for the construction of more than 250 thousand square meters of housing, a technical training college the Palace of culture and other social and cultural facilities for weavers. And if only for them….

In 1990 Milhail Gorbachev decided to disband all the military construction detachments by 1992 because of the extremely negative society reaction. In fact, that happened after the USSR collapse as a part of the armed forces reduction. But in 1991 they were in no hurry to disband – there was no one to replace the free labour force. For example, in 1991 only three units were disbanded in the Belarusian Military District: a construction-and-technical battalion, that was in subordination to “Poslevodstroy” and two military construction detachments (from the subordination of the Ministry of Communications of the Belarusian SSR and “Belstroy” trust).


    The military construction detachment officers in front of German trucks. The shock construction socialism sites were foremost equipped with high-quality imported machinery. The photo from the author’s archive


    “The 2nd Economic front: road infrastructure


    One more “branch” of the military department activity was the construction and repair of the roads and road infrastructure. Since 1971 the Defense Minister launched the paved roads construction in Transbaikalia, Kazakhstan and the Far East. In short terms, four road construction brigades were formed on the basis of the main Defense Ministry construction Departments and the brigades started making roads and all the necessary industrial base since the Spring of 1971. In 1977 the 146th and 160th brigades’ forces started the famous “Amur” (Chita-Khabarovsk) highway construction, that lasted for 30 years. The Central road construction department of the USSR Defense Ministry was created in 1988, designed for the construction of public roads within the framework of “Non-Chernozem Region roads” program. 21 road construction brigades and 8 repair-and-restoration battalions worked in the Non-Chernozem region in 1990. More than 20 thousand km were made by the military constructors in the North – in Arkhangelsk, Vologda, Kostroma regions and Komi ASSR. In total, the Defense Ministry gave almost 100 thousand people and a huge amount of military equipment for the creation of asphalt-concrete and asphalt roads.

    For comparison, let us note that in the preparation for the German defense breakthrough from Sandomierz bridgehead in 1944 the Soviets made 56.6 km of new roads and 88.1 km of old ones were repaired, a two-track log deck was made on 31.5 km section, 30 bridges with total length of 1602 km were newly constructed and repaired. Thanks to the bridgehead in January 1945, the offensive developed and finally led to Poland liberation and the entry to the nazi Germany territory. The road construction units of the Carpathian Military District in the 70-80s annually laid for civilian needs many times more than it was required at the Sandomierz bridgehead. Hence it was not surprising that conscripts in addition to the construction battalions also blacklisted the service in automobile, road construction and pipeline troops.

    A separate “article of punishment” was considered to be the service in the railway troops with their “construction of the century” – The Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). Those, who wanted to get to the construction site, had lots of opportunities for that, but still there were not enough volunteers. That’s why the most difficult Eastern Section construction (from Tynda station to Komsomlsk-on-Amur) was given to the military. It was carried out by the main Department of Railway troops through the department of the 1st (in Chegdomyn urban locality) and the 35th (Tynda station) railway corps. To increase the management efficiency, the Department for the BAM and East Railways construction was formed in 1978 and in July 1980 the trust for the construction of industrial and civil facilities called “UrgalBAMtransstroy” was added to it, subordinate directly to the Head of the Railways troops.

    Initially, the 1st corps consisted of four railway troops brigades: the 37th and the 1st were on Urgal station, the 7th brigade was on Berezovaya station as well as the 39th brigade that came to the BAM on its own. A little bit later, the 33rd brigade and a helicopter squadron of Mi-8 were added to the corps. The 35th corps included three brigades: the 35th, 42nd and the 50th ones. Apart from that, two bridge railway regiments worked on the BAM. The construction was as difficult as dangerous for health and even for life – for instance, the 35th corps commander Major General Milko died in a car crash together with his wife.

    Nothing changed for the troops in 1984 when the laying of the “golden” link took place and the traffic along the highway was opened. They continued to equip the tracks as well as carrying out the large amount of work on the development of settlements and cities along the BAM. At first, everything was made in a hurry and now it was necessary to create at least some semblance of infrastructure.

    The Railway troops also took part in the construction of the West Karelia and Trans-Mongolian railways, Kizel-Perm line, Abakan-Taishet line, Ivdel-Ob and Morozovskaya-Tsymlyanskaya ones. The soldiers of the 70s and 80s equipped railway sections, erected dwellings and stations on the Moscow-Khazan and Moscow-Riga lines in their spare time. All those events were attended by cadets of railway troops schools, who, under the guise of practical training, had to work on the construction sites for up to 70% of their study time. That’s why there was a joke among the officers that they were being trained as prisoners of war right from the start.

    “Morning of BAM” (1974). For the sake of conjuncture even Marat Samsonov, who was the artistic head of the Mitrofan Grekov Military artists studio, had to glorify the labour service of the USSR armed forces.


    The railway troops were among the oldest in the Army (after the military cavalry, artillery, military engineers and sappers), but if they did exactly what they were planned for, the demand in them would be much less. The railway construction volumes in the interest of the active army and strategic rear during the Great Patriotic War was seriously inferior to the large-scale construction for civilian needs, carried out by military railway workers in any of the five-year plans of the developed socialism era of the 70-80s. It seems that the railway corps creation was done only for use of soldiers in the sites, where the civilians demanded increased monetary payments for their work. The climax of such a situation came in 1990 when there was the constant duty of 200-300 people military units at Sheremetyevo International Airport (Moscow) to unload the humanitarian aid, coming from abroad. Apparently, there was no one else to be occupied in this logistics.


    “The 3rd economic front”: self-sufficiency of troops


    First of all, here we are talking about the construction of the Defense Ministry objects which the Center transferred directly to the troops. The fact is that in addition to design-and-survey work, the land management and other things, Moscow loaded up on the districts and fleets the difficult task of providing facilities with military constructors and military technical equipment. For that purpose the troops massively were removed from combat training and sent to the construction of the facilities in the so-called “economic way” – by their own forces and improvised means. The improvised construction teams were formed from temporarily seconded military personnel with non-construction accounting specialties with an insufficient number of earthmoving and automobile equipment and its low power. In order to pay for the construction materials and the hiring of missing construction machinery, the commanders sent a part of the personnel to civilian enterprises to perform various low-skilled work. That was a common and widespread practice in the Districts and Fleets as the military did not have any other resources except the cheap soldier labour.

    The roots of such a negative thing should be found not only in the USSR economic weakness unable to meet the needs of such large armed forces. There was a bigger fault on the commanders’ disdainful attitude to the personnel. The USSR Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov told that when he was the People’s Commisar of Armament during the Great Patriotic War, the workers and their families were satisfied with tents behind the factory fence. The Navy Commander-in-Chief the Fleet Admiral Sergey Gorshkov added: ”It is necessary to take timely organizational measures to base ships at the new connection point and the sailors themselves will be able to get settled there”. They both sincerely misunderstood that the times and people had changed – because of that, the troops had to spend lots of efforts on solving non-core tasks.

    The example of the 173rd brigade of anti-submarines ships of the Kamchatka Military Flotilla is indicative. Despite the fact that the brigade in its composition exceeded the entire 10th operational Squadron of the Pacific fleet, it did not have a coastal personnel. Nevertheless, the crews of the ships built brigade headquarters, a training center for 40 classes, a dry food warehouse for six months for the whole brigade staff, a vegetable storage, a medical unit and a coastal repair-and-technical station. At the same time, some of the areas were taken from the sea and piles were driven into the ex-bottom grounds. All that non-standard coastal economy was managed by midshipmen from the crew of floating workshop #FW-25.

    As it looked in the ground forces is clearly seen by the example of the order of Organization-and-Mobilization Department staff of the KMD (the Kiev Military District) #15/1/04053 dated 14th of January 1982. It prescribed in the execution of the order if the General Staff #156/275-sh dated 12nd of December 1981 to allocate 1200 military personnel from the District’s troops from the period from January 1981 to December 1982 in order to fulfil the plan of construction and installation works at capital construction facilities by the contract and economic means. 90 people from the 17th and 22nd Guards divisions, 41st tank and 47th motorized rifle divisions, 120 people from the 42nd Guards tank division, 60 people from the 25th Guards motorized rifle division as well as 30 people from the 72nd Guards motorized rifle and the 75th Guards tank divisions and 162nd Missile brigade each were sent to build warehouses and fences in the location of formations. 600 people more were prescribed to allocate from the units of th 6th Guards Tank Army et the Commander’s option.

     Such work was usual not only for many tankers, rocketeers but also for elite units and formations. So, in the mid 70s the Soviet Air-borne Forces (VDV in Russian) built five 1st class airfields with their own hands for military transport aircrafts (near the points of permanent deployment of the airborn divisions). Several drafts of the paratroopers successfully mastered the professions of concrete workers and handymen. Everything was done by the personal initiative of the VDV Commander, General Vasiliy Margelov. For this the Defense Minister Grechko repeatedly set Margelov as an example to the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, who did not show such talents in the independent construction of air bases.

    Spacial Forces did not lag behind. In 1978 the “Great construction” was proclaimed in the Far Eastern Military District by the decision of its Commander General Ivan Tretyak. All the military units were obliged to construct premises for vehicle storage. The 14th Separate Special purpose brigade in Ussuriysk put its weapons down, suspended special training, gave up learning Chinese and, having rolled up the sleeves, honorably fulfilled the responsible task. And in 1980 Special force intelligence men built warehouses on their own. Such an example from the Special forces history is sooner a rule than an exception.

    The manual unloading of coal briquettes.


    The construction plan implementation in an economic way was under the strict Commanders’ control. Those, who did not show proper zeal, were the subjects of penalties. As an example one can give the order #229 dated 19th of October 1988 “On the progress of capital construction by economic means and the tasks for putting facilities in operation in 1988” by the Commander of the 8th Tank Army Major General Leonid Zolotov. It was stated in the order that the 9 month plan for putting objects into the operation was disrupted. And that is why penalties were imposed on unit and formation commanders. To some of them, who still tried to occupy the soldiers with combat training but not with construction work, the Commander made a special reprimand:

    “I’d like to draw the attention of commanders of military units 18876 and 16580 (23rd and 30th Guard Tank divisions – author’s note) Major General Antropov E.A. and Colonel Fedorov Yu. I. on their misunderstanding of the important role of the facilities construction by economic way which has a direct reflection in solving issues of combat and mobilization readiness of units and low demands on the subordinates who organize the work performance on the facilities.”

    “And who will take care of the sty? He does not have a coastal base.” I would like to ask the Admiral who and why put the brigade commander “on the splits” between complying the order requirements, combat schedules and the personnel food providing. Of course, the military authorities knew that there were auxiliary farms, boars and pig breeders in the military units according to the staff. But it did not prevent sending orders to the troops where it was required to produce up to 15 kg of meat on auxiliary farms for each serviceman annually. Colonel-General Matvei Burlakov recalled that when in December 1990 he took command over the Soviet troops in Germany, 44 thousand pigs were kept there.

    A Soviet pigsty in Germany, the 1st Guards Tank Army, GSFG (the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany).


    There were other similar orders, regarding food. So the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Sergey Gorshkov ordered the commanders to organize fishing to improve the nutrition of the personnel. By the way, the fish turned into something like currency in the “trade” among fleets and districts. According to Moscow orders, the districts in the European part of the USSR were prescribed to supply the Army and the Navy units in the Far North and in the regions with harsh climate with vegetables. For example, the Kiev Military District for twenty years sent soldiers and cadets every autumn to help vegetable-growing enterprises in order to send the potatoes, “earned” this way, to the Northern Fleet. In their turn, sailors returned the favor and send the fish to soldiers of KMD.

    It seems that after all the above-mentioned facts, few people will be surprised why, before the war in Afghanistan, Soviet generals often did not have any military awards, but the Orders of Lenin and the Red Banner of Labor, and officers and soldiers had medals “For Labor Valor”, “For the development of virgin lands”, “For the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline” and “For the transformation of the Non-Chernozem Region of the RSFSR”. What fronts they “fought” on — such were the awards.