It’s not often that you get to look at a member of the Stalinist establishment and say to yourself, “Gee, that guy certainly is worthy of respect.” But such a one was Yevgeny Paton, the venerated engineer responsible for the landmark Kyiv bridge that bears his name, and the man to whom multiple statues and monuments stand all over this city.
He’s a reminder that there was a time when the Soviet UNI0N – during its latter decades a worldwide joke for its seeming inability to build anything of quality – was a crucible of good work and technological innovation. Longtime Kyivan Paton was one of the people most responsible for that.
Which is a bit ironic, because initially Paton was about as un-Soviet as it’s possible to get. He was born in 1870, and not even within the Russian Empire, but rather in Nice, where his diplomat father, a Russian by ethnicity, was stationed. (Nice at the time was part of Italy, not France.) He studied engineering in Saint Petersburg, but also at the Dresden Polytechnic Institute. In other words, he was very much implicated in the Tsarist regime – he was precisely the sort of person whom the Bolsheviks might have murdered, if he hadn’t been so useful.
In 1904, after an academic stint in Moscow, his Kyiv career began, when he moved south to teach at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Then as now Kyiv Polytechnic was one of the most prestigious technical schools in Eastern Europe, and Paton taught there until 1938.
It was in Kyiv during the bright, false dawn of the Bolshevik era that Paton’s building career started. In 1925 he built the lovely Yevgeniya Bosh Bridge over the Dnipro in the south of the city, replacing an arguably even lovelier mid 19th-century construction known as the Nicholas Bridge, which Polish troops had destroyed in 1920 during the Civil War. Old photos (they’re on the Web) depict the bridge, named after a Ukrainian Bolshevik, as a graceful structure, so it’s a shame that it itself was destroyed during the Great Patriotic War.
Friends with Nikita Sergeyevich
Meanwhile, Paton was making a name for himself as a technological innovator and pedagogue, which endeared him to a regime eager to “catch up” with Western standards. In 1929 he founded a welding institute in Kyiv that still exists as the E.O. Paton Electric Welding Institute, and seems to retain its Soviet-era prestige. The dark thirties were spent by Paton making breakthroughs in welding processes and during the war years he distinguished himself by improving tank construction and by playing a big role in the justly famous Stalinist wartime project of literally physically moving, part by part and freight car by freight car, almost the entire Soviet industrial base to behind the Ural Mountains – out of range of German bombers.
It was in Kyiv that Paton’s life intersected with that of another star of Stalinist Ukraine – that relatively (stress on the relatively) soft-hearted bumpkin known as Nikita Khruschev, the Great Stalin’s man down here on the Dnipro. As Ukraine’s Communist boss, Khruschev took quite a liking to Paton. In fact, perhaps the most high-profile source for information about the great engineer/bridge-builder is Khruschev’s engaging, twisted memoir ‘Khruschev Remembers’. One of the most interesting chapters in that book is dedicated to heaping praise on Paton – reading it, you’re reminded why Khruschev was no doubt the most likable of the last century’s bloody totalitarian dictators. Khruschev describes Paton’s coming to see him in Kyiv, calling him “a thick-set man with grey hair, already well along in years.” He writes, “He had a face like a lion and bright, shining eyes. He greeted me and immediately produced a lump of metal from his pocket. He thrust it onto the desk in front of me.
“‘Look at this, Comrade Khruschev, look what our institute can do! This is a new piece of bar iron ten millimeters thick, and look how well we’ve been able to weld it.’ I examined the joint closely. As a metalworker myself, I’d had many occasions to inspect welded joints. Here was a seam as smooth as if the bar had been cast in a single piece. ‘That’s an example of fusion welding,’ said Academician Paton.
“’I’d never heard the term before and asked him what it meant. Paton, who already had a number of other inventions to his credit, explained that he’d devised a new, much improved welding technique. He drew me a sketch… I was literally enchanted by Academician Paton. From the moment we met I knew that Academician Paton was a man after my own heart.”
Khruschev then describes talking to Stalin about the engineer. Stalin wonders whether Paton shouldn’t be put on the Council of People’s Commissars, but wonders whether he’ll be able to handle the bureaucrats. Khruschev tells his boss, “From what I’ve seen of Paton, Comrade Stalin, the bureaucrats wouldn’t stand a chance against him.” Apparently Paton did not tolerate fools, and there are stories of him walking out of Ukrainian Party Central Committee meetings, bored to tears by the mediocre, abstract discussions of Leninist theory. He offended many people, but you could get away with that if you had friends in the right Moscow places.
The postwar era saw Paton work on his namesake Kyiv bridge, which, besides being nice-looking, impresses engineers by the fact that it contains no rivets – it’s completely welded. (Paton was the Mozart of welding.) It was also, at approximately 1,500 metres, the longest bridge in Europe when it opened in 1953, shortly after the death of the man himself. It’s a marvel of engineering.
It was still during the war that Paton ascended to the very heights of the Soviet elite – and not because of his building work, but because of his wartime labours improving tank production. Once again, Khruschev is indispensable here, describing his receipt in 1943 of a letter from Paton. The letter to Khruschev is a masterpiece of either craft or sincerity. “In 1917 I failed to take the revolution seriously,” Paton tells Khruschev. “My father was a tsarist consul in Italy, and I was a product of the old regime; mine was an old-fashioned tsarist upbringing.” After this mea culpa, he claims that “with every passing year I have been more and more won over to the side of Soviet Power,” and humbly submits that his wartime work has given him the “moral right” to Party membership. Both Khruschev and Stalin were extremely moved by this testament (one imagines them sharing a gentle tear in the Kremlin, taking a break from planning mass murders of Class Enemies) and Paton was boosted into the Party immediately, without having to undergo the usual two-year trial period.
Paton is survived all over the former Soviet UNI0N by numerous structures that he either built or that his innovations helped make possible. (He also had two sons, one of whom became a great Soviet engineer his own right.) He seems to have been a collection of paradoxes: a Russian who is one of Ukraine’s favourite sons, a member of the tsarist-era privileged classes who became the Kremlin’s pet, an apparently brave and determined man who yet wasn’t so brave that he ended up getting shot behind the ear. Most obviously, though, he’s survived by his famous Kyiv bridge – which local Party lackeys wanted to name after their hero Khruschev. But the latter, overwhelmed by his schoolgirl crush on Paton, insisted that the new bridge take Paton’s name instead. His chapter on Paton closes, “Today the bridge is, as they say, alive and well, and people crossing over it remember with respect and gratitude the man who made it possible, the father of industrial welding in the Soviet UNI0N – Academician Yevgeny Oskarovich Paton!”