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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“In the Bratsk Station, Russia, your motherly image shimmering unfolded itself to me.” So wrote Evgenii Evtushenko, native son of Siberia, in his epic poem, Bratsk Station (1964), which celebrated the Bratsk High Dam (Bratskaia GES). Built across the Angara River at Padun Gorge, the Bratsk High Dam took its name — which in Russian means “brotherly” — from the seventeenth-century village that was buried at the bottom of one of the largest artificial bodies of water in the world, the Bratsk Sea. Construction on the three-mile long dam began in 1955, succeeding despite the brutal cold and supply difficulties caused by the remote location. The reservoir-sea began to fill on September 1, 1961, eventually raising the level of the river at the dam site by 479 feet. The first hydroelectric turbine went into operation in November 1961, and by 1969 there were eighteen turbines with a total capacity of 4.5 million kilowatts, greater than any in the world up to that time.

Attracted by high wages and the spirit of camaraderie and adventure characteristic of major construction projects of earlier decades, young people flocked to the dam site from throughout the Soviet Union. Many of them were recruited by the Komsomol. The resident population of Bratsk city, which increased from 43,000 in 1959 to 155,000 by 1970, was remarkably young, averaging 27 years of age in the latter year. The dam itself employed approximately 800 people, but many times that number worked in factories powered by the dam, including a wood-processing combine capable of turning five million cubic yards of wood into various products, and an enormous aluminum plant, the Soviet Union’s largest.

Symbolizing the conquest of nature, the Bratsk High Dam powered industry that significantly degraded the environment and itself contributed to the depletion of species of fish in the Angara and nearby Lake Baikal. If to Evtushenko it represented the triumph of the human spirit, then to Valentin Rasputin, another Siberian writer, its flooding of the island and village of Matyora (linguistically suggestive of both “mother” [mat’] and “dry land” [materik]) was indicative of the heavy price paid by technological progress.

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