Isaac Zaltsman. The controversial fate of the “tank king” of the Soviet Union

Isaak Moiseevich Zaltsman

King myths

In the previous articles of the cycle about the Chelyabinsk “Tankograd” there were already mentions of Isaak Moiseevich Zaltsman, but the size of this extraordinary personality requires a separate consideration.

To begin with, there is still no unambiguous assessment of the role of the “tank king” in the rush mastering of armored vehicles production at the evacuated Urals plant. In the previously mentioned book by Nikita Melnikov, “Tank Industry of the USSR during the Great Patriotic War,” Zaltsman looks like a cruel and not always competent manager who almost harmed the organization of tank production. So, on October 13, 1941, Isaac Zaltsman, as deputy commissar of the tank industry, arrived at Uralmash in order to identify the reasons for the failure to fulfill the plans for September. While examining the workshops of the enterprise (in particular, workshop # 29), the Deputy People’s Commissar saw an imported Texler lobe-grinding machine idle in the corner. This expensive equipment was used to process the towers of heavy KV tanks at the Izhora plant. However, in the Urals, the towers were operated in the old fashioned way on longitudinal milling and boring machines – for some reason, the use of the “Texler” turned out to be untechnological. The head of shop # 29 refused to Zaltsman’s demand to immediately put the Texler into operation – this would have disrupted the existing production chain and further slowed down the assembly of tanks. However, the head of shop # 29, IS Mitsengendler, was fired and arrested on the same day at the insistence of Zaltsman for intransigence. Surprisingly, the understanding that such an important specialist was almost buried came relatively quickly – in January 1942, Mitzengendler was returned to the department of the chief technologist of the workshop, and later he again took the place of the head of workshop No. 29.

In general, in those formidable times, the position of director of a defense plant could sometimes be deadly. On October 24, 1941, Isaac Zaltsman continued his inspection at the Ural Turbine Plant, which was not worthy to assemble at least 5 V-2 tank diesel engines for the whole of September. It was not possible to assemble the motors even from the blanks that arrived from Kharkov. As a result, Isaac Zaltsman decided in an order to dismiss Lisin’s director, prosecute and evict him from the departmental apartment. Lisin was lucky then – he lost his position, but remained at large, and in 1943 he became the director of a new defense plant in Sverdlovsk. The strangest thing is that the removal of the director and the appointment of the former head of the Kharkov plant, D.E. Kochetkov, did not particularly improve the situation with the V-2 engines at Uralturbozavod. This was often not the fault of the plant itself – Uralmash did not supply up to 90% of the required raw materials, and, in turn, the Zlaustov Metallurgical Plant did not send alloy steel in the required volumes to it. But Zaltsman had one decision on this score – the director was to blame, as a person responsible for everything, including for other factories.

I. M. Zaltsman, People’s Commissar of the Tank Industry of the Chelyabinsk Region and L. S. Baranov, 2nd Secretary of the Chelyabinsk Regional Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks 1943

The opposite point of view on the character of Isaac Zaltsman can be found in Lennar Samuelson’s book “Tankograd: Secrets of the Russian Home Front 1917-1953”. Here he is described as a talented manager who managed to reorganize the evacuation and work of the Kirov plant in Leningrad so that the enterprise successfully produced tanks literally under German bombing.

In other sources, in particular, in the works of Alexei Fedorov, associate professor of the Chelyabinsk State University, Zaltsman again appears not in the best light. The official point of view is refuted, according to which the post-war disgrace of the Hero of Socialist Labor is connected with his unwillingness to slander the leadership of Leningrad (the famous “Leningrad affair”). Who was the famous “tank king” of the Urals?

“Progressive, bold and energetic”

Briefly about the biography of Isaac Mikhailovich. Born in Ukraine in 1905 in the family of a Jewish tailor who suffered from pogroms and died early. For some time, Zaltsman worked at a sugar factory, in 1928 he joined the CPSU (b), five years later he graduated from the Odessa Industrial Institute. In 1938 he became the director of the Kirov plant. Zaltsman’s predecessor in this post was repressed. This fact, by the way, was later adopted by ill-wishers, who accused the director of the plant that he had risen on the wave of Stalin’s purges. Well-wishers said that in the People’s Commissariat of Medium Machine Building he was known as a “progressive, courageous and energetic person” and was in good standing with the leadership. Be that as it may, Zaltsman held the post of director of the plant until 1949 – he organized both his evacuation to Chelyabinsk and the creation of the legendary Tankograd. Zaltsman also launched the production of the T-34 at the Nizhny Tagil plant named after the Comintern, in the summer of 1942 he managed to master the production of the Victory tank in Chelyabinsk, and at the end of the war oversaw the program of heavy IS. In the official propaganda of wartime, the director of the Kirov plant turned out to be “the most prominent representative of the glorious galaxy of economic engineers brought up by the Bolshevik party of Lenin-Stalin”, a talented tank builder, brave innovator, order bearer, friend of youth and a caring person. From the printed materials it followed that Zaltsman always strived for higher education, achieved the position of director by his own labor and, together with other factory workers, was awarded for the release of new types of tanks, guns and tractors. Also, Chelyabinsk residents learned about Zaltsman, that in besieged Leningrad he “never left the plant day or night …”; being the people’s commissar, he “did not break off personal, operational communication with the Kirov plant”; for the sake of mastering the IS tank “returned to the plant”, although there were rumors that this happened because of his conflict either with L. P. Beria, or with V. A. Malyshev. The legendary director of Tankograd, Major General of the Engineering Tank Service and Hero of Socialist Labor met the victory with three Orders of Lenin, two Orders of the Red Banner of Labor, the Orders of Suvorov and Kutuzov, and the Order of the Red Star. Perhaps the closest in influence to Zaltsman during the war years was Nikolai Semenovich Patolichev, the first secretary of the Chelyabinsk regional committee and the Chelyabinsk city committee. Patolichev and Zaltsman have developed constructive business relations over the years of joint work. Actually, they formed a fairly effective tandem, endowed with considerable power from the center of Patolichev, and was also an authorized representative of the State Defense Committee. Both understood that Moscow’s favorable attitude was based on an uninterrupted supply of tanks to the front. In any other case, no personal authority and experience would have saved them.

I.M. Zaltsman among prominent designers and engineers of the Great Patriotic War

Let’s return to the opinion of the director’s critics. It is argued that the quality of armored vehicles produced at the Tankograd factories was at times appalling: the quantity of production increased due to the low level of assembly. And the relatively successful evacuation of the Kirov plant is the merit of a number of other directors and managers, but not Zaltsman personally. The post-war dismissal of the director from all posts was not a mythical consequence of the Leningrad affair, but simple incompetence. Say, the legendary “tank king” in peacetime could not organize the production of tractors, tanks and, which is very important, equipment for the nascent nuclear industry in the Urals.

Among the workers of the Kirov plant, Zaltsman was known for his ambiguous character. In particular, there were stories about his “Odessa things”, which we talked about at the beginning of this article. Could Zaltsman, in front of everyone, defiantly remove the person (director, head of the shop) from his post, and then, after some time, tete-a-tete “forgiven” the culprit and reinstated him in office. The director of “Tankograd” easily dared to unexpected solutions to problems. I personally set out in search of a batch of tank radios stuck somewhere near Omsk on a private plane. And for the construction of pedestrian paths to the entrance of the plant, he demonstratively threw the managers responsible for this into a puddle and invited them to “slap” to the door. He earned popular love also by the incident with a young factory worker who stood barefoot at the machine – Zaltsman called the shop manager and made him give his boots to the boy. Dissatisfied with the director of “Tankograd” were outraged by the poor food, lack of housing, difficulties with re-evacuation, but in wartime, for obvious reasons, this did not come out. But in the first post-war years there were even open protests against Zaltsman and his entourage. Letters were sent to Moscow that Zaltsman was “a capitalist, a skinner, an arrogant person who cares only about his own well-being.”

Since 1949, the name of Zaltsman was deleted from the official history for a long time, and in 1957 G. Ye. Nikolaeva’s novel “The Battle on the Road” was published, in which the negative hero, the director of the Valgan tractor plant, looked a lot like the disgraced Hero of Socialist Labor. We will learn about why this happened in the continuation of the story.

To be continued…

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