No. 3, 2012

Yury Evdoshenko ,
Ph.D. (History)


Unknown stage in Russian-American cooperation in gasoline production at the beginning of the 1930s

IN 1932, A BOOK CAME OUT IN BOSTON called An American Engineer Looks at Russia. Its author, George Arthur Burrell, a former colonel of the U.S. army and chemist, participated in modernizing the gas facilities of a major Soviet enterprise, Grozneft, in 1930-1931. Amidst all the "tall tales" about Soviet Russia, he set out to give an objective assessment of this socialist-building country's many-sided life. Burrell described in his book what he thought might be of interest to the mass reader in the U.S. - the political system, railways, life in the big cities, religion, morals, propaganda, and much more. However this comprehensive, critical, although highly genial narrative did not include the main objective of the trip - George Burrell's direct work at Soviet oil fields. And the reasons for this are quite explainable: the Soviet Russian authorities had lowered the Iron Curtain. Not only was the activity of strategic enterprises shrouded in secrecy, but also any manifestations of the Soviet system beyond the framework permitted by official propaganda.


Studying the properties of gaseous mixtures and their absorbents became a pursuit of immediate interest after the first chemical attacks on the battle fields of World War I. At the beginning of 1917, George Burrell as a leading specialist in the civilian use of gas in the U.S. was entrusted with creating asphyxiating gases and means of protection from them. Over time, his group was transferred from the Bureau of Mines under the supervision of the War Department to become the basis of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service, while Burrell himself acquired the rank of colonel. He and his specialists managed to develop a successful gas mask and ensure the protection of American soldiers. Along with his work in chemical warfare, George Burrell initiated and helped to lead an extensive U.S. helium program, the implementation of which placed the country among the world leaders in helium production. On July 19, 1918, the U.S. president awarded Colonel Burrell with an Army Distinguished Service Medal "for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services to the Government of the United States in a duty of great responsibility during World War I in research work pertaining to gas warfare."

After the war, George Burrell continued his gas research. This was promoted by an increase in demand for automobile gasoline and the chairborne chemist became a businessman who established two companies in 1923 in Pittsburgh - Burrell-Mase Engineering Co. and Burrell Technical Supply Co. Soon he also headed Atlantic State Gas Co.

At the turn of the 1910s, Russia also took its first steps to industrially introduce LPG-technology. However, the beginning of World War I significantly hampered the development of the new technology and Russia was destined to lose ground in this area.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power. At the beginning of their rule, they were avid admirers of the American way of doing business. They were inspired by the scope and rates of industrial development in the U.S. and they exerted every effort to borrow its administrative and technical methods (without, of course, straying too far from communist ideology).

In 1921, the Russian journal The Oil and Shale Industry, as well as certain other publications, published two of George Burrell's key works on the compression and absorption methods for recovering gasoline from natural gas which were reprints from the Bulletin of the U.S. Bureau of Mines. These works were indispensible guides for Russian engineers; they sold like hot cakes and soon became very rare. George Burrell's extensive 600-page book called The Recovery of Gasoline from Natural Gas published in New York in 1925 was of immense assistance to Soviet engineers and they subsequently recognized him as "the most outstanding specialist in the gasoline business."

Techniques for recovering gasoline were of particular interest to the country's second largest production enterprise, Grozneft. The associated petroleum gas generated at the Grozny fields contained many gasoline fractions, and in 1924‒1929, five gasoline plants were built in Grozny and several Soviet engineers were sent to the U.S. to study the American experience. But this was not enough.


From August 1927 to April 1928, Ivan Strizhov, senior director of the Supreme Council of the National Economy (VSNKh) for the oil industry, visited the USA where, in addition to studying America's petroleum industry, he looked for consultants in development of gas facilities. Through Amtorg Trading Corporation, he sent letters to well-known specialists. One of them was George Burrell, who on July 31, 1928 informed Amtorg of his agreement in principle to begin talks. On August 3, the director of Amtorg informed Grozneft that "Mr. Burrell thinks it would make more sense to come to the Soviet Union in person along with two highly qualified specialists in the gas and oil refining business."

On January 8, 1930, Vladimir Korobovkin, the official representative of the Soviet oil industry in the U.S., and George Burrell signed a contract on terms proposed by the latter. He was to give an assessment of Grozneft's gas facilities six months after work began and make proposals to improve the collection and refining of associated petroleum and industrial gas in Grozny and Maykop, as well as the storage and transportation of gasoline. At the end of the year, he was to submit blueprints and estimates for the new installations. He received $6,000 of the $90,000 issued for the project right after he signed the contract, and the rest was meted out in equal portions throughout the year. Grozneft provided Burrell with an apartment, transportation, and the staff he needed.

On February 16, 1930, George Burrell arrived in Grozny, and on February 17 he began his work. The contract did not require that George Burrell remain in Grozny all the time. On his first visit, he stayed until the end of May. During this time he was to complete a preliminary assessment of work that needed to be done and the technical capabilities of the enterprise, as well as draw his first conclusions. He brought some equipment with him for the laboratory he intended to make the center of his work in Grozny. Director of Grozneft's gas office Stepan Fedorov became George Burrell's supervisor.

First the American engineer was asked to evaluate the Soviet projects for reconstructing the main absorption gasoline plant and industrial gas collectors. At the same time, he established the gas-oil ratio at Grozneft's main fields - Novogroznensky and Starogroznensky, as well as the Maykopsky field. He was assigned young laboratory technicians headed by Kravchenko, who was a just as young, but talented chemist.

At that time, Grozneft was carrying out the extremely ambitions assignments of the First Five-Year Plan (1928‒1932). As Andrey Shibinsky wrote, "In 1928/29, 120,000 tons of gas were refined, while by the end of the five-year plan, 400,000 tons of gas from the old fields were to be refined. However gas production must also be organized at the new fields." The enterprise was to stop burning raw gas and raise its refining level from 45% to 95%. Moreover, cracking plants were built that produced a large volume of valuable cracking gases, although the enterprise had absolutely no industrial gas collection and refining system. What is more, during the talks with George Burrell, many of the leading engineers, Strizhov, Akkerman, Shibinsky, and others, were arrested under a case fabricated by the Joint State Political Directorate (OPGU) on "sabotage" in the oil industry. While working with these engineers' colleagues, Burrell had noticed their uncertainty about the future and inclination to play it safe.

On May 30, Burrell left the Soviet Union and took the first data to Pittsburg, where engineering design began. On August 1, he returned to Grozny.

His wife Naomi accompanied him this time, since the trip promised to be long. They had to make living arrangements. Housing was built especially for the 20 Americans working in Grozny, and they were also specially catered to, since food, clothing, household items, and furniture were in short supply. In order to fit out old chairs with new upholstery, Burrell had to write to the Main Administration of the Oil Industry in Moscow to ask for brass nails to be sent. Paper, cigarettes, and much more had to be ordered from America. However, the well-seasoned businessman, president of several companies used to the cushy American way of life, stoically endured all the difficulties of Russian industrialization, when all the government's efforts were directed toward building heavy industry.

Burrell mainly worked in Grozny, in the laboratory he set up, where he also trained young technicians. Unfortunately, in June 1930, when Burrell was away, Kravchenko was killed in a car crash and the necessary measurements were not carried out. From time to time, George Burrell went to Maykop, where there was an oil field with an extremely high gas-oil ratio, and to Tuapse, where Grozneft built a new oil refinery and oil-loading export terminal. A special gasoline plant was designed for Maykop.

As early as August, the first blueprints were sent to Grozny from Pittsburgh. A total of around 350 were drawn up during Burrell's work in Grozy - for traps, stabilizers, blau gas recovery devices, gas collectors for pipe stills and cracking devices, absorption columns, and so on. Along with engineering design, George Burrell compiled special notes on specific topics relating to gas facilities. They included analysis methods, ways to eliminate leaks and evaporation, how to correctly pour gasoline into tanks, proposals for changing gasoline standards, and much more.


Mutually advantageous cooperation was hampered by the fact that the contract did not involve just two counterparts, Burrell-Mase Engineering Co. and Grozneft, but also the entire bureaucratic system of the industry's administration, which just happened to be undergoing restructuring at the time the contract with Burrell was entered. Grozneft became part of the national Soyuzneft association and lost some of its powers. New supervisors appeared in Moscow who criticized the activity of their predecessors, many of whom were accused of "sabotage." Another institution was the Foreign Department of VSNKh, which was responsible for all matters concerning relations between heavy industry and the representatives of other states.

As early as November 1930, the lawyer responsible for drawing up the contract with Burrell-Mase Engineering Co. was called to clarify the main articles of the contract. He was asked about the possibility of transferring the contract with Grozneft to Soyuzneft, which comprised several enterprises, about the terms for halting payments under the contract, and whether any sanctions were envisaged in the event that Burrell failed to perform the contract terms. It seemed that the regulatory bodies were looking for a way to make joint work difficult, and they found it in terminological discrepancies.

George Burrell was to submit detailed blueprints and estimates. As he saw it, this applied to the main installations involved in gas collection and refining. As a result, one of the Soviet officials suggested charging George Burrell for the work representatives of Giproneft - the state design institute of the oil industry - carried out to bring Burrell's blueprints into harmony with the standards accepted in the Soviet Union.

But this was probably not the only reason that interfered with bringing the end goal of George Burrell's work to fruition. The continuous attempts to boost the rates of industrial development deprived some enterprises of any intelligent and reasonable work plan. And without this, engineering design was pointless.

The discrepancy between the plans and the possibility of implementing them was extremely detrimental to Burrell's technical assistance. The main purpose of the contract was to supervise construction and provide consultation on commissioning work. To begin construction, the necessary equipment had to be purchased both from abroad (compressors, monitoring and measuring devices) and in the Soviet Union (pumps, furnaces, pipes). So performance of the contract depended on the complex Soviet procurement system ‒ from Neftesnab, a special purveyance organization, and the Soviet Union's trade representatives in other states to the highest party bodies that made decisions on allocating the necessary currency funding.

By July 1, 1931, an oil absorption unit, the main element for degasifying the Grozny gases, was to have been built based on George Burrell's blueprints. On March 31, three months before this deadline and the day before George Burrell's scheduled departure for the U.S., the administration of Soyuzneft informed that "orders for equipment in the Soviet Union and abroad have been issued. In terms of materials, there is a shortage of up 75%. A delay is anticipated in receiving imported compressors and domestic pumps and furnaces." The situation with the main gas collectors for the Grozny refineries and the gasoline plant in Maykop was also complicated since drawing up of the working blueprints was delayed and funds were not allotted for purchasing equipment.

As a result of the delays, George Burrell postponed his departure until June 1, 1931. His coworker, Nelson Turner, remained in Grozny for another year to keep an eye on construction of the new units. The company took responsibility for looking for the necessary equipment without any intermediaries. An agreement was reached with Soyuzneft that when placing orders for equipment for the planned units, Burrell-Mase would negotiate with Amtorg. This measure pursued two goals: the company would select equipment according to direct necessity without any complications in clarifying details, thus eliminating all unnecessary correspondence between Amtorg and Grozneft, and, second, if updated models appeared in the American market, the Burrell Company would also select the most suitable for Grozny. However, neither this assignment nor Burrell's insistent instructions to raise the percentage of butane in the gasoline, which would significantly increase its production volume, were fulfilled. The currency crisis that befell the Soviet Union at the same time as the Great Depression compelled the Soviet government, on Joseph Stalin's direct instructions, to reduce imported purchases to the minimum.

On March 31, 1932, a special Grozneft commission stated that "the building of plants designed by Mr. Burrell has become so protracted that it has not been possible to use Mr. Turner to the full extent for consultation during building." In its minutes, the commission noted that "most of Mr. Turner's work is limited to consultation of the design and estimate department, the plant administration, and gas office on current affairs in both oral and written form."


George Burrell returned to the U.S. a strong supporter of the planned economy. On August 18, 1931, the Pittsburgh Press noted that "Burrell thinks the bankers and all the other owners of American industry would ultimately profit by nationally planned progress - and that the majority of the people would profit almost immediately."

However, in so doing, he believed that the planned system should be combined with democracy, otherwise it loses all of its advantages. "I don't want to complain ..." George Burrell wrote to prominent Russian scientist Alexander Sakhanov, who soon emigrated to the U.S., "since people are trying to do everything they can for me. But there is something in the general system that at times remains a mystery to me." The Soviet planned system presumed strict centralism and deprived economic entities of the necessary freedom. As a result, the goals that everyone understood and supported suddenly became difficult to reach because each link in the huge bureaucratic chain, while having the end goal in sight, would see the path to its achievement differently. For this reason, the idea of fuller utilization of associated petroleum and industrial gases supported by all specialists and officials was brought to fruition very slowly.

Perhaps George Burrell's greatest achievement in Grozny was training young personnel. On the basis of George Burrell's notes, his Russian students prepared a book called "The Planning and Calculation of Gasoline Plants," which was recommended as a textbook for learning establishments. Many of these students continued working not only at Grozneft, but also at other petroleum enterprises and institutes of the Soviet Union.

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