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The ‘Godfather’ of the USSR diamond industry: a portrait against the background of the era

15 february 2021

analyt_15022021_lomako.pngExactly 80 years ago, in 1941, the Uralzoloto trust’s Teplogorsk diamond mine began its commercial diamond mining at the placer deposits of the Western Urals. That was the birth of the USSR diamond industry. This industry had an undeniable ‘father’ whose personality and biography are so extraordinary that he must not escape our attention in connection with the glorious anniversary.

His name was Pyotr Fadeyevich Lomako. Born in 1904 in the Kuban area, he came from the Cossacks, which he liked to emphasize. As a teenager, in the troubled years of the civil war, he supported the Bolsheviks and was the commissar of the detachments of the special forces for the fight against the counter-revolution. And later on, he made a quick career for himself in the Communist party and as a functionary, he was both a Komsomol and trade union functionary, and was steadily promoted to take higher positions. He graduated from the Moscow Institute of Non-Ferrous Metals and Gold and in 1939, at the age of 35, he became a Deputy People’s Commissar (Minister) of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy of the USSR, and a year later, he became the People’s Commissar. He hold ministerial positions for over 46 years and set an absolute record for the Soviet establishment, which was registered in the Guinness Book of Records in 1986! He was a member of the Central Committee of the CPSU from 1952 through 1989. And, of course, he was awarded a lot of awards, he had seven ‘Orders of Lenin’.

Quite a lot of memoirs are devoted to Lomako’s activities, and interestingly, the authors have starkly differing views. For some Lomako’s contemporaries, he was an energetic, purposeful, extremely hard-working, talented leader, and a man of good morals who selflessly supported and defended his close associates. For others, he was a stupid and arrogant irresponsible bureaucrat, despot, and a boor. Such a wide range of opinions makes the task of the historical reconstruction of the personality of this undoubtedly outstanding Soviet statesman and political party official very interesting. And since we are interested in the diamond industry, we will focus on the memoirs reflecting the contrary opinions about Lomako.

In the memoirs ‘the Diamonds and Leaders’ by S. Z. Borisov, first secretary of the Yakut Regional Committee of the CPSU P. F. Lomako, a member of the Central Committee of the CPSU and Minister of Nonferrous Metallurgy of the USSR, looks as follows. “First, I went to my old acquaintance P. Ya. Antropov, Minister of Geology and Natural Resources Protection of the country. Pyotr Yakovlevich handed me an official letter, which, in particular, read that the ministry guaranteed the commercial reserves of rough diamonds. Soon, I entered the P. F. Lomako’s office being confident that the document given to me was really valid. I put it on the table in front of the minister and added that the paper was signed by the Minister of Geology and Natural Resources Protection of the country. Lomako, without lifting his head or even giving a glance at the document, grabbed it and threw it to the floor. “He is a fool that he has signed it,” Pyotr Fadeyevich said and added such obscene, abusive words that at first I was dumbfounded whether the man in front of me was really a minister? Swearwords ‘poured out’ of him so abundantly that there were simply no normal human words.”

Well, at the end of the USSR, I worked under the direction of a member of the CPSU Central Committee who was also a general, and I can confirm that in high offices, an abusive language was often used at their closed-door meetings. In general, the evil was small, besides, swear words used by people having a real combat experience sometimes sounded rather normal. But in this case, the point was not in the Lomako’s obscene language, but in the fact that Borisov directly and unequivocally accused the union minister of his unwillingness to develop the Yakut diamond deposits. And this reluctance was dictated, from the Borisov’s point of view, exclusively by the Lomako’s narrow-mindedness, bureaucratic ‘intransigence’ who continued - with his perverted stubbornness - mining the poor Ural placers and ignored the Yakut deposits, which were richer by orders of magnitude. It was a grave accusation! And the grounds for it seemed to exist: indeed, the first placer deposits in Yakutia were discovered in 1950, the first primary deposit - in 1954, the Mir pipe and 14 more ones - in 1955, but there were no mining operations yet (at the time of that episode). Let us compare - the first Ural placers were discovered in 1937, the industrial production at the Teplogorsk mine started in 1941, and there were very little rough diamonds at that mine. So, the Yakut daredevil Borisov rushed to ‘attack’ the gloomy Stalinist retrograde Lomako and, despite the torrent of invectives, he bravely complained to Khrushchev, wrote to the ‘Pravda’ newspaper and spoke at the plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU. And he had a good thing going and the mining of the Yakut diamonds started; he could beat, so to speak, Lomako! He did it, didn’t he?!

Now let’s look at this amazing Yakut ‘epic’ and Lomako from the opposite side. There is a character sketch ‘The Soldier of the Party’ by V. R. Airapetov dedicated to Lomako. The author was the Lomako’s closest colleague as he was the Senior deputy head of the Foreign Relations Department of the USSR Ministry of Non-ferrous Metallurgy. In this sketch, Lomako appeared as a strange combination of a wingless angel and a faithful Marxist-Leninist, the author wrote, “It could not have been otherwise - the Minister of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy P. F. Lomako is a SOLDIER OF THE PARTY! He was, is and will always be [a soldier of the party]! ... In fact, as for his harshness and steeliness, many people, including myself, were of the opinion that it was not just a mask, but his way of behaviour that did not reflect the real nature of this person ... P. F. Lomako looked closely at a new person for a very long time trying to figure out and understand by himself - and not from someone’s words - with whom he was dealing. And if he believed in a person, as a rule, it was forever; well, if he did not believed in a person, it was almost impossible to change his opinion. Another characteristic feature was that the Minister never, under no circumstances, ‘sold out his own people’, he always looked into a matter himself and, if he was convinced that the person was guilty, he punished him, but he never allowed any outsider to do this.”... And the Airapetov’s opinion about the conflict between Lomako and Borisov is as follows, “If Semyon Zakharovich [Borisov], secretary of the ‘small regional committee’, as he called himself, did not know how the existing system worked at that time when no more or less large-scale undertaking did not start without deep careful preliminary studying, well-thought-out justification, material and financial support, and, most importantly, the decisions taken by the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee - then going negative on Minister Lomako can be understood. But those who did not know this undeniable truth in those distant times were not appointed as secretaries of the regional committees. So, he understood. Then, it was simply very bad, especially because this book written by him was published in 2000, when Pyotr Fadeyevich was not alive for ten years.”

So, the Yakut daring person in his memoirs smeared Lomako - ‘a rough diamond’ - with a lot of garbage without good reason, as the minister did not want the Yakut diamonds to be mined not because of his bureaucratic stubbornness, but because of the lack of ‘thoughtful justification, material and financial support’.

Where was the truth? At one time, Joseph Stalin having watched the film ‘Lenin in 1918’, summed up thoughtfully “It was far otherwise. Absolutely wrong...” One has a good reason to use the leader’s words to comment on the quoted memoirs. Because in fact, it was so. In 1950, the Yakut placer deposits were discovered with the diamond grade by an order of magnitude higher than at the Ural deposits. The information about the discovery was laid on the table of S. N. Kruglov, Minister of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the USSR, who was in charge of the diamond industry (at that moment, Lomako had nothing to do with diamond mining). Kruglov made his decision to immediately transfer the Yakut deposits to the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs, develop a project and start mining by GULAG prisoners. In 1951, the Special Chief Administration (SCA) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was developing a project to make 8 prison camps for 5,000 prisoners in the Vilyui District, 6 placer deposits were planned for mining using dredges, as well as to construct support bases, roads, the Markhinskaya power plant, and the cargo port in Ust-Markha. All the detailed calculations were made, the dates, and ‘material and financial support’ were quite real, since the main support base of the project was the Dzhugzhurzoloto trust (multicorporate enterprise), which was also part of the MIA’s SCA. Just a few days were left until the establishment of the Vilyuylag and the arrival of the diamond dredges in Yakutia, but suddenly everything was suspended! Instead of a decree on the diamond mining in Yakutia, Stalin signed a decree of the Council of Ministers on the purchase of a huge amount (20 times more than the pre-war purchases) of industrial grade diamonds in England! In 1953, the SCA of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was disbanded, the diamond industry was again under the control of Lomako, but there was no urgent need for the development of the Yakut deposits as the Ministry of Finance reported that the State Precious Metals and Gems Repository (Gokhran) had accumulated industrial grade diamonds for 15 years ahead (due to British supplies of 1952-1953).

And here is another quote from the Airapetov’s sketch, “I can only say that by the mid-1950s, almost everyone believed that the greatest thing had been done, and in the conditions when the country was deprived of the opportunity to import rough diamonds (emphasis added), and Uralalmaz produced absurdly small quantity, only the earliest possible development of the Yakutia’s deposits can save our mechanical engineering, our defense potential, our country.” And this was written by the former chief engineer of Glavzagrantzvetmet! It was written in 2015! He could have asked Lomako - whom he liked so much at that time - who prepared Resolution of the Council of Ministers No.1486-590ss on the additional purchases of rough diamonds in England and who initialed circular letter No.2117ss in 1953? Lomako initialed it!

Well, to make the picture complete, a fragment from the records of the December 1956 Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU is given. “Borisov: I have to ask him such questions. Comrade Lomako, since you are more deeply involved in the future development of the diamond industry, answer my question, how many rough diamonds can be consumed by the economy of the Soviet Union? He says, it’s none of my business. I don’t know. Or the question was asked, how many rough diamonds do we buy abroad, how much gold do we spend on these [purchases]? I do not know. Is possible that the minister cannot answer such questions?“

So, he didn’t know! He endorsed the Council of Ministers’ top-secret resolutions on the rough diamond purchases abroad, but did not know what was written in them? Nonsense... He said this at the Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU!

But the next fact is not funny: as soon as the SCA project on the development of the Yakut diamond deposits by the GULAG prisoners went into abeyance and the decision was made simultaneously to purchase rough diamonds in England, Kruglov signed an order on a significant intensification of the production at the Ural mines. How could this be explained? They did not want to develop rich Yakut placer deposits, they were going to buy industrial grade rough diamonds in England to have the rough diamond stocks for 15 years, and they were going to mine the poor Ural placers with all their might! The only rational explanation was that the Ural diamonds were exported and these exports were agreed with the global diamond market regulator, the channel capacity was small and, therefore, it was possible to intensify this production as much as needed as it did not affect the De Beers’ ability to control the market. The same could not be said about the Yakut diamond deposits.

So, Lomako’s position on the development of the Yakut deposits was dictated not by his bureaucratic stubbornness or lack of funding. In fact, Lomako was one of the very few people in the country who knew the complete nuanced picture of the interaction of the USSR with the main diamond market players, both formal and informal aspects of it. And for a number of reasons, such knowledge was - and still remains - a very sensitive information.

A few words should be said about the Lomako’s personality. The above Airapetov’s words that Lomako never ‘sold out his own people’ are not true. He ‘sold out’ M. F. Shestopalov, the first director of the Teplogorsk diamond mine, as soon as the Minister of the State Control of the USSR L. Z. Mekhlis ‘came down on’ him. Mekhlis had a reputation for being a ‘Stalinist bulldog’ with very strong jaws, and Lomako did not defend his subordinate (whom, by the way, he respected very much for his professionalism); moreover, Lomako ‘got ahead of himself’ and demanded to shoot Shestopalov although Mekhlis did not insist on such a harsh punishment. However, when the Shestopalov’s case was presented to Beria for review and he regarded Shestopalov with favour, Lomako immediately backpedaled on his decision as Mekhlis, of course, was a bulldog, but a crocodile sure beats a bulldog! The ‘soldier of the Party’ was very flexible at right moments, which, in fact, helped him occupy the ministerial chairs for over 46 years.

Let’s open Lomako’s memoirs “Non-ferrous metallurgy during the Great Patriotic War”. In this book published in 1985 and ‘polished’ by the Soviet censorship, only a few paragraphs were devoted to rough diamonds, but one fact is worthy of a closer look.

“Rough diamonds were of great importance for the defence industry. At that time, the diamond deposits in Yakutia had not yet been discovered. Geological prospecting was carried out in the Urals. By 1939, some small deposits were explored where the diamond mining was organized ...

It should be said that the technology for extracting rough diamonds was not well developed at that time. The employees of the Uralzoloto trust and the Sverdlovsk-based design organizations of the People’s Commissariat for nonferrous Metallurgy were involved in its development. Their efforts resulted in manifold increase in the diamond production during the war. Subsequently, in 1951, a group of specialists was awarded the USSR State Prize for the development of the rough diamond extracting technology used in the Urals, and for the design and construction of the facilities for diamond mining.

The ‘bogus stories’ about the use of the Ural rough diamonds in the defence industry was a usual tribute to the industry legend. However, the story about the State (then ‘Stalin’) prize for mining the Ural rough diamonds in 1951 is very interesting.

In 1951, the diamond industry was under the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ SCA and had nothing to do with the Ministry of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy headed by Lomako. Indeed, geologist I. S. Rozhkov, an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ SCA, was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1951 ‘for the discovery and exploration of mineral deposits’. In this case, however, it was about gold and platinum, and no Stalin Prize was awarded in 1951 for rough diamonds, especially for the creation of a diamond mining industry.

In December 1952, a group of employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ SCA were nominated for the Stalin Prize for ‘Creating the Diamond Industry in the USSR’ and this prize could have been awarded in 1953. But after the Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ SCA went into liquidation, and the diamond industry passed under the control of the Ministry of the Metallurgical Industry. At that time, I. F. Tevosyan was the minister and P. F. Lomako was his senior deputy minister and he oversaw the diamond industry. Tevosyan hated with a fierce loathing those people who had the shoulder straps of the ‘punitive departments’ of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of State Security and had every reason for this hatred as his sister was tortured to death in prison in 1937 during the investigation. And all the potential winners of the Stalin Prize ‘For the creation of the diamond industry in the USSR’ had these shoulder straps. Lomako, of course, knew about this, and when Tevosyan ‘put a brake on’ the application for the Stalin Prize for rough diamonds, he did not stir a finger to support the diamond workers, who, of course, were worthy persons and had rather indirect relationship to the Stalin’s repressions. In his memoirs, the ‘party soldier’ slightly bent the truth - well, it happens sometimes, besides, in 1985, the diamond industry information was still ‘top secret’ and no one could check anything.

So, Lomako was neither a diehard bureaucrat, nor a ‘knight without fear or reproach’, he was a flexible politician, competent and professional, really fantastically hard-working, cruel and unscrupulous. And, certainly, he was not a coward. In 1985, N. I. Ryzhkov, a supporter of the ‘perestroika and acceleration’ who was just appointed a prime minister, convened an extended session of the Council of Ministers, at which he cheerfully announced that all the ministers and deputy ministers who were over 70 years old should write a letter of resignation as that was the M. S. Gorbachev’s decision, it was time to put an end to the aged in the government. Well, ‘if you must, you must’, the old-aged ‘soldiers of the Party’ obediently wrote their letters of resignation. And only Lomako turned a deaf ear to the request of the newly-minted prime minister.

- Well, what about you, Pyotr Fadeyevich? I said - “everyone who is over seventy” ... - and Ryzhkov stopped speaking when he met Lomako’s steely glance clearly telling him “Bug off, cipher...”. The tightness in the air and silence was broken by the voice of the last ‘Stalinist People’s Commissar’, saying,

- I’m over eighty.

Sergey Goryainov, Rough&Polished


1941. One of the first documents on the diamond industry signed by P. F. Lomako.