“It is a grandiose factory for remaking people. Yesterday’s peasant…becomes a genuine proletarian…fighting for the quickest possible completion of the laying of socialism’s foundation. You are an unfortunate person, my dear reader, if you have not been to Magnitostroi.”1) These are the compelling opening lines of Kotkin’s chapter, “Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography.” The unknown correspondent’s words were persuasive; however, was this the true story of Magnitostroi. A steel plant situated miles from cultured society, populated by a handful of people, deficient in basic commodities and resources, and extreme housing shortages. Notwithstanding the extreme working conditions of -20 to -40 degrees made it a truly modern industrial paradise!
The recruitment strategies of extra pay and free transportation worked to a certain extent, but workers would quickly leave as soon as their contracts were exhausted. As time continued, the recruitment results plummeted. In the opening days of this project, the population was to consist of volunteer workers, however, just as in the collectivization of farms it quickly turned to mandates of forced workers populating the official state needs. The young, unskilled, male populaces were typically former villagers with little or no education.2) A workforce made up of mere peasants and the goal was to establish a strong nationwide proletariat, which these uneducated peasants could not fulfill hence the need to remake people. Training initiatives done in true “new” Bolshevik style sometimes the training was for a skill for which the material was not available for use by the workers. This did not seem to matter because the goal was only to attempt to train workers to work more efficiently and as a team.
Russia was behind in the global industrialization movement. Stalin desired to catch up to the western world as quickly as possible. Unfortunately as the Magnitostroi highlights the speed of changes without thinking of what complications these decrees would initiate did not launch Russia forward, but could have actually hindered their long term achievement of modernization. Stalin’s regime with an exorbitant amount of power centralized at the top was as Lewin notes, “allowed to operate independently of economic criteria and results.”3)Thereby allowing massive amounts of materials to be wasted which included workers time. Without the NEP there was no incentive for workers to work harder, basically, they needed to appear busy. The bureaucracy grew beyond control allowing bureaucratic drift to expunge more resources than needed and ensure that they kept their positions. Let us not forget that most of these workers were in relatively newly acquired positions and incapable of completely understanding or dealing with these responsibilities. The nation was in turmoil and the constant demand for continued changes only exasperated this state. Could Stalin have had more success if he had not eliminated all of the intellectuals? Those men would have taken time to consider the full implications of their actions before decreeing every sector of the nation to change. Lenin showed incite before his death when writing that, “he was not sure whether Stalin could be always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.”4) What would the history of Russia be today if the party had listened?
- Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography, in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. ((Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993: 63 [↩]
- Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography,” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. ((Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993: 75 [↩]
- Moshe Lewin, “On Soviet Industrialization,” in William G. Rosenberg and Lewis H. Sieglebaum (ed.) Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization. ((Indian University Press, 1993: 277 [↩]
- “Lenin’s Testament.” New York Times. 18 October, 1926. [↩]
Playing the ‘What if’ game is interesting because it allows us to think about all the possibilities that were not taken. It also allows us to scrutinize every single action or response that ever occurred with an event or a person. On the contrary, it does not do us any good because we cannot see the effect to an action that was never taken. There are many actions under the Soviet Regime that could have turned out differently. Each one of those actions, even changing them slightly, could have dramatically changed the course of the Soviet Union. So, in response, I cannot answer your question because that action never occurred and we will never know what could have happened. So, to ask the why question: Can you point to a certain trait or a single moment in Stalins life that made him chose a certain action over another?
I’m not sure it would be possible to point to one very minute, specific aspect of Stalin’s life that drove him to create and implement the policies of his era. Probably one of the most obvious motivating factors, however, is the pressure from the Western world. A country’s ‘backwardness’ must be compared to another nation’s ‘forwardness’. If Stalin perceived the Soviet Union to be backwards, then he based his judgment off of the West and its development.
I suppose, then, that Lenin believed Stalin would go to extreme lengths (using his authority without ‘sufficient caution’) in order to force the Soviet Union into Stalin’s notion of the ideal. It could perhaps be argued that Stalin felt inadequate, as Lenin’s inner circle initially cast him aside and essentially deemed him of little relevance. Could it be, perhaps, that Stalin projected his own inadequacy onto the entire Soviet state, and thus felt that the only way to prove his worth (and the worth of the Soviet Union) by thrusting the Soviet Union into industrialization?