Magnitogorsk: semi-realized city


Magnitogorsk Steel Production Facility 1930, courtesy of wikicommons


The city of Magnitogorsk was founded as a center of industrialization, however even as it failed on many fronts it was a progressive center of industrialization. In the 1930’s the Soviet Union was in need of industry, and so the plan to create industrial cities was implemented. Detailed in the article Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography by Stephen Kkotkin is the reasoning, creation and outcome of Magnitogorsk as both an industrial city and as a “factory for remaking people”. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 63)) 

In an attempt to industrialize the country, industrial cities were created throughout the Soviet Union. By recruiting citizens, military personnel assignment, foreign workers (European refugees, hired technical personnel and tourists) and the incidental acquisition of wandering peasants (samotek ) Magnitogorsk’s population rapidly grew. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 70)) However, the city became a ‘revolving door’ of workers due to the poor living conditions and low wages. Some of the original workers were otkhodnik- peasant seasonal workers, who saw factory employment as a supplement to their agricultural income. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 71)) In order to maintain steadier population the Soviet Union saw it necessary to eliminate the seasonal workers by “transform[ing] the construction industry into a year-round activity”. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 72)) 

In 1933 The Soviet Union became afraid of the “peasnatization” of the workforce. As the ideal underclass was the proletariat efforts to educate the largely literate and unskilled work force began. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 75)) This organized system of education proved to be less effective than on the job training, during which individuals were instilled with the belief that with even the smallest extra effort they could become a hero to the Soviet Union. These sentiments gave rise to workplace competition and national pride.

With the issue of desertion sill prominent within the city, a passport system was created. The passports, which could have prevented the misuse of trains and government money, became an opportunity for the rise of black markets because of the demand for documentation. Even after many of the pitfalls of Magnitogorsk, it is still viewed as a successful industrial center that taught its citizens national pride and created a trained working class.

What struck me as I read the article was the need for progress, even when nothing was in fact achieved. The construction of the damn is the greatest instance of a failed but somehow respected occurrence. While it is true that the damn was built ahead of schedule and as a result party authority vastly increased, the damn was not functional and almost as soon as construction was completed it once again began. ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 80)) Thant the Soviet Union was able to turn a major construction failure into a morale booster and convince the workers that even “the lowest individual could become a great hero by straining to pour an extra load of cement” is a testament to the strength of the collective mindset ((Kotkin, Peopling Magnitostroi 80))  The ability of the Bolsheviks to deftly turn a critique of their shortcomings into a party asset is one of the many characteristics that helped to keep the party in power during the Soviet Union.


The Process of “Peopling” in Industrialization

Stephen Kotkin’s article Peopling Magnitostroi explores the industrialization period of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, specifically regarding the newly built industrial city of Magnitostroi. Located in a remote area of the steppe, the soviet regime mobilized and recruited the masses to come and work at this factory center. The workers sent there – a mix of skilled workers, unskilled peasants or exiled kulaks, and seasonal workers, otkhodniki, were overall reluctant to go there, especially those sent there from other factories in the cities. Despite the high number of workers who passed through Magnitostroi, there was a fluctuation or fluidity in when the workers came and left. Often workers would sign up only to leave again the next month ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi,” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 85)) .

It was combination of the bad working conditions, lack of food and water, and lack of shelter that kept the workers there for only a few months. Many workers also had to be trained there at the factory due to a need for more skilled men. Despite all the problems the officials Magnitostroi faced, they called it a success because they still achieved their goals within the chaos of running a new industrial city with a lack of resources ((Kotkin, 90)) .

Kotkin’s exploration of the conditions in industrial cities and the workers temperaments gives us an idea of what the Soviet Regime was trying to achieve and how they were trying to achieve it. They were entirely focused on increasing production and were willing to go to great lengths to say that they achieved their goals. The “dekulakization” movement gave the government a reason to send more workers, if by force, and the government also urged seasonal worker-peasants to the factories in order to eliminate seasonal working entirely, which would address permanent employment. This was not well executed though, since the area where the factory was built had no useful resources and they had to transport everything by train. There was also not enough resources for the people, so obviously they had not many incentives to stay there. Despite the ever-changing population of workers and arising problems, the government saw Magnitostroi as an achievement since they managed to educate the workers with both useful skills and the soviet mindset: changing the people to be better soviet citizens.

The Psychopolitics of a Metallurgic Mecca: Social and Demographic Transformations

"For the Industrial Plan; for completing a five-year plan in only four; against religion" Yurij Pimenov, 1930 (

“For the Industrial Plan; for completing a five-year plan in only four” Yurij Pimenov, 1930 (source)

The construction of the Magnetostroi, an envisioned beacon of industrial prowess and microcosm of the idealized egalitarian society, was an enormous undertaking by the Soviet government in the 1930s that engendered massive paradigmatic shifts in demographics, economics, and the relationship between central authority and the proletarian masses. The frequently irrational ambition of the Bolshevik government sparked a variety of obstacles that were often met with rather paradoxical schemes in an attempt to rapidly and efficiently allocate human resources. In his essay entitled Peopling Magnitostroi, Stephen Kotkin illustrates how the rise of construction centers in the untamed Siberian steppe encompassed the drive for collectivization, rapid economic development, and proletarianization that so permeated Stalin’s first Five Year plan.

Kotkin begins by discussing the first step undertaken in order to propel this tremendous project upon its course: the idea of mobilization, a key element integral to the mindset of the Bolsheviks in authority. However, due to the high demand for workers and the refusal of many to leave their posts to embark on a fantastical quest to the unforgiving Siberian wilderness, the central authority executed a process laced with sensationalist propaganda often bordering on fanaticism known as recruitment (orgnabor) ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi,” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 67.)) in an attempt to incentivize the peasants with raw materials in exchange for labor – essentially setting up the foundations for a pseudo-labor market. As more obstacles vindictively thwarted the site’s path to industrial nirvana, the Soviet government often resorted to more capricious and coercive methods, including the assembly of exiled kulaks and peasants caught in a vicious cycle of subjugation into human resources, rapid and fleeting economic success, greater ambitions at the central authority, and further subjugation. Nonetheless, not all of the peasant migration from the countryside to the cities was violently induced; the otkhodniki, or peasant seasonal workers, often came of their own will. It was the government’s desire, however, to make them permanent and bring a wide variety of foreigners from the outside regions into a single collective working group in the cities, leading to large-scale demographic transfigurations. ((Ibid, 72-73.))

Another pivotal argument posed by Kotkin is the idea of the social transformation, propagated by the government’s garnering of illiterate and inexperienced individuals, blank slates on which socialism could be deeply etched into via training programs at the industrial center, which had been employed to simultaneously play the role of the supreme factory of skilled proletarians and cadres that “grew like mushrooms.” ((Ibid, 76.)) The philosophy of collectivization and crushing counterrevolutionary thought also prevailed in the industry through the government’s vanquishing of peasant artels, a capitalist-esque form of hierarchy and authority. ((Ibid, 77))

An incredulous aspect of the nature of Magnitostroi’s development is the paradoxical policy decisions made by the government in attempts to combat the disorder and reluctance of the workers to perform their jobs during construction. To incentivize, the oxymoronic socialist competition was introduced, ((Ibid, 79)) and to organize, the old Tsarist passport identification system was reintroduced. This serves to illustrate how far the government was willing to go for the sake of industrial progress and efficient collective work, and how exponentially the authority of the government rose at the same time, imbuing the populace with industrial spirit. Despite the fact that the increased systemization brought along with it an onslaught of limitations and obstacles, the government was relatively successful in dictating the blueprints for a modern metallurgic civilization. Overall, the essay was quite the comprehensive dissection of Soviet industrialism and social change during the 1930s, using Magnitostroi as an example. Delving into the idea of Stalinism as the encroaching dominant political philosophy and Stalin’s involvement further than just the Five Year Plan would make for a broader discussion.

Power of the Masses: How Regional Government Organs Shaped Collectivization in the USSR

Though at first Stalin and the Central Committee argued that it was necessary to collectivize and mobilized the 25,000ers in order to promote controlled collectivization in the countryside, collectivization in rural areas often became controlled by local government organs. The 25,000ers themselves were not influential in these regions because these “rural offices” outnumbered them. ((Lynne Viola, “Collectivization as a Revolution,” in The Stalin Revolution: Foundation of the Totalitarian Era, ed. Robert V. Daniels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1997), 126.)) Further, when members of the 25,000 attempted to provide feedback to the Central Committee’s Department of Agitation and Mass Campaigns regarding unclear government policies on the gathering of seeds for sowing , they were often rejected from the party. The Central Committee’s inability to accept all feedback from the 25,000ers made the task of controlling collectivization from the top down more difficult.

Despite Stalin’s initial argument that “it was necessary to begin gradually to organize agriculture on the basis of large-scale collective farming,” regional organizations took initiative and began to collectivize at a rapid rate between the years of 1929 and 1930. ((Lynne Viola, “Collectivization as a Revolution,” in The Stalin Revolution: Foundation of the Totalitarian Era, ed. Robert V. Daniels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1997), 110-112.)) As a result, Stalin and the central government found themselves attempting to control collectivization in response to this rapid growth. In January of 1930, the Central Committee released the decree “On the Tempos of Collectivization and Measures of State Aid to Collective Farm Construction” in order to discourage the forming of rural parties who took it upon themselves to control their region’s collectivization process. Further, the decree encouraged the elimination of the Russian kulaks “as a race.” ((Lynne Viola, “Collectivization as a Revolution,” in The Stalin Revolution: Foundation of the Totalitarian Era, ed. Robert V. Daniels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1997), 114.)) This decree was an empty threat to rural communities because the members of the 25,000ers who were in each region were not only outnumbered, but considered as outsiders. Though some 25,000ers went against policy and resorted to violence to control these communities, the majority had little authority over the communities and the local government organs. ((Lynne Viola, “Collectivization as a Revolution,” in The Stalin Revolution: Foundation of the Totalitarian Era, ed. Robert V. Daniels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1997), 122.)) In addition, the encouragement of the elimination of the kulak “race” led to uncontrollable violence in the countryside. In the government’s attempt to regain central control, its policies perpetuated more instability in the rural regions of the USSR.

The 25,000ers did not allow this lack of control to go unnoticed, they frequently reported back to the central government. Members of the 25,000 noted the threat that the kulaks presented, lack of “support offered by villagers,” and the problem of collecting seeds for sowing. ((Lynne Viola, “Collectivization as a Revolution,” in The Stalin Revolution: Foundation of the Totalitarian Era, ed. Robert V. Daniels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1997), 118-120.)) Regarding the later concern, workers who complained about the government’s lack of specific instructions on the collection of seeds were “transferred, fired, or expelled from the party.” ((Lynne Viola, “Collectivization as a Revolution,” in The Stalin Revolution: Foundation of the Totalitarian Era, ed. Robert V. Daniels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1997), 119.)) Though these members were trying to point out to the government its own inefficiency and ambiguity, the government rejected this constructive criticism. These reports were clear indicators of many issues present in the countryside, and the government often chose to ignore these critiques. As collectivization continued to increase, the government found itself having difficulty keeping up with this rapid, uncontrollable growth because of its inability to make full use of its reach through the 25,000ers.

The slow grind of collectivization under a tractors tire.

Famine is a dire problem to every state of the world, no matter its size or power. All nations must take pause when they are confronted with the starvation of their people. Soviet Russia in the early 1930s was no different. Josef Stalin saw the problem of producing enough food to feed the massive country as one that the state could solve through collectivization and industrialization of farms. Like the revolutionaries before him Stalin found the way forward would be grounded in scientific knowledge and statistics.

Stalin took issue with the amount of grain that was being collected under the control of peasant farms. Currently the amount of grain being collected was only half as much as previous times.[1] This coupled with the growth of the population and number of workers working in the city’s industrial departments, caused  massive food shortages. Stalin found the fault in the system to be the large farm owning class called the “kulaks.” To Stalin this was unacceptable. These kulaks were simply the first step back into landlord farming.[2] He turned to the scientist thinking of past revolutionaries as the solution. He would move the peasants to state run socialized collective farms where “equipped with machinery, armed with scientific knowledge and capable of producing a maximum of grain for the market” they would be able create enough grain to feed the population.”[3] Stalin’s focus on heavy industry and industrialization is emphasized on the importance of the tractor in his new agricultural system.

The tractor would become another tool that the collectivization of peasants would be given to increase production on there farms. The plans for the spread of tractors were massive, with a goal that a net of tractors would encompass an area of fields over one million hectares.[4] Tractors are a much more effective means of plowing and doing field work than livestock and Stalin’s insistence that such heavy machinery must be used to its full potential would soften some of the blow the food supply would take from the forced collectivization. However, his distain for the kulaks and refusal to believe that bad supplies of grain would drive him to stop supporting many of the farms that produced vital food. His focus on industrialization brought industry to the agricultural department, but still did not find enough improvement to feed all his people. By the end of the famine over 5 million of the population had starved to death.[5]

[1] I. V. Stalin, Problems of Leninism (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishers, 1934), pp. 248-249, 251-59.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. Meisel and E. S. Kozera, eds., Materials for the Study of the Soviet System (Ann Arbor: G. Wahr Pub. Co., 1953), pp. 183-185.

[5] I. V. Stalin, Problems of Leninism (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishers, 1934), pp. 248-249, 251-59.

Problems with Collectivization

The goal of collectivization in the Soviet Union was to consolidate individual land and labors into collective farms. Stalin stated collectivization was politically necessary, Stalin also stated that collectivization needed to be gradual and voluntary, two things it was not. The landless peasants were meant to benefit the most form collectivization, since they were to be given an equal share of the profits. The problem was most peasants were not landless and they did not want to have to give up their lands and sell their harvest at the minimal price, and most peasants were forced into collectivization against their will. Collectivization also created many social changes, which lead to even more discontent and resistance among the peasants. When it first began collectivization was successful in harvesting enough to feed the urban population, this success lead the Central Committee to expand collectivization, ignoring Stalin’s earlier statement that collectivization should be gradual.

Collectivization: No.

In Stalin’s drive for collectivization, we see the difference between “intent” and “reality”. Stalin put too much faith in workers, the proletariat, to successfully carry out collectivization. Although Stalin at first labeled collectivization as a political necessity that must be brought about gradually, the actual process was anything but gradual. What was meant to be a revolution built from the ground up incurred little more than destruction, and was wholly brought about from the top to the bottom, which is the exact opposite of Marxist ideology. There were no clear guidelines for the campaign and too much faith was put into the workers to bring about “consciousness” and change gradually into the countryside. There was no moderation in collectivization. Stalin’s response as read in “Dizzy with Success” blamed problems on local authorities, removing himself and his central government from blame for policy violations while, at the same time, providing no actual guide for how to proceed. The masses were not prepared for collectivization and the 25000ers were not prepared to bring it about.

Is Collectivization Possible?

Collectivization was initially meant to be a revolution that would modernize and stabilize agriculture while simultaneously result in the destruction of the old order. However, these grand goals were never quite achieved, but why? Was the plan for collectivization just pushed onto an unprepared population to fast and to soon? Stalin laid out a persuasive argument as to why collectivization was a political necessity. Between the growing danger of the kulaks, the need for a stable grain procurement to avoid breakdown in the relations of the working class, and the need to maintain high industrialization the message of immediacy for this change toward collectivization was sent throughout the country. However, it was this same urge for immediate results from all levels of government that led to the downfall of the whole collectivization process.

In the frenzied drive toward collectivization in winter of 1930 any idea of individual autonomy or free will for peasants vanished. The race for quantity rather than quality had begun in earnest and soon spiraled out of control. This lead to the district organs using force to promote collectivization and enforce impossible timelines to transition to full communes rather than agriculture artels. This created two very different Soviet Union’s the one of paper that was exceeding expectation and the harsh reality of the shattered collective farm cadres who had to fix themselves. The 25,000ers’ were a great resource to the center on the ground. Although they were not powerful enough to enact change on a big scale, or as Viola says were just, “a drop in the ocean”, they were able to report back to the center and act as a barometer. This crazed drive toward collectivization helped create a new tough minded pragmatist mentality that would reign over 30’s.

The question remains however would collectivization have worked if it was approached gradually? If a better understanding for the requirement of the voluntary principle and local peasant initiative was used without the race for percentages on paper would have it been the agricultural revolution they were looking for?

Collectivization as a Revolution at what Costs?

A few things of note that stand out in this article on the collectivization of farms following the revolution are the thinking of the central committee and Stalin that they lost control of the process. In the rural country side the obvious discord or disconnect showed in thinking and actions of the rural cadres and even those sent from the city to help in the collectivization of farms who made up the group known as 25,000ers. The brutal treatment of rural peasant by the cadres and the 25,000ers created a class system within itself. Stalin realized the danger in these practices and impressed the need to stop using such tactics in fear of possible civil war. He stated, “Collective farms must not be established by force. That would be foolish and reactionary. The collective-farm must rest on the active support of the main mass of the peasantry” ((Stalin, J. V., Dizzy With Success) Pravda no. 60, 1930, p. 485))). He acknowledged that while artel production is socialized, that small plots for vegetables, dwelling houses, small livestock and poultry and even some dairy cow are not socialized ” ((Stalin, J. V., Dizzy With Success) Pravda no. 60, 1930, p. 488))). The very ideals socialism is to correct is what is happening in these rural areas, with new class distinctions appearing.

Another point that is of interests is that during this collectivization movement taking place, “wholesale closing of churches and the desecration of religious object” took place as well. ((Daniels, Robert V., ed. The Stalin Revolution: Foundations of the Totalitarian Era.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997, p. 112))) The closing of markets happened at this same period also. Perhaps the reason behind this action is to limit the place where people could congregate and discuss the current events taking place. It also directed people to the only source of support—the state. Even Stalin commented on this “I say nothing of those “revolutionaries”—save the mark!—who begin the work of organizing artels by removing the bells from the churches. Just imagine, removing the church bells—how r-r-revolutionary!” ((Stalin, J. V., Dizzy With Success) Pravda no. 60, 1930, p. 490))). However, of note, is that a lack of places of worship did not stop the people from using religion as a tool against the state. Old women trying to prevent ones from joining the collective farm used such teachings as tying the collective farm to the anti-Christ. Did this have any effect with the efforts of the socialist? “Based on an apocalyptic mind-set and on reasoning unchanged from the days of the schism, the rumors confounded the activities of the 25,000ers at every step”. ((Daniels, Robert V., ed. The Stalin Revolution: Foundations of the Totalitarian Era.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997, p. 119)))

How far the revolution deviated from Marx thinking on socialism based on the actions during this time. Individuals forced to accept socialism. Should not have they simply drawn to it as far better than their current situation? Obvious class distinctions among even the peasants and those sent to begin the collectivization of farms goes completely against Marxism. Actively stamping out religion, something that would just eventually go away on its own according to Marx due to the fact socialism is the solution to what religion fulfills in the masses.

The Realities of Collectivization

In 1928, Joseph Stalin addressed the need for collectivization of grain farms and the procurement of grain from villages throughout the Soviet countryside. His speech, “Grain Procurements and Prospects for Development of Agriculture,” attacks villages throughout Siberia who refused to relinquish their surplus grain to the State. He cites the grain shortage occurring throughout the country, and states, “The effect will be that our towns and industrial centres, as well as our Red Army, will be in grave difficulties; they will be poorly supplied and will be threatened with hunger. Obviously, we cannot allow that.”[1] This statement highlights the fragility of the Soviet Union at the beginning of Stalin’s time in office. It also demonstrates his fears of an unnecessary war that the Soviet Union could not withstand, as Lynne Viola mentions in her chapter on collectivization.[2] In an attempt to motivate the local masses, Stalin accuses the local Party organizations and kulak, or local gentry, of hoarding the surplus grain, and implores the peasants to force the kulak to give the grain to the State. However, as his subsequent speeches and the legislation of the Central Committee in the following years indicates, this call to action led the collectivization efforts to spin out of control and away from the State’s expectations.

Viola notes in her chapter the violence that resulted from Stalin’s collectivization plans and his anti-kulak statements. The cadres placed in the countryside, wishing to prove themselves to the State, forced peasants and workers to collectivize in order to reach their quotas. They also attacked the kulak in order to force them to give up their capitalistic system of grain management. Such actions led to Stalin’s “Dizzy with Success” speech in March of 1930 and the Central Committee’s On Forced Collectivization of Livestock legislation in March of 1932. After mentioning the success of completely socializing the countryside, Stalin attempts to reprimand the country peasants and quell the attacks on the kulak. He states, “They [successful people] show a tendency to overrate their own strength and to underrate the strength of the enemy.”[3] The success of collectivization is and should be the voluntary nature of collective-farm movement, he reminds the populous.

Similarly, the Central Committee calls the forced collectivization of the countryside a “flagrant violation of repeatedly issued directives.”[4] However, this resolution remained ineffective given the soft language used when telling the party how to address the problem on the ground. “The TsK of the VKP (b) proposes to all party, Soviet and kolkhoz organizations…”[5] The word “proposes” is not nearly as definitive or intimidating enough to force the party officials along the countryside to adhere to the Committee’s suggestions, when they gained popularity and success administering collectivization their own ways through pressure and fear.

As Viola demonstrates in her chapter, due to Stalin’s insufficient intervention and the Committee’s ineffective, unenforceable legislation, party officials throughout the countryside developed their own system of collectivization that nearly destroyed the government’s mission as well as the country.

[1] J.V. Stalin, Grain Procurements and the Prospects for the Development of Agriculture,

[2] Lynne Viola, “Collectivization as a Revolution,” in Robert V. Daniels (ed.) The Stalin Revolution: Foundations of the Totalitarian Era. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994: 108-126.

[3] J.V. Stalin,

[4] TsK VKP (b), On Forced Collectivization of Livestock,

[5] Ibid.