A City Upon a Hill


A monument built to commemorate Magnitogorsk’s crucial production of supplies during World War II.

The onset of Stalin’s five-year plan in 1930 spelled disaster for peasants living in the countryside of Soviet Russia. Agricultural collectivization forced many peasants on to mass collective farms where they worked for little to no return, and organized “dekulakization” was decreed by the center in 1931. Dekulakization was meant to oust the kulaks, or well-off peasants, and was carried out through executions or deportations to mass construction sites. ((Stephen Kotkin. “Peopling Magnitostroi.” Chap. 4, In Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization, edited by William G. Rosenberg and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, 63. Indianapolis: Indiana University, 1993, 70.)) These sites popped up around the Soviet Union, one of the largest was a city known as Magnitostroi. Stephen Kotkin details the development of a barren wasteland into a city of 200,000 in his “Peopling Magnitostroi.”

Kotkin introduces Magnitostroi as more than an industrial center; he asserts it was a “political device,” which the Bolsheviks hoped to fill with a socialist proletariat. ((Kotkin, 64.)) The site started as an isolated, bare patch of land in the southern steppe, it had few if any natural resources and no nearby cities. ((Kotkin, 64.)) The soviet center attempted multiple tactics to populate the city; army regiments, political and industrial workers, and graduates of higher education were mobilized to the city on a party member’s whim, but many did not make it. ((Kotkin, 65.)) Recruitment of ordinary soviet citizens through propaganda was also pursued. Deals with heads of factories and collective farms garnered a promise of new labor for the construction site, but far fewer bodies than what was agreed upon were sent. ((Kotkin, 69.)) Chronic labor shortages plagued Magnitostroi and the Central Committee solved this problem by deporting thousands of Kulaks to the work site. ((Kotkin, 70.)) The purported shining symbol of socialism became a dumping ground for the exiled.

Magnitostroi was meant to become an efficient capital of industry in which a proletariat diligently labored for the good of their socialist republic. This image was bastardized by brutal tactics employed to accomplish the soviet center’s goals through any means necessary. Many of the peasants who migrated to Magnitostroi came with village groups known as “artels,” in which one held power and the others remained obedient. Each artel divided wages amongst themselves as they saw fit, a collective concept which should have been looked fondly upon by socialists. Despite the supposed overlap of ideology, Bolshevik leaders took measures to “smash” what was seen as a competitor to their ultimate authority. ((Kotkin, 77.)) The Bolsheviks would compromise their ideals further by adopting the formerly Tsarist internal passport system in 1932. ((Kotkin, 86.))The system was meant to establish order and slow the rapid departure of a majority of Magnitostroi’s work force, but the policing system lacked the necessary manpower and the result was an extensive underground market for counterfeit documents. ((Kotkin, 87.)) Abuses of power and subjugation of Bolshevik ideals were performed under the guise of “defending the revolution” ((Kotkin, 86.)) and Magnitostroi became a shining example of nothing more than oppressive population management by the Bolshevik regime.

Picture from: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-QnMOCkSBM7w/T4XvC1JEWLI/AAAAAAAAAbE/4523QPaBRTo/s1600/P1040299.JPG

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 (http://en.doppiozero.com/materiali/interviste/putin-and-russian-spirit-interview-with-gian-piero-piretto)

“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.

Purging for the Good of the State

Stalin had a clear agenda for what he wanted to get done in the Soviet economy. The base of the society rests on if they can get food, so naturally agriculture is very important to the success of an economy. Due to the poor results he was getting from the agricultural sector, he sought to find new ways to inspire production from the Soviet people.

Interestingly, the dominant force within Soviet argriculture were the kulaks, the peasants who controlled the majority of production or were doing well for themselves. While the term represented a large spectrum of wealth, they were an oddball in a socialist country. Stalin saw these people to be enemies of the state and began to discredit them through party agitators and eventually began to purge them. (( http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1929-2/collectivization/ )) Stalin realized that these kulaks did hold a tremendous amount of power on a local level, which matters more to the everyday lives of the Soviet citizen. In his essay regarding the grain crisis, he reiterates that those who seek to return to kulak farming are similar to that of the great serf estates of the tsarist regime. (( http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1929-2/collectivization/collectivization-texts/stalin-on-the-grain-crisis/ )) He also mentions that the kulak is the antithesis of communism, and for that reason alone, it should not be allowed. Stalin mentions how the kulaks have lost a large amount of power in the years leading up to his writing, and now they can finally bring the power of the kulaks into the realm of the state so that it can produce for everyone. (( http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1929-2/collectivization/collectivization-texts/stalin-on-the-liquidation-of-the-kulak/ ))

A year after his essay on the liquidation of the kulaks, Stalin writes in the party newspaper, Pravda, that the successes of liquidating an entire class of people has been phenomenal for the state as a whole. The success was “dizzying” and this sets a very dangerous precedent for the rest of Stalin’s reign. He is justifying the murder of his own people for the good of the state and the party. He sees success in the rural community through his destruction of the kulaks, writing, “It shows that the radical turn of the rural districts towards Socialism may already be regarded as guaranteed.” (( http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1929-2/collectivization/collectivization-texts/dizzy-with-success/ )) By defending murder for the good of the state, Stalin is tightening his grip on the Soviet Union more and more.

The rural parts of the Soviet Union were always going to be the hardest to adjust to socialism, and Stalin believed that drastic steps were needed to impose it upon them. By removing their local “lords” and replacing them with the state, Stalin is taking the steps towards having socialism entirely in one country.


Dizzy with Success

In “Dizzy with Success” (1930) Stalin discusses the need to temper growing enthusiasm in the socialist state and the socialist system. It is interesting to note that this was necessary. In America, students are still raised on ideas born of the Cold War: communism is evil; the people are never happy under communism. This piece contradicts these foundational American ideas.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet citizens were ecstatic in the changes to their economy. The economy was growing at an unbelievable rate and the people were glad to see their living conditions quickly improving. This happiness went hand-in-hand with an eagerness to continue. Many people wanted to help push the economy even further. It was this idea that Stalin cautions against in this piece. He did not want the people to become so “dizzy with success” that they forgot themselves, their country’s position in the world, or the power of its enemies. He warns that many, once they taste the first fruits of success, want to capture the feeling. Many would do anything to protect their new advances, but they also become careless–they believe that since they have already succeeded, the success will continue. With this perspective, they continue to push themselves, but not to the same level and not with the same need to strive beyond the success of others.
This piece was written in 1930 when collectivization was in its first few years. Stalin needed to prove that his plans for the economy were more profitable than those first begun under Lenin. Platanov’s The Foundation Pit highlighted the difficulties associated with collectivization and its counterpart, dekulakization. On what level was “dizzy with success” a piece of propaganda? Were the statistics from the program truly reflective of the changes in the economy? Stalin encouraged Stakanovites to work past their quotas to achieve more for the state. Why did this same principle not apply to collective farming?