Just Modernity Things

Blog Post 9/13/2016

Carl Marquis-Olson

We Grow Out of Iron and The Ion Messiah

              Gastev’s poem and his background represent a modernizing Russia. Gastev was a factory work, a member of the proletariat which was the fastest growing class of people and the new face of Russia in the early 20th century. He was a peasant who became literate and politically active. His profession and class play an increasingly important role in Russian society and according to Marxists, his class occupies the most politically crucial role in the new socialist order. After all Gastev is a socialist.

How do poems, specifically his poem, represent characteristics of modernity? The poem focuses largely on the material world. He describes the tools of industry: “workbenches, hammers, furnaces” etc. and the factory they are found in. He personifies the factory, growing taller and stronger as “fresh iron blood pours into my veins”. The very fact that he describes a factory, a productive enterprise made to produce materials, is evidence enough of this theme of materialism and in this way represents this characteristic of modernity. The poem concerns itself solely within the realm of man and machine. It captures the idea of progress and the changing world, it’s inevitability as the factory shouts “Victory shall be ours!”

Kirillov’s poem and Kirillov’s orgins are similar to Gastev’s. However, instead of celebrating the factory he celebrates the proletariat with his poem. He equates the common factory worker to god. He says “There he is – the savior, the lord of the earth. / The master of titanic forces… We thought he would appear in a sunlight stole, / With a nimbus of divine mystery,” His atheistic ode to humankind’s central place in the universe represents the humanism, secularism and scientific thought of modernity. He portrays the working man as the prophet, drawing a parallel with Christ’s central role in deliverance and the saving of humanity. Instead of god saving mankind it is man who will free and deliver the people of the world. This theme of nihilism and humankind’s supreme preeminence relates to this very secular aspect of modernity.


The Fallacy of Industry

Both Vladimir Kirillov and Aleksei Gastev express their admiration of the growing collectivization of industry in revolutionary Russia through their free verse poetry. The poets envision industry as the cure to class struggles that plagued revolutionary Russia, for under a rational and efficient system of production, all workers will be equal. Kirillov tells his readers that the leader of Russian industry may be a common man, “From the suburbs,” ((Vladimir Kirillov, “The Iron Messiah,” in Popular Poetry in Soviet Russia, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1929), 216)) with enough power and charisma to bring citizens “to eternal fraternity” ((Kirillov, “The Iron Messiah,” 216)). Kirillov seeks to empower the average Russian worker, engaging in a form of mass politics to mobilize the working class.

Gastev paints the factory floor with images of heaven, rising Christlike out of the building to bring Russia to a new age of progress and pride. Rather than tire from work, Gastev boasts that “iron blood pours into my veins.” ((Aleksei Gastev, “We Grow Out of Iron,” in A Treasury of Russian Verse, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinksy (New York: Macmillan Company, 1949), 252)) Kirillov and Gastev put their faith in Russian industry, worshipping work as a deity. But does their veneration neglect the true lot of the peasant? They make no note of how industry could continue to exasperate the struggle of the revolutionary-era peasant. In the face of this poetic naivety, is it any wonder that workers’ quality of life in the Soviet Union plummeted?


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 (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.

The Harsh Conditions of an Industrial Worker in Nineteenth Century England

blog post hist 107

The working conditions endured by these workers were absolutely not ideal to any human. These children and adults were subjected to strenuous working hours and horrible conditions in the factory. The factories were without any air conditioning so it was a very heated atmosphere.[i] This caused harsh conditions because each worker was subjected to one position for the duration of their work day. In children, this caused serious growth issues. A child sitting in one place for thirteen hours a day caused the spine to become deformed and bulge out laterally. It also caused children to develop bowed legs due to the stress the pelvis was under when the spine became deformed.[ii] These conditions were not ideal to children but it was necessary for some children to work to help provide for their families.

With working conditions not very appealing to adults or children, factories needed workers and workers needed money to provide for their families. Workers never had the option to demand any increase in pay or demand better working conditions. Factory owners were very strict in the sense that they saw every worker, no matter if it was a child or an adult, as expendable. This was a time period where everyone was looking for secure work so if a worker was going against the management of the factory that person was expendable so management just found another person willing to work with the provided conditions.

[i] The Physical Deterioration of the Textile Worker

[ii] The Physical Deterioration of the Textile Worker

The Victims of Industrialization

The nineteenth century saw an explosion of industrialization which spurred innovation, but had grave consequences for the growing working class. Child labor was rampant and the conditions in factories were detestable. Richard Oastler, a proponent for the ten hour working day, bemoaned the new economic system under which parents had to send their children off to the factory in order to make ends meet. He claimed that children laboring in factories destroyed familial connection as their parents became nothing but a wakeup call and someone to put them to bed after a thirteen hour or longer work day. Child laborers were also subjected to tortures such as vicious whipping for the smallest mistakes. ((Yorkshire Slavery, Richard Oastler)) A medical examiner’s survey of a particular group of textile workers highlighted their deformed appearance and ill health. Their complexions were pale and sickly and they had a notably short stature resulting from long hours standing on the factory floor or stooping to work machines. The tendency for laborers to remain in a sedentary position during their tasks supposedly stunted the development of children, making them shorter with curved spines. ((The Physical Deterioration of Textile Workers))


Barefoot children working in a mill

Abhorrent working conditions with little to no regulation pushed many workers to the brink of uprising. H. Heine’s poem “The Silesian Weavers,” about a protest by workers of the same name, claimed the weavers were producing Germany’s funeral shroud as they “[sat] at the spinning wheel, snarling cheerless.” ((The Silesian Weavers, H. Heine)) The Weavers’ protest pushed the King of Prussia to give his people a constitution. To many, such an uprising would be seen as a success, but the economist Karl Marx would consider it an incomplete revolution because the workers remained in their debased position in the aftermath. Marx viewed increased regulation and improved working conditions as nothing more than appeasement which made workers complacent slaves to the capitalist system. The enlightened idea of progress was dominant in many thinkers’ rationales, but what progress looked like often differed. In regard to Marx’s view of progress and the necessary worker revolution, do regulatory policies such as shortened work days and minimum wage significantly improve workers’ lives, or simply keep them in a perpetual state of oppression?

Picture from: https://geopolicraticus.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/child-labor.jpg

Tsirk (1936), Soviets Avoid “Backwardness”

The film Tsirk (1936), though a skillfully crafted story, was without a doubt a propaganda vehicle for the Soviet Union.  The main character Mary appears to be an escapee of an apparently backwards society where she was chased out by an angry mob for having an interracial child. In order to escape from the mob, she jumped on a train where she met what appeared to be a circus actor who took her under his wing. They perform while traveling though the main focus is the Soviet Union.  While in the Soviet Union, specifically Moscow, Mary developed feelings for a young Soviet army man and refused to leave Moscow with the original man who saved her.  Mary’s “savior” tried to blackmail her into leaving by threatening to expose the child she had given birth too. Enlisting the help of a fellow circus actress, the woman chosen to replace Mary once she left, she avoids leaving Moscow on the train with her original “savior” and stays to perform the Soviet attempt at reaching the stratosphere.  Unfortunately her “savior” comes back to the circus and reveals to the massive crowd in attendance her interracial child. Rather than shun Mary, the crowd accepts her for who she is and mocks her “savior” for being racist.

Many instances of propaganda appeared throughout the film, however the strongest two that I saw were the industrial progress of the Soviets and surpassed backwardness. The culmination of the film arrived with the closing act, deemed the Soviet attempt at the stratosphere, which showcased the industrial capabilities of the Soviet Union. Using soviet technology and planning, they succeeded in reaching the stratosphere.  Besides the industrial strength of the Soviet Union, their progressive nature also appeared after Mary’s past was revealed. The soviets showed acceptance for Mary and her child and denounced the racist mindset of Mary’s “savior”.  This criticism of racism showed the Soviet’s great “forwardness”. However, we also know that there was a sizable anti-semitic movement in the country. The acceptance of other races, cultures, and ethnicities does not seem applicable to the Soviet Union at this time.

Industrialization- Five Year Fail

The first five year plan was doomed to fail from the start.  It was not directly correlated to the policy of mass collectivization (which also resulted in failure) and or the agricultural crisis as a whole.  But rather the five year plan failed due to lack of logistics and special knowledge to operate heavy machinery.  This coupled with weak national agriculture and widespread food shortage led to hungry workers and no means to refuel lost energy of factory workers.  Stalin would see this as would his agents and would respond with a wide spread push to increase labor and hours.  This would merely contribute to the issue of the first five year plan.  No industrial effort will be successful if the state does not have the food to feed its workers or the knowledge of the machinery leading the revolution.  The plans that would follow would not be any more sufficiently executed as the agricultural aspect is a constant lingering theme for Stalin’s policies.

Mass Culture in Soviet Russia

Art and culture seems to have been parallel with the greatest of the political philosophy Russia was seeing at the time. Russia had already begun to emerge a little bit on the international stage, but not enough. These artists wanted to explode this emergence and make the Russian art known throughout the world. This puts an emphasis on each individual in their part of the whole. Revolutionaries wanted to remake the world and believed that they could this new world into one in which things are unified. The poems “We Grow out of Iron”, “The War of Kings”, “The Iron Messiah”, and “We” all abound with metal imagery. This can be interpreted as symbolic of the development (or creation) of the new communist man. The symbolism of “Soviet metal” explores both the political and artistic revolutions that were taking place, as well as their common sentiment and objective of unification. The imagery of metal gives the reader a sense of how much the mass industrialization taking place at the time influenced the attitude of hope and power felt by both artistic and political revolutionaries. The workers were the revolutionaries; they were hardened (or “steeled”) to the heavy metal and machinery of their trades, and unified via this harsh labor. Aleksei Gastev in fact, author of “We Grow Out of Iron”, worked in Russian and European factories and his experiences as a laborer steered him toward Marxism. Revolution for Gastev endeavored to enable workers by sanctioning them power over day-to-day work related practices. Gastev was also involved in the efforts of the Petersburg Union of Metal Workers. His poetry powerfully exults in industrialization; declaring it an era of an innovative form of man, qualified by the total modernization of his routine existence as a laborer.