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.

The workers of Manitostroi

The trouble with planning out every aspect of life is that you simply can’t. You can’t account for unexpected drought or famine or war- and especially not for the will of the individuals. Stalin and the Bolsheviks discovered this the hard way, with the implementation, and subsequent failures of their “Five Year Plan.” One of the most notable examples, Magnitostroi, is presented by Stephen Kotkin in his article, “Peopling Magnitostroi.”
The poor, the illiterate, and the exiled were all shuffled off to a desolate city, Magnitostroi, to spend months at a time laboring away at products they would never be able to enjoy. Entirely dependent on the train, their only connection to the outside world, inhabitants were cut off from family and friends. The city grew from twenty-five people to 250,000 in the space of three years, but this was no indicator of its prosperity. Many of the workers were given advances to convince them to work in Manitostroi, but even those who received money often fled after short periods of time. The government was unable to account for the simple misery of the residents of the city. According Kotkin, “even for the standards of the day, living conditions on the site were harsh” ((Kotkin, Stephen. “Peopling Magnitostroi: the Politics of Demography” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. Berkley: University of California, 1993: 84.)) No amount of money in the world (and certainly not the amount the workers were receiving) was enough to entreat most to stay.
So why did the government insist on building a city out of nothing, on shaping and sculpting a desolate patch of ground to its every whim? Was it in a show of power- to prove that nothing was stronger than the willpower of the people, forced by the hand of the government? Was populating Magnitostroi truly an achievement, as officials claimed, or was it a blatant imposition on free will?

Soviet Industrialization and Magnitostroi

“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.” ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography, in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. ((Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1993: 63))) 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. ((Stephen Kotkin, “Peopling Magnitostroi: The Politics of Demography,” in Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. ((Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1993: 75))) 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.” ((Moshe Lewin, “On Soviet Industrialization,” in William G. Rosenberg and Lewis H. Sieglebaum (ed.) Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization. ((Indian University Press, 1993: 277)))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.” ((“Lenin’s Testament.” New York Times. 18 October, 1926.))) What would the history of Russia be today if the party had listened?