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 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 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?


Starting from scratch, Magnitostroi, a Soviet Union steel plant in 1929, evolved from an premature industrial environment to a site with 250,000 people in three and a half years. (64) Located in the remote Urals, the plant was entirely dependent on long distance train for its imports, including labor force. The labor force in Magnitostroi was mixed, ranging from educated urbanites to peasants and proletariat. The problems that these workers faced, despite the rough working conditions, was their lack of prior experience with industrial machinery. The relationships between the different classes were disjointed, and crash courses were taken by inexperienced peasants to equip them with four years work experience within six weeks. The Soviet Union at the time had a hyper rationalized economy with heavy industry as the top priority, and the working conditions were extremely poor.

The ideologies of the socialists caused inner turmoil at the steel plant, people were considered traitors if they did give maximum relative effort in comparison to their fellow workers, which caused them to turn or one another and even have each other arrested. As socialist competition increased, so did the pace, which caused many mistakes and setbacks to due sloppy management.