The Factory of Man Himself

With the reshaping of a nation into something never before seen on earth, Russia in the early twentieth century was asking its people to become something utterly unique. The Russian people were tasked with transforming their nation into the world’s largest communist state, and that task came with the responsibility of becoming citizens capable of making fundamental changes to their lives to allow the system to prosper.  With a population of a quarter million growing over the span of three years, the development and growth of Magnitostroi was dependent on the wrangling of vocational school graduates, urbanites, even decommissioned military regiments. The need for specialists to guide the labor of the unskilled workers was greater than ever, and the desire of specialists to serve was nonexistent. Many skipped out on work, or never reported when assigned. Citizens sent to Magnitostroi were met with empty steppe-land instead of the chrome furnaces they expected. The desire to go was so low that the government sponsored national campaigns to drive up enthusiasm. With documentaries and press releases more akin to wartime propaganda than industrial recruitment, authorities fought to lure more workers to the site. A major source of labor was the deportation of kulaks, peasant people who were perceived to own more than others, thus qualifying them as traitors to the ideals of communism. As punishment for their misdoings, real or imagined, many were sent to work on the construction of the giant city. Despite general dislike for the project, the work performed by many was legendary, with workers struggling around the clock to complete building construction in freezing temperatures. Eventually the sense of commitment to work the cadre desired was fostered, with many work brigades holding competitions to achieve the most progress. Dam construction became an epic saga in which one could win glory for the nation, never mind the poor quality of the civic planning.

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?