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 (

“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.

Modernization or Neo-traditionalism?

Did the Soviet Union achieve their goal to modernize? According to Terry Martin, author of the article Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism, argues the Soviet Union went did not achieve modernization instead they went to Neotradiononalism. What exactly is needed to reach modernization? Ernest Gellner believes modernization results from industrialization and to have a successful pre-industrial state you must achieve nationalism. Gellner believes one of the reasons the Soviet Union did not become a modernized state was Stalin forced industrialization on to the Soviets to rapidly which destroys cultures necessary to build a new high culture which is needed as the basis for a national identity needed to industrialize. Gellner also states the Bolsheviks follow an interpretation of nationality was to move the Soviets nationalist thoughts to the Bolsheviks sociological concept. In order to do this the Bolsheviks worked to remove national identity from the new high culture, with the idea of socialism not nationalism. But according to Gellner to achieve modernization is nationalism is needed. I found it interesting that even though the Soviet Union was culturally and ethically labeled and divided they were still unified on the ideas of Stalinism. And it was the Soviet Union’s devotion Stalinism and belief in socialism over nationalism prevented them from achieving modernization; instead they became a Neo-traditionalism state.

Motherhood and Reproduction in the Fascist, Soviet, and Nazi Regimes

In Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mussolini’s Italy, all three regimes emphasized the national importance of genetics and increased birth rates as a state resource. In Hoffman and Timm’s chapter on Utopian Biopolitics, Nazi eugenics that promoted selective racial hygiene and purity is contrasted with Soviet non-selective pronatalism. ((Hoffmann, David L., and Annette F. Timm. “Utopian Biopolitics: Reproductive Policies, Gender Roles, and Sexuality in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.” In Beyond Totalitarianism – Stalinism and Nazism Compared, edited by Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick, 87-129. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009. )) Wilson analyzes the woman’s role in Fascism in his article separately. ((Wilson, Perry R. “Women in Fascist Italy.” In Facist Italy and Nazi Germany – Comparisons and Contrasts, edited by Richard Bessel, 78-93. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996.))

Each regime attempted to characterize the woman’s role as a prolific mother in different ways. The common thread running between each dictatorship was the notion that women should actively participate in the creation of the future Utopian state by literally producing as many offspring as possible. As the Nazi state was repressive in many ways, ironically, it was not repressive of heterosexual sexual freedoms. Himmler himself sanctioned premarital and even extramarital sex, considering intercourse productive if between two Aryan individuals. ((Hoffmann and Timm, Utopian Biopolitics, p. 106)) In this way, sexual relationships, a highly, personal interaction, were characterized by practical, statist goals. In contrast, in both Nazi and Soviet policy, homosexuality was viewed as a waste of “genetic stock” and was therefore prosecuted as a crime against the state. In these illiberal nations that denounced capitalism, children were seen as a valuable and priceless commodity that should be produced and protected at all costs. Through incentivization and coercion, each regime found a way to influence reproductive decisions but ultimately did not increase birth rates as desired. In this way, fertility and virility took on new meanings in totalitarian states; no longer was having an individual family decision, each family was a “germ cell” with a collectivist responsibility.

As motherhood was glorified in all three countries, maternalist welfare was developed through government intervention and propaganda was produced that provided support and motivation for women to raise more children. The major standout difference was how the Soviet Union approached the role of women as mothers and labors, encouraging dual earning households. In Germany and Italy, the mother’s ideal domain was to forever remain the domestic home while the father’s world was either the workforce or battlefield. However, regardless of the portrayed ideal norm, women worked outside the home in both Germany and Italy.

It is notable that trying to raise birth rates during a period of world war seems counterproductive, when many men are away from home fighting and some may never return. Wilson concludes that “despite the enormous amount of attention paid to gender roles in Fascist rhetoric, it seems that the particular patterns of industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization had more power to shape female experiences in this period than the crude tools of Fascist ideology and policy.” ((Wilson, Women in Fascist Italy, p. 93)) I agree with Wilson and argue that not just Fascist policy failed to control gender and family roles, so too did Nazi and Soviet policy. Is it ever advisable for a state to define and encourage gender roles and family structure? In addition, is it possible for reproductive policies to be used in a democratic, non-dictatorial way to influence a country’s population?

Genes vs. Ideas: The quest for the modern population


What is more important in a child’s value to the state, their genes or their ideas?  During the interwar period Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would have answered that question in contradictory ways even though both countries were attempting a massive increase in reproduction.  Hoffman and Timmin in “Utopian Biopolitics” from Beyond Totalitarianism  argued that the summation of a child’s value to the state depended on the ideology propounded by the governing party. ((David L. Hoffmann and Annette F. Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics: Reproductive Policies, Gender Roles, and Sexuality in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 87))  In Germany under the National Socialst party racial hygiene was the most important aspect of the population increase.  The Soviet Union desired a larger population built upon the ideology of the socialist party.  Both states desired an increased population tailored to their idea of the ideal modern state.

Nazi Germany officially and unofficially influenced the German population to reproduce in order to create “Aryan” children.  The repurposing of health centers into eugenics centers counts as only one example of many state sponsored attempts to ensure racial purity among newborns. ((99))  The logical rhetoric that emerged from such gene centric ideas eliminated other social values.  The regime, and Himmler specifically, linked masculinity and prowess in battle to virility.  Therefore, men were encouraged to engage in intra- and extra-marital intercourse; the only caveat being the child produced must be Aryan. ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism,106))  Thus the genetic “health” of the child overpowered the traditional, middle class nuclear family structure in Nazi politics.  The Soviet Union did the exact opposite in its attempt to raise the next generation of socialists.

The Soviet Union reinforced the nuclear family structure in an attempt to increase the quantity and quality of children produced by socialist couples.  Throughout the 1930s the government passed several laws outlawing abortion, establishing strict child support protocol, and, making birth registration necessary with both parents listed. ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 110))   Moreover, the government sponsored studies analyzing the best ways to ensure women’s reproductive health.  In the 1920s one soviet doctor concluded that “women would optimize their productivity by having three children, all four years apart.” ((Hoffmann and Timm, “Utopian Biopolitics” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 111))  These factors, combined with the increase of pro-paternity propaganda in theory ought to have increased family size and perpetuated solid, stalinist ideas.

The manner in which modern states attempted to increase population during the interwar period in “Utopian Biopolitics” brings up several interesting questions.  Why did neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union experience a drastic increase in birth rates?  How much of an effect does state policy truly have on the reproductive choices of its citizens?

Energizing the Everyday

Chapter 7 of Beyond Totalitarianism ,“Energizing the Everyday”, by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke explores bonds between people and bonds to Nazism and Stalinism. The authors attempt to explore the range of possibilities within society in each regime’s sphere. An area of this essay I found particularly interesting was Sociability Outside the Workplace.

 This section focuses on the difference between sociability in Russia and Germany, as they are strikingly dissimilar. In Russia during the Stalin period, there was great control over activities outside of Soviet productivity. When the New Economic Policy ended in the late 1920s, private industry closed down and the state created substitutes for this private sector. Contrastingly, in Germany, there was much reorganization of recreational activities. Sporting clubs and singing groups just to name a few were allowed in Nazi Germany. However, the incorporation of the swastika and Nazi ideals ensued. Although there was this reorganization, the fundamentals and inner-workings of each club did not change. Although there was a change in social structure in society both in Russia and Germany, there were underground scenes for things such as drinking and religion. I think one of the main reasons, at least in Russia, that this social elimination and/or reorganization occurred all leads to the productivity of each citizen. By eliminating areas in which citizens could become brainwashed or not in their best state of mind, the State gained more power for ideology infiltration.

Breaking and Mending of Social Bonds

In Chapter 7 of Beyond Totalitarianism ((Shelia Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke, “Energizing the Everyday: On the Breaking and Making of Social Bonds in Nazism and Stalinism,” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).)) Shelia Fiztpatrick and Alf Lüdtke discuss the breaking and mending of social bonds present in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Russia.  There a several types of bonds including inclusion, exclusion, and creation and renewal bonds.  Within exclusion bonds, Fitzpatrick and Lüdtke examine family bonds.  On page 286 it states:

It should be noted that implicit in this whole inquiry is the assumption that family bonds are the sources of support and that any weakening of them makes individuals mentally vulnerable and prone to loneliness.  Yet, families are not necessarily harmonious but often the source of pain, distress, and hardship; they may be rent with anger to the point that the family is incapable of offering support to its members and escape may seem highly desirable.  Such stifling family situations have often been discussed in societies facing both commodification and individualization of social and cultural relationships.

One bond that is constantly broken and then mended is that of family.  While family bonds are supposed to be strong, they typically dissolved within Germany and Soviet Russia at the time due to stronger ties and bonds to the state.  Often times children would rat out parents and other family members to state officials for offenses being done.  This intrigued me because it simply shows the great power of manipulation the state had over the individuals.  If family members were able to go against their own family to protect the state, how could individuals trust anyone?

Knowing Your Surroundings

Although the two texts this evening certainly convey their historical narratives in different manners, they both strike a remarkably similar theme. Throughout Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen’s rather exhaustive comparison of Nazism and Communism’s unique implementations and Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s analysis of Hitler and FDR’s ability to garner public adoration and support, you can see how each leader deliberately and continuously tailored their actions to their environment.

In the second chapter of Three New Deals, Schivelbusch identifies more than just FDR and Hitler’s common interaction with the people. While such exchanges proved vital to each leader’s success, the mediums they employed dictated their success. Both men operated within the boundaries of their peoples’ comforts. The widespread American ownership and familiarity with radios allowed FDR to capitalize on such technology. Conversely, radio’s limited presence, and thus familiarity, among German households rendered such technology ineffective ((Shivelbusch, Wolfgang. Three New Deals. New York: Picador, 2006, p. 66-68)).

In their essay “The Political (Dis)Orders of Stalinism and National Socialism,” Gorlizki and Mommsen build off of a concept that Shivelbusch stresses later in the chapter. He notes that Hitler and FDR connected with the people only as much as the prevailing political situation demanded. The frequency of Hitler’s public appearances diminished once he completed his ascension to total power. His speeches, which were originally delivered to develop a supreme national confidence in him, assumed the role of a bookmark: an occasional reminder of his place ((Ibid., p. 65)). Meanwhile, FDR’s fireside chats continued due to the necessity to constantly maintain support in a democratic government ((Ibid., p. 65)). It is this political awareness that Gorlizki and Mommsen also acknowledge in Hitler but also extend to Stalin. Gorlizki and Mommsen identify the manner in which Hitler’s public speeches and creation of his deific status suited the very functions of the Nazi government. The decentralized structure of the Nazi party paid tribute to Hitler’s demeanor. His charisma and connection to subordinates empowered them to act with authority ((Gorlizki, Yoram and Hans Mommsen. “The Political (Dis)Orders of Stalinism and National Socialism.” In Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, edited by Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick, 41-86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. p. 55)) Similarly, the centralized structure and goals of Russia’s Communist government pushed Stalin to influence public mentality through extensive administrative juggling and realignment instead of public broadcasting ((Ibid., p. 64)). In Stalinist Russia, the party came before the leader and the entire government needed to reflect the party’s standards.

Each leader consciously situated himself exactly where his political system required. From FDR’s intimate, reassuring fireside to Hitler’s empowering speeches, each leaders’ actions were meticulously rehearsed and precisely tailored ((Shivelbusch, Wolfgang. Three New Deals. New York: Picador, 2006, p. 70-72)). Their individual success came from their ability to successfully control their country in whatever manner the political and social atmosphere required.



Totalitarianism: A Comparison

Ian Kershaw’s Totalitarianism Revisited: Nazism and Stalinism in Comparative Perspective applies the modern definition of totalitarianism to Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism. On the surface level, these three governments appear to be similar in their nature. A powerful figurehead dominating the governments ideologies and fueling the motives at large, while controlling their state with force and surveillance. Kershaw does a good job in pointing out while the term authoritarianism needs to be adjusted based on the evolution of Nazism and Stalinism, the term can be applied to Italy’s, Russia’s, and Germany’s governments spanning from a pre-WWII era to the transition the USSR endured following Stalin’s death, but emphasizes the importance of not losing track of their singularities.

Modernity is the reason why these government systems are so similarly equated under the scope of totalitarianism. The organized bureaucracy and structure share similar characteristics while the overall motive of the state differs greatly. Both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR were surveillance states, but with different purposes. Stalin wanted surveillance to be used as a tool of repression; to weed out counter-revolutionaries and stabilize politics. In contrast, Nazi Germany used surveillance to concentrate its power in the State and to promote its ultimately racist motives and to strengthen expansion. Italy had a more similar goal to Germany than the USSR. Mussolini also desired to expand and strengthen the Italian empire to return it to its former glory.

What can historians potentially gain by comparing these three forms of government? How are they similar to the British and American governments during the same period?


Fashioning a Fashionable Soul

Hellbeck’s interpretation of Podlubni’s diaries depict a man trying to conform to the morals of his state. He goes through many organizations and practices so as to become the ideal Soviet citizen. Each attempt is recorded in Podlubni’s diary. But, at a point in the piece, Hellbeck argues that this private journal may not reflect Podlubni’s true thoughts, but his desired thoughts. He introduces the idea that the diary could be Podlubni’s tool of turning himself, of influencing his own nature.

Has diary writing survived? Is there something comparable now?

As technology has sped up society, and physical writing has fallen out of fashion, many of the younger generation have turned to electronic styles of diaries, favoring short and typed passages over the traditional form. Today’s most consistent source of social records, it could be argued, would be social networks. Any incident out of the ordinary, and many too that are ordinary, will end up here. But, the public nature of these sites lacks the privacy of Podlubini’s diaries and, therefore, may color the style of ‘reporting’.

Does this influence the blogger any differently than Podlubini is in his diaries?

In his writing, Podlubini attempts to instill and record a set of Soviet morals — a strong will, a good work ethic, patriotic intentions. He records his successes and chides himself at his ideological shortcomings.

“30.12.1933 […] With full confidence I can say that this year I have received nothing. Studied at the FZU— with bad results. Began to study in middle school— also with bad results. I am neglecting my classes horribly, lagging behind in all subjects. I don’t have enough willpower to control myself. Right now I have a big, huge, horrible weakness of will. This is the cause of all my troubles, this is my biggest deficiency.”

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalinism : New Directions.
Florence, KY: Routledge, 1999. p 100.

Podlubni knew that his diaries, like many private possessions at the time, may be confiscated by the State on any grounds and at any time. This is one of Hellbeck’s arguments to caution us away from the complete truthfulness of Podlubni’s records.

So, were these diaries entirely private?

Social Media Logotype BackgroundConsider them in the context of popular social networks. Imagine the most cautious user — only friends can see their posts, does not use an accurate identifying picture, and only accepts requests from close, close, friends. Their records can be obtained by any determined individual, similar to the Stalinist state. But, our user runs this risk. On such sites, our user hopes to associate and connect with like-minded individuals. Is this not what Podlubni hopes to accomplish? A connection with the other members of his State through the fashioning of his personality, of his “Stalinist soul”.

But, if this is to be an accepted analogy, what of the many users that ‘over-post’ or flood the site with over dramatized postings? Are they just asking for attention, taking advantage of the publicity of the networks? Does this disprove the connection to private diaries?

No. The basis of social sites is to establish oneself on the web. It is a defining of self. While this may be fabricated and unlike the true self, it is often an expression of a self the users want to become. They fabricate an ideal “public self”, similar to Podlubni’s fabrication of a real “Stalinist soul” — a strong individual and a strong worker.

Given the entries we see online today, what morals can be in our souls?

Beating the System: Socialist Realism

During the Soviet Union, especially the Stalin era, the state controlled members of all professions- including artists, architects, writers, musicians, and directors.  Members of these professions were forced to join unions and would be expelled from the unions if they did not follow their strict rules.  Basically, the rules stated that all art had to glorify the state.  Artists who wrote about other topics were expelled from the unions and their careers were ruined.  Artists who dared criticize the state were sent to the gulags.

This basically led to mainstream Soviet art featuring only socialist themes.  Art from this period included portraits of Lenin and Stalin appearing as religious figures, sculptures of laborers, and military marches.  Films, such as the movie Circus (directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov), were first and foremost propaganda films.

Circus is an entertaining movie, both due to the fun circus scenes, and the interesting look at Stalinist propaganda.  The reason why Circus was such a success as a propaganda film was that it used truths about American culture at that time to show the USSR as superior to the US.  The scene at the beginning in which angry Kansas farmers chase the heroine and her biracial child onto a train was no exaggeration.  The US-especially the South- was not an enlightened place in the 1930s.  The Soviet Union used these sad truths about America to their own advantage.  (Although, the US certainly should have been called under attack for their treatment of race.)

Where the film becomes unrealistic is its portrayal of the Soviet Union as a utopia where everyone loves each other and is a big happy family.  At the end of the movie, a famous Jewish actor sings to the baby in Yiddish.  In real life, this actor died under suspicious circumstances, most likely because he had begun to speak out against anti-Semitism in the USSR.  Clearly, the Soviet Union was not the hippie love nest the movie proclaimed it to be.

Critics say that socialist realism caused the death of creativity for Soviet artists.  However, I believe that it enhanced creativity for certain artists who tried to beat the system.  Dmitri Shostakovich composed many official pieces for the government.  He also would sneak messages into his songs.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote “String Quartet No. 7.”  This piece features three beats, symbolizing an officer knocking on the door to the beats “K-G-B.”  This work in considered one of Shostakovich’s finest.

Socialist realism resulted in some interested propaganda, at its worst, and at its best, unknowingly challenged artist to work around the rules.