Left: Young worker at Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Factory, courtesy of Yale University
A review of Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization by Stephen Kotkin, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Kotkin is a professor at Princeton, and received his doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley. At Berkeley Kotkin had the privilege of working with Michel Foucault, by whose work the author was influenced. The book is an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation, and contains archival material never before used. Unlike traditional historical interpretations of the Stalin era, which tended to fall into either condemnatory or apologetic examinations of the regime, Kotkin took a different a different approach; the author argued that Stalinism should be viewed as both a type of theocracy and as a unique civilization itself. Kotkin used the planned city of Magnitogorsk (Магнитогорск or “Magnetic Mountain”) as a microcosm from which to derive an understanding of the Stalinist metanarrative.
The city derived its name from the Magnitka, a bluff containing tremendous deposits of iron ore that rises out of the steppes at the foot of the Ural Mountains. Eighteenth-century settlers noticed that their compasses behaved strangely near the massive hill, and a small mining operation began in the nineteenth century. Stalin believed that the Soviet Union needed to begin a program of heavy industry to not only compete with the West but also to demonstrate the superiority of socialist ideology. Centuries of warfare left the Soviets paranoid of foreign invasion, and the West’s attempts to destroy the nascent Soviet Union by supporting the White Army only served to reinforce those fears. Thus, by concentrating industrial growth in the country’s interior, Stalin believed that he could protect Soviet industrial capacity from attacks by Western powers.
The book covers the period known as the “Great Break” in 1929 to the end of the “Great Terror” in 1939. There is a wealth of previously-unpublished photographs that offer glimpses of daily life in the city. Kotkin voluminous endnotes, totaling over 200 pages, are in themselves a fascinating historiographical read, and the author provided a lengthy bibliography of archival, primary, and secondary sources. Most importantly, Kotkin was the first American in 45 years to be admitted into Magnitogorsk.
Left: Magnitogorsk in 1932
The author organized the book in two parts, each of which tells the birth of Magnitogorsk from a different perspective. The first part, entitled “Building Socialism: The Grand Strategies of the State,” used government documents and memoirs of government officials to describe in a top-down fashion the growth of the city. Kotkin in this section addressed such themes as the rationale behind socialist cities, difficulties in attracting and retaining workers, the environmental disasters in a poorly-planned city, and the inherent contradictions involved with designing factories and cities – ostensibly, products of capitalist evolution – that meshed with the goals of socialist ideology. Furthermore, the author argued that corruption and outright incompetence proved to formidable obstacles to the development of Magnitogorsk. One of the worst examples of this ineptitude was the original estimate of a city population of 40,000 people; Soviet officials, in making this calculation, only planned for industrial workers and their families. After recognizing that their estimates did not include retail and service personnel, Soviet authorities had to revise upwards the estimated population to 200,000 people. Foreign advisors, such as renowned German architect Ernst May, were frequently misled, insulted, and blamed by Soviet technical managers; most of the vailuta (foreign workers employed by Western firms) were eventually recalled after disagreements arose between Soviet managers and the Western contractors.
The history of Magnitogorsk was next viewed from the viewpoint of the average worker in the section entitled “Living Socialism: The Little Tactics of the Habitat.” Kotkin explored such themes as worker housing, Bolshevik-inspired changes in culture, the evolution of the “new” Magnitogorsk, and daily life for workers in the socialist city. Unlike the traditional historiography, which focused on either a “brutally repressed worker” or “enthusiastic socialist worker” as a means to explain the lack of conflict between workers and government, Kotkin argued that the reality of Magnitogorsk was much more complicated. Much like religious instructors, the Bolsheviks were perhaps most successful in educating workers and indoctrinating them with Party ideology; more than anything else, Kotkin argued, this led to the successes achieved by Soviet industrial planners.
Kotkin’s arguments are perhaps weakest in his attempt to redefine Stalinism as both a religion and a civilization. The processes of indoctrination and pedagogy employed by Bolsheviks certainly mirrored those of many world religions, and a pseudo-cult of Stalin worship did occur; likewise, the Bolsheviks did develop models of an engineered society that took on the appearances of a new civilization. However, the events of World War II changed much of the landscape in places like Magnitogorsk, as restrictions on the Orthodox Church were eased, and accommodations to an increasingly scarce supply of wartime labor significantly modified the Spartan living conditions in the first decade of industrialization. Nonetheless, Kotkin’s book is an important contribution to the historiography of the Stalin era.