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Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization

Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 728
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  • Book Info
    Magnetic Mountain
    Book Description:

    This study is the first of its kind: a street-level inside account of what Stalinism meant to the masses of ordinary people who lived it. Stephen Kotkin was the first American in 45 years to be allowed into Magnitogorsk, a city built in response to Stalin's decision to transform the predominantly agricultural nation into a "country of metal." With unique access to previously untapped archives and interviews, Kotkin forges a vivid and compelling account of the impact of industrialization on a single urban community. Kotkin argues that Stalinism offered itself as an opportunity for enlightenment. The utopia it proffered, socialism, would be a new civilization based on the repudiation of capitalism. The extent to which the citizenry participated in this scheme and the relationship of the state's ambitions to the dreams of ordinary people form the substance of this fascinating story. Kotkin tells it deftly, with a remarkable understanding of the social and political system, as well as a keen instinct for the details of everyday life. Kotkin depicts a whole range of life: from the blast furnace workers who labored in the enormous iron and steel plant, to the families who struggled with the shortage of housing and services. Thematically organized and closely focused,Magnetic Mountainsignals the beginning of a new stage in the writing of Soviet social history.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91885-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. USSR Organizational Structure, 1930S
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
  6. Note on Translation
    (pp. xxv-xxvi)
  7. Introduction: Understanding the Russian Revolution
    (pp. 1-26)

    About forty miles east of the southern tip of the Ural mountains lies a semicircular group of five low hills, two of which contained some of the richest and most accessible iron ore in the world. The existence of the ore had been known since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, when the area was settled with a small Cossack fort, orstanitsa,and the settlers noticed that their compasses behaved strangely. No doubt for this reason the outcrop came to be calledMagnitnaia gora,or Magnetic Mountain.²

    For centuries the sparsely populated area surrounding Magnetic Mountain led...


    • [I Introduction]
      (pp. 27-36)

      Stretching from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, Russia’s steppe frontier through the centuries beckoned the afflicted and the adventurous alike.² For some a land of last resort, for others one of promise, the steppe was above all a symbol of the seemingly boundless space of the country and a persistent reminder of the impotence of human beings in the face of the power of nature. But for the Bolsheviks, supreme champions of humankind’s ability to bend nature to its will, the steppe was a fortress to be taken. And take it they did.

      On the twelfth anniversary of the...

    • 1 On the March for Metal
      (pp. 37-71)

      Following a resolution calling for industrialization issued by the Fourteenth Party Congress in December 1925, work on the design of the Magnitogorsk Works commenced with the formation in February 1926 of the State Institute for the Design of Metallurgical Factories (Gipromez). Gipromez managed to assemble a large staff, yet it had trouble finding qualified technical personnel, in part because some of the country’s engineers had emigrated during the October revolution and Civil War. Those engineers who had not fled, however, were overmatched by the challenges of modern industrialization. “Although practically all known experts in contemporary technology were in Gipromez,” the...

    • 2 Peopling a Shock Construction Site
      (pp. 72-105)

      In March 1929 the first party of settlers arrived on horseback at Magnetic Mountain to prepare the snow-covered site for the upcoming construction season. Their immediate task was to build some barracks and a small bakery, organize a workers’ cooperative, and recruit more people.² By the middle of the summer the rail link was completed, and on 30 June the first train arrived at the site decorated with banners: “The Steel Horse Breathes Life into the Magnitogorsk Giant”; “Long live the Bolshevik party!” If many of the several thousand people present had never before seen a train, the train had...

    • 3 The Idiocy of Urban Life
      (pp. 106-146)

      What was this place, Magnitogorsk? In truth, it was not easy to say, even if, like the novelist Valentin Kataev, you had visited it. And it was no easier for the permanent urban inhabitants, or the city’s leaders. Simply locating Magnitogorsk presented difficulties, since it did not yet appear on any map. But you could buy a train ticket to Magnitogorsk or, more precisely, to a destination of that name. In the first years, a train ride to Magnitogorsk from Moscow required five changes and routinely lasted more than a week, even when everything went smoothly, which it rarely did....

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 147-156)

      The center of the city of the future, one Soviet propagandist accurately predicted, “will be not a castle, or a market, but a factory.”² In Magnitogorsk that factory, the metallurgical complex, was owned and managed by the Main Administration of Metallurgical Industry (GUMP), a division of the mammoth People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry (NKTP). Through NKTP, Moscow established a kind of colonial domination over the various regions of the country, ruthlessly extracting resources and arrogating to itself the exclusive right to allocate the fruits of local economic activity. This conspicuously exploitative relationship between the center, as Moscow was called, and...

    • 4 Living Space and the Stranger’s Gaze
      (pp. 157-197)

      Housing at what would become Magnitogorsk appeared first in the form of large, white tents, each holding about fifteen or twenty people. Inside the tents, recalled one inhabitant, “there were cots [topchany],” and “on each cot was a straw mattress—that is, you were given a covering for a mattress and you went out in search of straw.”² Many of the tents were reinforced with planks and wooden floors, but not all. In winter, blizzards and fierce Arctic winds sometimes ripped open the tarpaulin and carried the unreinforced tents off in a swirl.³ This was, however, no nomad camp in...

    • 5 Speaking Bolshevik
      (pp. 198-237)

      Weary of the anonymity of barracks life, the residents of barracks no. 8 in Magnitogorsk tacked a sign near the entrance with a list of all those living inside. It gave their name, year of birth, place of origin, class origin, trade, Komsomol and party membership (or lack thereof), and location of employment. As the initiator of the action explained, “When someone saw the list—for example, that Stepanov, a fitter, a Komsomol, a shock worker, fulfills his plan such-and-such percent, works on the construction of the blast furnaces—one immediately understood what kind of people lived here.”² Such acts...

    • 6 Bread and a Circus
      (pp. 238-279)

      In the new society of Magnitogorsk, the much-discussed state-owned and state-managed “supply system,” whatever else it failed to provide, could usually be counted on for low-cost bread, obtainable with ration coupons at fixed low prices. Even after Moscow authorities decreed the end of food rationing and the opening of “socialist” trading stores in December 1934, bread was sometimes the only food easily and inexpensively obtained in Magnitogorsk. Bread came to symbolize the official urban supply network run not by individuals for private gain but by the state as a service to the people.²

      Seemingly far removed from the daily grind...

    • 7 Dizzy with Success
      (pp. 280-354)

      Gradually, yet inexorably, the construction site Magnitostroi was becoming the city Magnitogorsk, challenging local authorities to maintain the housing stock, provide medical care, collect taxes, dispose of waste, and educate the next generation.² In late 1936, officials of the city soviet prepared a detailed report on the immense work they had undertaken that year.³ Around this time the soviet also organized an “extraordinary” plenum to honor the new Stalin constitution, proclaimed “the most democratic in the world” because, unlike bourgeois constitutions, it supposedly did not support the hegemony of a ruling class.

      To the strains of an orchestra, the festive...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
  10. Afterword: Stalinism as a Civilization
    (pp. 355-366)

    In the 1930s, the people of the USSR were engaged in a grand historical endeavor called building socialism. This violent upheaval, which began with the suppression of capitalism, amounted to a collective search for socialism in housing, urban form, popular culture, the economy, management, population migration, social structure, politics, values, and just about everything else one could think of, from styles of dress to modes of reasoning. Within a steadfast but vague noncapitalist orientation, much remained to be discovered and settled.

    Did planning mean centralized decision making in absolutely all matters? Or could a planned economy also permit forms of...

  11. Note on Sources
    (pp. 367-374)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 375-598)
  13. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 599-608)
  14. Photograph Credits
    (pp. 609-610)
  15. Index
    (pp. 611-639)