Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization

Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization

Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization

Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization


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 Mountain signals the beginning of a new stage in the writing of Soviet social history.


To remake everything: to organize things so that everything should
be new, so that our false, filthy, boring, hideous life should become a
just, pure, merry, and beautiful life.

Aleksandr Blok, on the meaning of the Russian revolution

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, or stanitsa, and the settlers noticed that their compasses behaved strangely. No doubt for this reason the outcrop came to be called Magnitnaia gora, or Magnetic Mountain.

For centuries the sparsely populated area surrounding Magnetic Mountain led a tranquil existence. True, in the late eighteenth century the leader of a peasant-Cossack rebellion, Yemilian Pugachev, while gathering his forces, bathed near the mountain in the Iaik River, thereby marking it as a symbol of defiance. But the rebellion that had momentarily paused to draw its forces near the iron-ore deposits was put down, and the Empress Catherine renamed the river the Ural, so as to dissociate the site from the deeds of Pugachev. From that point, aside from the small quantities of ore that were carted by horse to a tiny factory in nearby Beloretsk in the late nineteenth century, the iron-ore mountain, touched only by the icy arctic winds sweeping down across the steppe, stood majestically undisturbed— until 1929, when the Bolshevik leadership decided to initiate an assault.

Nowhere was it inscribed in stone that the Bolsheviks had to turn this bump in the earth into a gigantic steel plant with a sprawling settlement of 200,000 people. Nor was it preordained that they would build everything the way they did. the Bolsheviks brought along their banners and slogans, their agitprop newspapers and circles for the liquidation of illiteracy, their bread factories and mass dining rooms. They brought along the Communist party and the portraits of the Father of All Peoples, bourgeois specialists and young Red engineers, peasant prisoners and peasants turned shock . . .

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