The book returns ideology and geopolitics, or the outside world, to the study of the Soviet socialism. He argues that Stalinism offered itself as a utopia, a new civilization based on the elimination of capitalism. He depicts a whole range of life: from the blast furnace workers who operated the enormous coking coal and steel plants and the families who struggled inventively with shortages of every kind to the political bosses who despite their loyalty were arrested, confessed to crimes they did not commit, and were executed. Magnetic Mountain signals the beginning of a new stage in the writing of Soviet political history. Rich in documentary research, compelling in its narrative, and stimulating in its interpretations, Magnetic Mountain offers as nuanced and well-reasoned an analysis of Stalinism as I have ever read.
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They are big interesting places with entire communities that grow up around them outside of larger cities of course. I worked in one for a few summers as a teen and never forgot the experiences - although I also never sought to repeat it either. Stephen Kotkin is a history professor at Princeton and the author of an outstanding two volume biography of Stalin.
This book began with his doctoral dissertation and is a history of the enormous Soviet steel facility at Magnitogorsk that was built from scratch on the steppe as an essential part of the first five year plan and the push towards collectivization and forced industrialization.
Magnitogorsk developed when the revolution was young, times were hard, the world was in depression, and the experiences of civil war and struggle were fresh in the minds of many. More than a few western observers were fooled and the details of the great famine were not matters of public knowledge.
This is a long book that covers a lot of ground. There are pictures - lots of pictures. Some different lines of thought come to mind after reading the book. First, the allure of American industry and Henry Ford who was popular in Germany too. The big factory was a magical place in revolutionary circles on both the right and left. For an example, look at the Diego Rivera murals of Ford if you go to Detroit. The adulation of big steel in the US was very real too. I remember the large Steel exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago now replaced of course.
Second, it is tempting to read Stalinist excess into the history, but Kotkin raises the point that the Soviets were faced with the real question of how to build a world class infrastructure from scratch in a peasant economy. They chose an approach of massed reserves pushed towards an heroic and gigantic effort - although it did not turn out well. Third, it is hard not to appreciate the role of forced savings in building socialism.
Just imagine being part of a workforce of thousands being forced to live in tents or subpar barracks without heat and plumbing out on the Russian steppe - and those were the workers who were not in political trouble with the regime. You think your workplace is bad? Along this line was the point Kotkin makes about the origins of the internal passport system. Now this has rightly been highlighted as a part of totalitarian rules but it also gained initial traction because of difficulties in literally knowing who was working where as a basis for building, feeding, and organizing.
Fourth, education is a major element in the second half of the book and the paradox of socialist education is made clear - how does one educate the masses in basic literacy and numeracy skills, as well as some western culture, while strictly providing ideological foundations for a regime that is not allowed to admit to error or doubt?
This comes up in other totalitarian societies as well. Fifth, the social and ideological boosting of the regime to foster motivation for heroic work was arguably successful coupled with Stalinist coercion. But that ideological indoctrination also may have contributed to the extreme delegitimacy and scorn that the regime suffered when it eventually lost out to the west and was unable to maintain a decent standard of living and eventually fell apart.
There is lots more in the book. It is a really good case study of a social planning initiative gone wrong and that encapsulated the entire Soviet experience within the cases confines.
The generation affected by this development then had to experience the Great Terror followed by the Great Patriotic War with Germany. It is a really intriguing story, although a long story to work through.
If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of the Soviet economy, this is a book to read. He immerses the reader in the complete world of a Stalinist boomtown in the s. The people in the new city of Magnitogorsk do not come off as Bolshevik caricatures or Soviet myrmidons, but as real humans facing normal and abnormal problems with all the intelligence and grace they can muster.
Taking advantage of the full range of published and unpublished Soviet sources, he details what everyday life looked like to people living In this book Stephen Kotkin does what might seem impossible. Taking advantage of the full range of published and unpublished Soviet sources, he details what everyday life looked like to people living under one of the most oppressive dictatorships known to man. Kotkin does not dismiss the horrors of Stalinism, but he does argue with the "totalitarian" interpretation of it, since he shows the innumerable ways individuals escaped its totalizing grasp.
For instance, he shows how much of the economy was really a "shadow" economy, where purloined factory parts or cloth went to either independently fulfill the impossible plans of Moscow or into private production that was resold in the official "markets" or even by door-to-door peddling.
He shows that despite the attempts by famed German planner Ernst May to design a perfect new "linear town," the city arose haphazardly wherever workers could pitch tents or mud huts. Despite the harsh censorship, the Magnitgorsk Worker newspaper catalogued many of the failures of local elites, including the inability of the Steel Factories KPU living quarters unit to maintain their new barracks, the crime rampant in the "Convict Labor Colony," mistakes in completing the city blast furnace and so on.
In a way, pushing a recalcitrant Communist system involved constant criticism which is a cornucopia for a researcher. Of course such criticism was usually leveled at those already pushed out of the system or the Party.
Kotkin shows that the division between an elite Communist Party, whose job was to maintain ideological uniformity and place personnel in appropriate "nomenklatura" positions, and an actual state system, which did the work of running factories and homes and police and so on, led to irreconcilable conflicts. From onwards the Party engaged in numerous internal "purges" and "verification" campaigns which aimed to expel corrupt party officials or merely those with a false "worker" pedigree, and which spread to failures in state production and soon involved the NKVD the "state" system which tended to enforce party dictates.
Gradually, internal party purges ate up the entire country and led to a classic witch-hunt atmosphere.
Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization