Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization is a case study of Soviet society in the 1930’s. Kotkin was the first American in 45 years to be allowed into Magnitogorsk, a city built in response to Stalin’s decision to change the principally agricultural nation into the so-called a country of steel.
Kotkin looks at society from the bottom up rather than, as has previously been the case, from the top down. He desires to get in among the people at ground level rather than to jump over the territory and investigate the landscape from above. He takes as his concentration the city of Magnitogorsk, formed to take advantage of the resources of adjacent Magnetic Mountain, for a number of reasons. The first is that Magnitogorsk was from the beginning projected to be a semi-controlled research in the formation of a socialist society. The second reason is that Magnitogorsk was a largely independent community.
Hardly went out without the authorities knowing about it and the same goes for everything that went in. Because the authorities took a special attention in the formation and operation of the city, the records are overflowing, if not wide-ranging. A third, more indescribable reason is that the story of the birth and life of Magnitogorsk is in an essential sense heroic. This is an exciting tale of life in some Russian in the middle of nowhere, and the story of a city built from scratch on an uninhabited plain which reached a population of over 200,000 in the space of 10 years. More interestingly, it is a story which to a certain degree reflects that of Gary, Indiana, the world’s first great steel city created earlier in the century and in some ways a model for the Soviet version.
Kotkin observes the practices by which people in Magnitogorsk were encouraged, persuaded, flattered, to conform and to support the regime and all that it represented. Chief among the methods the practice employed to inculcate the essential positive feelings into the population is what Kotkin terms ‘individualisation’. Instead of regarding the people as one might expect, they were given norms and targets which to all intents and purposes set each person against everyone else. It was in this approach clear to people that, if they worked intensely and kept their point clean, rewards would go after. Each person realized what was expected of him or her, what norms he or she should comply with, what values he or she had to hold on to.
Kotkin illustrates how the disorder of the early 1930s worked to the regime’s great benefit. The only danger which Kotkin can find to the Soviet order in Magnitogorsk was the endless existence of the private market.
First and foremost, as Kotkin explains, people had enough on their plates to contend with. It is clear that just working, finding enough food to keep going, finding somewhere to live and to carry on what passed for normal activities anywhere else occupied every waking hour. What has to be remembered is that the period was not only one of full employment but of labor shortages.
The Soviet Union of the 1930s was successfully preserved off from the rest of the world and so the leadership could pronounce what it comparable about other societies with little fear that the message would be contradicted by the experience of ordinary people.
Kotkin is working very much from the specific to the universal. He is taking the occurrence of those who lived and worked in one corner of the Soviet Union and extrapolating from that the experience in the country more largely. As mentioned, part of what drew Kotkin to write about the city in the first place was the experimental nature of the whole project, the fact that it was not just another Russian town, village or city. Magnitogorsk was self-consciously incomparable and everyone recognized it to be such, as well as those who moved – or were moved – there.
Kotkin, Stephen. Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. California: U of California P, 1997.