About forty miles east of the southern end of the Ural Mountains in Russia are a collection of small hills so rich in iron ore that compasses in the vicinity behaved strangely - the magnetic mountain. It was at this spot that the Soviet government embarked on building an...See more
About forty miles east of the southern end of the Ural Mountains in Russia are a collection of small hills so rich in iron ore that compasses in the vicinity behaved strangely - the magnetic mountain. It was at this spot that the Soviet government embarked on building an industrial city from scratch: a city that was meant to do more than just produce steel but a new form of human being. Hence the subtitle of the book, `Stalinism as Civilization'': Stalinism cannot be considered merely the autocratic rule of one man but a whole way of life, considered as a conscious break from capitalism (meaning the abolition of private property and the prohibition of privately hiring wage labour), a way of life sustained not by terror and coercion alone. However important these factors were in a dictatorship, Stalinism commanded at its height genuine enthusiasm for the goals it espoused. This is what this book is about: it is a historical examination of the vicissitudes of day to day life, part social history and part sociological analysis, as it was experienced by the inhabitants of Stalinism''s showcase city. The book opens with a brilliant reflection on the meaning of the Russian revolution, and then proceeds to deal with the conception, building and settling of this outpost of socialist construction. But, as Kotkin writes, `Magnitogorsk was not just any old steel town ... [it was] part barracks settlement, part village, part labor camp and place of exile, part elite enclave ... a microcosm of the Soviet Union during the building of socialism ... (p.144). The city was an expression of great squalor and promethean achievement, open cesspits and sewage trenches and a steelworks that seemingly sprung out from nowhere, but combined with high ideals in building a new kind of mankind, not just a new steel plant. The second part deals in greater detail with the paradoxes of this reality as lived and recorded in the history of the city in the 1930s. The construction of this beacon of socialism was achieved at great cost and enormous waste, but, to its inhabitants, this was not necessarily how it seemed at the time. The enfeeblement of capitalism by the Great Depression of the 1930s lent credence to the regime''s contention that the city represented progression to a new and superior form of modernity to that offered in the West. Hence the rigours and sacrifices demanded of its population could be plausibly represented as the price to pay for a better future. To what extent this found popular resonance in what was undoubtedly a repressive police state, strictly controlling access to information about the outside world, is impossible to gauge with exact precision but sufficient primary evidence survives to strongly suggest that the regime''s summons to its population to build socialism did not rest on merely on intimidation and threat. To concede this is not to whitewash Stalinism - no one will come away from this book thinking that such an experiment should be repeated again - but to move away from Cold War caricatures of what made the Soviet Union tick, and understand it historically. Ironically part of what made this society tick was the cooption of incentives that we recognize exist under capitalism. In return for a demonstrable contribution over and above the call of duty to the socialist cause - such as Stakhanovite workers - rewards of higher social status and better access to material goods were granted. And, contrary to one might have been led to expect, the market economy was not entirely done away with in the Soviet Union, with the so-called shadow economy an essential part of life. The authorities conceded a degree of `socialist'' trade, a notorious grey area of Soviet life that co-existed with actually existing socialism until the end of the Soviet experiment in 1991. This is not to say that Kotkin considers Stalinism to be a counterrevolution in the sense of restoring capitalism - the shadow economy sprung spontaneously from below and existed on sufferance from above. The formal restoration of the legal right to hold private property and hire labour was never countenanced during the Stalinist era. Finally, the author deals with the impact of the Great Terror/Purges in the late 1930s on the life of the city. Critiquing both Robert Conquest - the standard Cold War account - and revisionists like J Arch Getty, who basically wrote Stalin out of mechanics of the Great Terror altogether, he presents instead a nuanced account of the terror, made possible, in his summation, `by the adversarial nature of Soviet industrialization, which dictated the use of massive force and presupposed the creation of armies of enemies ... by the general resentment of the lifestyle and behaviour of the new elite, whose mere existence pointed to unacknowledged contradictions; by the popular conspiratorial mentality and the Stalin cult of the "good tsar"; and the widespread belief in a grand crusade, building socialism, in whose name the terror was conducted'' (p. 353) The crash industrialisation of the Soviet Union in the 1930s inevitably created a new elite of technocrats and managers, essential to the development of a non-capitalist modernity but standing in contradiction to the utopian aspirations of a classless society and hence widely resented. The decimation of the city''s communist elite - repeated in towns and cities across the Soviet Union - by Stalin''s terror could be seen as one way of attempting to resolve this contradiction by using revolutionary violence from above against this new elite. This is of course to simplify a complicated subject but the terror was no accident and cannot be understood without reference to the society out of which it grew, the contradictions of which could be seen and experienced in Stalin''s showcase city, and demonstrated in massive and vivid detail in this superb book of history.