Book: Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

Stalinism as a Civilization


Magnetic Mountain

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the contribution provided by the General Endowment Fund of the Associates of the University of California Press.

University of California Press

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

University of California Press, Ltd.

London, England

© 1995 by

The Regents of the University of California

First Paperback Printing 1997

Kotkin, Stephen.

    Magnetic mountain : Stalinism as a civilization / Stephen Kotkin.

           p.     cm.

    Includes bibliographical references (p.    ) and index.

    ISBN 978-0-520-20823-0 (pbk.: alk. paper)

    1. Magnitogorsk (Russia)—History. 2. Soviet Union—Politics and government. 3. Communism—Soviet Union—Case studies.

1. Title.

DK651.m159K675      1995




Printed in the United States of America

10   09   08

12   11   10   9

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (R 1997) (Permanence of Paper).

Magnetic Mountain

A version of chapter 2 was first published in William Rosenberg and Lewis Siegelbaum, eds., Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); of chapter 4 in William Brumfield and Blair Ruble, eds., Russian Housing in the Modern Age: Design and Social History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and of chapter 5 in Lewis Siegelbaum and Ronald Suny, eds., Making Workers Soviet: Power, Class, and Identities (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

Magnitogorsk, 1939

To M. F.

I propose a toast to simple, ordinary, modest people, to the “little cogs” who keep our great state machine in motion. . . . No one writes about them, they have no high titles and few offices, but they are the people who maintain us. . . . I drink to the health of these people.

Joseph Stalin


Illustrations and Tables


USSR Organizational Structure, 1930s

Note on Translation

Introduction: Understanding the Russian Revolution


1. On the March for Metal

2. Peopling a Shock Construction Site

3. The Idiocy of Urban Life


4. Living Space and the Stranger’s Gaze

5. Speaking Bolshevik

6. Bread and a Circus

7. Dizzy with Success

Afterword: Stalinism as a Civilization

Note on Sources


Select Bibliography

Photograph Credits


Illustrations and Tables

Photographs follow pages 145 and 354


Frontis. Magnitogorsk, 1939

1. Ernst May, Left-Bank Variant, 1933

2. Ernst May, Right-Bank Variant, 1933

3. Artist’s Rendering of the Factory and City, 1929

4. Axis of Settlement

5. Magnitogorsk, Geography of Authority, 1937


1. Metal Production at Magnitogorsk, 1931–1940

2. Origin of Incoming Population, 1931

3. Labor on Hand, 1931

4. Workers Arriving and Departing Magnitostroi, 1930–1933

5. Population by Area, 1939

6. Living Space in Magnitogorsk, 1938

7. “Ownership” of Living Space, 1939


This project began as a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, where I had the great fortune of being trained in history by an extraordinary group of scholars, including Lynn Hunt, Susanna Barrows, Martin Jay, Jan de Vries, and many others. Had I not met Reginald Zelnik, my thesis advisor, I might never have moved from the study of Western and Central Europe to that of Russia. Reggie’s scholarship and professional behavior have been an inspiration, and his guidance outstanding. My interest in the Soviet period was aroused and nurtured by Martin Malia, my other thesis advisor, whose thinking has left a deep impression.

At Berkeley, my conceptual tools were sharpened by contact with many people outside the history department, particularly Leo Lowenthal, Gregory Grossman, Victoria Bonnell, David Hooson, and Paul Rabinow. Much stimulation was provided by fellow graduate students in various fields, including David Horn, Jonathan Simon, Scott Busby, Alex Levine, and, above all, Keith Gandal.

At Princeton, where I have taught since 1989, I have benefited from the exceptional breadth of learning and warm-hearted support of my colleagues. Special mention goes to Gyan Prakash, who read and commented on some of the chapters and has always been ready to engage in illuminating discussions on a broad range of subjects; Phil Nord, who offered penetrating comments on my introduction and introduced me to his views on nineteenth-century Europe in a seminar we co-taught; Arno Mayer, who challenged me with his interpretations of Europe in the twentieth century; and Mark Mazower, who has left Princeton for Sussex but still suffered through more versions of more chapters of this book than anyone else, and yet through it all never tired of sharing ideas and offering much-needed companionship.

Princeton’s Carl Schorske, now retired, may not know it, but reading his magnificent book on Vienna as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester (in a course taught by his former student, William McGrath) inspired me to go on to graduate school not in my first major, English literature, but in European history.

Being able to spend parts of two academic years at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, first as a student, then as a fellow and adjunct assistant professor, brought me into contact with Richard Wortman, Rick Ericson, and Mark von Hagen, who has generously guided and encouraged my work from the beginning. Mark’s comments on various versions of this book and his insights into the history of the USSR have proved invaluable, as has his friendship.

I owe a large debt to the University of California Press, its editorial director, Sheila Levine, and its general director, Jim Clark, who have shown exceptional interest in my work and made available the resources of their fine publishing house. Dore Brown was a superb project editor. Three readers engaged by the press, R. W. Davies, John Barber, and Lewis Siegelbaum, made important suggestions on shaping the book and have commented on my work or helped me in other forums.

My thanks also to Blair Ruble for his support over the years; to Sheila Fitzpatrick, who despite my obvious attempts to revise her views has always been helpful and encouraging; and to Moshe Lewin, whose work I have also been wrestling with for years and who welcomed me during a pilgrimage I made to him while still an impressionable graduate student.

Many of my ideas were refined in conversation with graduate students in seminars at Princeton and Columbia. I thank them for their remarks, questions, and insights.

The manuscript was completed during a sabbatical at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science, for which I am most grateful to Wada Haruki, who introduced me to the Japanese community of scholars on Russia. The opportunity to present my ideas to Tokyo’s Russian Research Society, the European history seminar at Waseda University, and the Slavic Center of Hokkaido University in Sapporo enabled me to think through many problems of interpretation. Thanks to Kazuhiko Takahashi, Ishii Norie, Takao Chizuko, Nakai Kazuo, Minagawa Shugo, and Matsuzato Kimitaka.

Several chapters of this book were also presented at conferences in Ann Arbor and East Lansing, Michigan, and at the University of Birmingham, England. For their invitations, criticisms, and suggestions I am grateful to the organizers and participants of these sessions, especially William Rosenberg, Ron Suny, Lewis Siegelbaum, Robert Johnson, Laura Engelstein, Michael Burawoy, Sonya Rose, Bob Davies, and John Barber.

This study was made possible by the opportunity to conduct archival research and fieldwork in the former USSR during the opening up after 1985. In the spring of 1987, while on a ten-month research trip, I had the chance to spend six weeks in Magnitogorsk. I returned in 1989 and again in 1991. The opportunity to walk the streets and talk with surviving residents from the 1930s, local archivists, and many others influenced my views significantly. To see the city struggling with the legacy of the 1930s some fifty years later put the events of the past into very sharp focus.

In Magnitogorsk, the number of people who assisted my research was legion. I will never forget Valerii Kucher, Volodia Mozgovoi, Nina Kondratkovskaia, Galina Osolodkova, Vilii Bogun, Mikhail Lysenko, and, above all, Zhena and Tamara Vernikov. The photographer Anatolii Kniazev made available to me the vast collection of old photographs owned and preserved by the steel plant. The team of archivists in Magnitogorsk really looked after me, despite the restrictions that were placed over them by superiors in Moscow. Having finished this book, I remain overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity extended to me, even as I relentlessly investigated a painful decade of another country’s history.

My visits to Magnitogorsk for fieldwork were part of extended research trips throughout the former USSR, two of which were sponsored by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX). In Moscow I enjoyed the support and stimulation of my companions on the academic exchange, especially Elizabeth Wood, Ken and Libby Straus, Steve and Stella Kimball, Bruce Allyn, and David Hoffman. While writing my dissertation I had several discussions with Michael Gelb, who also directed me to source materials. Kindra Kemp compiled the index and expertly redrew the maps and diagrams. Ann Chun retyped on short notice a chapter erroneously erased from the computer memory, and put up with me for a long time.

Funding for this project was provided by the University of California at Berkeley Center for Slavic Studies, Institute of International Relations, and Graduate Division; the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.; the International Research and Exchanges Board; the Harriman Institute of Columbia University; Princeton University’s history department and University Committee on Research; and most of all, the Social Science Research Council.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the above institutions and to the Library of Congress; the New York Public Library; the libraries of the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and Columbia University; the former Lenin Library in Moscow; the Public Library and the Library of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg; the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; the Hoover Institution; the State Historical Archives of Wisconsin in Madison; the Case Western Historical Reserve in Cleveland; the Press and Cultural Section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; the Russian State Archives in Moscow and the State Archives Affiliate in Magnitogorsk; the Magnitogorsk City Museum; the American Section of the former Soviet Ministry of Higher Education; the Foreign Department of Moscow State University; the Magnitogorsk Mining and Metallurgical Institute; and the editorial board of the Magnitogorsk daily newspaper.

The idea of pursuing a study of power at the micro-level on the subject of Stalinism crystallized in conversations with the late Michel Foucault, whom I met at Berkeley while he taught there in 1982 and 1983. No doubt the final product would have been far better had he not died in 1984. But what did result, I dedicate to his memory.

USSR Organizational Structure, 1930s

In the absence of private property, all institutions in the USSR were technically part of the state. A key exception was the Communist party, which officially was a voluntary public (obshchestvennaia) organization. The party maintained a “cell” in every institution, and party administrations at all levels had departments paralleling those of the state. The USSR was thus a dualist party-state.

At the same time, the state structure was multiple. As a result, although all lower-level organizations were subordinated to upper ones in a pyramid, the parallelism of the party-state pyramids and the multiplicity of the state itself created overlapping jurisidictions. It also needs to be borne in mind that the Soviet Union was nominally a federation, with Magnitogorsk located in the Russian republic (RSFSR). Only all-union bodies bore the designation “USSR.”



All-Union Party Congress. Irregularly convened. Formally the highest body of the party. Served between sessions by a Central Committee.

USSR Central Committee (CC). Dominated by its nominally subordinate political bureau (politbureau) and administrative secretariat. Headed in the 1930s by General Secretary Joseph Stalin.

Urals provincial party committee (obkom). Divided in three in 1934.

Cheliabinsk provincial party committee (obkom). Formed out of the Urals oblast in 1934. Headed by the obkom bureau.

Magnitogorsk city party committee (gorkom). Headed by the gorkom bureau.

Urban-district party committees (raikom).

Primary party organizations (PPOs). The lowest level of party organization. Called “cells” before 1934.

Communist party youth league (Komsomol). The apprentice organization for the party.

The RSFSR did not have its own Communist party structure; obkoms in the RSFSR were subordinated directly to the USSR Central Committee.



All-Union Congress of Soviets. Biannual congress of representatives of local soviets. Replaced in 1936 by the Supreme Soviet.

USSR Supreme Soviet. Permament body of elected representatives.

All-Union Congress of Soviets/USSR Supreme Soviet Central Executive Committee (TsIK).

RSFSR All-Union Congress of Soviets/Supreme Soviet and Central Executive Committee.

Cheliabinsk provincial soviet and soviet executive committee.

Magnitogorsk city soviet and soviet executive committee.

Urban-district soviets.

Soviet sections (volunteers).

City-soviet planning commission.

At all levels, the full soviet, consisting of popularly elected representatives, was nominally charged with policy formation; executive committees, elected by the soviets, were responsible for implementation. Thus, soviets technically had both legislative and executive power. The head of the USSR Supreme Soviet was the head of state.


USSR Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). Coordinating body of the bureaucracy, made up of the heads of each commissariat. Essentially the Soviet government. The chairman of Sovnarkom held a rank equivalent to prime minister.

Council of Labor and Defense (STO). High-level special government commission, technically subordinate to Sovnarkom but in practice above it. Temporarily abolished in 1937.

RSFSR Sovnarkom. Because the Magnitogorsk factory had all-union status, it was subordinated directly to the USSR, not the Russian republic.

People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry (NKTP). One of the commissariats represented on the USSR Sovnarkom. It owned and supervised most of the economy. Replaced the Supreme Council of the National Economy (Vesenkha) in 1932.

Main Administration of the Metallurgical Industry (GUMP). A subdivision of the Commissariat of Heavy Industry. Converted to the Commissariat of Ferrous Metallurgy (NKChM) when NKTP was divided into several commissariats in 1939.

Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex (MMK). Factory and mine. Under the Main Administration of Metal Industry.

Everyday-Life Administration (KBU). A division of the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex. Renamed Municipal Economy Administration (UKKh) in 1938.

People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). Security police. Represented on the USSR Sovnarkom; in practice subordinated directly to the Communist party secretariat. For most of the 1930s, the regular police, called the militia, were attached to the NKVD. Prior to 1934, the security police was organized as an independent commission called the Main Political Administration (GPU). Both the NKVD and the GPU were colloquially referred to by the acronym for their predecessor organization, the “Cheka.”

Provincial NKVD.

Magnitogorsk NKVD. Controlled the administrations of the Magnitogorsk Corrective Labor Colony (ITK) and Special Labor Settlement (Spetstrudposelok).

NKVD boards and troika. Summary sentencing bodies for crimes deemed to involve counterrevolution.

People’s Commissariat of Justice (Narkomiust). Headed by USSR general procurator.

Provincial procurator.

Magnitogorsk procurator.

USSR Supreme Court.

Provincial court.

Magnitogorsk people’s courts.

Comrade courts.

Narkomiust had jurisdiction only over non-counterrevolutionary crimes. The procurator technically had supervisory power over the NKVD, but the NKVD effectively resisted outside supervision of its operation. Railroads and waterways had a separate procurator and court system.

People’s Commissariat of Municipal Economy (Narkomkhoz). Represented on USSR Sovnarkom. Completely eclipsed in Magnitogorsk by NKTP.

People’s Commissariat of Trade (Narkomtorg). Represented on USSR Sovnarkom. Responsible for urban supply.

Provincial trade (Obltorg).

Magnitgorsk trade (Magnittorg).

Central Workers’ Cooperative (TsRK). Reorganized and renamed the Department of Workers’ Supply (ORS) in 1933.

City dining trust (Narpit).

City food processing complex.


State Planning Commission (Gosplan). Important for industrial operation and supply, parallel to NKTP.

State Institute for the Design of Metallurgical Factories (Gipromez), in Leningrad. Small role in the design of the Magnitogorsk factory.

Urals branch of Gipromez. Renamed Magnitostroi in 1927.

Magnitostroi. Design and construction trust (also the name for the construction site). Subordinated to GUMP. Merged with MMK in 1934; reinstituted as a separate trust in 1936.

Koksostroi. Coke plant construction, merged with Magnitostroi in 1933.

Mining Administration (GRU). Merged with Magnitostroi in 1933.

“Subcontracting” trusts (Stalstroi, etc.). Abolished in 1932 with the formation of GUMP.

State Institute for the Planning of Cities (Giprogor). Organization that employed the German architect Ernst May.

Oblast urban planning (Oblproekt).

City urban planning (Gorproekt).


All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS). Trade unions were responsible for access to recreation facilities, accident insurance, pensions and other benefits.

USSR Metal Workers Union.

Provincial branch of the Metal Workers Union.

Magnitogorsk branch of the Metal Workers Union.


Central Control Commission and Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate (TsKK-RKI). Combined party control commission and state commissariat (Rabkrin) with wide investigatory powers. Parallel to the GPU. Abolished in 1934 when the GPU was reorganized into the NKVD. In 1935 separate party and state control commissions were created.

Oblast control commission (OblKK). Abolished in 1934.

City control commission (GorKK). Abolished in 1934.

Note on Translation

All translations are the author’s, unless otherwise indicated. For Russian words and names, the Library of Congress transliteration system has been used, with the exception that diacritical marks for soft signs have been suppressed.

Introduction: Understanding the Russian Revolution

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 revolution1

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.2

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 workers. And they brought along foreign designs and equipment for state-of-the-art blast furnaces, open-hearth ovens, and rolling mills. In short, to that group of semicircular hills the Bolsheviks brought “the revolution.” This book attempts to tell the story of how the revolution came to Magnetic Mountain, and how the inhabitants of the resultant urban center—“Magnetic Mountain City,” or Magnitogorsk—took part in the creation of what would come to be known as Stalinism.

Among the most widely observed phenomena in history, Stalinism is rightly infamous as a despotic political system. A close look at Magnitogorsk in the 1930s, however, will demonstrate that the distinctiveness of Stalinism lay not in the formation of a mammoth state by means of the destruction of society but in the creation, along with such a state, of a new society—manifest in property relations, social structure, the organization of the economy, political practice, and language. Stalinism signified the advent of a specifically socialist civilization based on the rejection of capitalism, the appreciation of which is perhaps best approached through a sharply focused case study.3


Whereas the early public debate in the United States on Stalinism was dominated by informative journalistic treatments and less informative travelers’ accounts (along the lines of either “the country with a plan” or “how I escaped the Soviets”), the first professional research agenda for the study of the Stalin era developed in the aftermath of World War II around the so-called totalitarian model. This approach focused on the issue of state control and its extension over more and more areas of thought and action—as exemplified by Merle Fainsod’s estimable case study of Smolensk province, which was based on documents captured during the war.4 In what amounted to a replication of Stalinism’s self-presentation (with the values inverted), political structure and ideology loomed large in the totalitarian model, while power was conceived in terms of the pronouncement and implementation of an organized political will. As far as Soviet society was concerned, in the absence of “independent institutions” or “autonomous actors” it seemed unclear what to investigate, or even whether there was a society per se. When it came to interpreting popular attitudes, great skepticism was shown toward published Soviet sources. Instead, disaffected émigrés were interviewed in depth for clues to the suppressed feelings assumed to lie behind propaganda and censorship.5

At the same time, however, Fainsod and others could not deny that the USSR had managed to beat back the Nazi onslaught in a total war requiring enormous sacrifices by nearly the whole population, and that both before and after the war there was surprisingly little evidence of organized opposition to what was thought to be a sinister and illegitimate regime comparable only to that of the Nazis. Struggling to account for these ostensible anomalies, as well as for the Soviet Union’s evident stability, these scholars predictably pointed to the state’s use of mass repression. But on this crucial point, they became increasingly vulnerable, for not only did overt repression abate after Stalin’s death, instability did not follow. Thus, despite the prolific and high-quality research they carried out, the result of these scholars’ work was something of an analytical cul-de-sac.6

With good reason, the early analysts of Stalinism came under attack from a subsequent generation of self-proclaimed revisionists, who were led by an outsider, the transplanted Australian Sheila Fitzpatrick.7 The scholars who rallied around Fitzpatrick came of age during the Vietnam War and the domestic convulsions that shook America’s postwar sense of complacency and superiority. More inclined to the methods of social history, and using a far wider range of Soviet sources, including some archival materials, this group asserted plausibly that Stalinism could not be explained by coercion alone and set out to demonstrate that many people had accepted the values and ideals of the Stalin revolution.8 Fitzpatrick in particular singled out the sizable stratum of educated, upwardly mobile managers/engineers, who, she argued, supported the Stalinist regime precisely because the regime had created them.9

The new elite, which lasted into the 1980s, began its trajectory to the top in 1929 during what Fitzpatrick called the “Cultural Revolution,” by which she meant the mobilization of class-based radicalism when higher education was thrown open to the children of workers and peasants. This electrifying episode ended abruptly, however, in 1932, the point at which Fitzpatrick claimed that the momentum of the revolution was checked.10 What followed as the upwardly mobile cadres were graduated and promoted to high positions, she argued, was a version of what Nicholas Ti-masheff had called the “Great Retreat” (a variant of Trotsky’s thesis on the revolution’s “betrayal”). Born of Stalin’s revolution from above, the new elite supposedly turned around and repudiated further revolutionary mobilization in favor of stability and the revival of familiar patterns.11

Fitzpatrick traced the humble origins and rapid rise of the new elite, or what she alternately called the new “middle class,” in terms of culture, purporting to explain its philistine tastes, puritanism, acceptance of pervasive state intervention, and loyalty to the system. She also noted, however, that its main education was in technical subjects, making it well suited to the demands of managing an industrial society. By characterizing the new Soviet elite as culturally conservative yet technically literate, she sought, in effect, to make Trotsky’s assertion that Stalinism had a “social basis” in the bureaucracy less conspiratorial and pejorative. Exploring Trotsky’s insights on the revolution far more deeply than he himself had, Fitzpatrick shared little of his disapproval with the revolution’s outcome.12

Yet whereas even in his most condemnatory outbursts Trotsky had refused to disavow the socialist nature of the USSR, Fitzpatrick never seemed to decide whether her explorations into the social history of the Soviet elite revealed a socialist society or a traditionally Russian one, with a socialist veneer. She claimed that the Civil War mentality of the 1920s, although temporarily revived during the first Five-Year Plan, was eventually supplanted in the second half of the 1930s by a conservative, antimodern “Soviet” mentality. But she appears to have left intentionally unresolved the key issue of whether the resultant Soviet society was socialist, advocating more research.13

Meanwhile, a parallel drive for a revisionist understanding of Stalinism in the American academy was carried out by another outsider, Moshe Lewin.14 Also taking up the Trotskyite framework, Lewin focused on the formation and character of the Soviet bureaucracy as a key to explaining the revolution’s supposed demise under Stalin. In a series of highly influential books and essays, he argued that the predominantly peasant nature of Russia ended up overwhelming the process of modernization embarked on by the socialist regime, particularly because the regime had difficulty understanding its options vis-à-vis the peasantry and also because the peasantry supposedly underwent a process of “archaization” in the prolonged dislocation following the downfall of the old regime.15

In Lewin’s view, a delicate situation calling for forbearance and farsightedness was whimsically destabilized in 1929 with the drive to coerce the peasantry into “collectivization.” That such a decision could be taken at all, Lewin argued, was a consequence of the “degeneration” of the Bolshevik party into a bureaucratic, hierarchical administrative body to which such a strong-armed developmental policy held a certain appeal. Predictably, the more the Stalinist clique insisted that the country rush to overcome its agrarian nature, the greater the chaos that resulted—and the more the regime felt a need to resort to coercion. The “backwardness” of the rural social structure, in the hands of a group of poorly comprehending and impetuous leaders, culminated ironically in the establishment of a “backward” and “demonized” authoritarian political system.16

Elaborating the “social background” to the formation of the Stalinist political order, Lewin in turn underscored society’s penetration by the state. During what he called the descent into a “quicksand society” and the “ruralization of the cities” that supposedly occurred during the initial stages of the Stalin revolution, he wrote that “the whole social structure” was “sucked into the state mechanism, as if entirely assimilated by it.”17 Highlighting this process of statization, however, he continued to lay great emphasis on societal influences, offering the maxim, “the quicker you break and change, the more of the old you recreate.”18 He employed the term “the Soviet system” to describe the outcome whereby the state bureaucratized the society and yet the social patterns of the village reasserted themselves within this enormous statism.19 What the Soviet system amounted to, he argued, was a paradoxical, backward form of modernization, with peculiarly jerky rhythms, a tendency toward frenzied immoderation, and an in-built sense of permanent crisis. A self-proclaimed socialist, Lewin vehemently denied that such a “system” could in any way be equated with socialism, in effect scorning the self-perception not only of the Soviet regime but of millions of Soviet inhabitants.20

Both Fitzpatrick and Lewin directed their explorations in social history at the totalitarian paradigm’s premise that the Stalinist state could do whatever it wanted. Whereas Fitzpatrick and her followers have attempted to analyze the supposed role social groups played in the state’s policy decisions and ethos, Lewin has treated society more or less as an aggregate “force,” akin to gravity, that exerted an almost invisible pull on the course of events. Ultimately, however, these varying approaches converged on the bottom-line proposition that the Stalinist state was permeated throughout by social influences, a notable modification of the then prevailing one-sided view on state-society relations in the Stalin era.

Lewin and Fitzpatrick have rarely admitted the existence of common ground between them, yet it is striking that in carrying out their respective projects of revisionism, both have tended to view Stalinism as an end to the revolution and something of a return, under conditions of great stress, to nonrevolutionary traditions. To be sure, Lewin’s abandoned revolution was the compromise known as the New Economic Policy, or NEP, while Fitzpatrick’s was the so-called Cultural Revolution, a revival of the Civil War’s anticompromise spirit. She has emphasized, furthermore, this reversal’s apparently logical development, essentially benign nature, and long-term stability, while he has argued, by contrast, that the Stalinist modernization was far from inevitable,21 highly “pathological,” and yet in dialectical fashion contained the means for its own “cure” (in the long-term process of urbanization, whereby an urban social structure replaced the rural one).22 Despite these differences, however, in terms of what each has determined “the revolution” to be, Lewin and Fitzpatrick have both argued that Stalinism constituted a reversal. In the end, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the turn to social history has led to the replacement of the manifestly flawed totalitarian thesis by the basic perspective laid down by Leon Trotsky, the revolution’s greatest loser.23

Such a perspective ignores the fact that at no time did the Soviet regime declare or seek to effect a counterrevolution—a turn of affairs that would not, in any case, have been tolerated by the Soviet population. To the vast majority of those who lived it, and even to most of its enemies, Stalinism, far from being a partial retreat let alone a throwback to the Russian past, remained forward-looking and progressive throughout. This was particularly so in light of the Great Depression that overtook the leading capitalist countries, and the commensurate rise and spread of fascism, whose overt militarism cast a pall over Europe. By virtue of its rejection of capitalism and its dramatic internal development, the USSR assumed the role of antifascist bulwark during a time when elsewhere reaction or indecisiveness appeared to be the order of the day.24 More than that, Stalinism exerted a powerful influence over the entire world because what happened in the USSR during the 1930s seemed to be an implausible achievement in the forward march of European (universal) history.25


It is impossible to comprehend Stalinism without reference to the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, an outpouring of impassioned public discussion that took as its point of departure the seventeenth-century innovation of modern “science.” Applying the new models of nature to the political world, many thinkers during the Enlightenment embarked on a quest for an explicitly “rational social order,” a well-regulated organization of human beings independent of the “arbitrary” authority of a sovereign. Arguably it was the French philosophe Condorcet—the first to give wide currency to the expression “science of society”—who conferred the prestige of Newtonian science on the search for a rational social order. For Condorcet, among others, science offered “the means to transform the social world” at the same time as it “suggested the model of the rational social organization to be implemented.” Above all, science promised not simply the possibility of immediate improvement but “a vision of constant progress.”26

What gave this worldview tremendous force was, of course, the French revolution, which appeared to offer a mechanism for realizing the vision of a rational social order. To be sure, the revolution brought forth a variety of applications, including the ideas and practices of liberalism, a “radical” strand of republicanism rooted in notions of equality, and Bonapartist dictatorship. But each of these different traditions emerged from the common source of what came to be called “revolutionary politics.” This innovation signaled a simple yet profound discovery: that politics could be used to direct and possibly even remake society.27

Many of the Russian revolutionaries were guided by a highly developed awareness of the bewitching French experience and conceived of their own actions as an elaboration of that great chain of events, in the direction of what they imagined to be a more genuine version of radical democracy. Rather than a democratic order in the name of the nation, which allegedly concealed the class rule of the bourgeoisie, the Russian revolutionaries envisioned what was supposed to be a more inclusive order founded on the putative universality of the proletariat. Paradoxically, the goal of greater inclusiveness was to be reached by means of fierce class warfare and exclusion. Nonetheless, in the reinvention of revolutionary politics on the basis of class, the Russian revolutionaries were still following the central vision of the Enlightenment. The Russian revolution, too, was about using politics as a means for creating a rational, and therefore just, social order.

Not only did the revolution in the Russian empire partake of the most highly valued traditions in European history, but even the revolution’s ostensibly exotic class character was quintessentially European, an effect of the nineteenth-century fossil-fuel industrialization that had swept England and the continent and rendered problematic the universalism of the Enlightenment’s vision. Indeed, far from beginning with the Russian revolution, the task of reconstituting “the nation” by alleviating, or somehow overcoming, deep class divisions had been a central preoccupation throughout Europe for nearly a century—especially in the great “kingdom of the ideal,” German-speaking Central Europe, where the inspiration for a specifically proletarian revolution originated.

It was, of course, Karl Marx who combined the Enlightenment’s application of scientific rationality to society with the French revolution’s discovery of the magic of politics and proclaimed the definitive science of society aimed at bringing about the ultimate political revolution that would eliminate the class divisions wrought by industrialization. Profoundly influenced by the great elaborator of the French revolution, Georg W. F. Hegel, who had articulated a dynamic vision of the progressive movement of history, Marx named his design for a future, classless society “socialism”—a term already in wide use that signified either the amelioration or, more often, the complete transcendence of what were the truly appalling living conditions of Europe’s working majority.28

Emphasizing transcendence, Marx and his followers believed his conception of socialism to be new. In a famous essay entitled “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” (1880), Friedrich Engels argued that if with Hegel the world began to be viewed as a developmental process, with the onset of industrialization and the rise of the working class in the 1830s socialism had ceased to be “an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain” and had become instead “the necessary outcome” of a larger historical struggle governed by scientific laws. Accordingly, the task for critical analysis was no longer to imagine a society as perfect as possible but to lay bare the present pattern of socioeconomic relations in which the next “stage” of historical development was already nascent. Marx, according to Engels, had done just that for the “capitalist mode of production,” and thus with Marx “socialism had become scientific.”29

Engels’s distinction between utopian and scientific socialism, which was embraced by the Soviet state, has been dismissed by philosophers who argue that Marxian socialism was in fact no less Utopian than the unattainable visions of Fourier or Owen. Far from having been “science,” the argument goes, Marxism was nothing more than a bogus religion claiming falsely to be science.30 But the historian should not so quickly dismiss Marxism’s claim to be scientific. This claim inspired millions of people, both inside and outside the Soviet Union, and informed the thinking of much of what went on under Stalin (and after), from the establishment of economic planning and school curricula to the capacity for opposition to the regime.

If the scientificity of Marxian socialism needs to be taken seriously, however, so does its Utopian aspect. Like the Enlightenment mentality out of which it grew, Marxian socialism was an attractive schema for realizing the kingdom of heaven on earth. Of course, as a supreme rationalist of the nineteenth-century type, Marx himself never wrote a utopia. But he asserted that a Utopian society would—indeed must—come about for the sake of humankind, and his voluminous, often esoteric writings inspired the most extensive effort ever to realize just such an outcome in the eastern fringes of Europe. That the scientific utopianism of Marx found an appreciative audience in the Russian empire was due to the specificities of Russian history, especially to certain intensely felt aspirations that predated the 1917 revolution and found expression in the revolutionary process.


If in hindsight the French revolution appeared as “so inevitable yet completely unforeseen,”31 the double revolution in the Russian empire was by contrast long foreseen yet hardly inevitable. Decades before the upheaval in 1905 that accompanied a humiliating defeat by Japan, there was widespread talk of the coming revolution. Various groups devoted themselves to its realization, while successive government ministers undertook large-scale reforms of the sociopolitical order, in large part to prevent just such a contingency. All of this might make revolution in Russia seem a foregone conclusion. But had it not been for the severe strain brought by the folly of the Great War, which triggered the autocracy’s sudden, total collapse, increased the politicization of the populace geometrically, and rendered impossible the situation of the short-lived Provisional Government, the improbable seizure of power by conspiratorial revolutionaries would scarcely have been possible.32

The debacle of the Great War and the ensuing changes in power of February and October 1917 stemmed from the great-power pursuits of the Russian state. Russia’s need to adapt to changing circumstances could scarcely be denied. Yet the stakes of internal reform were fatefully increased, in part by the autocracy’s resistance over many decades to any moves to limit its power, but even more so by the grandiosity of the autocracy’s ambitions regarding the preeminent place Russia ought to occupy in the international state system—in the context of the empire’s enormous size, primarily agricultural population, and multinational character.33 That the autocracy proved inept in meeting its self-assigned task of leading a robust Russia became a source of general disillusionment, as well as a clarion call to action for others who imagined they could do better.34

A sense of the despised autocracy’s abject failure, a desire to stave off further disintegration, and a belief that they could take matters into their own hands were among the chief motivations behind the upper class’s critical abandonment of the autocracy, the soldiers’ mutiny against the war, the peasants’ expropriation of the land, the workers’ assumption of control over the factories, and the series of national uprisings against the politically centralized empire. These far-reaching actions reinforced the prevailing sense of fantastic possibility that accompanied the abdication of the tsar, but they also contributed to a rising trepidation and calls to avoid further breakdown and potential chaos. It was as a result of a search for a new order that the disparate events of the revolution came to be united into a vehicle for the elite aspiration to see the country become supremely powerful while at the same time remaining true to itself and the higher ideals it supposedly represented. This was the task that the phenomenon of Bolshevism came to embody.35

Bolshevism arose in the repressive conditions of tsarist Russia not as a political party in the parliamentary sense but as a conspiracy within a diverse revolutionary underground dedicated to the overthrow of the autocracy. Comparable Carbonarist conspiracies, also penetrated by police agents and informants, had existed elsewhere in Europe, presenting no more plausible alternative to the existing order than did the Bolsheviks, the most energetic of whom spent extended periods in Siberian or foreign exile.36 In February 1917, however, when the tsarist regime gave way under the pressure of mounting military fiascos, the so-called Provisional Government had little choice but to sanction the release of persons imprisoned or exiled for political reasons by the now fallen autocracy. Bolshevik leaders began making their way to the capital. These included Vladimir Lenin, who was able to reach Petrograd from the unofficial Bolshevik headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, only through the mal-intentioned assistance of Russia’s wartime enemy, Germany.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, when the Russian empire became in effect the freest country in the world, Bolshevism was transformed into an above-ground and essentially unobstructed conspiracy.37 Finding themselves in a position to fill the political and symbolic vacuum occasioned by the autocracy’s absolute collapse and the Provisional Government’s uncertain legitimacy, the Bolsheviks put forth an engaging long-term vision of Russia’s future in the form of a supremely confident narrative of the laws of history and all-purpose explanation of the present—a vision that was calculatingly enhanced by expedient borrowings from the programs of other political parties. Dynamic leadership, not just a Marxist revolutionary worldview, helped make possible such a turn of events and proved to be one of the Bolsheviks principal assets.38

Divided and quarrelsome, the Bolsheviks suffered from a series of bungled efforts to take charge of events, such as the embarrassing confusion of July 1917 when they vacillated over whether to stage an uprising that occurred without them and failed.39 But following the attempt in August 1917 by the commander of the army to organize an immediate march on Petrograd to oust the leftist revolutionaries, which also failed, the Bolsheviks managed spectacularly to ride the waves of popular upheaval.40 They came to power during mass seizures of land by the peasantry, a revolution in its own right (without parallel in the French revolution) and one that liberal political groups believing in private property could not readily sanction but that the Bolsheviks supported perhaps even more vocally than the great peasant party, the Socialist Revolutionaries.41 And the Bolsheviks took charge while the country was at war—another revolutionizing process to which they gave the utmost attention, sanctioning an immediate end to hostilities, without explaining how the Germans were to be stopped.42

What strikes one about the Bolshevik triumph in 1917, however, is less their opportunism than their reckless sense of a world-historical mission, which made possible such opportunism amid the mind-boggling swirl of events. As products of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia, the Bolsheviks were inclined to that tradition’s obdurate sense of righteousness and paternalism. They claimed to be able to speak and act for the people with tyrannical assurance, yet they saw no contradiction in staunchly championing the use of centralized authority to achieve their aims. In fact, it was this amalgam of raw raison d’état and beneficent devotion to the commonweal that characterized the Bolsheviks and became the main dynamic of the revolutionary process following the October coup.

The importance of the revolutionary process, particularly of the year 1918, needs to be emphasized.43 No account of the revolution that stops in 1917 can explain the triumph of Bolshevism, an outcome for which the Civil War, not the October seizure of power in the capital, proved decisive.44 Indeed, rather than the “spread of the October revolution,”45 we should think in terms of the transmutation of the October coup into both a social and supranational cause during the Civil War.46 This transpired under the banner of class war, which permitted; indeed necessitated, territorial reconquest in areas controlled by “bourgeois nationalists,” as well as the merciless application of terror against the “bourgeoisie” and their apparent accomplices, who could include unwittingly or even consciously “traitorous” socialists.47

The desperate need to mobilize for the Civil War provided the Bolsheviks with a vehicle for rescuing the Russian empire from oblivion and themselves from the virtual collapse that seemed to have overcome them by the summer of 1918, when, among other developments, the leader of the Bolshevik security police, Feliks Dzierzynski, was captured and Lenin wondered whether the new regime would survive until the morning.48 Not long after this episode, the “October revolution” began in earnest, as chaotic institutions, such as the Red Guards, the Military Revolution Committee, and the Communist party, began to be transformed into regularized components of a new central administration.49

The Bolsheviks’ desire to build a mighty state was fueled not only by the pressures of the moment but also by the longer-term urge to match the achievements of the European powers and the United States, and this made their efforts widely appreciated, even among many military officers and functionaries of the old regime. Although the Bolsheviks’ methods and much of their rhetoric may have seemed bizarre or extreme, many declared enemies of socialism still came to recognize that the country’s new rulers, notwithstanding their complete repudiation of the past, were implicitly building on Russia’s state-led, survival-oriented social engineering tradition. That tradition had been inaugurated by Peter the Great and resorted to most recently by Sergei Witte and Petr Stolypin in what seemed to be a never-ending cycle of perceived external challenge and wrenching internal response.50

Russia’s obsession with socialism can also be understood in this light, for along with the desire for a strong country there existed—well before the Bolsheviks came to power—a widespread feeling that Russia had, or ought to have, a special mission. Within educated society, people disagreed on how closely Russia, in achieving its “rightful place,” ought to imitate the so-called advanced countries, a concern that gave rise to the schism between Slavophiles and Westernizers. But even the strongest advocates of Westernization felt that, while modernizing, Russia must somehow maintain its distinctiveness. Socialism promised to allow just that. Through socialism, Russia would industrialize, matching and eventually superseding the great powers economically and militarily while retaining a supposed moral superiority. Moreover, by so doing Russia would give Europe and the United States a taste of their own medicine, confronting them with something of a challenge.51

For achieving these formidable aims the Bolsheviks and their supporters imagined Marxist class analysis to be an almost supernatural device, but it was the depth of Russian ambitions that gave Marxist developmentalism its importance and made it appear to be a trump-card method for reaching the coveted goal of modernity. In the end, the remarkable fact about the Russian revolution was that although the desire to exalt the might and standing of Russia had proved a heavy burden and brought down the old regime, far from being shunned, this aspiration was embraced by the country’s new rulers. More than that, it turned out to hold the key to their longevity and became the source of their identity. The Bolsheviks were not simply makers but also instruments of history.52

Just by their survival, let alone their remarkable recovery of most of the empire, the Bolsheviks shocked the world, and no doubt each other. Having imperiously placed themselves at the forefront of the politicized masses and at Lenin’s urging adopted a seemingly dubious revolutionary scenario, this fractious caste of self-styled professional insurrectionists managed to capture and hold the reins of an imperial state. Notwithstanding the image of iron resoluteness which the Bolsheviks zealously sought to project (and which their enemies readily accepted), they were not sorcerers who could turn over all of Russia with a few decrees.53 Rather, their success in wielding the powerful lever of the state depended on an impressive ability to create effective new institutions, such as the Red Army (successor to the Red Guards) and the Cheka (successor to the Military Revolutionary Committee). That ability, in turn, derived from their assiduous assertion of dominance over the ensemble of concepts and practices that together made up the experience of the revolution.

In the months leading up to the February 1917 assumption of power by a Provisional Government there had been mass demonstrations and strikes, but “the revolution” did not so much bring down the tsar as the fall of the tsar opened up “the revolution,” a participatory and millenarian cause for which millions of people were ready to give up their lives. This multifaceted revolution, which was molded into an elite-sponsored dream of a mighty Russia, was propelled by notions of popular sovereignty, or “all power to the soviets,” and the feeling that the needs of “the people,” from housing to wages to schooling to medical care, should be attended to. It was this sensibility that gave such force to the slogan “peace, land, and bread” (and the less frequently cited “national self-determination”) and with which the Bolsheviks’ class language and view of the world remained in partial overlap even after their almost immediate betrayal of the 1917 slogans in the all-out struggles for political supremacy.

To be sure, the Bolsheviks’ apparent betrayal of one of the revolution’s core principles—popular sovereignty—induced various groups of revolutionaries to take up arms against them in defense of the revolution. But the efforts by White armies to restore landowner rights, and the misguided intervention and half-hearted support for the Whites by the “imperialist powers” (ostensibly to force Russia back into the war), pushed much of the mass of everyday revolutionaries into the Bolshevik camp. The place to look for the “social support” of the “October revolution” is less in the radicalization of 1917 and the supposed feelings of the workers toward the seizure of power than in the formation and operation (in 1918 and after) of the Red Army,54 and even more so, in the staffing of the rapidly expanding, new state institutions by tens of thousands of white-collar functionaries.55

In sum, the Civil War not only gave the daring, opportunistic Bolsheviks a modus operandi and helped solidify their still amorphous identity as the consummate builders of a socially oriented, powerful state; it also furthered the process whereby the Bolsheviks’ being in power came to be identified with the cause of “the revolution.” In elections immediately following the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks garnered little support among the peasantry (the overwhelming bulk of the population) and failed to win the allegiance of many workers—the groups in whose name they had seized power.56 But whatever their difficulties in these and subsequent elections—which could be and were dismissed as a bourgeois institution—the Bolsheviks did assert an effective claim, backed by a willingness and a capacity to use force, to protect “the revolution” against the threat of “counterrevolution.”57 Although the struggle over who had the right to define “the revolution” continued for several years (in Kronstadt and elsewhere58), the Bolsheviks, by leading the defense of “the revolution,” were able to take advantage of the emotions and hopes unleashed by the overthrow of the old regime and consolidate their precarious rule.

More than simply a battle for political power culminating in the Bolshevik dictatorship, however, the revolution constantly announced itself as being about values, behavior, and beliefs. This cultural dimension is critical. Our understanding of the revolution must not be reduced to the onset of the Bolshevik political monopoly and its internal debates, even though almost all expression of revolutionary values and beliefs was eventually forced within the confines of Bolshevism. Put another way, any explanation for the establishment of the Bolshevik monopoly requires a cultural dimension. Bolshevism itself, including its evolution, must be seen not merely as a set of institutions, a group of personalities, or an ideology but as a cluster of powerful symbols and attitudes, a language and new forms of speech, new ways of behaving in public and private, even new styles of dress—in short, as an ongoing experience through which it was possible to imagine and strive to bring about a new civilization called socialism.59


To its legions of proponents, the revolution in the Russian empire marked the dawn of a new era. In the first history of the Russian utopian novel—published, appropriately enough, in 1922—the author, Vladimir Sviatlovskii, enthusiastically acclaimed the revolution itself as “the first great utopia in modern history.”60 Such testimony to the revolution’s millenarian character later acquired a host of dubious associations, as people warned about the supposed perils of allowing “utopianism” to influence politics. Mention of utopianism in the Russian context became a way to assail the revolution, socialism, and political nonconformism more generally.61 In 1989, however, an American historian of the revolution, Richard Stites, sought to revive Sviatlovskii’s apt characterization—not to malign the revolution, but again to celebrate it.

Stites argued that in Russia utopianism was not some peculiar and supposedly dangerous proclivity of the revolutionary intelligentsia, but a widely shared and legitimate aspiration with a long history that was finally given free reign in 1917. For Stites, the multifarious attempts following October to “live the revolution” in daily life, from revolutionary festivals and “Communist” birth and death rituals to housing communes and science fiction writing, demonstrated “that almost the entire culture of the revolution in the early years was ‘utopian’.” By unashamedly adopting such an idealistic approach, Stites was able to reclaim much of the revolution’s captivating power.

Stites’s panoply of everyday revolutionaries recalled that of the gifted eyewitness, René Fülöp-Miller, a Hungarian philosopher whose unorthodox record of “the mind and face of Bolshevism” appeared in 1926.62 Like Fülöp-Miller, Stites highlighted the supposed variety, spontaneity, and autonomy of this early experimentalism and evoked a broad-based revolutionary celebration involving “not a handful of cranks, but whole communities of intellectuals, political figures, economic planners, architects, musicians, . . . workers and peasants.” Going further than even the enthusiastic Fülöp-Miller had, Stites granted the experimenters the status of a “movement,” and moreover one that was uniformly predicated on egalitarianism. In a range of disparate and often unfocused activities he saw the noble dream of a just community founded on equality, sharing, and fairness.63

In contrast to this image of early revolutionary utopias as inherently broad-minded, tolerant, and egalitarian—and thus “true” utopias—Stites presented the Stalin revolution as “a rejection of ‘revolutionary’ utopianism in favor of a single utopian vision and plan, drawn up at the pinnacle of power and imposed on an entire society without allowance for autonomous life experiments.” Stites obviously sought to distance what he regarded as the laudatory Utopian impulse from any complicity in Stalinist authoritarianism. But even as he denied the Stalin revolution a “genuine” utopian quality, Stites conceded that Stalin’s “administrative utopia” was radical and dynamic, although he stopped short of acknowledging that genuine enthusiasm and widespread coercion coexisted.64

Stalinism in fact revived the revolutionary utopianism that had been so encouraged during the Civil War but that had suffered a blow in 1921 when the “Peasant Brest-Litovsk” policy of replacing grain requisitioning by a tax-in-kind was extended beyond Tambov province.65 The extension of the tax-in-kind was followed by other measures that together coalesced into what was dubbed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which partially legalized the anathema of private trade and the market, reversed much of the holy-grail policy of nationalization of urban property and industry, yet failed to generate convincing signs of the anticipated new world associated with socialism.66 During the NEP, the dictatorship of the proletariat was beset by high unemployment, rising prostitution, millions of orphaned children (many of whom roamed the country engaging in criminal activities and forming gangs), and an explosion of private trade. The authorities were largely at a loss as to what to do about these ills and the disappointment they fostered.67

Back at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, when the hesitant steps that led to the NEP were taken over strenuous objections, Lenin had asked apologetically, “How could one start a socialist revolution in a country like ours without dreamers?”68 As the 1920s wore on, many people had begun to wonder just what had happened to the great dream of a new Russia and to the powerful class rhetoric of haves versus have-nots, oppressors versus oppressed, for not only had industrial production barely managed to climb back to 1914 levels, but the most striking results of the revolution seemed to be the formation of a new urban bourgeoisie, the Nepmen, and an incipient alliance (smychka!) between what few party officials there were in the countryside and a new rural bourgeoisie, the kulaks.69

To be sure, the NEP had a constituency, which stretched beyond the so-called Nepmen and kulaks to embrace elements of the expanding state bureaucracy (largely the Commissariats of Finance and Agriculture) and certain sections of the Communist party.70 The country had recovered. But even to many of those who supported the NEP, the socialist revolution seemed to have lost much of its momentum. Proposals for putting the revolution back on track, either largely within or even outside the NEP framework, were hotly debated throughout the decade,71 but it was unclear what, if anything, might come of them—until 1929, when the country was suddenly launched on what was called the Great Break (velikii perelom).

The precipitating factor behind this colossal improvisation may have been the grain crises of the late 1920s. But the Great Break’s significance extended well beyond the regime’s self-inflicted showdown with the peasantry, a confrontation that, it needs to be recalled, took place against the background of deep-seated anxieties about capitalist encirclement and the Red Army’s inability to fight a war against the advanced European countries. In the context of this perceived vulnerability, the Great Break promised not only to secure the regime’s political control over the countryside but also to bring about in the shortest possible time what Russia had not been able to achieve in several centuries: to become an undisputed great power and, what was more, an example for the rest of the world to admire and emulate, by building socialism.72

That the initial launching of this remarkable turn of events could have been determined essentially by one man turned out to be another of the unforeseen yet central developments of the revolution during the 1920s. Lenin, the socialist revolution’s undisputed moral and political leader and the symbol of the new Russia, fell ill and died (exerting virtually no influence on policy matters during the last two years of his life). After a nasty struggle, Stalin emerged as Lenin’s successor, filling a role already created by his predecessor but then remaking it into a personal despotism.73 This Stalin achieved not only by his oft-remarked dominance of the bureaucracy, but also by his careful attention to questions of ideology and their relation to political power.74 Not Bukharin, the party’s “theorist,” nor Trotsky (by far the most original mind among the Bolsheviks) but Stalin first systematized the “foundations of Leninism”—and through constant maneuvering made sure he was recognized as Leninism’s main arbiter.75

Whatever concessions or apologies Stalin continued to make at meetings of the politburo or Central Committee, as soon as the meetings adjourned he retreated to his office atop the apparat and acted virtually as he saw fit. Yet he always made sure that everything he did was explained and justified within what he effectively characterized as the Leninist legacy. When Stalin mobilized the powerful class-war rhetoric of the revolution’s “heroic age”—kept alive after 1921 in patterns of dress, images, songs, festivals, names, storytelling, a new pantheon of heroes—and launched a vicious campaign against the kulaks, he had no conceptual difficulty in presenting this, or the concurrent decisions to push forward with the forcible collectivization of agriculture and accelerate the pace of industrialization, as a continuation of the work begun by Lenin and October.76 He went further, however, and, in re-revolutioning the revolution, skillfully invoked scattered remarks by Lenin on the importance of national strength and explicitly tied the building of socialism to imperial Russian history.77

As masterful a political infighter as Stalin proved to be, he could scarcely have succeeded in garnering the required support for such an immense mobilization without the vision of building socialism he was able to articulate, and the genuine passions that such a bold plan for a bountiful world, remade along class lines, evoked among many people. As the decade of the 1930s began, the great eastern country’s time in the sun seemed to have truly arrived. The terrible ordeals of the “imperialist war,” Civil War, epidemics and famine had not, after all, been in vain. The Stalin revolution seemed like the second, and potentially more lasting, dawn of a just, pure, merry, and beautiful Russia, where he who was nothing would become everything.


Nowhere was the euphoric sense of the revolution’s renewed possibilities in the 1930s more in evidence than at Magnetic Mountain. Numerous other instant cities were also created, such as Komsomolsk-na Amure, Novokuznetsk (Stalinsk), and Karaganda, while virtually all established urban centers underwent such dramatic expansion and transformation that they became in effect new cities.78 (Indeed, according to the January 1939 census, in the twelve years since the December 1926 census the registered urban population of the Soviet Union jumped from 26.3 to 55.9 million.)79 But Magnitogorsk remained the quintessential emblem of the grand transformation whereby the Enlightenment goal of using science to perfect society, having been bonded to the French revolution’s discovery of political mobilization and filtered through industrialization and the attendant rise of the working class, had become a reality one could participate in firsthand. This prospect transfixed large numbers of foreign observers, as well as many of the inhabitants of the USSR.

That Magnitogorsk, as the encapsulation of the building of socialism, appeared to embody the Enlightenment dream, once improved, would have been reason enough for the world attention it received. At the same time, Magnitogorsk also appeared to exemplify the unique benefits supposedly derived from the advance of urbanism. Before the revolution in Russia, cities were feared as anomalies of development and dangerous threats to the sociopolitical order, but after 1917 they came to be viewed as the epitomes of progress and therefore the prime bulwarks for the existing order. More than that, cities were welcomed as the training grounds for producing the armies of model citizens whose collective activities would increase the Soviet state’s great-power potential. Even though on the eve of the war in 1941, still only one-third of the population lived in cities, the revolution in Russia was a decidedly urban-centered one.

Revolutionary Russia’s embrace of the city could claim an extended genealogy in the experience of Europe, where cities had long been celebrated as the principal agents of civilization.80 Before the Enlightenment gave birth to the notion of a science of society, a tradition of trying to imagine the ideal city arose whereby cities served as the settings for, and the objects of, analyses of how best to organize human affairs, a goal that presupposed continual regulation by centralized authority.81 It was this legacy that helped make possible, and in turn came to be elaborated by, the Enlightenment (which took place more or less simultaneously throughout the great urban centers of Europe).82 This legacy also made feasible the programs for the state regulation of society in the name of the commonweal, beginning in the nineteenth century with efforts to confront the special problems of urban life and urban populations and continuing into the twentieth.

In the grand narratives of European history, the nineteenth century most often appears as the period when the twin challenges of the French and Industrial revolutions transformed the various old regimes into modern polities with parliaments, political parties, and universal male suffrage—in short, into what today we recognize as “democracy.” Such a narrative of the birth of “the bourgeois world,” which triumphed in the Great War when all remaining old regimes collapsed, has been given substantial support by the fact that European states, their elites, and opposition groups were themselves preoccupied with the problem of how to respond politically to the new conditions brought about by the French and Industrial revolutions.83

There is, however, another story, one that begins before 1789 and continues well after 1914: the formation of the welfare state. This other, parallel development is largely one of social regulation—procedures, rules, categories, and social practices, almost all of which arose outside the state but came to be taken over by it—as well as self-imposed normalization and micro-level resistance. A far less visible historical drama, not of political parties and parliamentary clashes but of identities and the clever tactics used in the invention of daily life, the formation of the welfare state was linked to the efforts at pacification in Europe’s colonies, a process that took place simultaneously and exerted a reciprocal influence on the articulation of social-control and welfare-related programs “at home.”84

In part a conservative response to the rise of the working class and the “dangers” it supposedly represented, especially those of contagious disease and political militancy, the welfare state also emerged from the variety of concerns articulated by experts pursuing such varied goals as workplace efficiency, psychological normalization, and healthy populations.85 Industrialists, concerned about obtaining a reliable, docile supply of labor, and social reformers, crusading for what they took to be the best way to minimize social costs and maximize social benefits, shared a logic, even if their aims often appeared divergent. And because the welfare state rested on a certain social logic and a number of transferable social practices, it was viable in a variety of political settings, including Stalin’s Russia.86

Rather than being viewed as a pathological case (deviating from the European norm because of the country’s backwardness or agrarian social structure, the long history of Russian authoritarianism, the experience of the Civil War, Marxist ideology, the single-mindedness of Lenin, or the evilness of Stalin), the USSR in a narrative of the welfare state might appear as the standard whose uncanny success challenged the rest of the world to respond. More than in any other country, Stalinism seemed to bring together the elements of what was then the prevalent conception and experience of “progressive modernity”: on the one hand, the deployment of a coordinated, purposeful economy, within which small, supposedly inefficient producers were replaced by larger and therefore mightier ones; and, on the other, the formation of a government of national unity that was above the seeming paralysis of parliamentary rule and unequivocally dedicated to the advancement of the commonweal.87

Despite administrative and financial limitations, the Soviet social insurance system that came into being following the revolution specified benefits (in many cases equal to total earnings) in the event of death, disability, sickness, old age, pregnancy and childbirth, or unemployment, for working people and family members. In 1930, temporary unemployment benefits were abolished, but this was because, incredibly, unemployment itself was eliminated. By this time, moreover, the Soviet understanding of welfare had come to include not only a guarantee of a job for everyone, but the payment of pensions upon retirement (a system that was made universal in 1937). The amount of benefits, particularly pensions, remained small, but there was no denying that the Soviet state had embraced a broad conception of social welfare—extending from employment and income to affordable housing, health care, and organized leisure—and had done so without prodding.

Not only could the USSR under Stalin plausibly assert that it had developed the programs and practices of state-guaranteed social welfare to a greater extent than had previously been the case anywhere, but it could do so in a way that contrasted with the fascist reaction: by embracing fully the illustrious European heritage known as the Enlightenment. For all these reasons, the Soviet example, as showcased at Magnitogorsk, could be said to have exerted a direct and profound influence on the rest of the world’s industrialized countries. In a word, the USSR decisively shaped part of the bedrock of the world in which we live, a bedrock that today is coming apart everywhere.88


The Bolshevik leadership, with its grand designs for building socialism—along with the will and wherewithal to try to realize such a goal—set what might be called the broad agenda for what was meant to happen at Magnetic Mountain. Important as these intentions were, they constitute only the beginning of the story. For one thing, the policies and programs enacted contained irreconcilable aspects that surfaced during the attempts to implement them; indeed, the methods of implementation themselves were often at odds with the stated goals of programs and policies. For another, these policies and programs formed part of the lives of people, ordinary and higher-ups alike, and their actions and reactions, initiatives and responses, in significant ways influenced how those programs were carried out, circumvented, and changed in unforeseen ways.

When we look closely at the USSR in the 1930s we see that the results of building socialism were not entirely what the Bolsheviks intended (that is, what the central party decrees said should happen). This does not mean, however, that the intentions can therefore be ignored or discounted. Although it is necessary to look beyond them, such intentions, programs, and policies were responsible for the fields of action within which the behavior of individuals took place. It is within these fields of action that we must look to see how the intentions were played, how the programs were implemented and what their consequences were—to see, in short, what kinds of lives people were able to lead, and how they understood their lives. To this end, there is no substitute for letting people speak as much as possible in their own words.89

As we shall see, the kinds of lives that the urban inhabitants came to lead and the identities they formed involved eager participation in, frequent circumvention of, and resourceful, albeit localized, resistance to the terms of daily life that developed within the crusade of building socialism. One resists, without necessarily rejecting, by assessing, making tolerable, and, in some cases, even turning to one’s advantage the situation one is confronted with. An appropriate analogy is to the Japanese martial art of judo. Even when the weight of the force against one is seemingly overwhelming, as was the case with the Soviet state, the possibility remains to sidestep and thereby use that heavy force against itself.

Rather than the extension of Communist party control over more and more areas of life, therefore, it is possible to see—without denying the heavy coercive force of the Communist project—a two-way struggle, however unequal the terms, over the drawing of lines of authority, a struggle that involved continuous, if usually indirect, challenges to the perceived rules. It is not necessary to romanticize “the people” to argue that simply by living life, the urban inhabitants discovered that power was pliable. At the same time, their actions also demonstrated that power was productive: power relations created effects—of experience, identity, resistances. Concentrating on the rule articulation process in the encounters of daily life involves shifting the focus from what the party and its programs prevented to what they made possible, intentionally and unintentionally.

In sum, the analysis employed here begins with the party’s noncapitalist agenda, follows the attempts to implement that agenda, recognizes ad hoc modifications in the agenda, particularly those occasioned by the actions of the citizenry (letting those citizens speak as much as possible in their own words), regards as resistances many actions normally seen as passive or “deviant,” thereby adopting a widened view of the political, and is ultimately guided by the belief that the subject of inquiry should include not only what was repressed or prohibited but what was made possible or produced. Put another way, this study seeks to establish the varied and often unexpected effects of the identification of certain issues as problems, the attempts to introduce programs and practices to address these problems, and the struggles that ensued, especially the terms on which they were fought.

Such a methodology for doing social history is derived from the writings of Michel Foucault, who focused on what he called the problem of subjectivity, or the processes by which individuals are made, and also make themselves, into subjects under the aegis of the state.90 Foucault singled out resistances as perhaps the most important element in the formation of modern subjectivity, yet he never gave resistances the empirical attention they deserved; nor did he spell out the kinds of compromises resistances forced on would-be social engineers at the top. By contrast, in this monograph the empirical investigation of resistances will occupy a central place, widening the analysis of subjectivity to include not only what Foucault designated as disciplinary techniques but also the politics of daily life.91

As Foucault has argued, studying power relations at the micro-level hardly means ignoring the state. At the same time, however, he has repeatedly demonstrated that power is not localized in the central state apparatus.92 This holds true even when there is thought to be no separation between the spheres “state” and “society,” as was the case in the USSR, where everything was formally part of the state.93 In the chapters ahead, mechanisms of power—such as mutual surveillance and self-identification—will be shown to exist alongside the state machinery, on a much more ordinary level, yet to sustain the state just as effectively as its primary institutions, including the police. In the USSR under Stalin, no less than in modern France, the state understood that its power rested on the characteristics and behavior of the people.

Applying Foucault’s work to the USSR underscores yet again the contention made by the revolutionaries themselves that the enduring drama of the Russian revolution must not be sought in the supposed black-magic qualities of Marxism, the cunning opportunism and pitiless determination of the Bolshevik state-builders, or the evolution of the countryside in the 1920s, but in the historically conditioned merger of long-held geopolitical objectives with potent social concerns. National power and social welfare drove the revolutionary process and culminated in the formation of an industrially based welfare state with an attendant consciousness. Stalinism was not just a political system, let alone the rule of an individual. It was a set of values, a social identity, a way of life.

When it comes to Stalinism, what needs to be explained and subjected to detailed scrutiny are the mechanisms by which the dreams of ordinary people and those of the individuals directing the state found common ground in this Soviet version of the welfare state. The aim of this book is to convey the nature of these partially intersecting dreams and to investigate at the level of the habitat the intricate encounters, conflicts, and negotiations that took place in and around the strategy of state-centered social welfare in its extreme, or socialist, incarnation. What follows, then, is an inquiry into the minutiae of urban life and how certain ways of thinking and accompanying social practices fit into the grand strategies of Soviet state building during the formative period of the 1930s, when the revolution came to Magnetic Mountain. The emphasis throughout is on experimentation and discovery.


Reflecting the approach outlined above, this book has two parts (to orient the reader, both parts are provided with their own brief introductions). Part 1 covers what is conventionally called Soviet industrialization and urbanization but which contemporaries called “the building of socialism.” It addresses the grand strategies pursued by the state, placing particular emphasis on the process of implementation, as seen from the perspective of the locality.

Specifically, chapter 1 treats the establishment of the planned economy, endeavoring to recapture some of the surprise, even wonder, that participants felt as they created such an unprecedented form of economic organization. Chapter 2 takes up the massive movement and resettling of population, showing the existence of many sometimes underappreciated patterns within the oft-remarked flux and foreshadowing the main theme of the struggle over daily life treated in part 2. Chapter 3 deals with the attempts to plan and build a recognizably socialist city from scratch, as well as with the resultant urban geography, including the dynamic role played by the urban inhabitants in the city’s formation.

Part 2 offers a description and analysis of the new society that was formed as a result of the macro-processes described in part 1, a society that contemporaries called socialism. Chapter 4, which takes up the question of housing under socialism, represents a preliminary effort to treat the largely unexamined problem of domesticity in the Stalin years. Chapter 5 engages the difficult and infrequently tackled questions of social identity and personal belief under socialism, in the context of the defining role attributed to labor. Chapter 6 addresses the formation of a socialist municipal economy, that is, one without private property and legal private trade, treating the commensurate advent of the shadow economy not in economic or moral terms but as a question of social organization and individual initiative. Chapter 7 examines the terror as a process, describing the mechanisms by which the terror was made possible and individuals came to participate in their own destruction. In this closing chapter, I also put forward a revisionist characterization of the Soviet political system as a theocracy, a view that has sometimes been suggested but never systematically laid down.

Part 2 ought to have had a separate chapter on culture under socialism (in the sense of popular entertainment as well as highbrow pursuits), to be placed between chapters 4 and 5. But during the course of my writing, I discovered that there was only enough material for twenty pages. The result, a kind of mini-chapter, was placed inside chapter 4. In the broad sense of socialist culture (meaning values and ideals), however, all of part 2 can be said to be devoted to the problem of the culture of socialism. In this regard, it should be noted that every chapter pays close attention to the categories of thinking employed by contemporaries.

Because a study of Magnitogorsk offers a microcosm of the USSR, it could not be limited to economics, politics, culture, or society but unavoidably encompasses all these dimensions. This circumstance enlarged not only the size of the manuscript but also my burden in confronting the existing literature on the USSR under Stalin. In order not to interrupt the narrative, only the most immediate historiographical controversies impinged upon in each chapter are referred to directly in the text. The bulk of the discussion of historiography is contained in the notes.

Finally, this book is based on primary sources, both published and unpublished, a discussion of which appears in the Note on Sources.



The Grand Strategies of the State

To transform our country from an agrarian one into an industrial one capable with its own powers of producing essential machinery—that is the essence, the basis of our general line.

Stalin, 23 December 19251

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 October revolution, Stalin, speaking for the leadership, served notice to the country and the rest of the world that after more than a decade of recovery (vosstanovlenie), the Bolsheviks were going on the offensive. “We are advancing full steam ahead along the path of industrialization—to socialism, leaving behind the age-old ‘Russian’ backwardness,” Stalin declared. “We are becoming a country of metal, an automobilized country, a tractorized country. And when we have put the USSR on an automobile, and the muzhik on a tractor, let the esteemed capitalists, who boast of their ‘civilization,’ try to overtake us. We shall see which countries may then be ‘classified’ as backward and which as advanced.” It was 1929, the “Year of the Great Break”—the year the party leadership turned the entire country into an internal frontier to be mastered through what was called “the building of socialism.”3

By socialism was meant the party’s monopoly on power combined with the headlong expansion of heavy industry—carried out in a determinedly noncapitalist way. Capitalism, notwithstanding its historically “progressive role,” was said to have become a “fetter” to further development. Because socialism entailed the replacement of the “chaos” of markets with the assurance of planning, it would supposedly do a more effective job of industrializing Russia than capitalism (and foreign ownership) had or could.4 In short, socialism was a “higher” or “more advanced” stage of development, and one that promised to vault Russia into the first rank of nations.

By industrializing in a socialist way, moreover, the USSR would not only “catch up” with Europe and the United States but at the same time retain its supposed moral superiority. With the replacement of private property by state ownership, the Bolsheviks claimed to be eliminating the exploitation by the bourgeoisie in favor of the free and creative toil of workers working for themselves, as well as the contradictions that had led to the frequent outbreak of war. Socialism represented nothing less than the full transcendence of capitalism. There was no more potent symbol of this exalted vision than the conquest of the steppe, and no greater device for its realization than planning. Through the magic of planning the Bolsheviks promoted what they thought was a superior archetype for a modern society.5

The Soviet blueprint for this new society, “the Five-Year Plan for the Development of the National Economy,” may have been a calculated piece of propaganda, but much of its propaganda appeal derived from a corresponding commitment to development, the acclaimed universal goal of civilization, and a grounding in science, the supreme language of modernity. The published three-volume text of the Plan, with its numerous charts and graphs,6 proclaimed on every page the reliability of scientific planning and the seemingly limitless possibilities afforded by modern technology, when combined with the ultimate science of society, Marxism. Soviet industrialization could be “utopian,” in other words, precisely because it was “scientific.” This was one reason why the Plan riveted the world’s attention; another was the possibility of a shift in the world strategic balance.

Strategic concerns played a crucial role in the decision by the Soviet leadership to commence a wholesale social transformation of a new and putatively superior kind. Socialist revolution had occurred only in the USSR and—what was further contrary to expectations—by the mid-1920S capitalism seemed to have stabilized. Consequently, as Stalin explained to the Fourteenth Party Congress in December 1925, the world had been divided into two camps: the imperialist, led by America and England; and the anti-imperialist, led by the USSR, which was encircled by the other camp. If the socialist motherland was to avoid becoming an “appendage of the capitalist system,” or worse, it had no choice except to change itself from an agrarian country that exported agricultural products and imported machines to an industrial one that made the machines needed to make machines. This was the central idea that Stalin articulated in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and to which he gave the appellation “the general line.”7

Making concrete these considerations, the year 1927 had brought a war scare (as well as internal discussions on the unreadiness of the Red Army to fight such a war with European powers).8 The threat of imminent war passed, but as Stalin pointed out, even if the capitalist powers had decided not to “intervene” militarily in the USSR, their interests and those of the Soviet state remained inimical. “It would be stupid to think that international capital will leave us in peace,” he explained in April 1928. “Classes exist, international capital exists, and it cannot look calmly on the development of a country building socialism.” This formulation became the immutable premise guiding Soviet internal developments. Building socialism seemed to be both a grand historical undertaking and a life-or-death necessity.9

In such a context, it was more than a little paradoxical that for the initial technology and expertise to jump start the socialist offensive, the Soviet Union had no choice but to rely on the very advanced capitalist countries whose supposed objective hostility made the USSR’s position so vulnerable. But the acquisition of the modern technology from the capitalists was promoted as temporary and, moreover, undertaken on terms that assured the country’s sovereignty. What was therefore a compulsory arrangement could be interpreted with a certain hopefulness as a clever ploy to have the capitalists’ participate in the sowing of their own demise. Still, that capitalist firms showed great eagerness to do business in the land of socialism could not help but arouse enormous distrust within the USSR, given the prevalent understanding of the international situation.10 Deep-seated suspicions were built into the logic of Soviet industrialization.


Socialism was the goal, planning the method. In theory planning embodied the scientific transcendence of the contradictions of capitalism, but in practice it resembled a sustained, albeit improvised, crash mobilization characteristic of an economy at war.11 Such a mode of operation was conceived in largely defensive terms, to be sure, but what stands out is less the absence of an intention to make or foment war abroad than the adoption of a military model for industrialization at home.

That the Plan took on the tone and style of a military campaign derived in part from the country’s centuries-long history as a self-consciously militarized society, but also from the fact that Bolshevik notions of planning were essentially appropriated from Germany’s wartime experience. Notwithstanding all that had been written about socialism during the nineteenth century, this brief interlude when the German government, in its eagerness to prosecute the war, had sought to expand state ownership of industry and control over private production constituted the only concrete instance when something thought to approximate socialism had been tried.12 During the Civil War and again during the Five-Year Plan, Soviet Russia self-consciously followed Germany’s lead, but there were crucial differences in how and why the technique of war mobilization was adopted in the two countries.

Whereas the German policy of “war socialism” was based on a vision of class collaboration in the public interest, for the Bolsheviks such an “accommodation” between labor and management (the state) was dictated not by expediency but by the fact that the country had a proletarian state. Furthermore, in the USSR the pact between labor and management involved not reconciliation but “class struggle” against the bourgeoisie—an antagonism that persisted even after the domestic exploiting class was liquidated, for class struggle was also international. If Soviet industrialization was not simply “development” but war, it was not just any kind of war but class war, against real and imputed enemies, requiring every possible method, including organized violence.13

No doubt some policy of overhauling industry and the armed forces was required to bolster the country’s security in the interwar period. But by no means does this “justify” either the frenzied Stalinist bacchanalia, or even what Moshe Lewin and others regard as the more “moderate” Leninist-Bukharinist alternative, for in any guise Bolshevik conceptions of the options before the country were narrowed considerably by their anticapitalist mission. No international threat could be said to have necessitated the near exclusive reliance on heavy industry, let alone the abolition of private property.14 Moreover, the sense of urgency evoked by perceived strategic concerns was magnified beyond all measure, becoming the rationale for the breathless tempo adopted in the defiant schemes chosen to meet the strategic challenge. Gripped by insecurity, this was a party in a self-defeating hurry, mesmerized by the elixir of heavy industry.15

Of course, an intoxication with the power of heavy industry—especially as manifested in large, automated plants that pumped out mass quantities of standardized goods with semi-skilled workers—was by no means limited to the Soviet Union. Just as Soviet images of the miraculous future based on industrialism borrowed freely from an international vocabulary, so the message of the Five-Year Plan resonated around the world. But in the USSR the obsession with big steel and the dawn of a “machine age” was taken much further. It became not merely a rallying point for a technologically perfected future that inspired several decades of design and social organization but the almost exclusive basis of the country’s economy.16 The dizzying upheaval that was Soviet industrialization was reduced to the proposition: build as many factories as possible, as quickly as possible, all exclusively under state control. That was planning; that was socialism. That was the way to bring modernity to Russia—a new Russia, a country of metal. Mobilization, the essential method of the Bolshevik strategy of forced-pace “modernization,” served as a fitting counterpart to militant noncapitalism, the guiding principle.


The Soviet plan, with its proposals for astronomically large increases in industrial capacity, can be read as both an enraptured paean to industrialism and a terrified acknowledgment of industrial inferiority. At the heart of this industry-envy cum industry-worship stood iron and steel. Iron and steel became the venerated symbols of the Bolsheviks’ determination and the distinctive industrial age they were determined to bring to the USSR.17 For this reason, the most celebrated showcase of the new, superior industrial age being realized in Soviet Russia became the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex.18

The building of the Magnitogorsk factory was the epitome of the Bolsheviks’ commitment to massive social transformation, their martial style of economic mobilization called planning, their understanding of industrialization as class war, their yearning to overcome Russia’s historic “backwardness” and to master the country’s expanse, their obsession with out-racing time, and, above all, their infatuation with heavy industry.19 “Near Magnetic Mountain,” beamed one Magnitogorsk pamphleteer, “the steppe has been turned into a battlefield, the steppe is retreating. The steppe is already no more.”20 In its place was arising a gigantic steel plant—a plant intended to be the equal of the best of the capitalist world, a plant directed against the capitalist world, a plant erected by and for the working class in the international class struggle. At Magnetic Mountain the Bolsheviks were on the march for metal.

Alongside the steel plant at Magnetic Mountain a new city was to be built that, no less than the factory, was understood as a symbol of the new civilization. But whereas the basic design of the factory seemed obvious enough—one as good as what the capitalists had—the design of the accompanying “socialist” city appeared far less certain, as was evident from the wide-ranging debate toward the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s on the nature of the “socialist city” and the “socialist form of population settlement.”21 Magnitogorsk was to be the quintessential example of the “socialist city of the future,” but what was Magnitogorsk to look like?22

Several of the Soviet Union’s internationally renowned architects submitted proposals for the future city, but the Bolshevik leadership looked on the proposals of the eminent architects with incomprehension and dismay.23 For the leadership, that is, the patrons, the issue of the socialist city was only partly one of form or layout. True, the Bolsheviks no less than the German National Socialists, the Italian fascists, or the New Deal Americans expected architecture to play an important role in glorifying their regime. But more fundamentally, the Bolshevik leadership felt that the design of the socialist city needed to address the question of how to realize a specifically Soviet way of life: a new economy, society, politics—in short, a new culture, broadly conceived.

Whatever form it eventually took, Magnitogorsk would house an urban population, but it would not do so “passively.” Just as the physical environment could be remade, it was thought that the social and political milieu of the city could remake people.24 The socialist city, therefore, was not simply a place where an urban population was located, but a device for inculcating a new set of attitudes as well as new kinds of behavior in its urbanized inhabitants—in a word, an instrument for creating socialist people. As one propagandist proclaimed, Magnitogorsk “is a future center of the Sovietization of the southern Urals, Sovietization not formally or administratively, but deep inculcation of the new socialist way of life.”25

In this sense, building socialism entailed not merely an accumulation of “wealth” but also of people. As the Magnitogorsk newspaper explained in a discussion of the 1937 census, “the socialist state considers people its most valuable asset.”26 To be sure, the 1937 census was annulled, apparently because it enumerated an insufficiently large total population, but a new one was taken in 1939, with the same goals: to measure the population and thereby establish bureaucratic influence over what the state considered to be a vital phenomenon. In the words of the Magnitogorsk newspaper, “the population is a matter of the utmost political importance” and “the all-union population census, a matter of huge significance for the state.”27 And censuses were only the most conspicuous instances of a policy directed at reconstituting the demographic makeup of the country, person by person.28

In addition to their roles as instruments of demographic transformation, industrial cities such as Magnitogorsk served as the leading edge in an ambitious strategy of mastering territory.29 The most striking feature of Russia’s geographical position had always been its “continentality.” Rather than follow the tsarist pattern of risking all for outlets to the sea, the Soviet Union tried to adapt itself to this continentality, seeking economic self-sufficiency through the development of formidable industrial complexes in the interior.30 Geographically speaking twentieth-century Russia “found itself,” much like another large continental power, the United States, had done in the nineteenth century.31 In contrast to the relative youth of the U.S. transcontinental drive, however, the Bolshevik-led industrialization in the form of an internal colonization followed a centuries-long process.32 Nonetheless, as one contemporary Soviet geographer enthused, “the transformation of old Russia into the USSR” was viewed as tantamount to “the discovery of a new continent.”33

In sum, city building played a crucial role in the geopolitical processes of internal territorial colonization, demographic transformation, and the expansion of industrial and military capacity. But the city served also as a strategic device in the micropolitical processes of creating new urban inhabitants. It was, after all, those new urban inhabitants who would operate those machines, produce that steel, administer those factories, in short populate the cities. This circumstance was well understood by contemporaries, who were engaged in minute but nonetheless momentous struggles in neighborhoods and homes over how to define and organize urban life and who would make such determinations. These confrontations, which arose out of resolute efforts to create a new civilization called socialism, formed part of what might be called “the little tactics of the habitat.” Although more properly the subject of part 2, they will of necessity crop up in part 1.

1 On the March for Metal

Metal is not produced simply for its own usage. . . . Metal draws all industry along with it, all spheres of human life, beginning with the production of turbines, tractors, harvester combines, textiles, food, and ending with books. Metal is the basis of modern civilization.

Magnitogorsk pamphleteer1

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 official history of the organization noted, “neither in Gipromez nor in any other design or research bureau of the USSR was it possible to find experienced specialists for a whole range of new technical production processes.”2 To fill this vital gap, a new generation of “red” engineers was to be trained—somehow.

In the meantime, on 19 May 1927 the Supreme Council of the National Economy (Vesenkha) engaged the services of the accomplished Chicago engineering firm, Henry Freyn and Co. By 1928, a group of Freyn engineers had taken up residence at Gipromez headquarters in Leningrad, turning the Soviet agency into an overseas branch of the American firm.3 The arrival of the Americans, who were given the task of reconstructing the Soviet Union’s strategic steel industry, was later recalled by the leading Soviet specialist on metallurgy as a watershed.4 As for the American view, in the enthusiastic words of the company’s president, Freyn’s assignment was “extraordinarily interesting” and “entailed great responsibility.”5

Magnitogorsk loomed as a major test of Freyn’s abilities, but before the American company had been brought in, Gipromez demonstrated its own initiative by opening a number of “branch” offices, including one in the Urals.6 Vitalii Gasselblat, chief engineer of the Urals branch and a graduate of the Petersburg Mining Academy, together with a small team of “bourgeois specialists” wasted no time in suggesting a site for the proposed Magnitogorsk factory, alongside the famous iron-ore outcrop.7 In 1926, construction even began on the rail line connecting Magnetic Mountain with the rest of the Union through the junction of Kartaly, 145 kilometers to the east. The crudeness of the preliminary drawings for the steel plant, however, demonstrated that the problem of design was not so easily solved.8

Even as the Urals branch of Gipromez struggled with the formidable problem of designing the Magnitogorsk Works, yet another kind of struggle was underway throughout 1927 inside the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) over the determination of priorities in the pending Five-Year Plan. A group of Ukrainian economists centered in Gosplan’s Ukrainian branch argued that whereas the high quality of the ore, its location at or near the surface, and the proximity of various other important deposits necessary for steelmaking (such as limestone and fire-brick clay) made Magnetic Mountain a particularly attractive site for a steel plant, the lack of coking coal—the key energy source for the metallurgical process—raised doubts about the suitability of the location. Pointing especially to the anticipated high cost of transporting coal long distances to the Urals, the Ukrainian economists called for abandoning the new plant in the Urals in favor of greater investment in the Ukraine.9

At a joint meeting of the Gosplan and Vesenkha Presidiums on 16 June 1927, Valerii Mezhlauk, Vesenkha’s chairman and a candidate member of the party’s Central Committee, made it clear that cost was not the most important consideration. Just as crucial were strategic concerns: the location of the Magnitogorsk Works would make the plant impregnable to attack and serve as a base for developing the eastern regions of the country and spreading industry more evenly throughout the Union. No less important was the considerable propaganda value to be derived from building a colossal industrial plant in the middle of the empty steppe.10 Indeed, the Magnitogorsk project’s principal weakness—the need to import coking coal almost two thousand kilometers from the Kuznetsk basin of western Siberia—was soon repackaged as the mainstay of a gigantic development scheme encompassing all industry in the Urals and Siberia and billed as the Ural-Kuznetsk Combine.11 By uniting a coal-producing area with an iron-ore one and thus creating a “second metallurgical base” (on the model of the Ukraine’s Donetsk basin), this scheme promised to transform the liability of territorial expanse into an apparent economic asset.12

Initially, however, these grandiose visions were not matched by comparable actions: the Magnitogorsk project, to say nothing of some transcontinental program, quickly became bogged down. Although the bureaucratic tug-of-war over regional investment contributed to the delay, the problem was really the inability of the Urals branch staff to design a modern iron and steel plant. After only forty kilometers of track were put in place, work on the rail link to the site ceased. For the rest of 1926 and all of 1927, nothing at all happened at the site. It was at this point that the small group of Freyn employees arrived in Leningrad with a mandate to overhaul the USSR’s entire ferrous metallurgy sector.

After Freyn’s arrival, the Urals branch, now renamed Magnitostroi, did not cease activities. In February 1928, fully two years after being given the assignment, the Urals specialists finally submitted a “project” that called for construction of Magnitogorsk to begin later that year.13 This design came in for immediate and severe criticism by the Leningrad office, and even the project’s authors had to concede that it had a number of “weak points.”14 Throughout 1928 the Urals project was purportedly being “reworked” by the foreign experts in Leningrad, but as the year drew to a close, no revised proposal materialized. In the words of one Soviet historian of Magnitogorsk, “1928 was a lost year.”15

Some sense of the unreality of the situation can be gleaned from the fact that although there was little sense of how to design such a steel plant, a conference was convened on the time frame for completion of the factory’s construction. The debate proceeded over two alternatives, five years or seven years. Gasselblat felt that building the factory within five years would constitute a miracle, but an official informed him that three and a half years was “all the party could afford.” This pronouncement was followed by a temporary suspension of discussion. When discussion resumed, the options had been reduced to either six years or three. In arguing for the six-year time frame, one participant in the debate, Professor Pavlov, reasoned that “even if we were Americans, we could not build the factory in four years.” On this ambiguous note the discussion of “tempos” ended as it had begun: still without a viable design almost three years after Gipromez had been formed.16

The fourth year of the Magnitogorsk project, 1929, seemed to mark a turning point, for the Leningrad office finally published its own project for the steel plant.17 More than seven hundred pages, the weighty volume contained an impressive apparatus of charts, graphs, and tables. Yet like the text of its Urals branch office, this volume appears to have been published less as a guide to building the plant than as reassurance against the mounting doubts that a plant would in fact be built.18 The publication was, in any case, a long way from the thousands of blueprints necessary to guide actual construction.19

Whatever the technical insufficiencies of the Leningrad project, it instantly became obsolete when developments outside Gipromez radically changed the scope of the industrialization effort. Just months after the optimistic Five-Year Plan was belatedly adopted at the Sixteenth Party Conference in April 1929, even its “optimal” variant proved to be too modest for the country’s impatient political leadership. In 1930, the annual “target” for pig iron, which had been set at an ambitious 10 million tons in the Five-Year Plan, was raised to 15 to 17 million tons. This jump required drastic revisions in pending steel plant designs, including the industry’s future flagship, Magnitogorsk.20

This was not the first time the proposed capacity for the Magnitogorsk Works had undergone upward adjustment. The original 1928 project for the plant envisioned an annual capacity of 656,000 tons (40 million poods) of pig iron. By the summer of 1929 the capacity was raised on paper to 850,000 tons. Almost immediately, it was raised again, to 1.1 million tons; and then again, to 1.6 million—a result in part of fierce lobbying by the Urals oblast authorities in the scramble for investment. When the new national plan targets for steel were disclosed in early 1930, Magnitogorsk’s capacity was raised once more, this time to 2.5 million tons.21

Over the course of one year, in other words, the capacity of the future factory quadrupled, making a mockery of the project published in 1929 by Leningrad Gipromez, to say nothing of the lesser efforts by the Urals branch (or of the now obsolete text of the Five-Year Plan).22 The most recent conception of the Magnitogorsk plant’s design, moreover, called for the largest possible capacity and also, as Bolshevik leaders were fond of saying, “the latest word in technology.” In the thinking of the time, the two—size and sophistication—went hand in hand. The desire to have such a plant, however, was not easily converted into the capacity to erect one. To build a Magnitogorsk, it appeared that something extraordinary needed to be done.

Magnetic Mountain

The story of the metamorphosis of the December 1925 summons to begin industrialization into the launching by 1930 of a delirious superindustrial drive—a tale of political struggle at the top of the party over competing policies in which Stalin won out—remains a matter of dispute.23 Access to Kremlin and KGB archives may well provoke some genuine rethinking on how policy-making was conducted within the inner circle, including the relative influence of various individuals and the extent and nature of behind-the-scenes maneuvering. What is not going to change, however, is the basic picture of a very small group deliberating momentous decisions about complicated questions with very little public input, no public scrutiny, an array of scapegoats at the ready, and a revolutionary rhetoric and élan that closed off certain options while continually making possible great leaps of faith despite a multitude of dubious episodes. The aim of this chapter is not to reanalyze the decisions rendered in Moscow, however, but to examine their long-term reverberations.

When the Fourteenth Party Congress issued the resolution on industrialization in late 1925, neither the country’s administrative apparat nor its technical experts—to say nothing of the psychology of the general population—were prepared or even aware of what was involved. Even as late as 1929, when the Plan was formally adopted and the country stood on the threshold of an explosion of planning and management agencies paralleling the vertiginous expansion of industrial capacity, there was scarcely more comprehension of the undertaking.24 Industrializing on a massive scale at breakneck speed was one means of sending a powerful signal that the situation was serious and that whoever was not prepared better somehow become so posthaste. It was almost as if the country’s apparent unreadiness to carry out a precipitous industrial transformation propelled the political leadership to become more, rather than less, ambitious in forcing the country to do so. The consequences of pursuing this desire for a revolutionary break (perelom) were far-reaching.

“Gigantism, immoderation, refusal of realism, la démesure as policy”—the rupture purposefully instigated in 1929–30 resulted, as Moshe Lewin has argued, in a state of profound disequilibrium, a circumstance that strongly colored the emerging authoritarian apparatus, which struggled with limited success to manage the flux it itself had created.25 But struggle the state economic apparatus did, pursuing a seemingly endless search for workable administrative structures through endless decrees and multiple splits, mergers, and reorganizations of the massive bureaucracy. At the same time, party leaders fought an equally monumental battle to assert control over the operation of the gigantic industrial-administrative complex.26

By the middle of the 1930s, what has come to be known as the “planned economy” was taking shape—a form of economic organization that resembled the allocation and mobilization processes of the military, characterized by hypercentralization, extreme rigidity, and colossal waste and inefficiency, but also by the knowing violation or circumvention of rules and procedures in the interest of “getting the job done.”27 This outcome was less an orderly implementation of a preordained program than an effect of the plunge into breakneck anticapitalist industrialization and of the exigencies that followed. Planning, as R. W. Davies has emphasized, was a world to be discovered.28

The paradoxical character and consequences of the USSR’s vast, non-capitalist industrial improvisation were nowhere more evident than in the construction of the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex, the incarnation of the hoped-for revolutionary breakthrough in industry.29 From the regime’s manic obsession with speed and craving for legitimacy to the often self-defeating operation of the ponderous bureaucratic apparatus and the ineradicable inefficiencies of a nonmarket economy, Magnitogorsk encapsulated the novelty of socialist industrialization.


In the early twentieth century rapid advances in steelmaking technology had been made and incorporated in what was then the largest integrated iron and steel plant in the world: the U.S. Steel plant in Gary, Indiana, the construction of which had begun in 1906, according to a design by Freyn.30 Alluding to the Magnitogorsk plant, Grigorii “Sergo” Ordzhonikidze, politburo member and people’s commissar for heavy industry, indicated that no sooner had Stalin found out about the Gary Works than he ordered that just such a factory be built in the Soviet Union.31 Notwithstanding the tendency in the 1930s to attribute all acceptable ideas to Stalin, it is plausible that Stalin promoted the idea of a Soviet Gary: if the capitalists had such a steel plant, surely the workers and peasants should have one too. In any case, the Soviet leadership was acutely aware of capitalist experience and measured Soviet industry against it.32

“Catch and overtake” (dognat i peregnat), that was the party’s slogan, that was the way to handle the capitalists. “But,” Ordzhonikidze conceded, “we are . . . a peasant country, a country of the wooden plough. You’ll never catch the capitalists that way. They have tractors and caterpillars, millions of cars, and world-class technology. How in the world could we catch them from such a position?” Although he did not say, there was a way: if the capitalists would sell the Soviet Union their technology and help to install it.33 Despite deep mutual suspicions between the governments, such business-based cooperation seemed entirely possible.

After the 1929 American stock market crash was followed by a world economic bust, the prospects for expanding domestic industrial capacity, in steel or any other industry, vanished. But even had there been no Great Depression, the USSR’s ambitious plans to remake itself industrially would no doubt have attracted solicitations from foreign firms. The Soviet Union was, as any capitalist could have pointed out, a huge new market waiting to be captured. Freyn, for one, had managed to translate this potential into a hefty contract in the strategic ferrous metallurgy sector.

For reasons that remain unclear, however, it was decided that Freyn was not to design Magnitogorsk.34 In 1929, the Soviet government instead advertised a Magnitogorsk “concession,” a form of cooperation that promised part ownership. One of the early responses came from the German firm Siemens-Bauunion, which had built the Berlin metro, along with various power stations, and had worked on Dneprostroi. “[Siemens] had no experience in steelmaking factories,” wrote one Soviet official familiar with the negotiations, “but they boldly offered their services.”35 By contrast, the other principal foreign bidder, Arthur McKee and Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, was famous for the most advanced and largest blast furnace design to be found in the pages of the leading “capitalist” technical journals. In the competition, McKee had the obvious edge, and on 14 March 1930, after several months of negotiations, representatives of the Soviet government ceremoniously signed a “technical assistance” contract with the American firm at a meeting in New York City.36

Specialists in the construction of blast furnaces and oil refineries, McKee undertook to design the entire steel plant, including all auxiliary shops and the iron-ore mine. The firm was also responsible for directing work on the site until the factory and mine were put into operation, for consulting on equipment orders, for building an electric power station and a dam, and for training Soviet engineers both at the site and in the United States.37 The Soviet government agreed to pay McKee 2.5 million gold rubles, of which 40 percent were to be delivered the first year, 30 percent the second, 15 percent the third, and the final 15 percent after the factory was put into operation. Responsibility for the wages of the McKee staff at the site, who were to be paid partly in rubles and partly in convertible currency, fell to the Soviet side.38

The agreement further specified, according to William Haven, then a company vice president, that McKee was to design everything to be as large as possible, allow for future expansion, economize on the use of materials and on fuel, avoid unnecessary complications or specifications for unusual equipment, keep in mind the availability of construction materials in the USSR, follow Soviet standards and norms, and prepare all designs in both English and Russian, using the metric system. It was a tall order. To top it off, after four years of having accomplished virtually nothing on their own, the Soviet authorities gave McKee two months to submit complete designs for the largest and most advanced iron and steel plant outside the United States. Such were the imperatives of the policy of catch and overtake.39

To the Soviet authorities, even two months must have seemed like a long time to wait, for without plans or a design, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) and the Council of Labor and Defense (STO)—the two highest government agencies—had already given the go-ahead for preliminary work at the construction site to begin more than a year before, on 17 January 1929.40 Acting on this directive from above, the Urals oblast party committee (obkom) had dispatched an urgent telegram to the lower-level Troitsk okrug party committee (into whose jurisdiction Magnetic Mountain fell), instructing it to send a commission in February to prepare the remote site for the upcoming spring construction season.41 “The time for talk had passed,” one Soviet commentator explained. “The country needed metal.”42

In May 1929, work began on a local brick factory and on the foundations for the various shops of the as yet undesigned steel plant. Strings were stretched across the thawing earth where the shops were supposed to rise, and the ground was cleared for foundation work to start. Construction of the rail connection from Kartaly was renewed and, with the help of the Red Army, the final stretch of a hundred kilometers was finished by late June. More had been accomplished in a few months than in the previous several years.43

But serious problems soon surfaced, on-site leadership being among the first to arise. The initial director of Magnitostroi, Sergei Zelentsov, had gone blind and had to be replaced. His successors, E. I. Martynov and Grigorii Bessonov, turned out to be technically incompetent and were also removed. Their successor, Vadim Smolianinov (who had worked in Sovnarkom with Lenin), was sent to the United States as part of the Soviet delegation in Cleveland and was replaced by his deputy, Chingiz Ildrym, a Kurd who took part in the storming of the Winter Palace and had been the first commissar of the Navy in Azerbaijan, but who knew absolutely nothing about metallurgy. Yet another new director, Iakov Shmidt, was dispatched to the site in June 1930, but after a few months he too was sent to Cleveland. And so the Caucasus revolutionary Ildrym served as de facto on-site chief.44

Ildrym had his hands full. In early 1930 a scandal broke out over the lack of any progress at the brick factory, and several people were arrested for sabotage. Almost the entire site was beset by fires and other manmade catastrophes. The continental summer heat and the fierce steppe winds (with their dust storms) proved too much for many of the first workers and officials, a large number of whom simply fled.45 There were, in any case, no blueprints to guide the work of those who remained.46 Nineteen thirty was threatening to become another “lost year,” the fifth in a row.47

A deal for technical assistance had been struck with the highly touted Americans, however, and the first group of McKee personnel dispatched to the USSR left the United States in May 1930, arriving in Moscow several weeks later. Bemused by the Soviet insistence on the breathless time frames for a completed design of so complex an undertaking, the Americans were then treated to a week-long train ride from Moscow to the site.48 Just the last 145 kilometers from Kartaly took almost a full day, as the track had been put down without ballast and, after repeated accidents, a speed limit of ten kilometers per hour had been imposed. “From Kartaly to Magnitogorsk,” one passenger recalled, “we played soccer along the tracks, then we ran to catch up with the train, which had gone only a little way.”49

Finally, the American team arrived at the site in early summer, only to disembark in the virtually empty steppe and discover, in the words of one Soviet eyewitness, that “there was not a single well-built settlement [and] no roads.” Indeed, there was little of anything, including food or potable water.50 As for the status of the future factory, a Russian engineer recalled that the Americans “couldn’t fathom how it was going to be possible to work without skilled workers, without complete sets of tools, without machines or construction materials.”51

This state of affairs was exacerbated by the primitiveness of the rail connections, upon which the improbably isolated site was wholly dependent. The first freight shipments from Moscow were said to have taken seventy days to arrive.52 There were moderately successful efforts to speed up the movement of sorely needed supplies and equipment en route. But the weak capacity of the trunk line connecting Magnitogorsk with the rest of the country continued to choke the site for years (all freight was, of course, unloaded by hand).53 In any case, no improvement in transport, however dramatic, could overcome the woeful state of scarcity.54

Inadequate transport and chronic shortages of vital materials compounded an already difficult construction task, but even more disorganizing was the Soviet approach to management. Much time and energy were spent on long-winded speeches to the effect that “only we Bolsheviks could undertake such tasks,” although the many bold-sounding directives were often no more than desperate reactions to unexpected turns of events and had little chance of being carried out. There was, in addition, considerable intrigue, including the spreading of (false) rumors that the iron-ore deposits, contrary to initial reports, were not substantial enough to justify the plant’s construction.55

The chaotic results of such activities were predictable. Far from being able to “lead” operations, the leadership at Magnitogorsk had its hands full just responding to each new crisis. Iakov Shmidt described the state of continual tensions with which he and the rest of the local leadership and work force had to contend:

As soon as the phone rang, you knew it was a breakdown somewhere. The switchboard operator notified me immediately of all emergencies. Simultaneously, on the site, in the event of a fire, warning signals on all train engines were sounded, along with the siren on the electrical station. This unusual “symphony” made disturbing impressions on all those living in Magnitka.56

All the while, the number of administrative personnel mushroomed.57

If the state of “permanent crisis” induced by the difficult circumstances was compounded by intrigue and bluster, a confused organizational structure did not help matters. Magnitostroi was at first subordinated to a new agency, Novostal, whose name was soon changed to Vostokostal, but the coke plant came under a separate administration, first called Soiuzkoks, then Vostokokoks. Many of the smaller organizations operating on the site were subordinated to still other central trusts. The mine, furthermore, was a separate entity, and all railroad transportation came under its own administration. Not surprisingly, this multiplicity of responsible organizations led to a vacuum of responsibility.58

To streamline operations, the many trusts on the site were organized on the American model into subcontractors with which the parent company, Magnitostroi, contracted to perform various tasks. This arrangement, however, was undermined by Magnitostroi’s lack of experience with subcontracting and by the subcontractors’ inexperience in constructing steel plants. To take one example, one of the largest trusts assigned to build the steel plant in Magnitogorsk was Tekstilstroi, a firm that specialized in building textile mills; upon reassignment to Magnitogorsk, it was simply renamed Stalstroi.59 “The fundamental thing that sharply struck us,” wrote the chief of open-hearth construction, “was that among those who were at the site, there was no clue as to what a steel plant was.”60 Of course, this was precisely the goal: in building a steel plant, everyone would learn—and quickly. But it would be a while before a workable management system was in place.61

At the time, a steel plant with a working capacity of 2.5 million tons of pig iron (expandable to 4 million) constituted a formidable industrial venture, even for experienced foreign engineering firms. Upon completion, the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex was supposed to be able to produce almost as much steel as the entire Russian empire had done in 1913 (and as the Soviet Union did in 1927–28).62 Moreover, Magnitogorsk was to be distinguished not only by its huge scale but by its integrated design, which was to be as automated as possible and based on the linear flow from raw materials to finished products in which even by-products were to be fully utilized. This had been the key to the design of the Gary Works.63

Magnitogorsk was also to contain an army of auxiliary enterprises, as well as its own power station, and to be serviced by its own maintenance and repair shops, many of which were to be as large as whole factories. “On account of the isolated location of the plant and mines of Magnitogorsk, repair shops of unusually large capacity and completeness as to equipment have been provided,” wrote Haven, who added that “it is safe to say that no other steel plant in the world will be more self-contained with regard to making repairs and replacements.”64 Magnitogorsk was not simply a steel plant but a huge mining-energy-chemical-metallurgical complex, and one in which housing and schools, no less than the production of rails and girders, were the responsibility of the plant’s administration.65

The unusual audacity of the venture did not fail to make its impression on the Americans.66 But under pressure to produce a basic design for the mammoth steel plant within a mere thirty days and still scrambling to assemble a staff, McKee managed only a highly schematic “report,” accompanied by a similar document for the mine prepared by the firm of Ogleby Norton, with which McKee had contracted. Soviet officials claimed to be upset by what they regarded as the flimsiness of the McKee report and, above all, surprised that McKee had had a different firm prepare the proposal for the mine.67

McKee’s next suggestion, that the highly respected firm of Koppers and Co. handle the coke plant, was taken as yet another sign that McKee was not able by itself to handle the design of the whole factory. For McKee this was obvious enough, but the American company’s intention to subcontract the work it could not itself complete was rejected by its increasingly sophisticated customer, which began to approach the proposed foreign subcontractors directly—a decision fraught with commercial significance for McKee.68 A trip to the USSR by Arthur McKee to reassert the firm’s hold over the entire undertaking had the opposite effect. On 24 December 1930 a revision of the contract was drawn up circumscribing the firm’s responsibilities (and hence its compensation),69 ostensibly because the firm had chronically failed to meet the impractical deadlines specified in the contract for the delivery of drawings.70

Despite a strong mutual interest, the partnership from the start was marred by suspicion and misunderstandings, which only worsened as time wore on.71 From the American point of view, the Soviets were constantly making a difficult situation more so. The chief means for Soviet engineers to demonstrate their capabilities and political allegiance, for example, was to criticize American designs and alter them, with utter disregard for the often catastrophic consequences. Another problem was that installations and materials sent to Magnitostroi by Soviet factories were often received in disrepair or were not at all what had been ordered.72 Even equipment purchased abroad did not always correspond to specifications.73 Under such conditions the Americans were charged with supervising the construction of a huge dam and power station, state-of-the-art coke batteries, and unprecedentedly large and complicated blast furnaces, two of which were supposed to be put into operation within fifteen months, by 1 October 1931.74

If the Americans seemed to have had grounds for their reservations, Soviet personnel also had reasons to worry. Evidently, the original McKee personnel sent to the site turned out to be less than stellar.75 And when the Americans found themselves de facto, fully empowered chiefs on the site and soon insisted—in an obvious effort to reduce their formal responsibility for a feared fiasco—that they were only consultants, Soviet officials took this as a sign of cowardice and ill will. In addition, the Americans objected principally and repeatedly to one of the main Soviet goals: the speediest possible tempo. The Americans always cited technical justifications, but for the Soviets, it was almost as if the Americans were trying to hold the USSR back, afraid of allowing a socialist country to advance too far too rapidly.76

Pressure to hurry came from Moscow and was strongly felt at the site itself. On 1 July 1930, the first brick of the blast furnace foundation was laid in front of an estimated fourteen thousand people, including the McKee group. To shouts of “hurrah” and the singing of the “Internationale,” Iakov Shmidt gave what two eyewitnesses deemed an inspired speech, “pointing out that, in the event of an enemy attack on the USSR, the foreign bourgeoisie could not shell the factory.” Such a precipitous action may have seemed reckless, but local officials no doubt hoped that by laying the foundation stone they could force the issue of the long-awaited design.77

Despite this rousing send-off complete with a nose-thumbing of the “bourgeoisie” in its very presence (represented by McKee personnel), the construction of the Magnitogorsk furnaces begin inauspiciously. According to Konstantin Valerius, then deputy chief of Magnitostroi, the coordinates for the location of the blast furnaces had been received by telegram from the Soviet delegation visiting McKee headquarters in Cleveland. It was on this basis that the foundation stone had been laid. But when the Americans finally arrived with the blueprints, it was discovered that the telegrammed coordinates were off by thirteen meters.78 What is more, McKee had turned the factory ninety degrees, so that the blast furnace shop was perpendicular to the river, and had enlarged the factory area by 3.6 square kilometers, in accordance with the Soviet insistence on allowing for future expansion. It became necessary to undo most of the preliminary work.79

More problems followed, coming to the attention in January 1931 of the Central Committee, which replaced Shmidt with Iakov Gugel.80 A decorated Civil War veteran, Gugel set about making sure that everything would be ready by the party’s 1 October 1931 deadline, putting his revered “mobilization” skills to work, with some effect. Midway through the year, the ore-crushing equipment had been installed and iron ore was being mined, a dam was more or less finished, and the electric station and first coke batteries were put into operation. But the priority job remained the blast furnaces—symbol of the whole project—and in late August 1931 a forty-day “storm” to complete them began.81

Under Gugel’s direction the full panoply of Bolshevik organizers campaigned furiously to “mobilize” the work force for the task. As one participant recalled a few years later,

At that time the slogan was: “Blast Furnace By the Deadline!” You would see this slogan literally everywhere. . . . You’d go to the toilet, to take care of your natural needs, and even there you’d see it: “The Blast Furnace By the Deadline!” . . . The only thing they didn’t do was to write it in the heavens.82

Virtually every worker on the site was “thrown over” to blast furnace construction, and many people never left the structure day or night.83 But despite the Herculean efforts, the blast furnace was not ready by 1 October. Nor was it ready by the 7 November holiday.84

Rumors circulated in Moscow that the entire construction was a hopeless mess and that nothing at all might come of it, yet work proceeded at fever pitch through the winter.85 With the Seventeenth Party Conference scheduled for February 1932, the leaders of the construction had a new deadline to aim for. That would mean, of course, that the furnace would be started up under the extremely difficult conditions of the Urals winter, a decision the Americans vigorously protested. But Magnitostroi officials appealed directly to Ordzhonikidze, and although, in general, Moscow backed the foreign specialists in disputes with local authorities, deadlines were another matter. Ordzhonikidze telegrammed permission.86 Furious about the winter start-up (and Soviet tardiness in its payments), McKee sent a cable to Haven forbidding him to provide any more assistance and ordering everyone to return home immediately. But the cable was read by the Soviet authorities, who urged Haven at least to see the first furnace into operation. Having so much at stake in the work thus far, Haven agreed.87 As the day for the start-up of the blast furnace neared, a feeling of being involved in world-historical events pervaded the site at Magnetic Mountain.

By late January the temperature had dropped to − 30°C, but the frozen air was buzzing with excitement and suspense as the final preparations for the start-up were being made. On 29 January, blast furnace no. 1 began to blow, but immediately, problems with the water supply necessitated a shutdown. For forty hours the workers frantically tried to correct the problem. “Everybody felt like he was at the front,” recalled Iakov Gugel. On 31 January 1932 at 10 A.M. the workers again tried to blow in the furnace. This time it worked. “At Magnitostroi, to which the attention of the whole country, of the whole world, was riveted,” Gugel wrote, “life was given to blast furnace No. 1.”88

On the next day, the first pig iron was produced. Jubilant people gathered pieces as souvenirs; busts of Lenin and Stalin were made from it. Telegrams went off to Communist parties around the world and to the Seventeenth Party Conference.89 In the name of the Soviet state, Mikhail Kalinin read the triumphant message to the assembled delegates: “On 1 February [1932] at 9:30 P.M. the first pig iron of Magnitogorsk blast furnace No. 1 was produced. The furnace is functioning normally.” The delegates rose to their feet and erupted into an ovation.90

No more than a month after this triumph, in March 1932, exactly two years after it had been signed, the contract between McKee and the Soviet government was officially “annulled” in what appears to have been a belated recognition of a fait accompli.91 Before departing the USSR, William Haven graciously offered his congratulations. “Considering the inexperience of the Russians in construction work of this type,” he told an American correspondent sympathetic to the Soviet cause, “the magnitude of the work accomplished at Magnitogorsk is astonishing, if the isolated location and the extreme climatic conditions are kept in mind.”92 In truth, the construction was years behind schedule, but this hardly seemed to matter.

What did matter was that the construction was happening at all. After several years of innumerable delays and difficulties, the “battle” seemed to have been “won”: Magnitogorsk pig iron existed. All the foolhardy deadlines, all the pain and suffering now seemed fully justified. On a visit to the site back in May 1931, Valerii Mezhlauk had told an assembly of the Magnitogorsk faithful that the construction carried

enormous political and economic significance. Political because the construction of the Magnitogorsk factory has become a standard by which the capitalist world, on the one hand, and the workers located abroad, on the other, evaluate the success of socialist construction in our country. Economic because the country is suffocating from the lack of metal.

It was this attitude that undergirded the authentic sense of triumph on 1 February 1932.93

On the very day of triumph, however, disaster struck. No sooner had the telegrams gone off to Moscow than an accident occurred, requiring that the Magnitogorsk blast furnace be shut down. And no sooner had that problem been corrected than an even more serious one occurred: a chunk of the upper conal construction collapsed, injuring several workers. The cave-in, which took more than 60 hours to fix, was followed by a 12-hour shutdown on 21 February and another one of 115 hours that began on 3 March. Altogether, there were no fewer than 550 stoppages of the furnace in the first year alone. (In November 1933, after only twenty-one months of operation, Magnitogorsk blast furnace no. 1 would be shut down and completely rebuilt.)94

The sad results were foreseeable: when the furnace was blown in, not only had many makeshift hookups been used, but many key components were still not installed.95 Yet, celebrating as the first pig iron was produced, the Magnitogorsk leadership smugly chided the Americans for suggesting that longer time frames and American operating personnel were necessary for success and for opposing the winter start-up. “Mister Haven was unquestionably a capable and knowledgeable specialist,” Iakov Gugel wrote. “But he did not understand why it was necessary to hurry. He did not understand why it was necessary to put the blast furnace into operation in winter, when it would have been so much easier to do it in summer.” True enough.96

Notwithstanding the many self-inflicted setbacks, however, construction of Magnitogorsk pressed forward in 1932. On 7 June, blast furnace no. 2 was blown in, and before the year was over, a second coke battery and the ore-crushing plant were completed. Although by this time the entire complex was supposed to have been finished, these were definite achievements. Moreover, their import was greatly magnified by the capitalist depression. In the United States, the world’s symbol of industrial prowess, the production of raw steel had fallen from more than 60 million tons in 1929 to around 15 million in 1932. Steel production in the U.S. would not climb above its 1929 level until 1940.97

The social consequences of the decline in American steel output were far-reaching. As of 1931, the famed Gary Works was operating at less than 20 percent of capacity. Unemployment in the “city of the century” was sky-high. Housing foreclosures on the properties of the city’s small middle class became epidemic, and financial panic set in. After more than a dozen banks in Gary folded, one prominent banker committed suicide, precipitating a further bank run. To top it off, the belated efforts to confront this litany of deep social and economic problems—what would be known as the New Deal—met with suspicion and visceral opposition. William Wirt, a pupil and disciple of John Dewey and a man who had become the acclaimed architect of the renowned Gary public school system, wrote a pamphlet in which he asserted that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government and were busy making President Roosevelt into a Kerensky.98

With much of the capitalist world’s industrial capacity idle and its societies torn by social dislocation, the Soviet government declared the “early fulfillment” of the goals of the Five-Year Plan toward the close of 1932. Not only had the Bolsheviks built factories while the capitalist world was mired in depression; not only had the Bolsheviks developed industry at a rate unseen ever before in world history, they had even bested themselves and completed the brazen Five-Year Plan in four years and three months: “Five in Four”—this was the banner of socialist construction, the magic of “Bolshevik tempo.” It was a seductive message and one that the construction of Magnitogorsk seemed to confirm.99

Even as celebrations of the fulfillment of the Plan were underway,100 another large-scale disaster occurred at the Magnitogorsk blast furnaces. On 28 December 1932, the city was hit by a severe blizzard. So strong were the winds and so heavy the snowfall that several installations, including parts of the blast furnaces, collapsed. At first the workers tried to patch the furnaces, but soon they had to shut them down. It took two months before both furnaces were back to normal.101 An immediate investigation began, as a result of which Gugel was removed in January 1933 and replaced by P. G. Myshkin.102

Under Magnitostroi’s new director (at least the eighth since 1929), a major cleanup of the blast furnace shop was carried out, and in a short time 564 platform cars and dump-truck loads of refuse were hauled away.103 But at this time, serious problems with the supply of iron ore began to threaten the operation of the repaired blast furnaces.104 And while the two blast furnaces in operation worked very poorly, producing only a small amount of low-quality pig iron, construction of the open-hearth steelmaking shop had barely even begun.105 The question of design work loomed ever larger.

After McKee’s departure, it had been announced that all design work would be given over to Soviet agencies.106 Since the inability of these agencies to perform such work was the very reason that the Soviet government had initially gone to McKee with billions of gold rubles in hand, the announcement was baffling.107 But Soviet agencies already had a large supply of McKee drawings, including most everything needed for the mine and blast furnace shop. German firms continued to design and supervise construction of the rolling shop. And foreign designs from rolling shops built in the Ukraine were copied and sent to Magnitogorsk for some of the mills.108

Although foreign drawings, equipment, and expertise continued to be available,109 the circumstances under which the entire project was being conducted made design work extremely difficult. A multitude of agencies were involved in design, creating much confusion. More important, in the best case design and construction went on simultaneously. Not infrequently, construction not only preceded design but was almost always pushed forward without regard to preparation or logistics.110 But in the minds of officials, this was just the way things had to be done, and anyone who raised questions simply did not understand—or what was far worse—perhaps secretly wished that the party’s industrial program not be carried out.111 “Couldn’t we somehow go a bit slower?” Ordzhonikidze asked, mimicking the critics of the breathless pace adopted by the party as he dismissed them. “That was the whole question. The whole question was: What tempo was to be adopted.”112

The leadership’s braggadocio, however, was giving way to more sober reflection.113 In January 1933, amid the whispers that the first Five-Year Plan had been a debacle, the second Five-Year Plan, far more “realistic” in its targets, officially began.114 But if the pace of expansion was somewhat slowed, the basic impulse of catch and overtake was nonetheless retained: there was no retreat from the goal of creating a self-sufficient, fully state-owned and state-managed industrial economy that could match in size and performance what the capitalists had.115 The battle to erect Magnitogorsk and the new kind of industrial economy it embodied had been joined, and it would be waged to the end. There was, in any case, no going back.


In 1933, construction at Magnitogorsk continued apace. The third coke battery and third blast furnace were completed.116 And even more important, on 8 July the first open-hearth oven began operation. Magnitogorsk finally began producing steel.117 Three weeks later, in the presence of Ordzhonikidze himself the first blooming mill was launched, and the metallurgical cycle—from raw material to specialized steel—was pronounced “complete.” Prizes were awarded and speeches made.118 Before the year was out, three more open-hearth furnaces, the fourth blast furnace, and sorting mill 630 were put into operation. A steel plant was beginning to emerge.119

Ordzhonikidze visited Magnitogorsk in 1933 not just to celebrate the start-up of the blooming mill but also, like other members of the leadership who had visited the site earlier (Molotov, Voroshilov, Mezhlauk, and others), to discover what was going on.120 As the first Five-Year Plan yielded to the second, the task at Magnitogorsk mirrored that for the whole country: not simply to slow things down a bit but to bring some order to what had irreversibly been set in motion by the blitz to industrialize in a socialist, that is, noncapitalist, manner.121

Thousands of enterprises were either being constructed from scratch or undergoing such dramatic enlargement that they could be considered essentially new factories—and they were all under the direct supervision of the rapidly burgeoning state. The staggering expansion posed enormous challenges of operational management, which had not been imagined during the initial plunge into superindustrialization. Soon enough, however, the burden of assuming responsibility for the thousands upon thousands of decisions that under capitalism were handled by entrepreneurs and the market hit home.122

What Ordzhonikidze found at Magnitogorsk became clear in a blistering directive he issued on 29 July 1933.123 Along with frequent breakdowns that he said “threatened to destroy various installations and even the entire factory,” the industry commissar cited a lack of responsibility for imported equipment, a low level of productivity, excessive requests for materials and supplies, and knowing violations of the managerial chain of command. He called for a reorganization of industrial management to prevent the issuing of contradictory orders and for the subordination of all organizations on the site, including those carrying out design work, to the director. He further warned that future evaluations of management’s performance would be made not simply on the basis of the materials successfully consumed (osvoeno), the number of installations brought to completion, or the quantity of output, but on the quality of that output and its costs. It was a devastatingly frank analysis and a spirited call to resolute action.124

In the aftermath of Ordzhonikidze’s trip, Magnitogorsk’s director, Myshkin, was accused of keeping a double set of books: a realistic one, which he used to manage the factory, and a “cooked” one, which he had sent to Moscow in April 1933 to cast the factory in a highly favorable light. This was an old problem in Russia, but it was given vastly new significance by the increasingly higher stake “the center” now had in outlying regions. Just as it set the level of investment in the Magnitogorsk factory and thus the rate at which the plant grew, Moscow arrogated to itself the right to control the allocation of the factory’s entire output. Simply put, Moscow “owned” Magnitogorsk and everything produced in that location, and it exercised that proprietary interest by appointing or removing Magnitogorsk’s directors at will.125

In what became the fourth time since 1930 that a Magnitogorsk director was dismissed in disgrace, Myshkin was removed in 1933 and replaced by Avraamii Zaveniagin, who had been part of Ordzhonikidze’s delegation.126 A former chief of Gipromez and most recently the director of a steel plant in the Ukraine, Zaveniagin was a protégé of Ordzhonikidze, to whom he professed absolute loyalty. As a 1930 graduate of the Moscow Mining Academy (later nicknamed the “nursery of scientists and ministers”), Zaveniagin was also the first Magnitogorsk chief who had any training in metallurgy.127 “In those years, the names of the leaders of metallurgical factories were known not simply to a narrow circle of economic officials, but to broad sections of the Soviet public,” one Soviet journalist recalled. “The country followed their work and their successes as in the days of war it had followed the successes of the most visible military leaders.”128 Zaveniagin may have been the country’s most famous “metallurgist.” This gave him enormous authority and clout.129

To take charge of the various shops, the fast-track Zaveniagin was supplied with a contingent of rising specialists, such as E. Ia. Bekker and Fedor Golubitskii, who arrived in January 1935. Most of these executives were as young, or even younger, than the thirty-two-year-old new director. All had a measure of technical education and some practical experience.130 “Essentially our entire management staff consists of young engineers,” commented Leonid Vaisberg, chief of the medium sorting mill who was mobilized from the Donbas to Magnitogorsk in April 1935. “These were people, as they say, of the revolutionary epoch.”131

That Magnitogorsk’s new director was the son of a humble railroad depot worker was in itself remarkable, but even more noteworthy was that a proletarian child born to poor and virtually uneducated parents had been graduated from the prestigious Moscow Mining Academy—and had been appointed head of Gipromez only two days later.132 Such a life history conditioned Zaveniagin to embrace the “civilizing mission” of inculcating “industrial culture.” He extolled what was championed as the second Five-Year Plan’s more “considered” approach to management, a style of industrial leadership that was better informed and outwardly more genteel but also far more exacting and, if necessary, downright ruthless.133 Prior to Zaveniagin’s arrival, informal channels of administration were often more important than formal ones.134 Now, just as he would be answerable to those above him, Zaveniagin would be expected to subordinate all those below him in the “chain of command.”135

Zaveniagin personified the watchword “one-man rule” (edinonachalie), which had been proclaimed in September 1929 as a way to improve managerial coordination and affix responsibility, but which at Magnitogorsk had never been realized—as Ordzhonikidze made clear in his July 1933 directive. In appointing Zaveniagin, the industry commissar’s objective was not simply to cultivate and assign the right “commanders” to the localities but also to establish a more or less functional command structure. Accordingly, Zaveniagin’s posting to Magnitogorsk coincided with a further consolidation of the economic administration.

Back in September 1931, on the model of such giant American corporations as U.S. Steel—which in 1901 had become the largest company relative to the size of the economy in American history—the USSR formed the Main Administration of the Metallurgical Industry (GUMP).136 As one of its first moves, GUMP abolished the contracting system and most of the trusts at Magnitogorsk, leaving only three organizations on the site: Magnitostroi, Koksostroi, and the Mining Administration (GRU). Not long thereafter, Koksostroi and the GRU were absorbed by Magnitostroi, which was divided into two departments: construction and production. Magnitostroi was subsumed under the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry (NKTP), which had absorbed GUMP and superseded Vesenkha in January 1932 as the agency responsible for all industry. When Zaveniagin arrived in 1933, the departments of Magnitostroi were united in a single entity, the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex (MMK). The vertical hierarchy was thus complete.

The establishment of a hierarchical command structure with authoritative commanders in the field did not, of course, mean that all bureaucratic conflict had been eliminated. Quite the opposite: “turf battles” only intensified, especially those between the industrial bureaucracy and the police and between the party and the economic administration;137 but also those among the numerous agencies of the sprawling central economic administration, between central agencies and the enterprises they supervised, and within the enterprises themselves. When administrative jurisdictions did not nominally overlap, rivalries and jealousies made sure that they did. The number of bureaus and departments made it hard to sort out who was responsible for what, and, more importantly, who was not responsible for certain matters. Appeals to settle the smallest disputes were not infrequently made to the people’s commissar.138

In a further complication to the tensions and rivalries fostered by the multicentered yet hierarchical command structure, Vissarion “Beso” Lominadze, who had been the party chief for Georgia and worked high up in the Comintern before being demoted as an “oppositionist,” was sent to Magnitogorsk as city party secretary at the same time as Zaveniagin was appointed director. Lominadze’s organizational skills were vastly superior to those of his predecessors, and his arrival opened a new era in the local political leadership. But he clashed with Zaveniagin, and the goal of one-man rule did not fully obtain in Magnitogorsk as long as the two men were on the scene.139

Even without these added complications, Soviet enterprises had trouble fully coordinating operations and disciplining their own people, notwithstanding the beneficial effects of the administrative reorganizations of 1931–33. The Magnitogorsk plant issued an avalanche of internal directives admonishing personnel to follow established regulations, which were themselves frequently rewritten. Top management at the steel plant, for example, tried to control the internal distribution of raw materials and supplies, just as Moscow did for the whole country. One stern internal factory decree expressly prohibited shop chiefs from sending “people to various cities of the Union in connection with supply and equipment questions without receiving the permission of the respective departments of the complex administration.”140 But it was precisely management’s failure to provide each shop with adequate basic materials through regular channels that motivated the practice of foraging, and would continue to do so.

Indeed, one of the most surprising phenomena of the emerging planned economy was the rise of an unlimited demand for raw materials and inputs. Never sure how much they would be allocated but pressured to meet plan targets, large firms routinely requested far more than they thought would be necessary. Central planners were aware of this practice but still had a difficult time judging how much was “actually” needed. In addition, what were called “interruptions” (pereboi) in the delivery of supplies became so regular that firms guarded against them by stocking up, concealing their industrial “bread crusts” from the central authorities. Busy bombarding the economic bureaucracy with requests for more of everything, enterprises were engaged in hoarding. The paradoxical result was that increases in industrial capacity, far from satiating the hunger for metal, resulted in perpetual shortages. Comprehensive central planning, it turned out, produced its own forms of “anarchy” to rival the market’s.141

Within the tentacular apparatus that was taking shape to oversee everything from the wording of inscriptions to be printed on note pads to the precise amounts of dozens of grades and hundreds of shapes of all the structural steel to be produced by the country in the foreseeable future, the relations between the MMK and NKTP were prototypical. Reflecting the pressures on Moscow, Ordzhonikidze registered strong dissatisfaction with what he called the “aggrandizing” attitudes on the part of Magnitogorsk management, which was allegedly putting in requests for construction materials well beyond what was “truly” needed. But the steel complex, facing the center’s tyrannical production targets, often found itself without materials essential to meeting those marching orders.142

To be sure, state ownership of industry did not necessarily mean centralized micromanagement, and in late 1932 a short-lived debate took place in the pages of the Industry Commissariat’s newspaper over the introduction of a kind of “socialist market.” One economist proposed that prices for industrial goods should reflect supply and demand, and that firms should deal directly with each other, rather than place orders for equipment and supplies through the central bureaucracy. To everyone’s shock, in November 1932 Ordzhonikidze abruptly introduced just such procedures for the iron and steel industry. As R. W. Davies has argued, this impulsive move, which was to begin on 1 January 1933, showed just how unsettled the emerging planned economy still was.143

Did such “market relations” between state firms undermine the supposed superiority of planning: the determination of priorities by science, rather than by what enterprises found it advantageous to produce? What if suppliers decided to refuse orders for much-needed goods, preferring to produce what they decided was more expedient? Were planning and the market at some level compatible? In the event, no answers to these complex questions were forthcoming. The experiment, launched precipitously and conducted amid great flux, was called off, much to the relief of the central economic apparatus. There would be no legal “market” in industry, although one did arise anyway.

The allotments of coking coal arriving at Magnitogorsk in 1938, to take one vivid example, weighed on average 30 percent less than when they were shipped from Kuzbas mines. Some coal was simply lost in transit, while much was pilfered en route by “agents” of other enterprises less favored in the supply network, or by “freelancers.”144 The Magnitogorsk factory had no choice but to recoup this shortfall, yet further requests through the central supply network would take months and in any case were not likely to yield any more coal. The lesson for the plant was clearly to request more coal than would be necessary and to cultivate alternative sources outside the central allocation network. Here was the “socialist market” in action, despite the abrupt cancellation of Ordzhonikidze’s experiment with firm-to-firm ties. It is even possible that the Magnitogorsk steel complex wound up buying back, at black market rates, some of the “lost” coal that it had been allocated. Such were the unavoidable realities of the emerging “planned economy”: plans were many, as were the efforts to “correct” them.145

Meanwhile, the inefficiency of the centralized allocation system threatened to overwhelm the apparatus itself. With all transactions among enterprises administered by Moscow, unremitting telegrams begging for raw materials or equipment, along with detailed reports answering suspicious queries, competed with industrial goods as a given factory’s chief “output.” As early as 18 January 1930, Ordzhonikidze lamented at a meeting of the Central Control Commission that “if we don’t put a stop to the paper flow it will drown us. We defeated Denikin and Iudenich, Wrangel and every other counterrevolutionary scum, but paper of all things will smother us.”146 But as Moshe Lewin has pointed out, the efforts to combat the “flood of paper” with decrees and investigations led only to the further proliferation of officials, and thus to more paper.147

Perpetual shortages, torrents of disabling paperwork, internecine battles over, and even pilfering of, raw materials were by no means the only unanticipated yet intractable problems of the planned economy. In a long speech given in early 1934—its publication occupied almost the entire local newspaper for three full days—Beso Lominadze delivered a stinging critique of the state of affairs in Magnitogorsk’s construction. At the time of the speech, the steel plant was officially considered 30 percent complete,148 but looking over the whole site, Lominadze claimed to have found “not a single fully completed shop or objective.” The open-hearth shops and rolling mills were well behind schedule, while the coke plant was still without its by-products division: valuable chemicals were being released into the air. Some shops put into operation were so incomplete that snow fell freely into them. Even the blast furnace department, the most advanced objective, was “still far from completion.” Lominadze concluded that “not a single construction objective was without serious design defects,” and that “not a single day goes by without some kind of breakdown in the factory or transport.”149

Little that was built at Magnitogorsk proved reliable. In 1934, no sooner had blast furnace no. 4 been finished than the construction team returned to no. 1, which was utterly rebuilt, after less than two years of operation. The blooming mill required shutdown for capital repairs in 1935, after less than two years of use (rather than the customary ten), and a special representative from the German firm Demag had to be called in to oversee the delicate work.150 Mill 500, planned to operate without extensive repairs for a minimum of ten years, was shut down for total overhaul in 1938, after less than three years.151

Nor were projects started up anywhere near on time. In 1936 the newspaper issued harangues to “mobilize” all forces to put mill 300 no. 3, which was well behind schedule, into operation. What “forces” were to be mobilized remained unclear, but the newspaper revealed that the factory had not yet received crane-support girders ordered from a Donbas factory. Without the girders the mill could not be assembled.152 Two years later, when the mill had finally been assembled and was being tested prior to being put into operation, a 6,300 volt charge was emitted. An investigation revealed numerous examples of egregious assembly work, including bolts that were so short they had no hope of holding the structures together and electrical work so shoddy cables frequently gave off sparks.153 To anyone familiar with the day-to-day details, the construction of the Magnitogorsk Works must have seemed constantly in doubt, even as it was slowly and painfully being achieved.154

The secret of “success” was the all-purpose practice of “making-do.” The near total absence of spare parts, for example, frequently led to the cannibalizing of unassembled equipment so that equipment that had already been installed could be put back in operation.155 This might seem short-sighted, but much of the unassembled equipment just sat around deteriorating in what was called the “Zero Storehouse,” a graveyard of imported and domestic equipment that had been misplaced.156 (“Storehouse” was just a euphemism, of course, for until much later there were few actual storage structures and equipment more often than not was camped out under the open sky, gathering dust until it was “washed by the rain.”) The newspaper reported that on the site there were 1,300 unopened crates of freight, and nobody could say what was in them.157

Of course, some of the difficulties at Magnitogorsk were less the result of the planned economy than inexperience and the general low level of development.158 Konstantin Valerius, the chief of the resurrected independent construction trust Magnitostroi,159 revealed that as late as 1936 two-thirds of all earth-moving work was still being done without mechanization.160 And the chief bookkeeper lamented that “practically all designs issued by the design bureau of the complex suffer from one deficiency or another, including mistakes in dimensions and incorrect or even missing sections.”161 But many of the intractable problems of construction, particularly those involving supply, were largely the result of the normal functioning of the planned economy, which ensured that the rhythm of work remained very irregular.162

Just as construction was subject to fits and starts, so production was very uneven, one day over plan, the next well under. The pace picked up considerably as each quarter, especially the fourth, drew to a close with the newspaper reminding workers that “every day decides the success of the struggle to fulfill the Plan.”163 But the plant was never able to sustain the frenzies. In June 1936, Ordzhonikidze sent a forceful telegram “categorically forbidding the stoppage of any equipment for repairs without the express permission of GUMP.” He also ordered that the plant telegraph him personally with a report “on what measures were being taken in order that, finally, the production plan was fulfilled.” Echoing the commissar’s words, the city newspaper railed that not a single shop was meeting its targets, and that idle time was extraordinarily high. Less than two weeks later, the newspaper reported that blast furnace no. 1 was being shut down two days for repairs, “with GUMP’s permission.”164

Faulty construction and terrible maltreatment of equipment were major problems in the shops. Another was that construction was not yet finished and some equipment had yet to be installed.165 A further encumbrance derived from persistently severe transport bottlenecks. A report in the ob-last newspaper in 1935 painted a bleak picture of irregular and unpredictable freight transfer in Magnitogorsk. “During twenty days of February, only 229 wagons of coking coal were unloaded, against a plan of 700,” the correspondent wrote, adding that “for coke you need Hoppers and open cars but instead they get closed or platform cars. Clearly, it’s impossible to load coke in them.”166

Table 1. Metal Production at Magnitogorsk, 1931–1940 (in tons)

Magnetic Mountain

SOURCE: PAChO, f. 288, op. 19, d. 14, ll. 127–29, reprinted in Eliseeva, ed., Iz istorii, p. 215.

Deficiencies in construction, poor maintenance, and faulty transport, along with the same endemic supply shortages which plagued construction, had even greater effects on production because of the interconnectedness of the steel plant’s operation. A lack of coking coal limited blast furnace operation and hence pig iron production, which then hindered raw steel production, which reduced rolled steel production, and so on. In this regard, the open-hearth shop was notorious.167 But there were near constant shortfalls all along the metallurgical cycle, and their effects were invariably multiplied.

Perhaps the greatest factor inhibiting improved performance was that in the planned economy all production was “planned,” that is, regulated by quantitative output plans, or targets, assigned by Moscow. The evaluation of a factory’s performance, and thus the degree of remuneration of its employees, were determined by the percentage “fulfillment” of these quotas. Each edition of the Magnitogorsk newspaper displayed on its front page the previous day’s output in all shops. Aggregate output totals were also displayed and celebrated by the week, month, quarter, and year.

Magnitogorsk’s official output totals seemed impressive, constituting roughly 10 percent of ail-Union output (see table 1).168 What these figures measure, however, is difficult to say, aside from the weight of the pressures on plant management to secure people’s bonuses (and perhaps their lives) by claiming production figures that were as close as possible to the assigned plan targets, and the pressures on the regime to live up to its boasts.169 Anyway, even by the official reports, plant performance was not especially good. Actual production achieved only 92 percent of the pig iron, 97 percent of the steel, and 99 percent of the rolled steel called for in the production targets of the 1937 plan for the Magnitogorsk factory—and the 1937 targets had been adjusted downward.170 More important, it was not clear how much of this metal actually existed. Measurements of daily production were so “inaccurate,” according to the newspaper, that warehouse and storage inventories had to be redone every month. What this probably means is that various oversight agencies, including no doubt the security police, disputed the daily counts and sought to compare them with stock on hand.171

Gross output totals presented one story. “If one instead looks at plan fulfillment in terms of customers’ orders,” the newspaper wrote, “then a different picture emerges.” For the quarter January–March 1937, the paper reported that the factory fulfilled its plan for pig iron at 91.4 percent, but the target for the highest quality grade, o, was fulfilled at only 26.1 percent, and that for the next best, grade 1, at just 27.1 percent. Conversely, grade 2 pig iron accounted for 16.3 percent of the total produced, against a plan that foresaw 11.4 percent. Grade 3 pig iron accounted for 13.4 percent of total production, against a planned quantity of 1.8 percent, and grade 4, which was not anticipated by the plan, nevertheless accounted for 4.4 percent of all pig iron produced. Taken together, the two lowest quality categories and an even lower subcategory accounted for more than a third of all pig iron produced. At the same time, millions of rubles’ worth of fuel above-plan was consumed by the blast furnaces.172

A similar state of affairs obtained in the open-hearth shop, where a spot check in 1936 of one smelting revealed that 60 percent of the steel had cracks. When the smelting was repeated, near identical results were observed and, according to the newspaper report, such mishaps transpired every day. Between January and June 1936, 31,130 tons of steel, valued at more than 6 million rubles, were found to be defective. Most of this was high-quality, specialized steel, the chemical content of which was not always subjected to laboratory analysis during smelting, as required.173 Meanwhile, in the rolling shop, the acknowledged factory leader, production in tonnage reached almost 100 percent of plan in 1936 but in customers’ orders was 83.4 percent. Most important, only a third of the orders for rolled steel of the highest quality were delivered.174

Plan fulfillment in the linchpin internal factory transport department for the first nine months of 1936 was reported at 101.6 percent, but shop chief Leontii Metelskii revealed that this figure included “unplanned transfers.” Metelskii added that a great many train cars were not in working condition, that there was a severe shortage of rails and ties, and that recently repaired locomotives required repairs again.175 Another newspaper article reported that it could take as long as two weeks for freight to pass from one shop to the next. Destinations were written in chalk on the freight cars, and when they became wet the chalk washed off. All the same, reported plan fulfillment stood at 101.6 percent, and everyone got their bonuses.176 The rail transport shop, like the rest of Magnitogorsk’s shops and, for that matter, those at enterprises around the country, worked feverishly toward the same goal: strive for and claim high quantity, whatever the quality. Quantity exercised a tyranny over the economy, resulting in the indiscriminate consumption of inputs and the production of enormous wastage, called brak.

It is instructive to put evaluations of the steel plant’s performance in the context of its development. In 1938 one of the country’s leading experts in metallurgy, Academic I. P. Bardin, spent twenty days in Magnitogorsk four years after he was last there. The difference enabled him to draw comparisons. In an overview of the plant’s operation published in the oblast newspaper, Bardin wrote that “production is conducted in a far more cultured manner than in 1934.” He suggested that the efficiency of coal and iron-ore consumption was improved, that the equipment of the coke shop looked better, that there were no longer constant breakdowns in the blast furnace shop, and that the rolling mills were fulfilling their plans. At the same time, he pointed out that the coke plant was still not finished, that the blast furnace shop still suffered from a lack of raw materials, and that the equipment in the rolling mills was not in very good shape. But the biggest problems, in his opinion, were to be found in the open-hearth shop, which he wrote looked “not four years old but twenty-four.” Bardin claimed that the open-hearth design had been seriously flawed, and that the “barbaric treatment” of the ovens exacerbated matters. In conclusion, he singled out raising quality and lowering costs as the steel plant’s main goals.177

Bardin’s reminder of the improvements made between 1934 and 1938 needs to be kept in mind, but in the oblast newspaper version of his assessment he omitted any consideration of the staggering amount of defective metal produced by the plant. The city newspaper reported in another context, however, that as of early 1937, the Magnitogorsk Works had accumulated 6.5 million rubles’ worth of unusable pig iron and 9.7 million rubles’ worth of rejected rolled steel—all useless, except for when it came time to count and report total output.178 In addition, John Scott noted that by 1940 about eleven million tons of inferior quality iron ore had accumulated at Magnitogorsk and was hampering the operation of mine transport.179

These totals might well have been far higher except that much of the output determined to be defective by state inspectors was shipped anyway. And despite their protests metal-starved firms had little choice but to accept it, pressured as they were to fulfill their own production plans.180 So desperate were other enterprises for metal—and anything else—that they stationed “expediters” (tolkachi) in Magnitogorsk to facilitate the shipment of their orders, even though back in January 1933, the Commissariat of Heavy Industry had (again) expressly forbidden this practice. The Magnitogorsk Central Hotel housed no fewer than fifty expediters who traveled, lodged, and dined at the state’s expense. In 1936 the city newspaper reported that one of them had lost the hotel bed linen for his room in a game of cards, and that all of them looked for chances to purchase equipment “on the left,” as the saying went, offering high prices for scarce items such as railroad cars.181 Such finagling aside, the bottom line was that the often poor quality steel whose shipment the expediters were supposed to facilitate meant defective inputs throughout the industrial economy.182

Manifest poor quality and vast waste argue for a skeptical approach to the assessment of Soviet “growth” rates, a subject that has received more attention than any other from scholars of the Soviet economy.183 Even that portion of Magnitogorsk’s steel output deemed acceptable does not lend itself to ready evaluation. What, for example, is the value of thick structural shapes that must be machined by customers to thin strips before they can be used? Do we also, as the planners did, count the sheared-off metal that ends up on a customer factory’s floor as “output”? And what value does one attach to the machines made from such metal that function poorly but are the only ones available to Soviet industrial customers in an autarchic economy? Surely measurements of “growth rates,” even nuanced ones, cannot be used to make ready international comparisons.

And yet, it would be equally misguided to dismiss all Soviet output as worthless, even if assessing the value of that output remains highly problematic. Soviet machines may have performed less well than equivalent foreign ones, but there were far more Soviet machines than before. Even if the Soviet economy did not treble in size, as was claimed by the regime and confirmed by some non-Soviet scholars, in a single decade the country’s industrial base was visibly transformed.184 Magnitogorsk steel, for example, had not existed before the industrialization drive. By the second half of the 1930s, the new plant helped supply what had become a substantial if wasteful heavy-industrial economy serving the Red Army, whose fighting capacity had been decisively upgraded.

The orientation toward the military, a strategy pursued by the country’s leadership as early as 1926, could not but affect the Soviet economy. Julian Cooper has argued that “while the pursuit of rapid industrialization necessarily required that priority be granted to heavy industry, the extent of this bias was in practice accentuated by defense production considerations.”185 Calling this a “diversion of resources,” Cooper suggests that “given a more favorable international environment the Soviet path of industrialization could have been modified in a number of important respects,” by which he means in directions more beneficial to the people.186 Although this argument is on the mark about the social “costs” of emphasizing defense-related industry, its assumption that such an approach was dictated exclusively, or even primarily, by the nature of the external threat, rather than internal preferences and aims, appears questionable.

Heavy industry, especially steel and machine building, was pursued zealously by the Soviet leadership as the key to modern civilization. The concomitant disregard, even scorn, for consumer industry, services, and other vital spheres of economic activity—some of which were labeled “nonproductive” in official statistical compilations—cannot be laid at the door of foreign hostility; rather, it derived from an anticapitalist view of economics. In a way, it could be argued that the orientation toward the military “saved” production at Magnitogorsk and elsewhere from becoming production chiefly for production’s sake: making steel to make machines to make more steel to make more machines, regardless of whether anyone was in a position to use them or to use them effectively.187

If the planned economy found in its all-encompassing military mission both its administrative model and its rationale, all of this could just as readily be seen as production for employment’s sake. The Magnitogorsk plant provided a source of employment for tens of thousands of people, and the guaranteed job security instituted by the regime made that livelihood virtually permanent. Job rights were taken seriously. In the first half of 1937, the Magnitogorsk court tried 120 “labor cases,” mostly involving alleged improper firing. In 91 of the firings the complaint was found justified, and the dismissals were reversed.188 In the planned economy there were neither booms nor busts, and although production rhythms fluctuated, employment remained full year-round. This was revolutionary.

Without undermining everyone’s right to work, central planners expressed a desire to use the work force more “rationally.” In 1938, the Magnitogorsk Works was cited for being 2,055 people “over plan” (the previous years’ wage fund was said to have been exceeded by 15.5 percent). Altogether at this time the complex employed more than 27,000 people, including a bit more than 4,000 in the key shops (blast furnace, open-hearth, rolling), another 4,000 in transport, and 4,000 more in the Everyday-Life Administration, or KBU. (By comparison, Bardin wrote that “an American factory equipped roughly the same as Magnitka has 9,000 to 10,000 workers.”)189 In addition, a great deal of other personnel, in places such as the mechanical workshops, were said to be underused or not used at all.190 But if “overstaffing” did periodically attract official condemnation, it was ultimately considered unavoidable, given the dearth of mechanization and the inexperience of personnel.191 Only the growth of “bureaucracy” provoked concrete measures, but here the recurring calls for reductions seemed to have little long-term impact.192

Maintaining as large a permanent work force as Magnitogorsk did was possible only because considerations of cost, and hence profit, were not overriding. Yet costs were not ignored altogether. Magnitogorsk was isolated and thus was far from the regions where its products were used, a situation that should have added considerably to the cost of the metal it produced (keep in mind the near indiscriminate consumption of inputs and fuel). Only 11 percent of Magnitogorsk’s beams and channels, for example, were consumed in Cheliabinsk oblast, combined with another 10 percent in Sverdlovsk oblast. Another 8 percent went to distant Siberia and the Far East. The rest, more than 70 percent, had to be shipped to the European part of the country, especially the central and southern industrial regions—a costly prospect.193 But as with the prices of fuel and raw materials, so with freight: the planners simply lowered the rates, and so the “cost” of Magnitogorsk steel was nominally not high.194

The elevation of quantity over cost considerations did not preclude concerted efforts to determine each firm’s “profits” (or at least the difference between its revenues and expenditures) and to hold down expenditures through what was called khozraschet (short for khoziastvennyi raschet: literally, “economic calculation”).195 Revenues for the Magnitogorsk Works in 1938, for example, were said to be 46.5 million rubles, against a “plan” of 83.4 million (revenues for 1937, upon which the plan for 1938 was presumably based, had been 59 million). During the same year, costs rose, although a decline had been planned—a development that further magnified the import of the shortfall in “planned” revenue. The factory, in other words, was having financial trouble even with the advantageous pricing and transport policies. How the instability of prices, which were rising, affected these and other calculations was not addressed.196

If production at Magnitogorsk was financially behind, construction was in far worse shape. A confidential financial report prepared by the chief bookkeeper of the Magnitogorsk complex for the Commissariat of Heavy Industry (dated 16 March 1935) painted a picture of a financial morass: missing funds, missing supplies, missing equipment, unrecorded expenditures, plus mistakes from previous years yet to be cleared up.197 In later years, “budgets” were still mostly drawn up after the fact, if at all, yet cost overruns became routine.198 In 1936, the newspaper carried reassuring reports of how construction costs were, as per plan, continually being lowered—until a bitter feud broke out between bank officials and the management of the construction trust.199

“The glowing results heralded in the year-end report of [the construction trust] conceal the realities of cost overruns and overstocking,” wrote an angry Aleksandr Lopaev, the director of the Magnitogorsk Branch of the Industrial Bank. To fulfill the plan for equipment acquisition, he disclosed, the construction trust simply ordered any equipment it could get its hands on, regardless of its use value. Even so, the equipment acquisition plan was not fulfilled.200 And despite mandated staff cuts and strict marching orders to improve bookkeeping, the Magnitogorsk construction trust remained a financial black hole, devouring state credits. In 1935, Lopaev revealed, the construction department of the MMK, which owed its suppliers more than 20 million rubles, was given a special 15 million rubles state “loan.” But six months later, he reported that it owed another 20 million.201 And a newspaper article reported the next day that the construction organization had just received 30 million rubles to pay its suppliers, but that it still owed 3 million more.202

Given this dismal picture of financial irresponsibility as outlined publicly by Lopaev and others in the Magnitogorsk newspaper, it should come as no surprise that determining how much the steel plant cost to build is impossible. In one official publication, a figure of 1.4 billion rubles was given for all expenditures as of late 1939.203 By contrast, John Scott, who had access to the factory archive (such as it was), wrote that more than 2.5 billion rubles had been spent by the early 1940s. But Scott appears to have simply reproduced the official cost estimates as of 1934.204 In fact, despite the insistence of GUMP, there were no meaningful construction cost profiles for the entire period 1934–38.205

Although it is not possible to know how much the plant cost, one thing is sure: the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex cost a fortune.206 But the regime had its own calculus. By the end of 1938, the Magnitogorsk Works had already produced more than 7.5 million tons of pig iron, 5 million tons of steel, and 3 million tons of rolling stock. This was considerably less than the plan targets, much of this total did not reflect usable steel, and the costs of production were far higher than anticipated. In the program of “building socialism” the results were wasteful, to put it mildly. But all the same, there were results—and a sprawling contingent of officials, as well as an even larger army of workers, to perpetuate, record, and try to live off these results, without the threat of unemployment.


The Soviet superindustrialization drive was suffused with a radical ethos, a repudiation of the conciliation with “capitalist elements” embodied in the New Economic Policy of the 1920s and a revival of the “heroism” of what in retrospect had come to be known as “war communism.”207 The Five-Year Plan went forward with “Bolshevik tempo” as the principal watchword, and a pervading sense that time was a dangerous enemy. In Vremia, Vpered! (Time, Forward!), Valentin Kataev’s 1932 novel based on his experiences at Magnitogorsk, a brigade of shock workers struggles to break the “work record” for pouring concrete in one eight-hour shift. The attempt for the world record—which takes place during a violent storm, the storm of the Five-Year Plan—is an assault on time: “Time did not wait. It raced. It had to be outdistanced.” Centuries of “backwardness” were going to be made up in a decade.208

The industrialization held out the promise of a bold leap forward, and the realization of this promise was demonstrated by the construction of Magnitogorsk. To begin with, there was the scale of the construction: millions upon millions of cubic meters of earth moved, hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of concrete poured, tens of thousands of tons of structural steel assembled. “It was impossible to imagine the future plant,” confessed one eyewitness, who added that “even though I saw the blueprints and some sketches, I never really understood what it was going to be like. I only knew it was going to be something colossal.”209 Even after the plant was erected and people finally began to get a sense of what they were building, they continued to gape in disbelief and awe. “No one could have imagined the scale of production in mill 500,” wrote the chief of the mill. “Even rolling mill operators from other parts of the USSR could not fathom the colossal scale.”210

Not just the scale but the power of the new technology bowled people over. Magnitogorsk contained the largest and (on paper) most sophisticated blast furnaces in the world, the largest mechanized mining enterprise in the USSR, a coke plant that stood on the same level with the best of Germany and the United States, one of the first large blooming mills ever in the USSR, a whole series of technologically advanced rolling mills that stretched for miles, “auxiliary” shops that were as large as whole factories—the complex was a revolution in Soviet industry that could be seen and admired. When Ordzhonikidze bragged in 1935 that “our factories, our mines, our mills are now equipped with . . . the latest word in world technology,” everyone in Magnitogorsk possessed a concrete picture of what his words meant, even if not all the technology at the plant was brand new.211

Along with its massive scale and power, the undertaking was further distinguished by the speed of its construction under nearly impossible conditions. As the Magnitogorsk plant rapidly began to take shape, Ordzhonikidze remarked dismissively that “even among us there were people, nonparty and party alike, who didn’t believe, who said it was an adventure.”212 What else to call it! What was the whole Five-Year Plan! Bolshevism itself! A gigantic steel plant in the empty steppe in a few years—how was it possible? It was not possible, but there it was.

As of 1 January 1937 the Magnitogorsk Works had a total of seventy-two shops, with more to come.213 Even if the plant’s actual capacities were closer to half those set by Gipromez in 1933, Magnitogorsk was still a very large steel plant.214 A new vocabulary—gigant, kombinat—was used to set off the undertaking and underscore the point that this was no ordinary factory. Around the country and internationally, Magnitogorsk stood as a symbol of achievement and of the newfound power of the Soviet Union, bringing legitimacy to the regime. “The Magnitogorsk Works,” gloated the propagandists, “is living proof of what Bolsheviks are able to achieve.”215

To be sure, the plant that arose at Magnitogorsk reflected the circumstances of its rushed construction (for which, ironically, the Soviet leadership would later be credited with prophetic foresight.)216 What is more, the plant operated within an economic order in which it was extremely difficult to ensure quality, control expenditures, or match output to precise needs. But even though the country’s novel planning and economic management system was found by its operatives to be cumbersome and inefficient, Magnitogorsk produced steel, and that fact could not be gainsaid. “The unprejudiced visitor,” one foreign convert wrote, “may be struck by the waste, the perpetual outbreaks of anarchy; but he is still bound to recognize that the Soviets have raised a regular industrial town here out of the ground within two years. After that, their boasts do not seem quite so ridiculous.”217

By 1929 the October revolution had come to mean “building socialism,” and building socialism had come to mean not only the party’s monopoly on power but the deployment of Soviet blast furnaces and rolling mills. With the industrialization drive, a typical speech about “the revolution” was taken up with the class war (both internally as expressed in intraparty struggles and externally as expressed in German and Japanese military postures) and with tables of data on gross pig iron output and rolled steel production. Steel, as the basis of the state’s power and identity, held a kind of magic aura, a glow nowhere more in evidence than at the gigantic Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex. At once perhaps the most visible blow against the international bourgeoisie and the party’s internal enemies and the proudest trophy of the international working class and of the toiling Soviet people, Magnitogorsk was no mere business for generating profits; it was a device for transforming the country: its geography, its industry, and above all its people.218 Magnitogorsk was the October revolution itself, the socialist revolution, Stalin’s revolution.

In 1934 the steel plant at Magnetic Mountain became the Stalin Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex. Stalin’s very name—Man of Steel—embodied both the iron rule of the Bolshevik party and the production of steel. A volume put out in 1937 to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the Magnitogorsk plant contained little else besides statistics on production and homages to Stalin: Stal i Stalin, Steel and Stalin.219 An oversized likeness of Stalin presided on the wide square in front of the factory gates, greeting everyone who came and went. Long after that statue would be torn down and Stalin’s name removed from the steel plant, the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex, and the civilization that arose with it, would remain an eloquent monument to Stalin and the epoch of his rule.

2 Peopling a Shock Construction Site

What is Magnitostroi? It is a grandiose factory for remaking people. Yesterday’s peasant . . . becomes a genuine proletarian . . . fighting for the quickest possible completion of the laying of socialism’s foundation. You are an unfortunate person, my dear reader, if you have not been to Magnitostroi. I feel sorry for you.

R. Roman, a visiting Moscow correspondent1

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 perhaps never before seen such a wild and isolated place.3

Whereas the site had obvious advantages for operating a steel plant, the hinterland surrounding the site designated as Magnitostroi lacked any of the elements necessary to sustain a large construction. There were almost no trees and neither coal nor any other source of energy. There were few established agricultural centers; indeed, there was virtually no good pastureland. The severe continental climate with long and bitterly cold winters exacerbated by brisk winds from the Arctic, followed by unbearably hot and dry summers, rendered the steppe even more inhospitable. Meanwhile, there were no nearby population clusters from which the construction site could draw its inhabitants.4 The nearest large urban center, Cheliabinsk, was several hundred kilometers away, and primitive connections made it seem much farther.5

Without sustenance from its own hinterland and far from a larger urban center that might have served as a logistical support base, Magnitostroi was utterly dependent on long-distance rail. Everything had to be brought in: supplies, machines, and especially people. Perhaps as few as twenty-five people were in the original party that arrived in March 1929. But by the fall of 1932 Pravda announced that the population on the site had reached 250,000.6 From twenty-five people to a quarter million in three and a half years: who were these people, where did they come from, how did they get there, and what became of them? The short-term answer is that they came and went, largely as they pleased. The long-term one is that notwithstanding the considerable flux, they soon formed a permanent urban population.

Magnetic Mountain

In a memorable phrase, Moshe Lewin christened the social upheaval brought on by the first Five-Year Plan as “a quicksand society”7 Conversely, Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote of the same period as a time of “terror, progress, and upward mobility.”8 These broad characterizations convey a sense of what the far-reaching social changes effected by the superindustrialization drive looked like from on high. Both characterizations, however, fail to capture something of the view from the ground, where neither quicksand nor terror and progress quite had the same meaning. The goal of this chapter is to offer just such a ground-level perspective.

In analyzing the story of the peopling of Magnitostroi, it must be kept in mind that it was more than a construction site for a colossal and technologically advanced steel plant: it was also a political device. At Magnitostroi, as the busy pamphleteers tirelessly pointed out, “it is not only the mountain and the steppe that are being rebuilt. Man himself is being rebuilt.”9 Accordingly, an analysis of this process must treat both the importation of a large population to a previously almost-uninhabited location and the ultimately even more challenging task of transforming each incoming individual into a specific kind of urbanite.

In their attempts not merely to populate Magnitostroi but to populate it with people who lived and thought in new ways, the authorities were confronted with subtle and not-so-subtle forms of resistance and with unforeseen contingencies that necessitated reformulations in their strategies. As the new population programs unfolded, the leadership’s resolve showed itself to be greater than its abilities to control the course of events it had set in motion. The methods to which the central authorities resorted for realizing their ambitious transformational goals remained predictable even as the results of their policies continued to surprise.


People came to the site Magnitostroi by one of several methods: first of all, in keeping with Bolshevik practice, people were “mobilized,” that is, ordered to the site by party, government, or trade union organizations. In mid-1930 the office of the Magnitostroi trust, housed in the cozy quarters of the grandest building in Sverdlovsk, was suddenly mobilized to the site.10 According to one contemporary, “many specialists did not feel like moving from the oblast center, where there were theaters, cinemas, and other cultural activities, to the bare, wild steppe.”11 Another member from the original group recalled that “many greeted the [relocation] notice as a personal tragedy. It was very difficult, even pitiful, to forsake the comfort of one’s own apartment in the busy and well-known city. And for what? To settle God knows where, in the middle of some deserted mountain of the steppe.”12

Back in Moscow, the reaction was just as severe, if not worse. One mobilized employee from the eastern-branch steel trust recalled seeing what he called “an interesting picture in the offices of Vostokostal.” The mobilized, he explained, “were mostly old specialists, whose wives sometimes begged tearfully not to be sent to Magnitostroi or Kuznetskstroi, and produced hundreds of slips of paper, claiming objective reasons. Many even got away with it, but with a reluctant heart and tearful farewells the majority . . . went into ‘political exile’ [ssylka], as they said back then.”13

Vesenkha, the agency overseeing the country’s economy, sent many “specialists” from the capital to Magnitostroi on temporary assignment (komandirovka). Although these consultants were housed in the comparatively comfortable quarters of the Central Hotel, they did not relish the duty. “In the hotel,” recalled one contemporary, “the majority of residents were employees from the administration who would gather at night to discuss whose assignment ended when.” A favorite trick of these people was to put in for a short “vacation” and not return.14 “Everyone had the same thought,” recalled local party official Mordukh Dmitrii Gleizer: “what was the quickest way out of Magnitka, at any price.”15

Graduates of higher education institutions were looked upon as prime material for mobilizations. Vesenkha sometimes dispatched entire classes (up to 200 people or more) of a technical or trade school immediately upon graduation.16 In a similar vein, some of those sent to Magnitostroi had just been “graduated” from the Red Army. When construction resumed on the rail link in spring 1929, an entire army regiment was sent, and in 1930, almost a thousand demobilized soldiers were dispatched to Magnitostroi.17 Magnitostroi sent representatives as far as the Belorussian military district to gather in demobilized soldiers before they could disperse.18

In the directives for mobilization, the authorities paid particular attention to party members and skilled workers. In May 1930, for example, the Central Committee ordered “Communists” and “skilled” workers to be sent to Magnitostroi from Dneprostroi, Turksib, and other construction sites.19 Such mobilizations were numerous and usually effected with great commotion and fanfare. One party official sent to the site in 1931 as part of a special mobilization of twenty “leading” party activists recalled how a deputy in the Central Committee Organization Department broke the news about their mobilization:

“Comrades, you’re going to Magnitka. And do you know what Magnitka is?”

“No, we haven’t a clue.”

“Unfortunately, neither do we, but you’re going to Magnitka all the same.”20

The party’s whim—more precisely, the whim of functionaries within the layers of the apparat—was a force which could strike at any moment.

Most of those mobilized, although rarely pleased with being ordered to Magnitostroi, expected upon arrival to see large blast furnaces, steel mills, and the socialist city. Instead, what greeted them were the empty expanses of the steppe and the primitive conditions of their new life, which could turn their trepidation into outright panic, not to say despair. “They told us, ‘Well, here’s Magnitogorsk,’ and we began to look around,” one astonished contemporary recalled. “But there was nothing, just a few barracks. So we began to press them, ‘Where’s the city?’ but they answered: ‘Here’s the city, what else can we do for you?’”21 The lamentations over having to undergo exile contained an element of truth.

For some people the notion of exile was more than an analogy. In 1932, a skilled worker named Tomilov sent to Magnitostroi with a group from Mariupol was accompanied by his wife, who, upon seeing the famous “world giant,” screamed: “Where have we come, like exiles,”22 referring to “political” exiles of the tsarist days.23 In fact, among those “mobilized,” but not including the Tomilovs, there were a few dozen so-called prisoner specialists, older engineers victimized in the fabricated 1930 Industrial Party trial and sentenced to banishment.24 It was one of the many paradoxes of the times that Magnitogorsk, the most potent symbol of the heroic building of socialism, could also be a place of exile—and not just for “bourgeois engineers,” as we shall see.

All local party officials were of course assigned to their posts, but given the demand everywhere for party workers, such political mobilizations never involved large numbers. Moreover, not all of those lower-level party members and their counterparts in the larger ranks of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol) who were sent actually made it to the site. Despite the fact, for example, that the Moscow Komsomol continually mobilized hundreds of Komsomols for Magnitostroi in 1930, all told only twenty or so individuals arrived on the site, including five young girls not allowed by law to work eight hours; some of the others in the group of twenty were called up for military service immediately after arrival. The Urals oblast Komsomol sent more than one hundred Komsomol activists, but only fifteen made it to the site.25 Notwithstanding the mixed and often meager results, mobilizations of political workers continued (a bit later, a handful of party members who had belonged to the various “oppositions” were exiled to Magnitostroi).26

Mobilizations were often connected with the transfer of an important official, who would bring along associates. For example, when Iakov Gugel from the Mariupol factory arrived to head Magnitostroi in January 1931, wrote one eyewitness, “behind him stretched a string of hundreds of people.”27 But the people Gugel attempted to bring with him to Magnitostroi had a hard time leaving Mariupol. “For a long time they didn’t want to let us go,” recalled the man who became the head of open-hearth construction under Gugel. “Then came an order directly from Ordzhonikidze,” which was heeded.28 In other cases, however, even phone calls from the offices of the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry could not “liberate” mobilized workers and specialists from their factories.29

A small but vital contingent of people “mobilized” to the site by Soviet authorities were foreigners, of which there were essentially three groups. One consisted of political refugees from Europe who had fled east and who, upon crossing the Soviet border, had promptly been arrested. During 1932 and 1933, some of these freedom-seekers were shipped to Magnitostroi, which by then was being called Magnitogorsk, and placed under the surveillance of the security police (GPU). During the latter part of the 1930s virtually all of these people were deported to camps further east.30

A second group of foreigners consisted of hired technical personnel. Most of the highly qualified specialists went to Magnitogorsk on individual contracts with Amtorg or were sent by the Western firms that had contracted to design, equip, and supervise the construction. By late 1930 Magnitogorsk contained eighty-six American engineers representing various European and American firms.31 Beginning already in 1931 and continuing for the next two years, however, foreign specialists were recalled by their companies when disagreements arose between the companies and Soviet authorities, and by 1933 the number of valiuta (foreign currency) Americans had shrunk to seven.32

The third group of foreigners consisted of those who had come to the USSR on tourist visas but were looking for work. Upon arrival they usually went to the offices of some construction trust or industrial enterprise, where they were gladly enlisted and sent to sites such as Magnitogorsk. In the mid-1930s there were some two hundred skilled German workers working for rubles in Magnitogorsk (among them the future East German party chief, Erich Honecker), a good number of them members of communist or socialist parties who had their own understanding of socialism.33 Similarly, as of 1933 there were around seventy American workers, including thirty who were members of the Soviet Communist party (one of whom was John Scott). Many of the American workers were returning emigrants.34

Altogether, despite discrepancies in the sources, it seems that the number of foreign specialists and workers in Magnitogorsk, excluding refugees, probably did not exceed one thousand, with fewer than that at any one time.35 In this way, the number of foreign workers and specialists at Magnitogorsk probably matched that of the Soviet specialists and officials who were mobilized to the site—a very small number of the total who came.

Still, mobilizations never ceased. Both the Central Committee and the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry considered commanding people to go wherever these authorities felt they were needed an indispensable method of administration. The Bolshevik leadership would have decreed the whole country mobilized, if it had thought it could succeed. In a way, it did just that, as mobilizations by command gave way to mobilizations by exhortation, or “recruitment.”

Recruitment (orgnabor) was the sole way that ordinary Soviet citizens—those who were neither foreigners, demobilized Red Army soldiers, party officials, nor specialists—were supposed to reach the construction site. Accordingly, industrial trusts and construction sites were empowered to negotiate with collective farms, offering raw materials and machines in exchange for labor power. The authorities also called for greater efforts to recruit members of workers’ and white-collar employees’ families, members of artisanal cooperatives, laborers, and noncollectivized “poor” peasants. At the same time, the People’s Commissariat of Labor had local labor bureaus in each oblast and, according to a Soviet scholar, in the second half of 1931 the People’s Commissariat of Labor for the Russian Federation (RSFSR) recruited 12,655 workers from the Central Black Earth Region, including 7,205 for Magnitostroi. The next year 22,520 people were recruited from the same region, 2,250 of whom were slated for Magnitostroi.36

Despite these impressive numbers, however, I. A. Kraval of the People’s Commissariat of Labor reported on 25 January 1931 that his commissariat was not up to the task of supplying Magnitostroi and other large projects even farther east with the mandated labor power. In response, on 27 March 1931 an important meeting was called with representatives of the All-Union Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS), Gosplan, the Labor Commissariat, and Vesenkha, and various measures were suggested for redoubling recruiting efforts. Vesenkha, for example, was finally allowed to recruit labor power for its industrial and construction centers on its own (a serious encroachment on the Labor Commissariat’s turf). But the real consequences of these reports and meetings would become apparent only later that spring.37

Like all large construction concerns, Magnitostroi had its own recruitment apparatus that sent representatives into officially designated areas of the country.38 Verbovshchiki, or recruiters, went to villages and told of the wonders of the world-historical giant being built at the foot of the iron-ore deposits, offering free rail transportation to the site and the promise of workclothes and a bread card upon arrival. After July 1930 they could also offer an extra month’s pay to those who put in five months on the site, and they often gave recruits “advances” to see them to the site.

Such recruitment efforts were supported by a national press campaign. Every major newspaper carried exhortations to work on the new construction sites, Magnitostroi especially: “Tebia zovet Magnitostroi!” [Magnitostroi is calling you!]. Documentary films and newsreel footage about the great construction were shown in factories and movie houses.39 Sometimes worker-correspondents would visit factories and construction sites to stump for recruits, handing out train tickets right there. “Evenings,” or nighttime discussions, on Magnitostroi were conducted in factories and other institutions.40 One former Red Army soldier and tractor driver, F. Kadochnikov, recalled how such recruitment pitches were made:

I first heard about Magnitka in my political training classes at the Frunze Artillery School, in Odessa. The commissar explained that, near the Ural River, they were going to build a gigantic metallurgical factory and a large modern city. He asked: “Who wants to go to this shock construction site?” More than ten hands shot up—all were from the Urals.41

Some potential recruits were more cautious, sending “scouts” to the site to investigate the promises of adventure and good pay and report back to the collective on what the actual conditions were.42

Other construction sites proved an especially good source for recruitment, particularly when various short-term goals were nearing completion. Viktor Kalmykov, who was featured in a special photographic essay on the newcomers, was one of hundreds who went to Magnitostroi after preliminary foundation work had been finished at the Stalingrad tractor site in 1930.43 In the enthusiasm of the moment, entire work gangs would sometimes declare their desire to participate in the building of socialism at Magnetic Mountain. Such was the case with Khabibulla Galiullin, a Tatar, who was recruited along with some fifty compatriots from a construction site in Moscow.44 In such cases the line between recruitment and mobilization became blurred.

The press campaign and other recruitment efforts were supplemented by letter writing to friends and relatives back home, some officially sponsored but much of it spontaneous, by those already living at the site.45 “At that time there was so much in the papers about the building of the new cities, and about industrialization, and we young people were all enthusiastic about the new cities,” explained Mariia (Masha) Scott. “My sister had already gone to Magnitogorsk and she wrote me how interesting it was, how nice, how it was something new.” A student in Moscow at the time, Scott boarded a train and upon arrival took up residence with her sister and brother-in-law.46

But recruitment in all its forms met many obstacles. Industrial enterprises, compelled to enter into agreements to provide workers for Magnitostroi, sent far fewer people than had been agreed upon, if they sent anyone at all.47 Magnitostroi signed agreements with dozens of factories to send skilled workers, but these workers were needed where they were, and usually only those few skilled workers without small plots of land (pashnia) were even willing to consider the offer.48 As for the supposed reserves of the collective farms, they supplied no more than 11 percent of all those who came to the site in 1932 and only 6 percent in 1933.49 Collective farm chairmen reportedly concealed recruitment announcements from members and lied to them about the requests being made to collective farms for supplying construction workers.50

The traveling recruiters were apparently not very capable or trustworthy. In the second half of 1930, for example, of the sixty-five recruiters sent out by Magnitostroi, thirty-six returned without having recruited a single person, in the process spending 200 to 2,000 rubles each.51 And even those few people actually recruited did not always make it all the way to the site. The recruiters “were clever; they promised the moon and brought with them brochures,” recalled one recruit, “but many recruits disappeared before reaching Magnitostroi, some even drinking their advances, while many left just after arrival.”52

Locally known recruiters were often the most successful,53 but they too faced many obstacles, as the following story about the efforts of a Novostal agent illustrates. “A recruiting [Novostal] agent for Kuznetskstroi came to our village,” an eyewitness recalled. “Two thousand people showed up at a meeting. He spoke about the details of the contract and tried to paint a rosy picture. But we were experienced workers, and so we didn’t believe him. He flopped and was powerless to recruit even a fraction of our village.” But this was not the end of the story. The narrator of this vignette had himself gotten a telegram from an old acquaintance who now worked for Magnitostroi and who had asked him to go to the site, which he did. Not long after arrival, he was sent back to his village to recruit, at which time he discovered the presence of the Novostal agent. “Since I was well known and trusted,” the local explained, “already on the second day my neighbors began knocking at my door.”

But anyone wanting to sign up with him had somehow to bypass the spurned Novostal agent, who refused to leave the village. A list of around two hundred names was compiled by the local and sent to Novostal headquarters, and a new agent came with 15,000 rubles advance money to pick up the workers for Magnitostroi. Yet even this was still not the end of the story, for most of those on the list belonged to the local trade union, which naturally refused to let its workers go. This meant that they would be without valid travel documents and thus would have difficulty using the advance to buy the train tickets. Recruitment was a tricky business.54

In fact, the overwhelming majority of people went to Magnitostroi not through recruitment but haphazardly, by what was called samotek. Official statistics, heavily biased to demonstrate the success of recruitment, nevertheless could not conceal its failure. In 1931, 48 percent of all workers who came to the site were supposedly recruited; in 1932, 29 percent, and in 1933, 24 percent. These already meager numbers should be reduced still further because not everyone “recruited” made it to the site, while even those who made it often did not stay. Even top officials recognized that the policy of organized recruitment never amounted to much more than whistling in the dark. To central authorities doggedly committed to supervision of the country’s labor supply, a change in strategy was called for. As it happened, a solution of sorts presented itself in the form of new village policies that accompanied the industrialization drive.

After a series of increasingly burdensome taxes and other means of harassment, on 30 January 1930 the Central Committee adopted a resolution formally calling for the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class.”55 “Dekulakization” had already been taking place in some areas, but now it became an officially declared policy, and persons accused of being “kulaks,” kulak “henchmen,” or “ideological” kulaks had their property confiscated and were forbidden “to join” the collective farms. Many were shot or sent to camps; the rest were “sentenced” to exile with forced labor and deported to the North, Siberia, the Urals, Kazakhstan, or remote areas of their own regions.56

A second and far larger wave of “kulak” deportations occurred following a formal decision by the leadership in February 1931—that is, right in the midst of the nervous top-level discussions on labor shortages at all the major construction sites of the Five-Year Plan, including Magnitostroi.57 The aforementioned 27 March 1931 panicky meeting on the shortfall in the labor supply for Magnitostroi and other large construction sites found its resolution. The scientific authority of class analysis and the pliability of class categories, when combined with the Bolshevik leadership’s eagerness to resort to state-organized violence, helped to make possible the deportations, which in turn facilitated the authorities’ ambitious plans for the new construction sites.

Tightly packed boxcars carrying dekulakized peasants began to arrive at Magnitostroi in May 1931 and continued to do so throughout 1931 and 1932.58 (In the month of June 1931 alone, the population at Magnetic Mountain jumped some 50,000.)59 One Soviet eyewitness to their arrival recalled when

they began to drive the special resettlers to Magnitogorsk. An extraordinary plenipotentiary arrived. They called for me. A car came at 1 A.M., and I rode to them. Comrade Gugel Iakov Semenovich, the chief of the construction, was there. The plenipotentiary turned to me and asked my name. Then he asked: “Do you [ty] know who you’re speaking with?” I said, “I don’t know you [vy].” He answered: “Here’s how you can help me. In three days there will be no fewer than 25,000 people. You served in the army? We need barracks built by that time.” . . . They herded in not 25,000, but 40,000. It was raining, children were crying, as you walked by, you didn’t want to look.60

Of course, the barracks were not built in three days or even three months. Instead, the peasant exiles, who numbered upwards of 40,000 men, women, and children, lived initially in tents. Thousands died during the winter.61

Concerned about the political loyalties of these people and the threat they supposedly posed, the authorities attempted to gauge their mood by monitoring conversations. One was overheard to say: “Why did they send us here to work, I’m a peasant. I don’t know industry, teaching me, an old man, 49 years old, is useless. It would be better to have stuck me in an isolation prison than to force me to work barefoot in industrial construction.” In the same conversation, someone characterized as a “kulak” reportedly remarked, “with Soviet power there is no unemployment and no labor power, and here they need many workers. And so the best and cheapest labor power are colonists, special resettlers. With us the Bolsheviks have less expense and trouble.”62

This was not far off the mark. It is as hard to imagine the construction of the Magnitogorsk Works in the empty steppe without the abundant reserve of penal labor as it would be to conceive the construction of the Gary Works in the marshes south of Chicago without the ready supply of cheap immigrant labor from southeast Europe. But, whereas Gary drew its initial work force after 1906 largely from the generous ranks of the urban unemployed or semiemployed,63 the deportations from Soviet villages to Magnitogorsk were part of a general rise in demand for labor at remote construction sites that Soviet urban populations—recruited voraciously for construction work in established cities—could not satisfy.

During the first Five-Year Plan, urban unemployment in the Soviet Union was “liquidated.”64 Yet while the construction sites helped to eliminate registered unemployment, the unemployed could not have provided the number of people needed for the construction projects: those officially counted as unemployed disappeared like a pitcher of water poured into the sea. Rather, the new construction sites were largely peopled by peasants driven from their villages, sometimes at gunpoint, sometimes out of hunger and desperation, or, in many cases, leaving out of genuine enthusiasm to see the cities.

Significant movement from countryside to city had been occurring ever since the emancipation of peasants in 1861. Within the Urals, otkhodniki, or peasant seasonal workers, traditionally left the villages for temporary work in timber, mining, or construction. This movement, which had essentially ceased during the Civil War but was renewed during the NEP, increased considerably during the first Five-Year Plan, when the number of otkhodniki in the Urals region was estimated to be 148,000 on 1 January 1931, 205,000 on 1 June 1931, 301,000 on 1 August 1931, and 424,800 on 1 January 1932.65 N. Efremov, the Soviet historian who provided these numbers, claimed that the 1932 total for otkhodniki represented more than 25 percent of all people of working age living in the Urals at the time.

That Magnitostroi, a place to which obviously no otkhodnik had ever traveled before (because it did not exist), was now receiving an influx of something resembling otkhodniki in tremendous numbers shows that with collectivization otkhod was undergoing transformation. This is not the place to examine the complicated otkhod issue in depth.66 Although statistics on otkhod per se are inconclusive, reflecting the confusion which prevailed at the time and continues to baffle scholars to this day, there can be no doubt that the number of those traveling from villages to cities and construction sites was increasing dramatically.67

For the Bolshevik leadership, however, the point was not to increase otkhod but to render it unnecessary by the permanent transfer of peasants to the cities. Accordingly, one of the main tasks at the new construction sites was to transform the construction industry into a year-round activity, eliminating its seasonal character, which was determined by weather and the rhythms of agriculture. This effort was particularly evident at Magnitostroi, where, among other things, winter concrete work was done outdoors in bitterly cold weather. There was even a special decree (prikaz) on work in cold weather: below – 20°C, frequent breaks and more frequent shift changes were called for, while no work was supposed to be done when the temperature reached – 41°C.68 These guidelines, even if not always followed, indicate that construction work was indeed being conducted in winter and that the seasonal character of construction, one of the basic structures of the otkhod system, had at least been partially undermined. Efremov claims that of the 424,000 otkhodniki tabulated by January 1932, more than 250,000 stayed on in the cities permanently,69 meaning that despite his use of the contemporary designation attached to these people, technically they were no longer otkhodniki.

Whether as temporary, seasonal workers or as one-way out-migrants, then, it was those lumped into the category of otkhodniki who were helping to people the new construction sites most extensively. During the first Five-Year Plan the urban population of the Urals climbed 1,172,000, from 1,635,000 (1928–29) to 2,807,000 (1932). During the same period, the village population declined by more than 600,000.70 Clearly, the countryside was populating the cities of the Urals, but which countryside?

According to one Soviet scholar, 70 percent of the new urban population in the Urals came from within the region.71 That may have been so for the Urals as a whole, but the one year for which detailed data were available to me on the region of origin for the population coming into Magnitostroi, 1931, shows a different picture (see table 2). As is evident from the table, the largest single category consisted of people whose region of origin was unspecified. No doubt many of these people came from within the Urals region, but it is impossible to conclude that the majority, let alone 70 percent, of all in-migrants did. In 1931 at least 55,000 out of the 116,000 did not come from the Urals.72

Table 2. Origin of Incoming Population, Magnitostroi, 1931

Magnetic Mountain

SOURCE: The table is adapted (with totals corrected) from a table reproduced, without citation, in Serzhantov, “KPSS—Vdokhnovitel,” p. 183, citing Magnitostroi, nos. 1–4, 1932, pp. 85–86. See also RGAE, f. 4086, op. 2, d. 119, l. 22, where a similar table can be found.

Consider again the dekulakized. One Soviet source asserts that between 1930 and 1932, 15,200 “kulak” families in the Urals were deported (how many more escaped deportation but had to flee?), although it gives no indication of their destination.73 Some certainly were sent to Magnitostroi. But according to John Scott, the majority of dekulakized at Magnitostroi came from Kazan and its surrounding districts, and according to a Soviet source they came from Kazan and the Ukraine.74 It seems clear from the example of Magnitostroi that, both through deportations and the transformation of otkhod, the Urals region was experiencing an influx of population from outside, particularly from the territories to its immediate west.

That Magnitostroi was primarily peopled from villages outside the Urals, through deportation and the transformation of otkhod, can be highlighted by a brief examination of the national composition of the site’s population.75 According to a 1931 pamphlet, Russians made up 83.7 percent of Magnitostroi’s population, Ukrainians 6.8 percent (around 8,000 people), White Russians 1.6 percent, Tatars 2.7 percent (around 3,000), Bashkirs 1.4 percent, with no other groups above 1 percent.76 Kazakhs are not listed, but the local newspaper revealed that some 4,000 Kazakhs “came” to the site at some time.77 It seems, then, that there were at least 1,000 or so Bashkirs, 3,000 Tatars, 4,000 Kazakhs, and 8,000 Ukrainians, or a total of some 16,000 non-Russians at Magnitostroi in 1931.78

Despite the population’s largely Russian character, these scattered figures indicating the presence of a sizable number of non-Russians at Magnitostroi are suggestive, for although bordered to the west by Bashkiria and Tataria and to the south by Kazakhstan, the Urals had had a population according to the 1926 census that was 91.21 percent Russian. In the words of one geographer (writing just prior to the founding of Magnitostroi), the Urals region was “a Russian island surrounded by a sea of nationalities.”79 In other words, by 1931 there were significantly higher proportions of non-Russians at Magnitostroi than had been the case previously for the Urals.

The Ukrainians are a good example. Although Ukrainian peasants had been migrating eastward in large numbers since the end of the nineteenth century, it seems that few settled in the Urals.80 In fact, in 1926 Ukrainians constituted less than 1 percent of the population in the Urals, a figure so small that allowances for the notorious underreporting of Ukrainian nationals outside the Ukraine could not alter it significantly. In contrast, Ukrainians at Magnitostroi in 1931 accounted for almost 7 percent of the total population. Many perhaps had been deported to Magnitostroi, while of those who came “freely” very few would have been otkhodniki in the original sense of the term, given the distance involved.

In sum, the (at least) 16,000 Bashkirs, Tatars, Kazakhs, and Ukrainians present at Magnitostroi in 1931 could hardly have been indigenous to the Urals. They came from elsewhere, as seems true of half, at the very least, of Magnitostroi’s aggregate population. Villages outside the Urals were “peopling” Magnitostroi. With mobilizations producing no more than a drop in the ocean and recruitment a disappointing failure, central authorities, having created chaos in the countryside with the radical policies of collectivization and dekulakization, were in effect “squeezing” people out of the village—Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Kazakhs—and trying to direct them to distant destinations, such as Magnitostroi.


The conductor announced that we had arrived in Magnitogorsk. From the train a motley crowd quickly poured out. The clothes of the newly arrived were primarily home-spun. Only a few wore jackboots or shoes. The rest wore bast sandals. Waiting until the flow of new construction workers dispersed, I started along. Along the way horses were carrying bricks, cement, and logs. From the left could be heard incessant hammering, resembling machine-gun fire. I caught up to the horse laden with cement. Behind the horse was walking a tall, lean, unshaven muzhik. I asked him, what was that hammering? The muzhik answered severely: “You mean you don’t know! They are building a blast furnace [domna]. It will be bigger than all the others on the earth!” What a blast furnace was, I didn’t know, and I didn’t ask.81

Who were the people congregated at Magnitogorsk? How were they categorized? What was expected of them?

A countrywide sampling of members of the Metal Workers Union in 1932–33 indicated that 57.2 percent of all such workers at Magnitogorsk were “peasants.”82 (And how many of those listed as “workers” had been peasants until rather recently?) Another Soviet source expressed concern that as many as two-thirds of all those on the construction site had no previous industrial experience, and very few had any “skills” beyond wielding an axe.83 Also, in 1931, when the criteria for literacy were not very stringent, as much as 30 percent of the Magnitogorsk work force was pronounced illiterate or semiliterate.84 Finally, the population at Magnitogorsk was generally young—as of 1 January 1933, almost half the workers were under twenty-four years of age85—and primarily male.86 Here, then, was the bulk of the new people who would build socialism and populate the new city as they appeared to the agents charged with characterizing them: former villagers, young, male, unskilled, and either illiterate or semiliterate.

Such a profile of the country’s new work force—which applied, although to a lesser degree, to other cities and factories throughout the Soviet Union87—caused the Bolshevik leadership considerable alarm: a proletarian revolution, it was felt, needed a “real” proletariat, not a peasant work force. In the leadership’s thinking, “consciousness” was strongly dependent on social background. The much-feared “peasantization” of the urban work force and city population induced the leadership to commission numerous studies and censuses of the politically vital proletariat and to issue various decrees and instructions, all of which made clear that the authorities were inclined to take special measures to address what they perceived to be a critical problem. That problem was defined in a specific way, the analysis of which requires step-by-step treatment.

In its simplest form, the point was as follows: when completed, the Magnitogorsk Works was going to need a large number of workers—19,500 workers, according to a 1931 Vesenkha calculation (up from the original projection of 14,610). Of that work force, 7,000 were to be supplied by other factories, 2,000 would come from active recruitment by the factory, another 2,000 from the factory’s training programs, and the rest, 8,500, simply from among the workers of the construction site itself.88 In other words, even with the overly optimistic assessment of how much of the operating personnel would come from other factories, the majority (8,500 plus 2,000) were to come from the population already at the site. Yet how were they going to make skilled workers and urbanites out of the people on hand? Machines and equipment could be imported, but operating personnel could not. As one Soviet historian wrote, “the most important problem in the construction of the factory was supplying it with cadres.”89

For the authorities, creating a skilled work force for Magnitogorsk was understood as a “struggle for cadres,” cadres in the sense of qualified technicians. To begin with, the authorities reasoned that they needed some sort of mass training program for the peasants who lacked industrial skills. To this end, they sent potential workers to nearby Verkhne-Uralsk, fifty kilometers north of the site, where they were enrolled in “courses” that were based on the pedagogical methods of the Central Institute of Labor.90 In a few weeks, these youngsters would learn, for example, how to lay bricks. But when they returned to the site, there were no bricks to be found, a situation that led to the questioning by local authorities of sending inexperienced workers to training schools. Not surprisingly, such mass training schools away from the site were abandoned and replaced by on-the-job training supplemented by all sorts of makeshift courses, circles, technical hours, night schools, and brigade instruction.91 To a great extent, the subject of the training did not matter, for trainers discovered that “workers who were in training courses, no matter how brief, mastered the production process faster than those who were not, commanded complicated machines better, and showed higher productivity with less idle time.”92 It was the inculcation of new attitudes, habits, and rhythms of work that was the key, and these could be (indeed, had to be) acquired in the “heat of construction.”

Building factory shops and creating personnel to run them went hand in hand, and in the words of the popular contemporary expression, technicians “grew like mushrooms” on the site.93 As a leading historian of Magnitogorsk has written, “thousands of workers of the Magnitogorsk complex in a very short time traversed the path of unskilled laborer, zemlekop, master, brigadier, foreman, and so on.”94 It should be added that on-the-job training applied to so-called engineers as well as laborers. In 1931 less than two-thirds of the “engineers” on the site had higher or middle-level educations, and certainly only a handful had real engineering experience.95 As late as 1935, 70 percent of the 1,465 “specialists” at Magnitostroi had no technical training and were qualified as specialists solely “from experience.”96

But acquiring technical skills formed just one element of the larger goal. “The struggle for cadres in Magnitostroi,” a Soviet scholar has written, “was a struggle for the rearing of workers coming from the village in the spirit of socialist relations to labor.”97 The Magnitogorsk factory was not only to supply the country with metal; it would also supply it with a proletariat, and the creation of a proletariat was not simply a question of producing skilled workers, but of skilled workers who were “socialist.” The struggle for creating skilled workers was equally a struggle for instilling political allegiance, which in turn was part of the establishment at Magnetic Mountain of “Soviet power.” At Magnitogorsk Soviet power did not arise automatically from a decree; nor was it based solely on the party and the police. Soviet power existed through the people’s belief and participation in it.

Pamphleteers, whose ranks served as a graphic manifestation of the existence of a battle for the allegiance of the people, were finely attuned to what was at stake in such a battle, as the following conversation, which reportedly took place on the site in the first years, shows:

“Did you catch that, old woman? A Giant is being built. There’s going to be a factory here. It will make iron.”

“Why are you bothering me? You’re accursed. They’re not going to build anything here. The Bolsheviks are only fantasizing. Agitating the people.”

The old woman, who lost two sons in the Civil War and had another leave her, roared that the Bolsheviks “sit on our necks! They suck our blood!”98 And it was not just old women who spoke thus (although we cannot expect the pamphleteers to give us examples) or whose attitudes and allegiances constituted an arena of contestation. Let us, for example, examine the issue of the associations and groupings of the workers who arrived on the site.

Many of the peasants came to the site in traditional groups of migrant villagers known as artels whose leaders were generally older peasants, men who commanded absolute loyalty from the other members and brooked no incursions into their authority. One enthusiastic party member explained what he thought was at stake here:

An artel was completely composed of fellow villagers, and people came to the site as artels. In general, we did not have the right to interfere in their affairs. They divided the wages among themselves. Every artel had its own tradition [for dividing wages]. In the artels they had their own “masters of the first hand,” “masters of the second hand.” To the master of the first hand, they gave more money, to those of the second a little less, and so on. It did not depend on how a person worked, but only on his position. These traditions were strongly maintained. . . . We had to smash the artels.99

That artels might somehow coexist with Soviet power seems not to have been considered.

Instinctively suspicious of even a hint of an alternative center of authority, the Bolshevik leadership at Magnitogorsk, following national directives, adopted several strategies for curbing the power of the local artels. First, they introduced piece rates, trying to tie wages to individual job performance. This policy was of course resisted by the artels and by itself would have had no effect.100 But in addition, the authorities sought volunteers among the artel members to form “brigades,” led by “new men,” in the hope that they would drown out the artels. This approach seems to have had some effect. True, “there were cases in which old artel leaders somehow became brigade leaders,” recalled one participant, “but in the majority of cases brigadiers were ‘new’ people.”101

Despite certain surface resemblances between the artel and brigade forms of organization, and despite the periodic continuities in leadership, there could be no doubt that with this tactic the local Bolshevik leadership began to make inroads into the power of the artel leaders.102 But breaking the authority of the artel leaders was just the beginning. In forming brigades, the local authorities tried not only to undermine the old allegiances but, more importantly, to create new ones. In this critical task they were aided by the trade union organization and especially the Komsomol, which, along with the brigade, served as a Bolshevik wedge between the powerful artel leaders and the artel members.

It was at Magnitostroi and other large construction sites that, beginning in 1930, the Komsomol became a mass organization.103 Entrance into the Komsomol occurred in waves. Membership in Magnitogorsk’s Komsomol rose from just over 3,000 as of 1 January 1931 to 14,241 by 1 January 1932. Virtually all the new members had joined during 1931.104 In 1930 Magnitostroi was declared the first all-union Komsomol construction site,105 and a traveling brigade from the newspaper Komsomolskaia pravda set up an office there in a railroad car and in September 1930 began issuing Komsomolskaia pravda na Magnitostroe. By October the paper became Magnitogorskii komsomolets, purportedly the first localized regular Komsomol newspaper in the USSR.106

As the Bolshevik authorities at Magnitogorsk discovered, the Komsomol could be used for everything from night watches protecting the site to making the rounds in the barracks to fight carousing. Komsomols were particularly active in the campaigns for the liquidation of illiteracy (and not just their own), and they also played a key role in construction work: blast furnace no. 2 was christened “Komsomolka,” as virtually everyone working on it joined the Komsomol. “The Magnitogorsk Komsomol,” wrote one of the first directors of the site, Iakov Gugel, “was the most reliable and powerful organizing force of the construction.”107

The effectiveness of the new organizational strategy centered on the Komsomol and the brigade was developed through socialist competition and shock work. It is not possible here to examine these devices in detail. For the moment, it will suffice to illustrate how they were used in the programs for “peopling” Magnitostroi through an example: the construction in 1930 of a dam on the Ural River to supply the steel factory with water, celebrated as the first great event in the history of Magnitogorsk. Such a construction would seem a simple and straightforward matter, yet it turned out to be anything but that.108

Excavation work for the dam began on 26 July 1930. At first, the work went poorly. There was virtually no mechanization, not enough laborers to make up the difference, and in any case no one seemed to know what to do.109 In August representatives of the Central Control Commission-Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate (TsKK-RKI) visited the site of the future dam and sounded the alarm: “The dam is in danger!” A new local party organization was formed that, on 21 August, issued a special decree on the dam. Speeches were made, mobilizations were ordered, brigades were organized, shock work began: “Everyone to the dam! Everything for the dam.”110

In extremely cold temperatures, work continued around the clock (one brigade reportedly remained at its “post” heroically for thirty-six straight hours). Meals were skipped, and workers were often called back to the job for emergencies immediately upon returning home after long shifts.111 There were not enough heaters to keep the cement from freezing, and sometimes, when the electricity went down, cement was mixed by hand.112 “The chronicle of these days,” wrote a journalist, “is a long list of cubic meters, of cement mixes, of Komsomol mobilizations, of emergency duty, and of storming nights.”113

In a time-honored tradition, the authorities attempted to compensate for the low skill level among the builders with the greater motivation derived from a sense of higher purpose. Not everyone shared the same level of commitment, however, judging by the posters that were put up: “Entrance for all absentees and shirkers is blocked! “114 A “black” bulletin board carried the names of everyone who did not show up or “deserted” his or her post and thus “betrayed” the construction, and a “penalty” brigade was formed to combat absenteeism by seeking out the deserters and slackers to embarrass and shame them back to the job.115

On 3 September 1930 someone came up with the idea, inspired by the experience of the famed Dneprostroi hydroelectric dam, of having a “socialist competition” between the left and right banks of the river: first side to reach the middle wins.116 The American consultants in charge of overseeing the dam construction protested vehemently (to no avail) that there would be serious consequences if the two sides did not meet properly. To the Americans, the socialist competition was a technically unsound gimmick.117 Others protested the socialist competitions for different reasons, as one Soviet partisan recalled:

We spoke about socialist competition with the leader of an artel—a strong, tough old guy in a red calico peasant shirt, girded with a patterned sash. He listened to us with a reserved expression on his face. It seemed that he understood everything, and was agreed. . . . And then the old carpenter exclaimed: “It’s not your business to teach me how to work faster. With my axe I’ve brought forth dozens of churches and no one hurried me, nor told me that I worked slowly.”118

And not just old “peasants” but new men in the “brigades” resisted the socialist competitions as well.119 One journalist revealed that some of the peasants had their own competition: who could eat the most bread.120 In such an atmosphere, the dam would become, as would the construction as a whole, a highly charged field of political reckoning.

As evidence of the political significance engulfing the construction of the dam, the local leadership decided, against all technical considerations, that it should be finished in time for the 7 November holiday. But even this was not enough, for to this propitious date “counterplans” demonstrating greater ambition (and thus allegiance) were proposed: 1 November, then 15 October. In fact the dam, which was named in honor of the Ninth Komsomol Congress, was reportedly finished in early October—a “record” of just 74 days (as opposed to the 120 supposedly proposed by the Americans). The right bank won (by varying degrees, according to different accounts). Banners were hung, speeches were given, “heroes” were decorated, and busts of Lenin and Stalin were made from the cement. The atmosphere was described as “saturated” with “labor enthusiasm”121 (although at first, as one Soviet journalist tells it, the workers had not even been able to pronounce the word entuziast).122 Aleksandr Voroshilov (no relation to the marshal) composed a poem, “Pervaia Pobeda” (The First Victory), which is how the story of the dam was still known in Magnitogorsk fifty years later.

Did it matter that it was soon discovered that the dam was not deep enough and the water froze, so that the local authorities had to beg Moscow to send dredging explosives?123 Or that the water shortage became so acute that the same authorities begged Moscow for a water specialist to be sent immediately and began to build makeshift pipelines to distant streams? That this chronic water shortage persisted for years?124 And what of the fact that the capacity of the factory in the meantime had been raised considerably, so that the dam was utterly inadequate the moment it was finished, and that a whole new dam, over five times larger, had to be begun almost immediately; that when the second dam was completed (planned for 1932, it was not finished until 1938),125 the original dam was submerged? This all meant nothing.

What mattered instead was that the dam had been built—not only built but built ahead of schedule—and in the process hundreds of youths had come of age as loyal partisans of the cause. The number of shock workers skyrocketed during the building of the dam from 1,635 to over 6,000 in one month.126 And their “enthusiasm” soared.127 “As at a military front, where the will to victory decides the success of battle,” wrote Iakov Gugel, “so on the construction front of Magnitka, enthusiasm and labor upsurge became deciding forces.”128 This was not a mere dam but a gigantic crusade in which the lowest individual could become a great hero by straining to pour an extra load of cement. In a way, experiences on the construction site, such as building the dam, cemented Soviet power as much as the production of the steel plant itself would. “The Magnitogorsk dam,” wrote one pamphleteer, “was a school at which people began to respect Bolshevik miracles [chudesa]”—a telling word meant to be taken literally.129

Surrounded by empty steppe as far as the eye could see, hounded by freezing cold and blizzards, with little food or warm clothes, living in a crowded barracks and working sixteen-hour shifts moving earth in horse-drawn carts or pouring concrete in the dead of night—Magnitostroi workers soon divided into those who believed in the dream, in the great future, and those who did not. And allegiance was what Magnitostroi was, in a way, all about.

A group of young enthusiasts, working double shifts, whole days without rest and with little food, met to discuss the work on blast furnace no. 2, “their” furnace, the Komsomolka. One of them opened the meeting by asking, “Does anybody have any suggestions?” Someone else was quoted as saying, “What kind of suggestions could there be—everybody straight to the site for a subbotnik [any time extra work was performed without compensation].” If we are to believe the credible account from which this conversation is taken, the youths “worked until dawn.”130 Such pathos was genuine, and it was widespread. “Everyone, even the laborers, felt that Magnitogorsk was making history, and that he, personally, had a considerable part in it,” wrote John Scott, himself deeply affected by the enthusiasm of the crusade. “This feeling was shared to some extent even by the exiled kulaks.”131

But what about those who refused to be caught up in the excitement, who refused to perform all the outrageous requests that were made of them, who voiced an alternative view, even if on a seemingly trivial matter? They were branded “class enemies,” regardless to which class they belonged (either by birth or occupation). Here, for example, are the words attributed to Komissarov, a Donbas miner who had come to Magnitostroi: “Why are we working here? There is no bread, they pay us no money, there are no apartments, the chow is lousy, they don’t give us any work clothes. Is this living?”132 From these observations it was concluded that Komissarov, thirty years a miner, was a “class enemy.” In the logic of the struggle, anyone who asked for more rations, for better work, for more pay, for anything at all, “threatened” to undermine the whole enterprise, to bring the entire revolution to a halt. Such people were dubbed “kulaks” or “kulak henchmen,” people with a “doubtful past,” and were subjected to humiliations, expulsion from the site, and arrest.133 Even rumors were thought to constitute a threat to Soviet power.134

From the very beginning in Magnitogorsk, before the cement foundations were even poured, class enemies, right opportunists, and counterrevolutionaries were being “unmasked.”135 And every such “discovery” brought new exhortations to struggle harder and achieve more.136 The so-called struggle for cadres at Magnitostroi, where even “neutrality” could seem as suspicious as opposition, was an intricate political encounter. What the Red Army had been for the regime in the 1920s, the new construction sites became in the 1930s: its device for transforming and assimilating the peasantry into the collective crusade, the building of socialism, the Five-Year Plan, “the revolution,”—in short, the new civilization.

Table 3. Labor on Hand, 1931

Magnetic Mountain

SOURCE: Magnitostroi v tsifrakh, pp. 236–37, 242.


By the end of the first Five-Year Plan, according to one source, there were 305,000 people on construction sites in the Urals, compared with 42,000 at the beginning.137 More than half of these would have been at Magnitostroi. It was the biggest construction site in the Union. By the end of 1931, when the population of Magnitostroi was closing in on 200,000, the population of Karaganda was 96,000.138 At Novokuznetsk in 1931 there were said to be exactly 45,903 people, with another 5,862 across the river and six miles away in old Kuznetsk.139 Magnitostroi dwarfed the largest of the other “shock” (udarnyi), meaning priority, construction sites.

But Magnitostroi, the biggest shock construction site in a country that worshiped bigness, did not have enough “labor power,” even of the “unskilled” variety. In 1931, when the construction plan called for 47,105 semiskilled workers, the monthly average, no higher than 33,000, left the site some 14,000, or 30 percent, short. In detail, the breakdown for labor on hand by month in 1931 is provided in table 3. The planned targets of labor power were not met even during the peak months. The chief cause of the labor “shortfall” at Magnitostroi was not insufficient arrivals but excessive departures—a problem that attracted considerable attention.

What the authorities called labor fluidity (tekuchest, literally “leakage”) existed in the Urals before the establishment of Magnitostroi.140 Indeed, the authorities probably hoped that Magnitostroi would become a magnet that could draw in and retain the large roaming population. And crammed trains did come to Magnitostroi regularly, even if there was as yet no train station there, as expressed in this ditty from the barracks:

Ekh mne Milka napisala—

My arriving Mila wrote to me—

Vstrechai, milii, u vokzala.

Let’s meet, honey, at the station.

Telegrammu Milke dal:

I sent Mila a telegram:

Privozis soboi vokzal.

Bring the station with you.141

No matter: an incoming train approaching the site would simply come to a halt where a sign—“Magnitogorskaia”—had been placed on an uncoupled boxcar that sat on a siding, and unload its human cargo, or labor power.

The construction sites themselves had become “recruiters.” Arrivals were greeted, asked a series of questions about their point of origin, social status, skill-levels, and so on and signed up for work on the spot. “Thousands would get off,” wrote Zinovii Chagan, an essayist for Rabochaia gazeta stationed at Magnitostroi. “[They] were carrying homemade knapsacks [and] would ask: ‘Are there felt boots? work pants? Is there butter? How is it with eggs? Can one find milk? Are people joining trade unions?’ ” As an enticement, Chagan claimed that officials dispensed “bread and makhorka, some herring.”142

But if people were streaming into Magnitostroi, they were also streaming out. Vissarion “Beso” Lominadze, for a while city party secretary, presented figures for the number of those workers who had come and gone from Magnitostroi (see table 4).143 Since the average number of workers on the site was around thirty thousand, by early 1934 almost ten times as many workers had passed through the site than were at hand. Indeed, who had not been to Magnitostroi!

You tell someone you’re going to Magnitostroi, and everywhere you hear: “Magnitka, I’m going there,” or “I just came from there.” Somebody says he has a brother there, somebody else is waiting for a letter from his son. You get the impression that the whole country either was there already or is going there.144

Many people in fact came and left several times in the course of a single year.145

Table 4. Workers Arriving and Departing Magnitostroi, 1930–1933

Magnetic Mountain

SOURCE: Magnitogorskii rabochii, 15 and 20 January 1934.

     a It is possible that the figure of 67,000 for 1930 is a typographical error and should have read 57,000.

People were coming and going by the tens of thousands, and in between, they were not staying very long. Of the 116,703 who left during 1931, 30,756 registered their exit, and of those who complied with the mandatory exit registration, fully 27,649 people (90 percent) had been at the site less than six months; 16,031 (over 50 percent) had been there less than three.146 According to another official source, in 1931 the average length of stay for a worker was 82 calendar days.147 And it was not only the workers who were leaving. In 1931 almost three thousand white-collar employees (sluzhashchie—there were around six thousand on hand in March 1931) left the site. The average length of stay for employees was 186 days; for engineering and technical personnel, 221 days.148 Only the handful of top-level administrative personnel, the one thousand or so highly skilled workers, and the forty thousand dekulakized exiles behind barbed wire were not fleeing the famed construction site.

Some departures were to be expected. A few hundred youth, for example, were called up for service in the Red Army.149 Even more workers left after having completed the terms of their contracts. Out of desperation to entice workers to the site, six-month and even three-month contracts were offered to workers, who were then free to leave, as some apparently did.150 Of the 30,756 who registered their departure in 1931, 6,130 (20 percent) did so after having completed the terms of their contracts.151 Many young construction workers considered production as a supplementary income to their basic earnings in agriculture.152 Some were probably returning to the villages to take part in the land redistribution and to look into reports of hard times or trouble. In short, given the high demand for labor and the woeful inadequacy of the recruitment apparatus, Magnitostroi had no choice but to accept all comers, however long or short a time they agreed to stay, and many agreed to stay only briefly.

Others, however, were leaving out of dissatisfaction, for even by the standards of the day, living conditions on the site were harsh. Most workers lived in filthy, overcrowded barracks (see chapter 4). There was a severe shortage of warm work clothes, little to do besides work, and the food and service in the public dining halls was generally despised. Moreover, by the fall of 1931 (well before the onset of the famine), food shortages began, and getting even bread became a problem.153

To be sure, some people stayed despite the wretched living conditions. D. D. Lushenko, sent from Moscow in 1931, recalled a few years later that

there were forty of us sent. All the others have gone back. Back then it’s true, living conditions were not so hot. My group tried to get me to leave Magnitka and go back, but I said that there’s no defender of Soviet power who is afraid to endure all difficulties. I am going to stay the length of my mobilization period, and then I’ll return. I worked my year, and I then stayed on to work. And look, I’m working in Magnitogorsk three years.154

But many more fled. Even the vaunted Komsomols were bolting.155 If as of 1 January 1933 there were 11,000 Komsomols, one year later there were only 5,400. Some 800 had been kicked out, another 1,000 were known to have quit and were taken off the rolls, and the rest just evaporated.156 Some of those “voting with their feet,” as if in confirmation of Lenin’s apt phrase, literally left on foot, just setting out for the Ural mountains in the distance.157

Magnitostroi became a revolving door, a literal “labor exchange” in the form of a railroad junction. The train, that ally of the Bolshevik leadership and its bureaucrats and planners, was being used against them: construction workers were using the trains to tour the country.158 As one Soviet historian has written:

Such workers knew everything: what kind of lunch they served at Stalingrad, what kind of industrial goods they had at the distribution points of Dneprostroi, what kind of wages were paid at Magnitka. In one season they succeeded in visiting all the huge construction sites of the Union—having seen that everywhere there were recruiters who paid for trains without asking you for birthplace or social origin, but only that you take up work.159

In 1931 alone, the bacchanalian fluidity was said to have cost the Magnitostroi trust seven million rubles in transportation outlays and another two million in lost work clothes.160

At least initially, the creation of new construction sites such as Magnitostroi had not resulted in the establishment of stationary working populations but instead further fueled the fluidity. The Bolshevik leadership concluded not that people were taking advantage of the confused situation and traveling perhaps in part out of a sense of genuine adventure but that the harsh living conditions were understandably driving workers from the new construction sites. This state of affairs was called a “disease” of the construction sites and a “blight” on the Five-Year Plan.

And how deeply it seemed to be embedded: in a speech delivered before a select audience in Magnitogorsk in 1933, for example, Sergo Ordzhonikidze went so far as to decry the “suitcase mood” (chemodannye nostroeniia) among even the comparatively privileged leading personnel. If in Magnitogorsk the stalwart leaders “felt as if on a temporary business trip” (komandirovka), how were the humbler to feel?161 But little would change, central authorities reasoned, until concrete steps were taken to improve living conditions.

In fact, local authorities tried to combat the dread fluidity in several ways. They declared mandatory registration for anyone leaving the site and deployed worker watch groups (zaslony) to enforce the decree. But given the conditions at the site, such a policy was unenforceable. Beyond restrictions, however, there were various incentives for those who agreed to stay, such as advances for workers to bring their families to Magnitogorsk or preferential supply allotments for those who had stayed at the site for a certain period: a little extra bread, maybe some more sugar—at least that was what was stamped on the paper, though the supply depot often found it impossible to comply.162 Another popular approach was to allow the workers to cultivate small plots of land, on which they could grow potatoes and other vegetables. According to one party official, this had the desired effect.163

Beyond the enticement of extra supplies and an allotment of land, considerable moral pressure was brought to bear. The authorities launched much-publicized campaigns to get the workers to sign contracts to stay until the end of construction, or at least the end of the Five-Year Plan. But these proved to be no more enforceable than the system of mandatory exit registration. “Thousands signed up,” one Soviet eyewitness remarked of the solemn pledges, but “then most left anyway.”164

Ordinary people seemed to be holding all the cards. Here is how one petty official at Magnitostroi characterized his attempts to battle the labor fluidity: “They called me on the phone and told me that the Dnepropetrovtsy were leaving. . . . A scandal! I had to go straight to the barrack. What’s the matter? They said they had been cheated, they get sent to work where they can fall and kill themselves, and so on. I spoke with them for two hours, and they stayed.”165 Not everyone could be talked out of leaving, and in any case a situation which required them to beg workers to stay was one the authorities would tolerate only so long.

It is against this background that we can begin to understand the reintroduction of the tsarist internal passport system, announced by Sovnarkom on 28 December 1932. The immediate cause for the “passportization” of the urban population might well have been the fear that famine conditions in the countryside would drive the peasants en masse into the cities in search of food. But there can be no doubt that the Bolshevik leadership was also trying to bring some order to the construction sites. Seen from the vantage point of the peopling of Magnitostroi, the passport campaign appears not as the culmination of a premeditated policy designed to establish total control over the populace but rather as a typically heavy-handed Bolshevik improvisation to combat a problem their policies had done so much to create. Still, what stands out is the leadership’s willingness to employ any means necessary to advance its aims, and to express all such radical measures in the sanctifying language of defending “the revolution.”

In Magnitogorsk the passport campaign was announced on 10 February 1933, and individuals were required to present valid documents at their place of work beginning immediately. From 15 February until 25 April, all those in charge of the various construction objectives were to turn in lists of their workers containing name, year of birth, place of origin, current residence, and job title. Beginning 1 March, all hiring was to be done strictly upon the presentation of a valid passport. A brigade was sent from Moscow to ensure that the passport campaign was taken seriously by enterprise bosses (normally more preoccupied with industrial tasks) and that no passports “fell into the hands of the class enemy.”166

True to the political quality that came to envelop every aspect of human activity, the first internal passports were given out with much fanfare at a meeting in the dining hall of the elite rolling mill construction group. There were speeches on the building of socialism, on the building of new cities, and on cleansing Magnitogorsk of “parasitic” elements. “The class enemy is stretching out its hand to snatch a passport!” the newspaper warned. “We must strike that hand!”167 By April it was reported that the the passport campaign was practically complete, but unfortunately the number of passports issued was not made public.168 On the other hand, it seems that some two thousand people had their outstretched hands struck, so to speak, and were banished from the city, while another eighteen thousand did not even try to stretch out their hands but just fled.169

But registering the entire population tested the endurance and skills of the local authorities, who, though not afraid to exercise their wide powers, were numerically overmatched.170 During the passport campaign, on a normal day at a small neighborhood militia station hundreds of people would come to request immediate signatures or documents, to air complaints, or to comply with demands to provide further information.171 The staff was too small to handle the volume, slip-ups occurred, and some cases deemed suspicious could not be fully investigated, while others escaped investigation altogether.172 Some people survived for decades under a false identity with bogus documents. Some even survived entirely without documents, hired by enterprises desperate for labor power.173

Not surprisingly, documents became particularly valuable objects, among the first things stolen from an apartment by a thief. Escapees from the corrective labor colony mugged the first people they encountered for their documents.174 And it seems that documents were being “lost” all the time. If the loss of a particular document was duly reported in the newspaper, the person was entitled to obtain a replacement. During 1936, for example, there were many days when there were lists of twenty or more lost and no longer valid documents. Where did those lost documents go? A market in documents arose.

In 1936, during what seems to have been an unannounced campaign to root out bogus documents (for which today’s researcher can be grateful), the newspaper reported on what it called the case of the “factory for bogus documents.” One Popik decided to change his social position from middle to poor peasant. He made his own official seal to stamp the forged documents. Seeing how easy it was, he evidently decided to make a business of his newly discovered craft. He stole blank trade union booklets and membership cards and was able to write them up as necessary, applying the official seals in his possession. When he was arrested, the authorities found blank forms and seals at his place of residence. For his counterfeiting operation, the extent or duration of which is not recorded, he was given three years’ “loss of freedom.”175

Such activity as practiced by Popik was facilitated by the absence, until 1938, of photographs in passports.176 People could and sometimes did try to rework some of the details on their passports.177 But such an approach could be dangerous. It was better to “play it safe,” taking advantage of the underground market in the kinds of documents one needed to obtain a passport, making sure that the passport itself would not need homemade “emendations.” One case was reported in the local newspaper of a person who for twenty-five rubles bought documents with a new family name to be used in obtaining a passport.178

Everyone knew that one could buy or obtain important documents, if only from newspaper accounts intended to expose the practice. One pickpocket, when apprehended, turned out to have four different passports, which he probably would have sold for the right price.179 Meanwhile, some people simply created their own documents.180 Particularly popular seems to have been the technique of forging letters from officials, detailing invented positions a person supposedly held to obtain work (and thus new, unimpeachable documents).181

Those who plied the documents market evinced an awareness of the importance of having not simply valid documents but ones that described activities that were valued. If one of the effects of the passport campaign was to generate a proliferation of illegal activities involving documents, another was to demonstrate—at the margins of legality, in the forged and phony documents—the outlines of the new boundaries of social and political life, the new rules of the game, of who one should or should not claim to be (a theme explored further in part 2).

Internal passports were but one element of the new approach to population management. Back on 13 October 1932, just prior to the announcement of the passport campaign in Magnitogorsk, there was a city soviet decree, following a directive from central authorities, to establish mandatory registration of local residence (propiska) at the militia stations for all Magnitogorsk citizens over sixteen years of age. The registration was to be enforced by the individual in charge of a given residential building (kommendant, starshii, zavobshchezhitiem). Foreigners, too, were required to register.

Through the rationing system then in force (see chapter 6), supply officials were instructed to give out products only when shown a receipt proving local registration, and all outstanding wages were to be dispensed only upon registration. Particular attention was to be paid to the fulfillment of military obligations. The documents acceptable for registration included birth or marriage certificates, a note from the place of employment, military service papers, a trade union membership card, or school or student identification. Those without valid documents could obtain a three-month temporary registration. Submission of false documents would be penalized.

The registration system was the necessary complement to passports; within the city, passports meant little without such a system. In turn, registration was predicated on “control” over places of residence. Such a watchdog system was partially undermined by both lack of staff and the nature of the housing and urban geography of Magnitogorsk, which was spread out over twenty kilometers (see chapter 3). Up to a point, the less than strict registration system provided a measure of slack in the operation of the city’s passport control. And yet the registration system could be quite troublesome for residents.182

Despite the give and take, the document shuffle was a tricky and dangerous game. There were periodic “exchanges” of documents, and not just of party cards but also of Komsomol and trade union cards, even driver’s licenses.183 The newspaper reported that in 1936, 9,390 expired passports were exchanged.184 Such document exchanges could be harrowing, the least suspicion—not to mention the anonymous affidavits from peers or neighbors—setting off an investigation. Although the militia and other authorities were not very organized or efficient, all the registrations, re-registrations, questionnaires, document exchanges, and anonymous informing and denunciations meant exposure could occur at any time. Many of those arrested for petty criminal activity turned out to have phony passports, or none at all.

The continuous registration of the entire population was a major operation requiring considerable effort and resources that often overtaxed the local officials. Indeed, authorities were still battling the hiring of workers without propiskas, with only temporary propiskas, or with phony documents as late as 1938.185 But by this time the document battle was heavily weighted in the authorities’ favor. Some people continued to live and work under their adopted identities, and the document market never entirely disappeared. But the penalties became greater and the police net wider, as trains into and out of the city began to be patrolled systematically and local cinemas and other public places were subjected to spot document inspections.

Migration into and out of Magnitogorsk continued after the passport system went into effect.186 But as Raphael Khitarov, Lominadze’s successor as city party secretary, proclaimed on New Year’s Day, 1936, “the days when being sent to Magnitogorsk was considered a painful ordeal and when the majority of workers felt like temporary visitors are over. Gone are the days when the construction site resembled a revolving door.”187 By this time, managing the movement of the population had become “regularized,” and Magnitogorsk’s population movement came to resemble what were deemed “normal” migration patterns for established cities.188

The resolute actions undertaken to manage the labor supply, important as an indication of the authorities’ worldview and of what some forms of state coercion amounted to in everyday terms, no doubt had some effect in slowing down people’s movements. In the end, however, it was less the deployment of restrictive measures that “settled” the population at Magnitostroi than the fact that a viable urban settlement, the city of Magnitogorsk, and new way of life had arisen there. Far more than a process of “upward mobility,” this entailed the creation of a new society. What began at the Magnitogorsk dam and was known initially as “the struggle for cadres” became much more involved, as we shall see.


Soviet authorities understood the notion of “population” as a problem of the supply of labor and, ultimately, of the strength of the state. Of course, securing and managing a sufficient supply of “labor power” are critical goals in any industrial undertaking. Such, for example, has always been the explicit purpose of the so-called company town, a nineteenth-century response to labor unions and worker unrest that was intended to “attract, hold, and control labor.”189 But according to a survey by the U.S. National Resources Committee, in 1938 only about 2 million people (out of a population of 130 million) lived in what could be classified as company towns.190 In the USSR, virtually all towns had become company towns.

In the USSR, moreover, beyond the unstated goal of containing possible worker unrest, there was the additional consideration that a “free” labor market on which individuals sold their labor power to the highest bidder was thought to be characteristic of capitalism and thus inimical to socialism. The central allocation of labor power—meaning, the regulation of population movement—was viewed as an integral part of central planning. In the event, “planning” labor allocation over so large a country proved to be a formidable task but one that the Bolshevik leadership did not shrink from even after the enormity of this proposition began to sink in. Nowhere were these ambitions and their repercussions more in evidence than at Magnetic Mountain.

The peopling of Magnitostroi can be read as a case study in the Bolshevik leadership’s crude methods of administrative rule, and in the resourcefulness of individuals when confronted with difficult choices. Much of the country’s peasantry was confined to the new collective and state farms, but millions of rural inhabitants were offered a chance to out-migrate permanently. For some this “offer” came in the form of deportation, while others could and often did turn the enormous demand for labor to their own advantage, touring the country. When during the famine these mobile peasants were joined by those desperately in search of food, the regime adopted strong measures to deter the whirlwind “labor fluidity” and settle the peasants-cum-construction workers at the new construction sites permanently with the passport and propiska systems.

Such draconian measures proved easier to declare than to enforce. Neither the size and efficiency of the regular police nor the level of document technique permitted the full realization of the passport system. And these built-in limitations, in the face of the uncompromising inflexibility of the system’s goals and rules, made likely the adoption of tactics for the circumvention of the new restrictions. Several methods for falsifying documents or for getting by without them—even a market in illegal documents—arose. It was a game of unequal risk for the two sides; nevertheless, it was a two-sided game. Many people were forced to play the dangerous game, yet the authorities were compelled to expend considerable efforts putting it into play.

At the same time, the goal of populating the construction site at Magnetic Mountain had been reached, albeit at greater cost than had been anticipated. The authorities’ unwavering insistence on the right to command individuals’ relocation and, above all, their readiness to use force against “class aliens” certainly made the daunting task less difficult. In a word, the horrendous situation created in the village contributed mightily to the Bolshevik leadership’s efforts to create a large permanent population at Magnitostroi. The people streaming into Magnitostroi resembled refugees, and their large numbers and the circumstances that impelled them on their journeys gave the impression that war was raging outside the territory of Magnitostroi, as, in a sense, it was.

Still, from the authorities’ point of view, populating Magnitostroi, along with the many other large new construction sites, was a remarkable achievement. In the chaos and dislocation of the 1930s—admittedly engendered by their own policies of compulsory collectivization and forced-pace industrialization—the authorities nevertheless managed to “bring in” and maintain some 200,000 people at an isolated location under harsh and difficult conditions. No amount of coercion by itself is sufficient to achieve such an outcome, except at an exclusively Gulag-controlled site. Although Magnitogorsk did have its share of people transported and held there against their will, the majority of people were not prisoners but the inhabitants of what they rightly viewed as a new society coming into being, and one where they were able to find a niche for themselves: a job, a place to live, perhaps a family and some sense of self-worth.

Had the daunting feat of gathering an urban population been all the authorities sought to accomplish, the story of peopling Magnitostroi would have been dramatic enough. But in addition to settling a very large contingent of people at an isolated site in a brief period, the authorities endeavored to re-create these people. The goal was to teach them to work and think of themselves in specific ways, to imbue the new urbanites with a sense of historical mission: the building of a socialist world. The effects of these efforts, in the context of the new society that emerged, have only been touched upon here. This story will be taken up in part 2. Before that, however, we must examine the patterns of Magnitogorsk’s urban geography for what they tell us about the nature and parameters of the new world being built.

3 The Idiocy of Urban Life

But what was this? A village? Of course not. A small town? No. An encampment? A workers’ settlement? A burg? No, officially this huge populated place was called a city. But was it a city?

Valentin Kataev, Vremia, Vpered! (Time, Forward!)1

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. After one eight-day ride from Moscow in 1930, the train came to its usual abrupt halt in the middle of the open steppe. Passengers looked out the window and, seeing nothing, assumed there had been yet another breakdown. But then the conductor bellowed, “Magnitogorsk!” Could this barren, windswept wasteland be the famous World Giant? The colorful journalist Semen Nariniani disembarked from the train, looked around, turned to the station man, and asked, “Is it far to the city?” “Two years,” the man answered.2

As it happened, the station man was doubly wrong. It would be far more than two years to the completion of the fabled “socialist city of the future.” But it would be far less than two before the emergence of the actual city, which was growing that very minute in front of the station man’s eyes. The train station, or rather the site of the future train station (it too was a few years away), formed the gates to the emerging urban territory:

Every day when the train arrived a panic broke out. Another four hundred workers! It was of course known beforehand that workers were coming, that they would come every day. But all the same, every day their arrival posed an unpleasant dilemma. . . . In a forty-person barracks up to one hundred fifty people would be squeezed. Of course they figured it was only for a day or two, but on the very next day, a new trainload arrived and they forgot about those from yesterday.3

In such apparently haphazard fashion did Magnitogorsk come into being.

Of course, Magnitogorsk was supposed to be the modern world’s first completely planned city, the real-life laboratory that planners worldwide believed would demonstrate for all time the advantages of urban planning.4 In a sense, Magnitogorsk was “planned.” Various sketches were made of the future city, and some of these schemas did guide part of the city’s construction. Soviet town planning, however, turned out to resemble after-the-fact “bootstrapping” as much as the coordinated realization of a prior vision of the eventual form and function of a city—even in the case of Magnitogorsk, where there at least were some preliminary conceptions for a modern industrial city.5 Paradoxical as it sounds, then, Magnitogorsk was a planned city that arose largely in spite of the plans.

And yet, despite the generally chaotic conditions under which the city’s main residential sections took shape and the corresponding emergency nature of Soviet town planning, Magnitogorsk’s urban geography coalesced into a distinct, if not immediately obvious, pattern. In its own way, Magnitogorsk ended up faithfully reflecting the circumstances of its conception and construction as the urban form for a new world founded on heavy industry. For this reason, the maligned planners, however much they may have been offended by the outcome, could not completely disown the urban milieu they had a part in creating. Their designs and the apparently spontaneous urban configurations that resulted turned out to have much in common.6

Magnetic Mountain

Urbanization in the early Stalin period has been discussed largely in general terms, without reference to the experience of actual cities, and almost always only in the context of industrialization. Moshe Lewin, for example, has written of the large-scale “ruralization” (okrestianivanie) of Soviet cities during the industrialization drive, arguing that the movement of millions of “backward” peasants into urban areas transformed Soviet urban society for the worse, ultimately paving the way, in combination with the characteristics of the growing bureaucracy, for the deepening of political authoritarianism. Between Bolshevik modernizers and the great mass of peasant muzhiks Lewin sees a clash “of almost two nations or two civilizations” whose outcome turned out to be tragic for both.7

In Magnitogorsk, however, such “ruralization”—if that is the appropriate term—appears to have been largely beneficial, both materially and in terms of social cohesion, given that the “peasant” urbanites helped prevent the rest of the town from starving and showed remarkable abilities to cope in what proved to be a difficult, even dangerous, urban environment. In this chapter, though, we are less concerned with the supposed consequences of the movement of peasants to cities than with the particular vision of urban modernity that guided the rebuilding of existing cities and the construction of new ones.

As in the formation of an industrial economy so in town planning, the transcendence of capitalism was the vague but grand goal. And once again, something less than transcendence became the unexpected result, although in the case of the city, the failure to meet what were towering expectations proved far more disappointing. Yet no less than with the construction of the modern factory, the uncommon opportunity to participate in and witness the building of what was supposed to be a new kind of urban formation inspired extraordinary efforts and emotions.


As a socialist city, Magnitogorsk was to be the very opposite of a capitalist city—more accurately, the opposite of the capitalist city as vilified by contemporaries. Rather than narrow, dark alleys and desolate slums, Magnitogorsk would be composed of wide, bright streets, where the workers would live in shiny superblocks. A socialist city would not be founded on ignorance or superstition but on education and science. And it would not be rampant with alcoholism but overflowing with “culture.” In short, Magnitogorsk was to be a place of hope and progress.8 But who knew how to design such a city, or what form it should take?

In January 1930 the government of the Russian republic, Sovnarkom RSFSR, announced a contest for the design of Magnitogorsk, with a projected population of forty thousand.9 A bit earlier (December 1929), a parallel competition was announced for a new kind of domicile.10 The deadline for receipt of proposals for the contests was March 1930. “To create a city and new type of domicile, different from all existing ones that had been built thus far, in three months—as the conditions of the competition demanded—was truly quite difficult,” wrote Ignatiem Vernshtein, in an unpublished essay on the history of the design of Magnitogorsk which he signed I. Ivich.11 But during the Five-Year Plan time was considered of the essence—in this specific case even more so, for there were already more than the projected forty thousand people at work building the factory on the cityless site.

Of the at least nineteen projects submitted in the 1930 city-design competition, the one submitted by Professor Chernyshev was declared the winner.12 In keeping with the limits imposed by economy and a preference for a vaguely defined “socialized” organization of city life, Chernyshev’s plan called for public dining halls, baths, and reading rooms. But according to Ivich,

there were no great innovations in it: symmetrical superblocks [kvartaly] of apartment buildings distributed along a central axis of the city from north to south. On the main street were the public buildings. Every apartment building would contain . . . 1,500 people and would be square with an inner courtyard.

Perhaps because it was altogether a less frightening and more conventional project than what some of the famous architects were proposing in the country’s leading architectural journals, Chernyshev’s conception met favor with the State Institute for the Planning of Cities (Giprogor), the agency initially charged with designing the new city.13 Be that as it may, Giprogor decided, in Ivich’s words, to add a few details of “socialist settlement patterns.”14 These, however, were still to be worked out. All anyone knew was that socialist settlements patterns were to be different from capitalist ones, whatever those were.

Simultaneously, an agency of the Soviet government other than Giprogor sought to import the services of Ernst May from capitalist Germany to design the vaguely understood noncapitalist city. May had won international acclaim at the International Congress of Modern Architecture in 1929 for his workers housing settlements in Frankfurt.15 There, he created a series of semi-independent, compact, but not densely populated, settlements (Siedlungen) equipped with extensive public facilities, such as daycare centers, common washing areas, playgrounds, schools, and theaters. As for the housing itself, May—a functionalist who paid due attention to sanitary and health considerations and an egalitarian who planned for equal access of all to sunlight, air, and municipal services—used standardized, prefabricated housing, right down to the kitchens and furniture, to minimize costs and construction time. In the first year, against a plan for 1,200, 2,200 new dwelling units had been built. In the second year, 3,000 more were built.16 Intrigued, the Soviet government sent a commission to Frankfurt in 1929 and invited May to come to the USSR to plan not just large housing developments but whole cities.17

For his part, May was very enthusiastic about the possibilities of urban planning in the Soviet context. In his position as chief architect of Frankfurt, he had enjoyed wide powers in zoning, financing, and building instruction. Now, it seemed he would have even greater powers. Accompanied by virtually his entire Frankfurt staff and a few non-German architects,18 May arrived in the Soviet Union in 1930 with, in his words, a “free hand to solve the problems of the contemporary city.”19 “No one can predict whether, what is the greatest national experiment of all times, is going to succeed,” he wrote, “but it is infinitely more important for me to take part in this immense task than to worry about the security of my private existence.”20 It was a promising collaboration.21

Even before May had set foot in the USSR, however, “from Magnitogorsk came telegram after telegram: it’s time to build!” Although under severe pressure to work quickly, May, when asked to critique Chernyshev’s existing plan, decided instead to offer his own alternative.22 Patterned after one of his settlements in Frankfurt, May’s proposal for Magnitogorsk was billed as a “linear city.” First developed by Arturo Soria y Mata in the nineteenth century, the “linear city” held sway over the imaginations of many celebrated architects. It called for an elongated stretch of uniform rows of superblock neighborhood units running parallel to the industrial zone (minimizing transportation to and from work) that was protected by a green belt wedged between the living and production zones. According to his biographer, May worked on the Magnitogorsk linear city sketch for an entire year.23

But after being whisked to the site in late October 1930 as part of an unwieldy commission made up of representatives from Tsekombank, Giprogor, and several other organizations, May discovered that a linear city alongside the steel plant could not be accommodated to the local topography.24 Much the same had happened several months earlier to the less elaborate plan of Chernyshev, who “looking over the future site of Magnitogorsk” was said to have “rejected his own project” as unsuitable.25 May had not been forewarned.

Even more surprising, when he arrived at the site May found that the city he had been asked to design was already under construction. On 5 July 1930, three months ahead of the German architect’s arrival but just in time for the opening of the Sixteenth Party Congress, the local authorities in Magnitogorsk organized a ceremonial laying of the foundation stone for the first apartment building on what was named Pioneer street. This was done even though Chernyshev had just repudiated his own design, and a proposal from May had not yet been received. The ceremony, conducted with the usual fanfare and in the presence of fourteen thousand people, marked the commencement of work on the first part of the city, whose configuration and positioning were still unresolved.26

For the city’s location there were two very different choices: build either on the left bank, or eastern side, of the Ural River, where the factory and mine were situated and where temporary settlements had sprung up; or on the right bank, that is, on the other side of the industrial lake, at a distance of several kilometers from the industrial zone and the existing settlements (see maps 1 and 2). Given the necessity, with the right-bank variant, of building what loomed as a costly and logistically complicated bridge and mass transit system across the lake—to say nothing of difficulties of carrying out construction work on the right bank, far away from the economic base provided by the factory—the left-bank option seemed the more feasible. Above all, the left-bank variant promised far more finished housing by the time the steel plant was to be put into operation, supposedly in 1932.27

When the left-bank site was indeed chosen by government authorities in 1930, assurances were made that the prevailing wind direction would carry the smoke and harmful emissions from the future factory to the southwest and not toward the southeastern city. But on the site, it was immediately discovered during construction that all of the harmful smoke and fumes blew directly southeast.28 Instead of shifting to the right bank, however, the solution adopted was to move the proposed left-bank city a distance of at least two kilometers from the factory. (Remarkably, Chernyshev’s proposal for the left-bank city had called for building the city directly adjacent to the factory gates, and construction of the city center was well underway, despite his repudiation.)29 It was at this point, after the city had been placed on the left bank but shoved back a bit, that May had arrived at Magnetic Mountain to discover that he had been betrayed by the undulating terrain on the eastern side of the river and by the premature start of construction.30

Ultimately, it was not the lay of the land that hemmed May in but the siting of the factory, which meant that the only area remaining on the left bank within reasonable proximity of the factory turned out to be hilly. Obviously, the mountain containing the iron ore could not be moved, but because it was out in the middle of the wide open steppe, there was plenty of space. Yet once the site was chosen for the factory (adjacent to the mine, east of the river), and once the first dam on the Ural River was completed and the plain flooded (producing a huge artificial lake some fourteen kilometers long and more than one kilometer wide), the territory around the iron-ore deposits was all of a sudden sharply redefined. Well before Ernst May, or anyone else, was invited to design the new city, the left-bank siting of the factory had been settled, and, although virtually none of the actual drawings and blueprints for the factory was at hand, construction on the plant had begun, making the decision as immutable as the iron-ore mountain itself.

Magnetic Mountain

Map 1. Ernst May, Left-bank variant for Magnitogorsk, 1933. Adapted from Sovetskaia arkhitektura, 1933, no. 3.

Magnetic Mountain

Map 2. Ernst May, Right-bank variant for Magnitogorsk, 1933. Adapted from Sovetskaia arkhitektura, 1933, no. 3.

May returned to the site in February 1931, along with the on-site operational team director, the Dutchman Mart Stam, and the rest of his “German” brigade.31 Parallel development of the production and living spheres, May’s quintessential idea, had been summarily rendered out of the question, but the need to minimize the distance between home and workplace persisted. This would of necessity involve coming up with some kind of plan for the territory east of the factory and south of the mine. In this space, the presence of three smaller hills—which did not contain iron ore—meant that almost all the remaining flat territory on the left bank that was not as far away from the factory as the right bank had already been accounted for—except for a small triangle stretching from the factory gates to a knoll called Karadyrka (black hill, in Kazakh). In what became willy-nilly a modification of Chernyshev’s design radiating out of the factory, May adapted himself as best as he could to this geography, shoehorning a “socialist city” into the triangle.

The hilly and difficult terrain in this area limited the size of the city that the triangular site could accommodate. Moreover, the projected dimensions for the factory had been vastly increased, taking into account probable future expansion. And the apparently unavoidable relocation of the left-bank city into that triangle placed it very close to the mine and the cleansing lakes of the ore-enriching plant. Not only would the space required for these lakes further diminish the land available for the city, the lakes’ release of sulphurous gases posed a potential health hazard. With the location of the factory and its water supply (the industrial lake) shoving him into an ever-smaller triangle harassed by the poisonous gases of the mine and the noxious fumes from the steel plant, May could very well have felt that he and his left-bank city were characters in a Greek tragedy: doomed by the contrivance of circumstances to fail, yet destined to struggle to the end.

It was impossible not to see the advantage, even the necessity, of building the city on the right bank. But indecision, rather than forceful measures to address the problems, characterized the government’s response. With debate over the location of the city taking place at various levels of the Soviet bureaucracy and different decisions being taken by different authorities, the proposed location of Magnitogorsk flopped back and forth between the left bank and the right.32 In the words of one popular ditty,

Nalevo li? Napravo li?

To the left? To the right?

Sotsgorod, budesh gde ty?

Socialist City, where will you be?

Tvoi proekty plavali

Your designs have been drifting

Dva goda bez otveta.

Two years without an answer.33

So it would be until after the war.

Given the conflicting instructions he received, May was compelled to draw up plans for both a left-bank and a right-bank city. For the former, he modified his already once-revised plan to include a northern satellite city above the factory, located some distance from the southeastern triangle. As could have been expected from May, the northern satellite was to be built as an independent city, with its own city center, cultural facilities—in short with everything the southeastern city would have. Thus, despite the undesirable separation of its two parts, May’s modified left-bank city with a northern satellite seemed sensible because the factory could be expected to expand in precisely a northerly direction. In any case, short of moving the city farther from the factory, beyond Karadyrka, thereby defeating the purpose of a left-bank city (proximity to work), it is difficult to see what else May could have suggested for the left bank.

By contrast, the right bank offered May the freedom in design that he had originally counted on. In May’s project, the right bank formed a single residential zone, while the left bank, with the factory and mine, formed a unified production zone. Only the distance between the residential and industrial zones could evoke criticism, but this also had its positive aspect, for the industrial lake could serve as a “green belt” neatly separating the two zones and shielding the city from the harmful emissions of the steel plant. Upon completion of the right-bank city, all residential sections on the left bank were to be removed. In short, with the right bank variant the “linear city” was revived.

In early 1932, May’s two proposals were under consideration by the scientific and technical council of the People’s Commissariat of Municipal Economy (Narkomkhoz), which seems to have reendorsed the left-bank variant.34 Despite the obvious superiority of a right-bank city from so many points of view, it is not difficult to comprehend the council’s decision, for at the time there were more than 100,000 people living on the construction site in temporary installations that were all on the left bank. Furthermore, construction of the permanent city on the left bank was already underway. In effect, a decision for the left bank was not necessary, while one for the right bank did not seem practical. Yet the very same council that ruled for the left bank ordered that investigatory work on the suitability of the right bank begin. This could inspire little confidence in the long-delayed and evidently reluctant decision in favor of the left bank.

At the site, construction on the left-bank city (without the northern satellite) continued, independently of all decision-making bodies, according to May’s drawings.35 For the triangular Magnitogorsk tract, May designed parallel rows of five-story equidistant apartment buildings positioned to allow each inhabitant generous access to light and air. The buildings were divided into single-room sleeping “cells” joined by a corridor. They had no kitchens, not even communal ones, as the city plan called for an extensive network of public dining halls. Buildings were grouped into superblocks, which contained housing and public facilities for eight thousand to ten thousand people. May’s egalitarian plan of identical, equidistant structures also called for highly simplified design and construction work, so that the settlement could be put up in something approaching assembly-line fashion.36

Such a “communalist” design followed the mandate issued by Sovnarkom RSFSR in its 11 November 1929 decree calling for the construction of a “socialist” city with “maximum socialization of everyday life.”37 Uniformity was also an explicit objective. In the words of one governmental report issued in the early 1930s, “life in every superblock will be the same. . . . There will be no reason to go to a different one.” For solving the problem of how a resident could tell in which identical superblock he or she actually lived, the author of this official report hit upon the obvious solution: “paint each superblock a different color.”38

On the site, meanwhile, when it became clear what kind of buildings were being built, a protest meeting was called to voice concern. “Engineer [Mart] Stam proved that he was building exactly what had been designed by the architect May,” Ivich wrote. “With this no one could argue, but people pleaded that what was being designed by May was not at all what a Soviet worker needed.” Instead of having the communalist design altered, however, the stormy meeting ended with “its initiators being booted from the trade union” for “‘engaging in the discrediting of German specialists.’ ” “The criticism,” Ivich concluded, “was smothered,” at least for the time being.39

In truth, what May sketched on paper was often altered during construction through no fault of his “brigade.” Two German engineers who went to check on the woodworking factory, for example, reported being horrified at the quality of work being done.40 Similarly, although May’s design specified a central heating system for the buildings, allowance for which had duly been made, there were no radiators (and no kitchen stoves to compensate for the absence of central heating). Likewise, his design called for indoor toilets and space had been set aside for them, but there was no equipment to install and, in any case, no sewage system in the city to hook the pipes up to.

Of all the deficiencies, the sewage problem was perhaps the most regrettable. “When the buildings were about to be occupied, work on the sewage system had only gone so far as to dig a dozen trenches in different places,” Ivich wrote. “At night, in the dark, passersby would fall into them. The trenches were not filled in, and neither were pipes laid in them.” He added that “along the street across from the buildings they built a number of outhouse-like temporary toilets. In the wintertime at 40° below, people had to climb down from the fourth floor and dash across the street in order to go to the toilet.” More than inconvenience was at issue, however, for the outhouses proved to be highly unsanitary.41

Many of the problems plaguing May’s left-bank city, and residential construction generally, stemmed from local officials’ fixation on industrial construction, an obsession that can be illustrated by the story of the building of the movie theater, Magnit. According to Ivich:

At the beginning of 1932 the equipment for a sound cinema was sent to the construction site. Funds for the construction of a building were appropriated. Comrade Molotov sent a telegram, inquiring how the construction was proceeding. The city party bureau gathered, summoning the chief of industrial construction for a report on the construction of the cinema. There wasn’t much to report. The cinema was not being built. Ten days later came a telegram from Comrade Postyshev: “How is the cinema construction?” Again the city party bureau; again a report. But they began to see that this was a serious matter. They couldn’t escape with words alone. So they had some construction materials brought in, sent over a few dozen workers, and began to build a bit. Ten days later—another telegram from Molotov: “How’s the cinema?” City party bureau; report. Some more materials were brought in, the number of workers was doubled. A few more telegrams and the cinema was completed.42

This did not, of course, prevent propagandists from enveloping the opening of the cinema in the usual avalanche of sloganeering. A newspaper article, neglecting to mention any problems with the cinema’s construction, called the opening an event of “enormous political significance” and “a great achievement in the struggle for the creation of a socialist culture.”43

In fairness to local authorities, not only were their necks on the line for the pace of factory construction, which was constantly lagging, but every amendment to the city design, no matter how apparently trivial, required approval from Moscow.44 Although local leaders did fail to take the initiative on certain projects, after which they invariably scrambled to cover their tracks, it is clear that Moscow did not trust its representatives on the spot to make even elementary decisions. Be that as it may, the larger point remains: construction of the steel plant, at the same time as it haunted the location of the city, gutted residential construction.

“The construction of the city,” Ivich wrote, “was a sort of reserve storehouse for the construction of the factory.”45 Lazarev, the on-site representative of Giprogor, reported that of the 8 million rubles allocated for housing construction in 1931, only 1.5 million were actually spent on housing, the rest having been diverted to the factory and related enterprises. As a result, Lazarev pointed out in the spring of 1931, “right now on the left bank, aside from two unfinished apartment buildings, there is nothing built.” Of course, the higher authorities were still deliberating upon which bank of the Ural River to place the city. In the opinion of Lazarev, the right bank was clearly superior, but he was overseeing left-bank construction, admittedly without great success.46

More than a year later, little improvement had been made. During an era in which anything less than 100 percent fulfillment of targets was potential cause for a criminal investigation, the 1932 plan for housing construction was being fulfilled at 10 percent.47 Recall that one of the chief reasons for locating the city on the left bank had been that housing for steel workers would be ready when the plant began operation. This illusion was shattered. Moscow, in the words of Ivich, “was shocked by this incomprehensible situation,” which reached the agenda of the country’s highest governmental commission, the Council of Labor and Defense (STO).

In August 1932, STO ordered the formation in Magnitogorsk of a separate residential construction agency, with its own money, materials, and workers. Furthermore, STO decreed that all the unfinished buildings (forty-six of them) be brought to completion, and that a definitive city plan, which had yet to materialize in one and a half years, be ready in four months.48 It was quite a mystery, however, from which hat local officials would pull a residential construction agency, complete with building materials, tools, and skilled workers.49 A “new” detailed city plan did not materialize until March 1933, when the government newspaper simply republished May’s left-bank design with the northern satellite, even though this idea had been rejected.50 From the point of view of Magnitogorsk officials, meeting STO’s strictures may have seemed desirable yet scarcely feasible. In the event, the directives of the country’s highest government commission were destined to be unheeded.

Painfully aware that the construction of brick apartment buildings was not keeping pace with factory construction, local authorities obtained permission to build 225 two-story shchitovye, or lattice-wood, buildings with twelve apartments each.51 But even these easy-to-build structures, which outnumbered brick apartment buildings until well after the war, were put together shabbily.52 Residential construction was one of the Soviet Union’s most backward industries, and in Magnitogorsk, where most energies, materials, personnel, and money were riding on industrial construction, residential construction lagged, swallowing up not a few people in those years, including the internationally acclaimed German architect, Ernst May.53

Removed from the Magnitogorsk job in November 1932, May departed the USSR in 1933 a frustrated, bitter, and disappointed man.54 That year public criticism of his Magnitogorsk superblock was renewed and shifted from the remote site to the central press. In a leading Soviet architectural journal, May was taken to task for failing to adopt a sufficiently “Leninist” approach in his design work. No mention was made of the string of obstacles to a viable design he had encountered, or even what was meant by the formulaic condemnation of his work.55 Ivich, writing some two years later, however, was more specific. Describing May’s buildings as “box-like structures without the least attempt to embellish their military barracks [kazarmennyi] facade,” he concluded that they “could elicit enthusiasm only among lovers of prison architecture.”56

Yet were not May’s buildings merely the expression in stone of the standardized communal life that Soviet pamphleteers had championed? Should not radical communalization itself have been on trial? That is, in effect, what was happening, although May was absorbing all the blame. To be sure, May was a supreme champion of communalization, but this was one of the reasons he had been hired. Another important factor, however, was at work here. For May, there was no need to adorn a building with flourishes that could not be justified functionally. But for the Soviet authorities, no less than many ordinary people, their buildings had to “look like something,” had to make one feel proud, make one see that the proletariat (not literally) would have its attractive buildings. May chose neither to conceal the disciplinary quality of modern living nor to stylize it with the socialist-realist aesthetic.

What further bothered the Soviets about May’s design was that the buildings were not arranged so as to form inner courtyards. Given that his project provided for communal facilities to be evenly distributed throughout the city, May had reasoned that a physical sense of community would arise naturally and need not be planned into the orientation of the apartment buildings. Moreover, optimal accessibility for each and everyone to sun and light was by definition impossible if enclosed inner courtyards were designed. But in Magnitogorsk, there was a long and severe winter. Rather than sun and air, it was for the snow and wind that an architect should have oriented the buildings, shielding the people as much as possible. What in theory looked like equality, and might have been in a different climate, in the USSR turned out to be exposure. May’s superblock resembled a wide open “passageway” (prokhodnoi dvor). Failing to take into account the conditions in which his egalitarian planning ideas would be given expression, the great German architect had blundered.57

May’s failures, only partly his fault, were shocking, for when he first arrived in the USSR everything had pointed toward success. The architect himself had spoken wide-eyed of the “free hand” he would have in the Soviet Union for planning cities, given the absence of private property. But as it turned out, May had to contend with constraints far more powerful than private ownership, including working without a real building industry and within the Soviet bureaucracy. It was, however, something more fundamental that had cornered May right from the start, and from which he could never escape. One of his earliest articles in a local Magnitogorsk publication explaining the socialist city was accompanied by a single illustration. It was not of a residence, a boulevard, a park, a school house, or a laundry but a blast furnace.58

By the time of May’s departure, construction on only one of his proposed superblocks had been started. When Sergo Ordzhonikidze visited Magnitogorsk in July 1933 to inquire about the steel plant, he also hoped to take stock of this “socialist city.” He was evidently shocked. In a speech delivered locally on 27 July 1933, a furious Ordzhonikidze fumed that in general local officials only knew how to beg central authorities for help, instead of tackling matters on their own, and that the chief of city construction, Khrashchevskii, at first had not wanted to show him anything. No wonder. Upon approaching the single superblock, “the scent of the outhouses whacked him in the nose,” Ivich wrote, adding that “those who knew comrade Ordzhonikidze well remarked that he rarely was in such a foul mood.”59

Ordzhonikidze issued an avalanche of impatient decrees calling for improvements in living conditions. Instead of the lofty designation “socialist city” he ordered the use of the mundane “urban raion,” or district (later named the Kirov district in honor of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad party secretary assassinated in December 1934). “When referring to your socialist city it is wrong to speak about a ‘socialist city,’” the industry commissar remarked during his speech. “This is a direct insult to socialism. One ought not to use the word socialist when it is inappropriate to do so. You have named some manure a socialist city. A ‘socialist city’—and it’s impossible to live in it.”60 On the spot, Ordzhonikidze scrapped the idea of a left-bank city altogether, ruling that after the completion of the work underway, further construction of permanent housing on the left bank was to stop. Back in Moscow, a 23 November 1933 decree of STO once again shifted the socialist city to the right bank.61

Maybe they could get it right the second time: a fresh start, a totally new socialist city, just like that, by decree! Construction was to commence right away, since not a few years had already been wasted with what was now viewed as the escapade on the left bank. But a detailed plan was still years off.62 Meanwhile, a preliminary conception of the new right-bank city was severely criticized in January 1934 by Magnitogorsk party secretary Beso Lominadze, who revealed that of the eight thousand workers engaged in residential construction, all were busy repairing what had been done so far. Lominadze warned that on the right bank, “we are in for the exact same mess [kasha] that we currently have on the left bank.”63

When the year 1934 brought no progress toward a right-bank city, the date for “beginning” construction was moved to 1935 (another fresh start). That year the city launched an experiment which had been inspired by May to build prefabricated housing made of large concrete panels. A visiting correspondent for the oblast newspaper, who called these buildings “the most interesting part of the construction,” said they “resembled the little houses that children build out of blocks.” “This is the future,” he wrote with clairvoyance. But in 1935 that future was some time away. Only two such panel buildings were completed, both near the Magnit cinema.64

After the new start for the right-bank socialist city had been declared in 1935, not a word was heard until 1937. That year, the newspaper reported the following grim news:

The construction was begun in 1935. Last year [1936], the walls of four buildings were erected. Now the only thing they are doing is building a single school. There is a night watchman on the site, but in the daytime, construction materials are carried off by whoever bothers to take the trouble.

When pressed in May 1937 to explain the unpromising situation, Vikentii Zverev, the new chief of residential construction, promised that “we’ll be conducting the work when it gets warmer.” He admitted, however, that “for us, it is still unclear what we are to build there.”65

In 1938, Aleksandr Semenov, Magnitogorsk’s new city party secretary (the third in the brief four-year history of the right-bank city), reported that as of the first of the year, there should have been 150,000 square meters of living space in well-built, permanent buildings on the right bank sufficient for 30,000 people. As of late 1938, however, there was not a single square meter of space in a completed permanent building. On the right bank, in place of Magnitogorsk’s (second) fabled socialist city, there were just a few lattice-wood “carcass” buildings, some primitive makeshift shelters, and a labor colony (whose existence was omitted from the subsequently published version of Semenov’s report).66

Back on the woebegone left bank, with May’s departure Soviet architects had taken over the design of what was designated the second super-block, where by 1936 two outwardly impressive apartment houses with spacious apartments arranged around an inner courtyard were completed. Also, May’s first superblock was redone: communal kitchens were installed inside the buildings and many of the one-room apartments were consolidated, forming larger spaces. In size, appearance, and interior design, the second superblock buildings were far more generous than May’s, even in the latter’s redesigned form. But the Soviet-designed buildings suffered from almost as many problems connected with faulty construction, ranging from profusely leaking faucets and toilets that did not flush to windows that for want of glass had to be covered with boards and stuffed with rags.

There had been so much trouble that when another large apartment building, the third of superblock number two, was finished in the spring of 1937, no one was allowed to move in: heaters were leaking, bathtubs had yet to be installed, and there were no wall sockets. Such nedodelki (“things not completed”) were the bane of Soviet construction. Just as frustrating was the fact that so much of what was built had to be redone. “The residential construction trust builds badly and expensively,” the newspaper wrote in 1937. “The same work is done and redone several times.”67 The dream socialist city was built on both banks, but really on neither.68

From the start there had been little comprehension of the task of building a complete new city, of whatever design.69 In the original competition guidelines, for example, the projected size of the future city had been estimated at only forty thousand people. This measly figure was arrived at by taking the number of workers necessary to operate the metallurgical plant (estimated at twenty thousand) and then multiplying it by the average number of people per family (four), giving a result of eighty thousand. This number was reduced by half because it was assumed that women were to be “released” from the drudgery of housework and cooking, thanks to the proposed system of communal dining halls and laundries, and thus made available for “productive” work. There would be no “waste” of unproductive labor, that hallmark of the antiquated bourgeois family, but instead, a superior economy of people.70

In the event, however, not many women were “released” for “productive” work, and the projected number of a mere 40,000 inhabitants had to be raised. And what about the people who would not be employed in metallurgy, such as barbers, launderers, teachers, shoemakers, dining hall servers and cooks, members of the city soviet and the party apparat? None of them, indeed no one not directly employed in ferrous metallurgy, had been included in the calculations, for socialist cites were devoted to industrial production, not to “non-productive” services. When this “oversight” finally forced its way into the planners’ heads, it became necessary to forego the anticipated “economy of people.” By an August 1932 STO decree, the target urban population of Magnitogorsk became 200,000, which was nothing but a guess as to how many inhabitants were already there.

How was it possible to plan for a city without planning for the people necessary to make it function? At bottom the Bolsheviks understood the city as a place to settle their factory and that factory’s skilled workers. In all the dozens of pamphlets written about Magnitogorsk during the 1930s, there was never one issued that was devoted exclusively to the city. Discussion of the city, if it was included at all, came as the last chapter, after each of the industrial shops had been enumerated. In the apt words of the ubiquitous journalist Semen Nariniani, the city was the factory’s “everyday-life shop” (kulturno-bytovoi tsekh).71 Originally, such an everyday-life shop was to be no more than a simple “workers’ settlement.” Only when the proposed dimensions of the factory grew did the idea of a socialist city displace that of a factory settlement.72 But the two were really one and the same.

Before Ernst May had been called in, before the first competition for the new city had been announced, Gipromez published an artist’s conception of the future city in its 1929 volume on the design of the factory (see map 3). As can be seen from the drawing, the city emerges wholly out of the factory, with the streets emanating radially out of the factory gates.73 This pictorial fantasy starkly revealed the nature of the Bolshevik conception of the world. The Bolsheviks thought that once the steel plant had been established, everything else would flow naturally: build a steel plant and civilization will follow; more exactly, build a steel plant, and that is civilization. In a way, this is precisely how things turned out.


The 1932 plan fulfillment rate for residential construction of 10 percent was a lowpoint, but in subsequent years results remained well below 50 percent.74 Yet even these lowly figures indicate that if not a radiant city, at least something was built. That something was the Kirov district, still known colloquially as Socialist City, which in 1938 John Scott, like most people who remembered it in worse days, thought was “something to be seen.”75

Magnetic Mountain

Map 3. Artist’s rendering of the factory and city, 1929. From Pavel Egorov, The Magnitogorsky (Magnetic Mountain) Metallurgical Works (Moscow, 1929).

Providing a clue to the identity of the Kirov district’s inhabitants, Scott related that “it was 1933 before the first buildings in the Socialist City were occupied” and that “some 200 non-valiuta foreigners were the first to occupy these apartment buildings. Most were German-speaking skilled workers.” Scott and his family also lived there, as did many other people of relative advantage. Simply put, the Kirov district was not a place in which one obtained living quarters without having earned the favor of the authorities.76

In praising Socialist City, Scott seems to have had in mind only the first superblock, which by 1938 boasted a pedestrian mall graced with fountains and tenderly nurtured saplings, as well as most of the city’s decent stores. By contrast, the second superblock—whose three main buildings and many other carcass buildings housed more than three thousand people—still had no streets, sidewalks, or shops, and no one could say when they would have them.77 But the coveted second superblock’s generous-sized apartments were perhaps even more exclusive than the first’s, judging by a quasi-sociological survey of the inhabitants of one building in the second superblock published in the city newspaper.

What was known as building no. 11 in the second superblock was said to consist of fifty apartments in which one hundred wage-earners lived, along with their dependents. The tenants’ average monthly earnings were given as 554 rubles (the city average was approximately 300). Thirty of the inhabitants of building no. 11 were said to have a higher education and thirty-eight more to have completed middle school (impressive by Soviet standards). A remarkable fifty-seven had been to a resort that year. Fuller responses, including photographs, were published for fourteen people, among whom were a senior economist, the head of the factory’s auxiliary smithing shop, five distinguished skilled workers, a shift foreman, a high-level bureaucrat, a school director, a professor, an employee of the chemical laboratory, and a youth official (the latter two being women). The happy message—deserved success—was exhibited for all to see.78

Taken together, the handful of brick and numerous carcass buildings of the Kirov district’s two superblocks housed approximately 15 percent of Magnitogorsk’s population, along with the city’s best schools, children’s nurseries, and other facilities. This made them a place for the relatively better off, professionals and skilled workers—what might loosely be called the Soviet equivalent of middle and lower-middle classes, as long as we bear in mind their extraordinary degree of dependency on the authorities.79 Privileged as it was, however, the Kirov district was not the domain of the most privileged. That distinction was reserved for another part of town, whose formation spoke volumes about the emerging society.

In 1930, the top leadership on the site was suddenly informed by the authorities in Moscow that American specialists were coming and that suitable housing for them should be completed before they arrived. The order stipulated that the foreigners were to be afforded living conditions approximating those to which they were accustomed—this at a remote, virtually barren construction site. Despite the constraints, Moscow’s order was carried out to the letter.

For the new “American town” (Amerikanka), the local leadership chose the only wooded area anywhere near the site: a small birch grove to the north of the factory and across the far side of the hills from the mine.80 Here they built some individual homes and a few larger multi-occupancy, two-story stucco bungalows with separate sleeping quarters, a common living room, a kitchen with a wood-burning stove, indoor toilets, and bathrooms with water heaters. One structure functioned as a communal dining facility, which provided waitress service and where, as one Magnitogorsk inhabitant tellingly remembered, the Americans were supplied with “their own silverware.”81 On the grounds the authorities also installed volleyball and tennis courts for summer recreation.82 One Soviet official recalled that the Americans, who were said to be no strangers to Russian vodka, “managed to dance the foxtrot to the accompaniment of a balalaika.”83

At first, the on-site director, Iakov Shmidt, stipulated that only foreigners were to be quartered in Amerikanka, but with the arrival in January 1931 of Iakov Gugel, Shmidt’s edict restricting the enclave to foreigners was forgotten. “The local secretary of the party was the first to get in, as did the chief of the GPU,” wrote Raymond Stuck, one of the American specialists stationed at Magnitogorsk. “From then on it was a stampede.” The free-for-all, which included incidents of squatting in partially completed structures and forced evictions, continued until Gugel proclaimed that as far as Soviet citizens were concerned, only higher-ups were to be permitted. Gugel “promptly installed himself in the best house in the American village and completely refurnished it with fine furnishings,” wrote Stuck, who added that the Soviet Civil War veteran maintained a retinue of servants, two cars, the finest local team of horses, and the best carriage and sleigh.84

By the time the last Americans and other foreign specialists sent by the big firms had left in 1932, only Soviet officials remained. To reflect the new situation, the name of the enclave was changed from Amerikanka to Berezka (birch tree). Viktor Kizenko, Gugel’s chief of blast furnace construction who moved into the renamed Berezka in February 1931, later remembered it as “something of an oasis.”85 At the time, Kizenko and the other chiefs of construction for each future shop under Gugel appear to have been known as the “appanage princes.”86

With the arrival of Magnitogorsk Director Avraamii Zaveniagin in mid-1933, Berezka really came into its own. Zaveniagin had a dozen large individual houses built for himself and his closest associates that according to John Scott were “copied almost exactly from American architectural catalogues” with a result “very much approaching Mount Vernon.”87 Along with the factory director on the new street lived the city party secretary, the chief of the Magnitogorsk security police (as of 1934, the NKVD), the factory’s chief engineer (Zaveniagin’s deputy), the chiefs of various shops, the chief engineer of the mine, and the factory’s chief electrician (the latter two were valued “prisoner” specialists in exile).

Predictably, Zaveniagin’s own house was the largest: a three-story, fourteen-room stuccoed brick structure that contained individual bedrooms and a playroom for his two children, a music room, a large study, and a billiard room. This mini-estate, enclosed by a high brick wall complete with steel gates and an armed guard, boasted a luxurious garden. “My garden at Magnitka,” Zaveniagin proudly recalled many years later, “was, if not the first and only, surely one of the very, very few gardens in the Urals.”88 John Scott, who had access to the Magnitogorsk archives, wrote that Zaveniagin’s house cost a quarter of a million rubles. All expenses, from the construction materials to the labor to the ongoing maintenance, were ascribed to the factory budget.89

Other “cottages,” as they were called, may have been less impressive than the big boss’s—altogether in Berezka there were about 150 buildings, not all of them single-family—but each far exceeded in comfort any accommodations outside this walled community. Moreover, along with relatively luxurious accommodations in a garden setting, the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk’s elite enclave also enjoyed the services of well-stocked, restricted-access stores, chauffeur-driven Ford automobiles, expense accounts, and the steel plant’s lakeside resort, built about forty kilometers away in the Ural mountains at Bannoe ozero. Here they and their families could swim, fish, and hunt in the mountainous outdoors, staying over, if they wished, in a cabin.90

As could have been expected, the local elite’s takeover and transformation of Amerikanka was not publicly chronicled, but rather remarkably, the emergence of a kind of “high society” centered in Berezka was. Toward the latter part of the decade, for example, the newspaper was filled with stories of a new specialty perfume shop, Téjé, which was a smashing success, its sales being “way above plan” according to gushing reports accompanied by photographs of women in fashionable attire.91 Besides the eau de cologne “Carmen,” Téjé had its customers wild over the latest scent, “Caucasus Riviera.”92

The city newspaper also noted that on May Day in 1936, Magnitogorsk began a tradition of masquerade balls. Held in the Engineers’ and Technicians’ Club (DITR), the first ball was organized by the so-called Council of Engineers’ Wives—in effect, the successor to the Zhenotdel or women’s department of the party, and the clientele who picked the shelves bare in Téjé (no less a personage than Mariia Zaveniagin, the wife of the steel plant director, was elected council president).93 The ball, like the perfume shop, was by invitation only. As it happened, however, the organizers had to issue a second set of tickets, canceling the first (apparently, “undesirable elements” had managed to get hold of some tickets, threatening to undermine the event’s exclusivity). According to the city newspaper, the revelers danced until 3 A.M.—the factory worked around the clock—but the costume contest was a major disappointment. No first prize was awarded. “The majority of costumes did not shine with special creativity and originality,” sniffed the newspaper, which bore the name “The Magnitogorsk Worker.”94

To be sure, privilege had from the beginning been an integral part of life in Magnitogorsk. The authorities made conspicuous efforts to reward the loyal and the industrious. There were special dining halls for “shock workers,” engineers and technical personnel, as well as special housing.95 The “survey” of the inhabitants of building no. 11 in Socialist City deliberately conveyed as much. But the privileges of party and other officials—whose principal ethic was supposed to be one of sacrifice and service to the people—were for the most part strenuously concealed, with the striking exception of the newspaper accounts of the shopping and after-hours exploits of Berezka society.96

Magnitogorsk’s “high society” did not compare with Moscow’s, where the party, police, and military elite lived in far greater luxury than had the well-off nobles before the revolution, but the inhabitants of Berezka aspired to an upper-class lifestyle in what was supposed to be a proletarian town. Echoing the writings of Vera Dunham, Sheila Fitzpatrick has argued that the embourgeoisement of the Soviet political elite—much denounced at the time by some diehard revolutionaries—was nothing more than the “natural consequence” of the rise of people with working-class backgrounds.97 Whatever the origins of the elite’s predilection for a glamorous lifestyle, its appearance could not help but jar public sensitivities.

John Scott, who wrote that “Berezka was a little world in itself,” believed that “most of the Magnitogorsk workers had no idea who lived there or how.”98 The writer Nina Kondratkovskaia who lived in Magnitogorsk during the same period as Scott took a different view. “In the early 1930s everybody lived essentially the same,” she recalled in an interview in 1987. “There were differences at the extremes, but for everyone tough conditions were the rule. By the second half of the 1930s, however, there appeared a conspicuous group who lived better and enjoyed definite privileges.” She added that “they were an elite, considered themselves such, and were viewed by the people as such. And they lived in Berezka.” Indeed, despite the enclave’s exclusivity, word-of-mouth reports from cleaning and other service personnel helped spread stories of high living throughout the rest of town.99

In 1937 the Magnitogorsk elite again greeted the New Year with a masquerade ball, along with the outpourings of gratitude to the “most humble Leader of All Peoples” for all the joy he had brought them that year and would presumably bring in the new one. But this turned out to be the year Stalin began his own special masquerade for the members of high society. In Magnitogorsk, the NKVD’s Black Marias, on their nightly rounds to collect “enemies of the people,” headed to Berezka and the Kirov district. Even the terror had its specific—although by no means exclusive—urban geography, a subject addressed in detail in chapter 7. Here we can note that the celebrated birch trees of Berezka began to disappear mysteriously not long after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934: by 1938, 60 percent of the grove had dried up and died, and local specialists were at a loss to forestall the disaster.100 That year the tradition of New Year’s Eve masked balls accompanied by jazz concerts was temporarily interrupted, but it resumed in 1939.101


Without the option of apartment buildings in the Kirov district or cottages in Berezka, the overwhelming majority of Magnitogorsk’s inhabitants took up residence in tents and waited their turn to move into one of the hundreds of barracks being built according to the short-term settlement strategy. Such stopgap lodgings were supposed to be replaced after two or three years by permanent structures. But given the numerous setbacks in building the socialist city of the future, the planned “temporary” barracks became the dominant form of shelter in the greater urban agglomeration.

Logically, the first barracks were located around the initial priority construction objects: to the north, where the brick factory was being built; in the central area, at the iron-ore mine and the factory administration building; and to the south, at the limestone quarry near the village of Agapovka.102 The perhaps not completely foreseen result of this seemingly sensible location policy, however, was that less than two years after the first settlers arrived, the embryonic urban territory stretched for more than twenty kilometers from north to south. These far reaches became the boundaries of Magnitogorsk, so that in 1938 the newspaper could write that “the first impression of the city one gets upon arrival is its spread out quality [razbrosannost].”103

What spread the city out, of course, was the layout of the steel plant and its many attendant enterprises. As the newspaper aptly stated, “Magnitogorsk grows very fast,” springing up “wherever shops and enterprises are located.”104 So strongly did industry define the urban territory that most of the earliest settlements were named for factory shops, such as Rolling Mill Town, Blast Furnace Town, Miners’ Settlement. The rest were simply called by numbers assigned to the various industrial construction sectors (uchastki), such as the Seventh Sector (the central electric station), or the Sixth Sector (the coke and chemical plant).

Table 5. Population by Selected Area, 1939

Fifth Sector






Fourteenth Sector


Blast Furnace Town


Fertilizer Settlement






Miners’ Settlement


Twelfth Sector


Socialist City

   First superblock


   Second superblock


Lattice-Wood Town


Right Bank




SOURCE: MFGACHO, F. 16, OP. 1, D. 104,1.40.

NOTE: Total population in 1939 for the city proper, not including the surrounding raion, was officially given as 145,900.

Sometimes the settlements were named for auxiliary shops or enterprises, such as the settlement Ore-Enriching Station (RIS) to the east or the Fertilizer Settlement in the north. Many of these “auxiliary” settlements were small—at the RIS there were fewer than a thousand people—but others contained several thousand people (see table 5). Whatever their size, these parts of the city owed their origin to an industrial installation, on whose territory they arose and whose soot and gas fumes they received in generous doses.

Having divided the urban territory into sectors by shop or enterprise, the local authorities, unencumbered by considerations of private ownership, sought to house each sector’s work force in the sector’s barracks.105 But given the sheer number of arrivals and departures, as well as the myriad number of organizations, such coordination proved impossible. Even when, in 1931, the construction of “temporary” housing was made the responsibility of the heads of each industrial sector, the disorganized patterns continued to dominate. “No matter how many times the city party committee tried to carry out a population transfer,” grieved one low-level official, “it never worked.”106

Because of the size of the factory and the dispersal of its many auxiliary shops and enterprises, and because of the difficulties in coordinating residences with workplaces, distances between work and home for many people reached eight or ten kilometers.107 This was the very dreaded “irrationality” that urban planning had been expected to overcome. To be sure, distance is a relative concept, dependent on the modes of transport. Such was the nature of transport in Magnitogorsk, however, that the connections between various parts of the city could seem very great indeed.

The impediments to efficient movement began with the local road system, or rather with the lack of one. Magnitogorsk’s only paved thorough-fare was the Central Chaussée, which wound for over fifteen kilometers from the train station, along the front of the factory, down to and around the NKVD building, and up toward the Kirov district, beyond which it changed its name to Club Prospect, finally becoming a dirt path called Karadyr Prospect on its way another five kilometers to the aerodrome.108 Aside from this artery there was a proto-road system on the factory grounds and a few paved roads connecting the factory and the mine.109 But the rest of the city “streets,” despite such imposing names as Soviet Power, Radiant Future, Red Partisans, Ordzhonikidze, Ernst Thälman, and Sacco and Vanzetti, were just downtrodden paths largely incapable of carrying vehicular traffic.110

But much of road system’s inadequacy was beside the point, for on the whole site there were only about five hundred vehicles. Almost a tenth of these were regularly out of service, and all but a handful were the exclusive property of the factory and used for industrial purposes. The most important shops and enterprises acquired buses to circle the city and round up or drop off their workers, regardless of where they lived. But these nonmunicipal buses had small capacities and were subject to frequent breakdowns. The lack of spare parts, not to mention gasoline, often kept them from running.111

As for the city, in 1933 it was served by only three buses, which were slow and almost always late, when they ran at all.112 True, by the end of the decade the number of city buses had increased to eight, but only three of them worked regularly, and their hours were limited.113 Service between the Kirov district and the settlements of the north, for example, stopped at ten in the evening. This mattered little for the nearly four thousand inhabitants of the Twelfth Sector, also known as the Settlement of Railroad Workers, whose community lay more than two kilometers beyond the last bus stop, which was located at the Grain Elevator Settlement.114

For certain areas of the city the transportation situation improved dramatically in January 1935, when the first streetcar was ceremoniously put into operation, bearing a portrait of Stalin. With its speed limit set at ten kilometers per hour, the heavy single-car tram rumbled from the top of the Kirov district past the central market to the main factory gates (and then slightly beyond to a secondary entrance), carrying the denizens of the first and second superblocks to and from work and many others on shopping expeditions for only 20 kopecks per ride.115 Unequivocal testimony to the tram’s utility was provided by the fact that it was almost always packed full, making it difficult for the passengers to close the hand-operated wooden doors.116

In what was a further demonstration of the authorities’ salutary commitment to public transportation, the tram line was extended northwards by 1938 to the Thirteenth Sector. But problems with a poorly built bridge (over the piping from the mine to the steel works) necessitated closing the extension for what turned out to be a lengthy period.117 In any case, most ordinary people still lived far from the tram route. The streetcar was a welcome addition to life in the city, but with the exception of the handful of vehicles and a sizable number of horses (plus a few camels) intended for official purposes, getting about Magnitogorsk in the 1930s more often than not meant going on foot.118

The streetcar received considerable publicity as an emblem of the city’s “modernity.”119 Beyond symbolism, however, the need for adequate public transportation remained a crucial issue in Magnitogorsk, given the city’s sprawl. The Kirov district was situated as if it were a satellite of the steel plant, and the streetcar link solidified that relationship. But the rest of the residential sections, outside the tram network and poorly served by buses, took on the character of “outskirts” (okrainy)—isolated from the city’s center of gravity and in most cases, from each other. It was this situation that imparted to Magnitogorsk its peculiar physiognomy, making it seem something other than a city.

In what was taken as a further sign of the lack of Magnitogorsk’s true “urban” character, the isolation of the “outskirts” was matched by their comparative underdevelopment. Fertilizer Settlement, which consisted mostly of makeshift housing along a single dirt road, was covered by huge puddles of filthy water, piles of garbage, and numerous open outdoor toilets. The situation was the same if not worse in the Communal and First of May Settlements to the southeast, and even in Lattice-Wood Town, which was just behind the Kirov district and often included in statistical surveys of it. At least Lattice-Wood Town was not physically isolated from the rest of the town, however.120

But isolation came in various forms. The smallest settlements, such as the Third Sector, were known dismissively as bears’ lairs (medvezhki ugolki), since they contained no mailboxes or other means of communication with the outside world. Such small settlements of the outskirts also often housed groups of national minorities. One outlying region, a gold prospecting settlement at the northern end of the city, consisted of about one thousand Bashkirs and was known as Bashkir Town. There was also a so-called Kazakh Settlement, near Lattice-Wood Town, where both Kazakhs and Tatars lived. In these cases, “isolation” stemmed less from distance than language and custom.121

Only a few of the settlements in Magnitogorsk’s outskirts were large, but one was very large indeed: that of the so-called special resettlers, or dekulakized peasants, who in 1931 were placed in an area behind the iron-ore mine that was christened the spetstrudposelok, or Special Labor Settlement, and enclosed by barbed wire.122 Within two years, four other divisions of the Special Labor Settlement were founded: at the New Fertilizer Settlement, the Northern Settlement, the Limestone Quarry Settlement, and the village of Agapovka. But the barbed wire came down, and the original encampment was renamed the Central Settlement, even though it was situated in the eastern fringes of town.123 With more than thirty thousand inhabitants, these “cities” within the city were largely self-contained.124 Some peasant exiles were apparently granted permission to live outside the five divisions of the settlement with relatives,125 but most continued to live within its boundaries even after their “rights” as citizens were officially restored in 1936 (in connection with the new constitution of that year).126

These inhabitants of Magnitogorsk’s “islands” in the “Gulag Archipelago” had been brutually brought there against their will, many dying along the way or not long after arrival. But the subsequent experience of the dekulakized peasants who managed to survive differed significantly from that of the “zeks” dispatched to the infamous camps of the Far North.127 Within their enclaves, the peasant exiles, despite an initial period of severe hardship that bordered on famine, came to have some of the best household plots in the city. They also raised a significant number of livestock. In his July 1933 speech Ordzhonikidze had joked that the Special Labor Settlement was better maintained and far more orderly than Socialist City. It is likely that this was true.128

The other large settlement of Magnitogorsk’s outskirts, in addition to the misnamed Central Settlement for peasant exiles, was a so-called Is-pravitelno-trudovaia koloniia (ITK), or Corrective Labor Colony, for criminal offenders. The Magnitogorsk colony was established in July 1932, according to the camp’s main newspaper, Borba za metall, whose first issue appeared on 7 November 1932. It received convicts from around the country; many also came from within the city. In the official language, convicts were known as “citizens temporarily deprived of freedom” (grazhdane vremenno lishennye svobody, 1/sv), or sometimes as “those serving measures of social defense” (otbyvaiushchii mery sotsialnoi zashchity, OMSZ). In everyday parlance, they were known as itekovtsy.129

Although not permitted to leave Magnitogorsk and subject to a nighttime curfew, the itekovtsy were initially unconfined since according to Soviet penal science they were “class allies” and “socially friendly” elements who, in contrast to the “class alien” kulaks, could be “reforged.”130 After a rush of “escapes” and much mayhem, however, the authorities evidently decided that these “class allies” were more dangerous than the supposed class aliens. In late 1932 the ITK was enclosed in barbed wire and divided into sectors, with punishment or isolation areas, as well as “special regime” barracks.131

Once the barbed wire went up (and convicts were expressly forbidden from going to work sites with their belongings), escapes from the colony declined in frequency, although they did not cease.132 Through 1933, the total number of convicts sent to the colony was officially given as 26,786, of whom 8,122 had escaped (1,905 were recaptured). Over the years many more convicts arrived, and thousands were released. Throughout the decade, an untold number died in captivity.133 The colony “regime” appears to have been further strengthened in 1936, when according to John Scott armed guards were used to escort convicts to and from labor sites.134 By this time escapes became rarer; convicts became easily identifiable by their clothes and, even if they managed to change clothing, by their haircuts, while control through documents became stricter. But even after the barbed wire was installed, convicts continued to escape from work sites.

This large pool of “socially friendly” criminals provided a ready supply of bandits and contributed to the pervasive lawlessness in Magnitogorsk. Magnitogorsk was literally situated on the frontier. There was nothing as far as the eye could see, and even beyond, save a few railroad stations and an isolated town or two. Carousing, fist fights, knife fights, and murder seem to have been common, perhaps more so than in established cities.135 Because of widespread “hooliganism,” many inhabitants, especially women, reported that venturing outside at night was dangerous.136 With time, as more permanent buildings went up, Magnitogorsk lost some of its “wild east” character. But throughout the second half of the 1930s the newspaper carried daily reports of what were called “incidents” (proishetviia), mostly petty heists and break-ins, but also ax murders and occasional shootings.137 Many of the culprits came from the labor colony.138

Taking account of the deaths and escapes, the colony’s population seems to have remained at about ten thousand inmates. These convicts were distributed among five separate installations, which included a compound for orphaned children and adolescent offenders.139 The largest colony compounds were located on the right-bank construction site across the industrial lake, in the Eleventh Sector above the blast furnaces, and near the giant lumberyard and woodworking plant (DOK) due north of the factory gates.140 All these areas were in the outskirts.

From the labor colony to the Special Labor Settlement, from the northern reaches to the southeastern communities, Magnitogorsk was a whole city of outskirts. Even Magnitogorsk’s immense Fifth Sector—the city’s most heavily populated region and the one that came to shape its image in the popular imagination—was considered part of the outskirts.141 Moreover, most people in Magnitogorsk discovered that they lived not only in the city’s outskirts but in the country’s “outskirts”—doubly isolated. The Ural River alongside the city was not navigable (before the dam was built the river was so shallow that people walked across it). Important officials often traveled by air from the aerodrome—located in the opposite direction from the train station, out in the plain beyond Karadyrka hill—which they reached by car. For most people the primary way into and out of the city was by train, and although passenger trains left the city reasonably often, Magnitogorsk, far from being on the main trunk line, was twice removed from it.142 Difficulties with the rail connections were matched by deficiencies in other means of communication. The newspaper complained about the erratic mail delivery, in part a consequence of the city’s notorious indeterminacy,143 and the frequent tie-ups of the overburdened telephone and telegraph networks.144

Relative isolation was the main but not the only consequence of the city’s internal disconnectedness. The paradigmatic Fifth Sector, which also included the settlement of Ezhovka (named for an eighteenth-century miner, not the NKVD chief), consisted of nothing but barracks. The barracks were wooden, stucco-coated, whitewashed, one-story structures that stretched in rows as far as the eye could see and had no individual or distinguishing features. “You’d come home, searching and searching” explained one bemused barracks resident, “but all the barracks were identical and you couldn’t find yours.”145

Such indistinctness went beyond the barracks in the Fifth Sector. In the Seventh, Eleventh, and Fourteenth Sectors no street names were created until the census of 1937. And many sectors were without building numbers even after street names had finally been affixed. The city soviet began numbering buildings only in 1935, but it was a long time before it got around to many areas of the city. Often, numbering buildings did not help much, as numerous neighboring barracks were found to have the same number.146 Buildings in some sectors were never assigned numbers, while those that had been outfitted more than once had a mixture of old and new numbers that did not mesh.147 Rather than giving an address when summoning an ambulance, the newspaper advised, it was better to describe the location with landmarks, depending on the season, such as “the big puddle” or “the tall mound of snow.”148

Magnitogorsk’s geography, characterized by deliberate social differentiation, unwitting internal remoteness and disassociation, and a kind of generalized anonymity, was also to a large extent conspicuously agrarian. The city’s “rural quality” derived partly from the kind of shelter many people had. Faced with the prospect of living in a tent, a barracks, or nowhere at all, many new urbanites built their own housing out of whatever materials they could find, mostly sod, thatch, and scraps of metal. These structures, built over a dugout in the ground, were called mud huts (zemlianki), a form of housing common throughout the Soviet Union. In Magnitogorsk, mud huts, like barracks, were grouped in clusters resembling villages.

Beyond the appearance of the mud huts, echoes of village life were evoked by the agricultural practices of the population. In one mud-hut settlement, Miners’ Settlement, which was adjacent to the largest mechanized mine in the country, city authorities counted 352 households, and some 300 cows. Household size at the Miners’ Settlement was also “rural,” averaging almost five members.149 It is likely that those families without a cow simply could not afford one, but this did not mean they lacked other livestock. Of the mud huts John Scott wrote that “the same house was inhabited by the family, the chickens, the pigs, and the cow, if there was one.”150

Some of the mud-hut settlements were actual villages absorbed by the city. This was the case with Sredne-Uralsk, which was founded some ten years before construction of the steel plant began and whose population by the mid-1930s was nearly seven thousand. Here, as on many such settlements of the outskirts, there were neither kiosks with newspapers on sale nor regular mail deliveries for subscribers. Indeed, without as much as a single makeshift club, this agrarian community had few of the markings of a Bolshevik presence. “If Christmas is still celebrated anywhere in Magnitogorsk,” the city newspaper wrote, “it is in Sredne-Uralsk,” hinting without saying so directly that the settlement had a church.151

But everywhere one looked in Magnitogorsk, not just in the village-like settlements, there were plots and livestock. By 1938, the city claimed more than ten thousand cows, goats, and pigs, whose presence was much appreciated if sometimes sorely felt.152 Attempts to construct cement sidewalks in Lattice-Wood Town, for example, proved unsuccessful because grazing animals destroyed them before the cement could harden. Meanwhile, on one side of Lattice-Wood Town stood a Cossack-style farmstead (khutor) and on the other side, the original Socialist City, which itself was dotted with fruit and vegetable plots.153 Much of Magnitogorsk’s population pressed the local leadership for land.154 And partly to keep people in the city and partly to help alleviate food shortages, the leadership acceded to these requests even though it was bent on eradicating the country’s despised “backwardness”—of which such plots were thought to be an unpleasant reminder.

Agricultural plots and livestock could seem out of place because of the vision of urban modernity that inspired the construction of Magnitogorsk; indeed, when Soviet power came to Magnetic Mountain, along with it came the great “modernizing” force, electrification. By the end of the 1930s about four-fifths of the city was “electrified.”155 Except for the Central Chaussée and parts of Berezka and the Kirov district, however, streets were unlit, and at nightfall whole areas of the city became enveloped by almost total darkness.156 With time, more street lights were installed outdoors.157 But interruptions in the power supply were a continual problem, initially because of breakdowns in the system and later owing to enforced conservation.158

Even more important, for many people nighttime darkness could become the general rule indoors as well. The newspaper complained, for example, that the barracks of the Sixth Sector, were more often than not without electricity during the winter months, when night came early.159 Some areas of the city avoided the regular electrical breakdowns or enforced blackouts of the city’s electricity network in that they were served by generators, but these devices could be just as unreliable. And several communities had no electricity whatsoever. Such was the unhappy predicament of the Kazakh Settlement.160 Although it was possible to use kerosene lamps, the sale of kerosene was introduced only in the spring of 1936, and then in limited quantities. In any case, you also needed the lamp.161

Magnitogorsk, coated by ice for months on end, also rarely had adequate warmth. True, in the Kirov district the residents had central heating. But even that system suffered from many problems. During the 1932–33 winter, for example, blizzards knocked out the heating system, leading to subzero temperatures inside offices and residences. Investigations uncovered shoddy workmanship in the laying of pipes and the installation of boiler plates. In the summer of 1934, massive repair work was done on the central heating system, yet the winter of 1934–35 witnessed a repetition of the breakdowns.162

Meanwhile, the rest of the city—the barracks and mud huts—was heated by small stoves, in the venerable peasant tradition. In certain barracks, however, not all stoves worked, and even if the stoves were in good working order, there were often shortages of fuel.163 Though millions of tons of high-quality coal arrived in Magnitogorsk every year, virtually all of it went to the factory, forcing people to scramble to find substitute fuels, especially wood, to keep warm.164 Every winter complaints were heard at high-level meetings that temperatures inside the barracks “competed” with those outside.165 Many people slept in their clothes, complete with overcoats and fur hats.166 (Summer offered no respite, for with the warm weather came the bed bugs, and people slept outside on planks in order to escape the insects.)167

Problems with light and heat were matched by those with sanitation. The People’s Commissariat of Labor finally allocated the funds for a sewage system for the Kirov district, but aside from seemingly endless discussions, little was accomplished for several years. According to the newspaper, the problem was that management could not decide whether the Trust Soiuzvodstroi or the steel plant itself should do the work. The “solution” was to form a new organization, Stroikanalizatsiia, which maintained a work force of twenty-four people (for a task that required thousands). Besides an adequate contingent of workers, the organization lacked equipment (excavators), materials (pipes, pumps), and elementary blueprints.168 Later, after sections of the planned sewage system were somehow completed, the newspaper complained that people did not know how to treat pipes and caused frequent stoppages. When the clogged pipes were examined, rags, paper, and even tin cans were discovered.169

Some buildings near the sewage system could not be included in it, apparently owing to difficulties with running pipes underground.170 Instead, residents of these buildings, like most of the city, were served by outdoor cesspits (iamy), whose contents were emptied into cisterns hauled away by trucks—provided, that is, there were enough trucks in functioning condition. Otherwise, as frequently happened, the cesspits became overfull and the water there had to be turned off.171 The problem of overfull cesspits became especially acute with the arrival of the spring thaw, when odors were no longer frozen in their place.172 Almost all outdoor toilets were uncovered. Even the “permanent” sewage system consisted of many open trenches, since there were often no pipes.173

Just as the city lacked an adequate sewage system, it also lacked a clean water supply. For the factory a large artificial lake had been created on the dammed Ural River, but it had trouble meeting the steel plant’s enormous appetite for water, let alone the added demands of the city. A second dam to enlarge the lake, due before the 1932 spring flood, was completed only in 1938. In the meantime, the steel plant spewed the thoroughly contaminated lake water back into its source, having added hot slag to it. “Six times every 24 hours water runs from the lake to the factory and from the factory to the lake,” the newspaper reported. “Right now, all life in the lake is dead—the fish perished and the underwater plants died.”174

In the absence of an alternative, however, the lake continued to be used as the principal water source for the city. Eventually the authorities did obtain water processing equipment, although it is unclear how much that helped.175 In any case, throughout the decade, entire settlements, such as Bashkir Town, remained completely without water, while others, such as the Railroad Settlement, had only temporary water systems that drew untreated water directly from the Ural River long after filters had been installed elsewhere.176

Fortunately, boiled water for tea, often the only way to thaw oneself and also by custom the chief beverage, was available from large water heaters called titany, which were supplied to most barracks. When these were not functioning, however, life in the barracks became much less tolerable—and more dangerous. Indeed, the consequences of the absence of light or the presence of cesspits, troubling as they were, paled in comparison with those deriving from the lack of clean water. Fires, the perennial urban nightmare, were only part of the problem.

In the summer of 1931, a typhus epidemic descended upon the city, after which the newspaper sadly admitted (by the fall of 1932) that Magnitogorsk, with a large mass lumped together in unsanitary conditions, was a hothouse for the spread of infectious diseases.177 A frightening report on the city’s catastrophic health situation in 1932 singled out the Special Labor Settlement, which was said to account for “up to 70 percent of the typhus cases.” In the various parts of the settlement, there was no soap for months, and not nearly enough doctors, in part because they too were getting sick. The report warned that the epidemic had spread to the nearby populous Fifth Sector.178

Typhus was but one of the diseases that plagued Magnitogorsk. Malaria was especially virulent in 1932 and still being fought years later.179 In 1935 almost nine thousand cases of malaria were recorded. That same year there was an epidemic of scarlet fever, which continued to affect more than one thousand people yearly, until 1939.180 In battling these epidemics, the authorities repeatedly conducted sanitation inspections, tried to issue fines, and organized mass clean-ups, called subbotniki, which produced immediate but often ephemeral results. In the Fifth Sector, which had 1,500 toilets open to the sky, one mass clean-up in 1936 organized under the threat of spreading disease managed to attract one thousand people.181 The newspaper conceded, however, that the filth piled up again just as high.182

Magnitogorsk’s first medical facility, a forty-five-bed infection “hospital” opened in 1929 in the Fourth Sector, was housed in a small barracks and staffed by a single doctor who saw ninety-eight people a day.183 This facility continued to expand until, by the end of 1931, something of a hospital system had formed. In February 1932 the whole operation was moved to a specially built complex in the Fifth Sector.184 By 1937 there were almost 1,400 beds. Many parts of the complex, however, were without running water, steam heat, or sewage facilities. And the facility was usually overcrowded (especially surgery) and understaffed. It must be said, though, that Magnitogorsk’s doctors and nurses often lacked experience, but not dedication.185 Much attention was focused on people’s health.

By design, the hospital complex comprised around twenty wooden barracks rather than permanent brick buildings. After ten long years, the city’s chief doctor fumed in the newspaper that “management made a colossal mistake not building a real hospital for such a gigantic construction site.”186 The decision to use barracks had been justified by the hospital’s location on what was originally intended as an impermanent sector of the city. As it turned out, however, the “temporary” Fifth Sector, like the rest of the “outskirts,” was forced to take the place of the scaled down Socialist City. In the meantime, a city of nearly 200,000 people had no “permanent” hospital, despite the commitment to providing universal health care.

Nor were permanent buildings for schools built in the “outskirts” or “temporary” sections of the city, since these areas were to be torn down and the population moved to the right bank.187 In the optimistic forecasts of planners, however, that transfer was at least fifteen years away. “Should the [temporary] sectors go without decent schools until then?” asked one indignant school administrator. The answer, unfortunately, was yes. Of the twenty-one schools outside the Kirov district, only five were in brick buildings; sixteen were in barracks, most of which had been scheduled to be torn down after only two or three years but were forced to last decades.

In the “outskirts” most children had to travel long distances to get to school, and although these schools operated on double shifts, they were overcrowded. By contrast, in the Kirov district all schools were located in permanent structures and operated on a single shift. In 1937, against a local recommendation to build a new brick school on the populous but “temporary” Fourteenth Sector, one was built instead on the right bank. With a capacity of 400, the school had only 120 to 130 pupils. Following Moscow’s orders, the oblast soviet expressly forbid the construction of new permanent schools on the left bank outside the Kirov district. All three schools planned for 1938 were to be built in or near the Kirov district, the “permanent” city.188

What held true for schools and the hospital also held for the water system, sewage, street lights, and roads: why make the effort and expenditure if those parts of the city were only “temporary”? “In city organizations and in the leadership of the factory there is the opinion that everything built around the factory is not yet the city,” commented one journalist. “The real city supposedly will be built on the right bank.”189 Meanwhile, the entire population lived on the left bank, and would do so for quite some time, in the temporary city of the present.


Magnitogorsk was a colossal industrial territory of one hundred square kilometers. Paradoxically, the highly industrial landscape was composed to a great extent of rural-like settlements of mud huts, while private plots and livestock were spread all over the urban landscape. The mud huts were matched in number only by barracks, layed out in endless rows in all directions, giving the place the look of some kind of mobile military installation. To be sure, there were some brick and stone apartment buildings, a paved boulevard, and even a streetcar. One was more likely to notice, however, the sizable areas with tents and barracks enclosed in barbed wire. No less striking was the secluded suburb of architecture-magazine cottages surrounded by bountiful gardens. It was no wonder that people puzzled over the question: what kind of place was this?

Although different residential regions of the city took on individual identities—Blast Furnace Town, the Fifth Sector, and so on—with the exceptions of the Kirov district and Berezka, most neighborhoods lacked coherence amid the deadening anonymity of forlorn barracks and the incapacity of the local authorities to demarcate the monotonous territory. What is more, residential sections had little connection to one another or to the city as a whole. Magnitogorsk was a city of fragments, and these fragments were widely dispersed.

Because of the dispersion of Magnitogorsk’s various parts, combined with the limited coverage of its urban transport network, the overwhelming majority of inhabitants found themselves living in isolation from “the city.” “It was a queer city, running for more than ten miles along the valley,” wrote John Scott. “The city planners did a bad job.”190 For their part, the city planners freely conceded that Magnitogorsk was built largely without a plan and that the result was near chaos.191 But from the air one could begin to make at least some sense of Magnitogorsk.192

Beneath the billowing clouds of multi-colored smoke, one saw a huge industrial lake, a gigantic tract of land neatly traversed by hundreds of kilometers of railroad track and dominated by the imposing structures and smokestacks of the metallurgical works, and a big open mine smartly sectioned into layers carved out like steps, around which rolled the dumpcars carrying iron ore to the crushing and enriching plants and then on to the steel plant. Following the layout of the industrial geography, the outlines of the city could be discerned, wrapped around the factory like an outer layer of human insulation. A remarkable parallelism of living and production zones ironically made Magnitogorsk seem like the sort of linear city—only without the green belt—that had been the darling of the modernist architects and had inspired the original design by Ernst May.

The city was less a line and more a slightly curved rope, with the population lashed to industry (see map 4). In writing of the planned socialist city (which was not built) that “the population will be distributed so that housing is as close as possible to production,” one city planner accurately if unwittingly described the city that was built.193 Just as there was no green belt, however, neither was there coordination of residence with workplace. The only benefit to be gained by the proximity of residential and productive zones was thereby lost, while the corresponding health disadvantages were exacerbated by endemic problems with the urban water supply.

It all might have turned out differently. The socialist city of the future—in both versions, left and right bank—was intended to bring a new people victoriously into a new era. But it fell victim to vagueness in its conception, to the terrain, to Bolshevik tempo, to disagreements between the Soviet authorities and their hired capitalist architect, to blunders by that architect under admittedly impossible conditions, to large-scale incompetence, and to the force which not only lorded over the socialist city, but which conquered the terrain and the population: the factory. In retrospect, the nineteenth-century “garden city” ideal, which arose as a reaction to the horrors of industrialization, can be seen to have fit badly with an unapologetic Prometheanism.

Magnetic Mountain

Map 4. Axis of settlement.

Until the latter part of the 1930s, the probable failure of building such a socialist city was not generally accepted. The creeping reliance on the “temporary” city of the present, although unavoidable, naturally brought disappointment. Whereas the magnificence of the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex, that “industrial ballet in four blast furnaces,” was never disputed, there was still argument as late as 1937 in the pages of the local newspaper about whether the urban agglomeration of Magnitogorsk was really a city. Some evidently claimed it was not, for the author of a newspaper piece insisted that it was. After attempting to accentuate the attractive aspects of the new city, she broke off and exclaimed: “That is it, our young and wonderful city, a city of pig iron and steel.”194 True enough. However incomprehensible or irrational it seemed, Magnitogorsk was a city—but a city attached to a factory, from which it derived its purpose and form.

Magnitogorsk was not just any steel town, though. Part barracks settlement, part village, part labor camp and place of exile, part elite enclave, and part new city, the hybrid urban form of Magnitogorsk was a microcosm of the Soviet Union during the building of socialism. And what a peculiar mix it was! Long distances and no effective transport system; numerous fires yet not much of a water system; open sewage trenches, overflowing cesspits, and periodic outbreaks of disease but few qualified medical personnel and no permanent hospital; millions of tons of coal but shortages of home-heating fuel; electricity but nighttime darkness and daytime blackouts; and of course, the enormous volumes of smoke, deafening noise, pig iron and steel and slag and coke and iron ore piled up everywhere and to dizzying heights, all enveloped in a thick smog accompanied by the smell of burning chemicals—such was what might be called the idiocy of urban life in Magnitogorsk.

The Bolshevik leadership decreed that a factory and city be built at Magnetic Mountain. From this decision, however, the form of the urban environment did not inevitably follow. The urban geography of Magnitogorsk was defined by the priorities of the socialist revolution, which placed heavy industry above all else, and by the geography of the industrial layout; but it was also defined by the incompetence of the planners and local officials, the actions and preferences of the inhabitants, and even by notions of temporariness. In Magnitogorsk, furthermore, the urban space was not simply defined; it was also made useful, or “productive.” Rendering the urban space productive entailed more than simply building a factory; it involved “tying” people to production. The city was attached to the factory, and so were the urban inhabitants in a productive if inefficient way. The mechanisms of this attachment—some overtly, others subtly coercive, but many eagerly self-imposed—are the subject of part 2.

In part 2, the focus narrows somewhat, shifting from the urban space as a whole to its various components: the housing space and the tactics for coping with its characteristics, especially the overcrowding and lack of privacy; the work space and the articulation of a social identity in terms of labor; the market space and the artful stratagems and two-sidedness of the urban supply and trade networks; and the political or administrative space and the bizarre rituals and uncanny twists and turns of the party’s rule. If the city began to reveal its secrets from the air, from the perspective of discrete spaces, particular practices, and individual experiences, it revealed even more.

Magnetic Mountain

1. Tent city, with Magnetic Mountain in the background, winter 1930.

Magnetic Mountain

2. Original Magnitogorsk railway “station,” 1930.

Magnetic Mountain

3. Arrivals to the site, signing up for work upon disembarking.

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

4. Two brigades of construction workers.

Magnetic Mountain

5. Digging the foundations for the shops.

Magnetic Mountain

6. Journalists from Komsomlskaia Pravda. Semen Nariniani is at the far left.

Magnetic Mountain

7. Contract signing ceremony between the USSR and McKee Co., 1930. Seated, left to right: Vitalii Gasselblat, leading metallurgy specialist in the Urals design bureau; Arthur McKee, president of the U.S. firm; Petr Bogdanov, chief of Amtorg, the Soviet trading company in New York; Vadim Smolianinov, Soviet director of the Magnitogorsk project. Standing, left to right: A. S. Mamaev, of Amtorg; Robert Baker, treasurer of McKee Co.

Magnetic Mountain

8. Industrial construction, with residential barracks and Industrial Lake in the background.

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

9. Blast furnace no. 2, nicknamed Komsomolskaia.

Magnetic Mountain

10. The open-hearth shop.

Magnetic Mountain

11. Assembly of mill 500.

Magnetic Mountain

12. Open air “storage” of finished steel and assembly equipment, with blast furnaces in the background.

Magnetic Mountain

13. Ernst May, 1920s.

Magnetic Mountain

14. Aerial view of Socialist City, first superblock, mid-1930s.

Magnetic Mountain

15. Close-up of one of the apartment buildings.

Magnetic Mountain

16. Ernst May’s Westhausen settlement, Frankfurt, Germany, 1920s.

Magnetic Mountain

17. Aerial view of Berezka, the elite enclave at Magnitogorsk.

Magnetic Mountain

18. Close-up of Berezka cottages.

Magnetic Mountain

19. Mud hut.

Magnetic Mountain

20. Residential barracks, Fifth Sector.

Magnetic Mountain

21. Painting the windows of barracks that have been covered with stucco.

Magnetic Mountain

22. Interior of communal barracks.

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

23. Workers eating at a public canteen.

Magnetic Mountain

24. Caring for infants.

Magnetic Mountain

25. Inside one of the barracks of the city hospital.

Magnetic Mountain

26. Buses owned and operated by the steel plant.

Magnetic Mountain

27. Fleet of cars, with drivers, for the use of high officials.

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

28. Advertisements in the city newspaper for food products sold in Magnitogorsk stores.

Magnetic Mountain

29. The Engineers’ and Technicians’ Club, or DITR.

Magnetic Mountain

30. The sound cinema, Magnit, showing the 1936 musical comedy Circus.

Magnetic Mountain

31. Newspaper advertisement for Chaplin’s Modern Times, showing at the Magnit.

Magnetic Mountain

32. Newspaper caricature of a day off spent at the nearby lake, Bannoe ozero.



The Little Tactics of the Habitat

We lived, ah we knew

Both joy and misfortune,

Having taken, like a fortress,

Magnetic Mountain . . .

Boris Ruchev,

“Ode to the Tarpaulin

Tents” (1933)1

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 the localities continued after NKTP was subdivided by industrial branch in 1939, when GUMP in effect became the new Commissariat of Ferrous Metallurgy (NKChM).3 Under NKTP and then NKChM, Magnitogorsk was a loyal soldier in the planned economy, serving the ambitious strategies of the Soviet state.4

Magnitogorsk’s industrial servitude determined the city’s basic structure, which was oriented entirely around the shops of the steel plant and attendant enterprises—making it at first glance less than the most hospitable place in which to live. Dirty, grimy, full of soot and smoke, and without a clean water supply or an effective system for waste disposal, Magnitogorsk was prone to outbreaks of disease. At the same time, blanketed by snow and subzero temperatures for long periods but without sufficient supplies of heating fuel and electricity, the city was often cold and dark. Most people lived far from work, and transport left a lot to be desired. Housing, meanwhile, was mostly makeshift. And yet, despite all this, contemporaries insisted that Magnitogorsk retained a special quality.

To be sure, the existence of genuine veneration for Magnitogorsk coincided with a certain disappointment, sharpened by the exceptionally high expectations that had accompanied the city’s construction. One of the early Magnitogorsk directors, for example, confessed apologetically in 1935, two years after having been removed (but still another two years before being summarily shot), that “our mistake was obviously that, [along with] building an industrial enterprise, we should have simultaneously built the everyday life of Magnitogorsk—a city of new culture.”5 Notwithstanding this rare admission of culpability, however, a city of new culture had in fact been built—admittedly not in the sense the director probably meant of cultural refinement, but a new culture it was all the same.

Magnitogorsk’s new culture centered on the communal organization of housing, the centrality of labor in personal identity, the criminalization of private trade, and the primacy of revolutionary politics in all matters. It was this set of distinct characteristics, expressing a dream for a better way of life attendant upon the transcendence of capitalism, that accounted for the admiration Magnitogorsk elicited at home and abroad. Whatever its shortcomings and disappointments, Magnitogorsk stood out as the world’s first newly constructed socialist city.

Magnetic Mountain

At a 1973 conference devoted to the socialist city, several scholars addressed the question of “whether or not the socialist city [wa]s fundamentally different from the city in what may be called, for lack of a better term, capitalist societies.” Their answer was a qualified yes, according to one of the organizers, who outlined a number of supposedly distinguishing characteristics. These included the attempts to control urban growth, a generally high population density, an employment structure dominated by heavy industry, the prevalence of public transport, the absence of land values assessed in financial terms, and above all the peculiarity of the decision-making framework. What the relation of these traits was to each other and, most important, where they came from, were questions that remained unresolved.6

Other scholars have continued to puzzle over the nature of the socialist city, sometimes also called the Soviet city.7 One asserted that the Soviet city was indeed different, but not because of the features described for it at the 1973 conference. Rather, he argued that these features were symptoms of a more fundamental cause, “a very distinctive type of socio-economic system,” which he called state socialism. This scholar neglected to make fully clear precisely what made state socialism “distinct,” and what it was supposed to be distinct from.8 Such a circular discussion recalled the exasperated words of politburo member Lazar Kaganovich at a June 1931 Central Committee plenum, when he declared an end to the endless debates about the nature of the socialist city, stating that Soviet cities were socialist by virtue of their being located inside the USSR.9

Scholars’ ambiguity regarding the definition and specificity of the socialist city could be said to reflect the imprecision prevalent at the outset of the 1930s, as exemplified by Kaganovich’s uncertain pronouncement. When the Stalin revolution began, contemporaries insisted that there was such a thing as the socialist city, and that Magnitogorsk was its outstanding example, but for some years to come, they could not yet say for sure what a socialist city was. The closest they ever came to a statement about the nature of the socialist city was when excoriating the capitalist city. In fact, this negative image of the capitalist city provided the basis for the solution to the question of the nature of the socialist city that took shape by the middle of the decade. Socialism, which began as a way of looking at the world based on a critique of capitalism, became a concrete form of social organization based on the suppression and ultimate elimination of capitalism.


As is well known, the Bolsheviks were deliberately ideological. By ideological is not meant simply that the Bolsheviks held particular ideas as such, but that they deemed it necessary to possess universal ideas to act at all. In this, of course, they merely reflected a general tendency observable since the French revolution. But the Bolsheviks’ adherence to the notion of universal, revealed truth in politics was distinguished by their simultaneous, absolute denial of any possibility of pluralism—an intransigence rooted in a worldview based on class and class struggle, whereby only the interests of the one class, the proletariat, could become universal.

In revolutionary Russia, at any given time there was supposed to be one answer to all questions, a single truth which was held to be the expression of the correct interpretation of the movement of History, as embodied by the Communist party, the vanguard of the universal class. Of course, policies could and did frequently change; indeed, the entire direction of policy, as with family policy in 1936, could be reversed (as we shall see). But throughout, the importance of a “general line” and of the Communist party’s infallibility was maintained, while the explanatory emphasis fell not on the fact of apparent change but on the compatibility of the chosen course with Marxism-Leninism and socialism.

It needs to be kept in mind that the management of this official ideology was complex and time-consuming, requiring a considerable commitment of intellectual capital and often embarrassing those responsible for such tasks. But the deployment of ideology was also empowering. Its mastery served as a strategic device in the political alignments among personalities at all levels, including the very top (it played no small role, for example, in Stalin’s rise to and maintenance of a position of supremacy). More broadly, ideology was an important instrument in the rule of the regime over the country. For these reasons alone, to dismiss or downplay the significance of ideology in the USSR of the 1930s because the ideological precepts were changed or violated in practice (or because they supposedly represented a degeneration of true Marxism-Leninism) is to render the behavior and thinking of contemporaries incomprehensible.

Just as important, the Soviet regime’s official ideology, adaptable as it was, did in fact contain certain fixed ideas that shaped both the course of state action and popular interpretations of state action. Those ideas centered on the proposition, “socialism is the antidote to capitalism.” Capitalism had bourgeois parliaments; socialism would have soviets of workers’ and peasants’ deputies. Capitalism had selfish individualism; socialism would have collectivism. Capitalism had the chaos of markets; socialism would have planning. Capitalism had private property; socialism would have societal property, and so on. In short, whatever socialism was, it was certainly not capitalism. To put it another way, one achieved socialism by eradicating capitalism.10 It was this understanding that imparted a sense of coherence to the experience of socialism, despite the endless improvisation.

Socialism was a kind of antiworld, but this did not mean that for contemporaries it remained abstract. On the contrary, socialism encompassed a number of tangible precepts bespeaking a staunch commitment to social justice: no one went without food, all children attended school, every sick person received medical care, and there was no unemployment. Beyond the considerable impression made by these concrete circumstances, it was also constantly reiterated that in the USSR, the commitment to social justice was not merely a series of ad hoc policies that could be adopted in various forms even under capitalism. Rather, social justice was said to be a fundamental aspect of a socialist type of society, grounded in putatively nonexploitative property relations.

The elimination of private property, and the exploitation that went with it, was put forward as the distinguishing characteristic of Soviet society and by implication, the socialist city. To be sure, some forms of private property were retained, such as personal and household items, livestock, horses and automobiles, and certain forms of housing. But there was no private holding of land or the means of production. Reflecting the circumstances of expropriation, the original legal designation for socialist property was “state property (nationalized and municipalized).”11 By the second half of the 1930s, however, the explanatory clause was dropped. Beyond personal effects, private property had become a thing of the past, and socialism could rightly be declared “built in its foundations.”

In an interview with a foreign correspondent in 1936, the year of the new constitution and the proclamation that socialism had been built, Stalin explained in plain language that “our Soviet society is socialist because private property in factories, land, banks, and the means of transport has been repealed and replaced by societal [obshchestvennaia] property.” Stalin defined this term as “state, that is, national [vsenarodnaia] property, and collective-farm-cooperative property.” To underscore the importance of this point, Stalin added that “neither Italian fascism nor German National ‘Socialism’ has anything in common with such a society . . . because there, private property . . . has remained untouched.”12

As contemporaries came to discover, the elimination of private property brought about a process of thoroughgoing statization (ogosudarstvlenie), and gave rise to a class of functionaries who exercised a kind of de facto ownership over state-controlled property. To be sure, an extravagantly oversized state administered by an aggrandizing official class was an old story in Russian history. But with the socialist revolution these historical tendencies were greatly magnified and, at the same time, recast as a progressive achievement. Among some long-time participants in the Russian revolutionary movement, and even more so among social democrats abroad, there were those who voiced objections to this largely unanticipated turn of events, decrying it as a defilement of socialism, or even as just another form of capitalism. Yet to the majority of people who participated in building it, socialism in the USSR afforded the means to acquire a niche, as well as a sense of pride, in a society that did seem to be qualitatively different—in comparison with capitalism, which was then synonymous not with wealth and freedom but poverty and exploitation, as well as imperialism and war.

The antagonism between socialism and capitalism, made that much more pronounced by the Great Depression, was central not only to the definition of what socialism turned out to be, but also to the mind-set of the 1930s that accompanied socialism’s construction and appreciation. This antagonism helps explain why no matter how substantial the differences between rhetoric and practice or intentions and outcome sometimes became, people could still maintain a fundamental faith in the fact of socialism’s existence in the USSR and in that system’s inherent superiority. This remained true, moreover, despite the Soviet regime’s manifest despotism and frequent resort to coercion and intimidation. Simply put, a rejection of Soviet socialism appeared to imply a return to capitalism, with its many deficiencies and all-encompassing crisis—a turn of events that was then unthinkable.


As we shall see, within a context of the broad acceptance for the goals and results of building socialism, people participated for a variety of reasons—but participate they did. Accordingly, the city of Magnitogorsk must be understood not as a static environment, but as a perpetually shifting, dynamic grid of relations. Evidence of just such a diffuse, relational play of power was presented in part 1—for example, the trade in forged or stolen documents discussed briefly in chapter 2. Such activities, if they have been studied at all, have usually been attributed to the moral bankruptcy of individuals forced to live under an illegitimate regime. But far from showing depravity, the proliferation of illegalities may indicate, if not opposition to Bolshevik rule, creative resistance to a set of written and unwritten rules governing appropriate behavior.

Much about life in the new urban milieu of Magnitogorsk must have appeared incomprehensible, but every urban inhabitant knew, even if only instinctively, what he or she needed to do in order to live.13 The urban inhabitants knew how to make the best of their lot; they knew what should be avoided and which rules could be bent under what circumstances and which could not. And if they did not know, they learned quickly. The inhabitants of Magnitogorsk were experts in what they perceived to be the rules of the game. That these new rules of urban life were often unspoken did not mean they were less real. Even unspoken rules revealed themselves at their limits, that is, when tested, which they were all the time.

Within the framework provided by the new rules of urban life, the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk were confronted and in turn confronted others with various attitudes, self-understandings, and behavior. These constituted what has already been referred to as the little tactics of the habitat, through which life in Magnitogorsk was lived and made sense. Such petty maneuvers and modest stratagems hold an essential clue, for in them the basic outlines of the new socialist society made themselves manifest. Trite as it sounds, socialism was not only built but lived by people—individuals with hopes, fears, a capacity for survival, and no small amount of inventiveness.

We have seen that in the definition of the urban geography, the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk played an active and, within limits, even a decisive role. This theme will now become our central focus in an analysis of how socialism was lived. Of course, many constraints conditioned the scope for action available to any particular person. Yet in Magnitogorsk there were many creative people, the definition of which might be an individual who manages to discover, even invent, room to maneuver. Beyond individual virtuosity, even ordinary actions undertaken as part of daily life had the effect of realigning, even if only slightly, what might be called the landscape of possibility, opening up some options and closing off others.14

In sum, Magnitogorsk, one of the industrial giants born during the first Five-Year Plan, was more than just a colossal steel producer. It was a bulwark in the international class struggle, a powerful lever in the fight to build socialism. Above all, it was a political arena in which relations of power were played out, new experiences were made possible, and new identities were formed. Daily life in Magnitogorsk amounted to a constant negotiation of the political terrain constituted by the totalizing revolutionary crusade. Living socialism was a pioneering adventure.

4 Living Space and the Stranger’s Gaze

Future generations will never understand what “living space” means to us. Innumerable crimes have been committed for its sake. . . . It is passed on to one’s descendants like a family castle, a villa or an estate. Husbands and wives who loathe the sight of each other, mothers-in-law and sons-in-law who have managed to hang onto a cubby hole next to the kitchen—all are wedded forever to their living space and would never part with it. In marriage and divorce the first thing that arises is the question of living space. I have heard men described as perfect gentlemen for throwing over their wives but leaving them the living space.

Nadezhda Mandelstam1

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 the steppe but the first housing for a brave new world.

Soon, huge tracts of urban territory were colonized by rows and rows of long, one-story, stuccoed and whitewashed “barracks”—sheds made of boards and clay, with sawdust stuffed inside the walls as insulation. Ivan Kokovikhin, who came to Magnitogorsk in 1929 and lived briefly in a tent, recalled the first barracks as “four walls made out of wood and a big room with lots of beds. It wasn’t much, but we were so pleased that we weren’t in a tent anymore.”4

At the booming site, though, there were not even sufficient tents, let alone barracks, to house the influx.5 Makeshift shelters, especially huts made from thatch and mud, became ubiquitous. People slept wherever they could: in canteens, shops, factory offices, even stationary railroad cars.6 With the socialist city not yet built, but with a large and still growing population already present, one Magnitogorsk official despaired that “we are building barracks all the time, how many barracks have we built, and all the same we just can’t catch up. We have lots of barracks, yet not enough living space [zhilaia ploshchad].”7

In assessing the size of the urban housing stock this disheartened official did not refer to the number of buildings, apartments, or rooms but to an aggregate amount of floor area, of unspecified configuration, measured in square meters—in short, to living space. The notion of living space as a way to conceptualize housing first arose in tsarist Russia, when the desperate shortage of lodgings in cities meant that finding or affording a separate room was beyond the reach of most people, who instead rented a corner, or simply a cot, in someone else’s room.8 Yet the concept took on a new significance after 1917, for if in tsarist Russia the subdivision of apartments and rooms resulted in the dreaded coming together of strangers and different families, in Soviet Russia this unavoidable situation was heralded as a new model for human relationships that would transcend selfish individualism.9

Living space permitted, and indeed came to signify, a reorientation of housing away from the family and toward the collective. “The family, the basic cell of . . . capitalist society . . . loses the economic basis of its existence in the conditions of socialist society,” the Magnitogorsk newspaper explained in 1930. “The very word ‘family’ loses its meaning.”10 Instead, each urban resident, standing in equal relationship to all others, was to occupy a fixed amount of space, determined by scientific norms for health and hygiene. Such an approach meant that a greater number of people could be housed in less space and, furthermore, that in any given structure it would not be necessary to provide for the full range of needs of each discrete household. People would have access to common facilities. In short, under socialism, housing was to be designed so as to encourage an economy of resources and an ethic and practice of cooperation, making possible a new mode of existence called “communal” living. Although in the mid-1930s there would be a partial retreat from the ideal of fully communal living toward promotion of the family, the notion of living space was retained as the basis for the organization of housing in the USSR, a convenient tool in the hands of administrators.

What made this new understanding of housing so important was the Soviet state’s commitment to provide low-cost shelter for the entire urban population. In Europe and the United States, the transformation of the concept of housing as a pure commodity to a commodity that was also a social right and state responsibility took place over more than a century, in part as a result of the actions of diverse groups and individuals doggedly pushing what they saw as social reform in the face of ideological prejudices and vested interests.11 In Soviet Russia, the state did not need to be persuaded to embrace the role of guarantor of societal interests. The Soviet state proclaimed that it existed exclusively for this very purpose, and it pledged to override or otherwise remove any societal or group resistance to its self-proclaimed prerogative to protect and enhance the welfare of the population in all matters, including housing.12 Equally important, by the time construction of Magnitogorsk began, housing was not only viewed as a state-guaranteed social right but had ceased to be a commodity.

Not long after the October revolution, private property in land was abolished by decree. Although private ownership of buildings and other structures on any given parcel of land was not universally abrogated, “expropriations” of apartments and entire buildings, whether by official proclamation or local initiative, rendered the legal status of dwelling ownership ambiguous.13 To be sure, expropriations were often little more than loud pronouncements by officials eager to call attention to their new authority. But the number of evictions on the basis of “class background” or “revolutionary need” was considerable, and any reversion back to the pre-revolutionary status quo of rentier control over the country’s housing was unthinkable.14

A retreat of sorts did occur, when the series of concessionary measures that would come to be known as the New Economic Policy also found expression in housing policy,15 but throughout the 1920s certain imperatives and numerous practices remained as before. First and foremost, the state maintained its duty to provide and oversee housing for the people (not to mention its right to determine who constituted the people).16 This broad responsibility was thought to include the encouragement of additions to the existing stock and specifications for the types of buildings that could be built, the passage of laws governing the forms of ownership permitted and the conditions for sale or resale of housing units, the regulation of occupancy in private and state-owned dwellings alike, including the articulation and enforcement of minimum health and sanitary standards, and control over rents.17

With the onset of the state-led industrialization drive at the end of the 1920s, what private housing remained was again confiscated and redistributed.18 At the same time, much new housing—including entire new cities—was built by the state in accordance with its celebrated social welfare vision. True, in one sense only the scale had changed, albeit drastically, for the limited residential construction of the 1920s was in large measure carried out by the state. But the virtual abolition of the private dwelling substantially altered not just the parameters but also the basis of the state’s activity.19

Land owner, developer, builder, manager, rule-maker, and final arbiter all in one, the Soviet state embarked in the 1930s on a housing program that, although inspired by radical ideas from the nineteenth century, took on a qualitatively new dimension owing not just to the magnitude of the undertaking but to the specificity of the new sociopolitical order. Having chosen to pursue the unprecedented task of finding a noncapitalist way of providing housing, however, the Soviet government and its local representatives made numerous concessions and policy reversals—all of which, oddly enough, served to underscore the state’s commitment to the radical policies.

Magnetic Mountain

From the onset of Soviet power, new housing construction, restricted by a lack of funds, building materials, and effective coordination, fell far short of the state’s own assessment of the population’s needs. The resulting gap, or “housing shortage,” quickly came to define the common understanding of housing in the Soviet Union, overshadowing an unusually rich and provocative set of social and political experiences grouped around shelter and subjectivity. Those experiences are the subject of this chapter.20

In housing as in other vital facets of everyday life, complex, overlapping, and contradictory laws and regulations, not systematically codified until the second half of the 1930s, proliferated. These rules, before and after being set down, were inconsistently applied, sometimes circumvented, ignored, or modified, but most of all they were incessantly discussed.21 In the process, housing emerged as an important arena in which the relationship between individuals and the state was defined and negotiated, and the confines and texture of daily life—the little tactics of the habitat—took shape.

That the configuration of housing was a critical determinant of consciousness and behavior, including a person’s political reliability, was a basic premise of the Stalin epoch, when housing became implicated in groping efforts to create a new culture. The authorities were keenly aware of the possibility of ordering and using space to achieve social and political ends, while the inhabitants had ideas of their own. In the end, what stands out in the search for a socialist approach to housing is how the forms of shelter built in Magnitogorsk reflected the currency of certain ideas about collective social organization, and how that shelter served purposes for which it originally may not have been designed but for which it turned out to be unusually well-suited.


What was termed living space held great appeal for the authorities in large part because it lent itself so readily to manipulation. This circumstance was derived from living space’s conceptual detachment from fixed configurations of shelter, such as rooms or apartments. Living space was just space, which could be defined and redefined, and easily measured, wherever walls or doors did, or did not, happen to be located. This facility of measurement, however, although certainly convenient, also proved to be rather awkward for the irrepressibly optimistic authorities.

As of March 1931, for example, when Magnitogorsk’s population reached 83,000, there were only about 160,000 square meters of aggregate living space, roughly 1.9 square meters per person.22 By January 1932, for a population of 196,000 there were 359,000 square meters of living space, or about 1.8 per person.23 This was not much room, especially considering that at first the central authorities set a “sanitary norm” or minimum of nine square meters per person; this figure was reduced to seven, but even then it went unmet for decades.24 Moreover, the sanitary norm took for granted that the seven square meters would be in a permanent brick building, the first of which had yet to be completed by the time the city of Magnitogorsk housed those 196,000 people.

With time the situation in Magnitogorsk improved considerably, yet it continued to fall far short of the planners’ goals, as demonstrated by their own relentless quantitative measurements. According to an official report, as of January 1935 perhaps as many as 16 percent of the city’s population lived in “buildings”—a term subject to expansive application—meaning, of course, that at least 84 percent made their homes in barracks or other “temporary” accommodations.25 Furthermore, the report gave an average living space in all structures of 3.89 square meters per person. This lowly figure marked a plateau for several decades to come. At no time during the 1930s did the average amount of living space per person in Magnitogorsk exceed 4.0 square meters.26

Even with such a modest average, the 1935 report depicted a degree of differentiation. The average space for workers with family members, for example, was 3.20 square meters, whereas for engineers and technical personnel with family members, it was 6.26, and many of the latter also lived in bona fide buildings.27

Table 6. Living Space in Magnitogorsk, 1 January 1938

Magnetic Mountain

SOURCE: PAChO, f. 234, op. 1, d. 594, 11. 1–4, reprinted in Eliseeva, IZ istorii, pp. 249–51.

Such differences, as we shall see, were hardly accidental. But if some people, mostly technical and managerial staff, enjoyed more space, and a very few among the local leadership lived in spaces that could only be described as palatial, for almost everyone in Magnitogorsk living space came in tiny, primitive parcels (see table 6).28 The reasons for the state’s failure to meet its own standards were not difficult to fathom. Across the USSR, overall investment in housing construction during the prewar Five-Year Plans amounted to less than 10 percent of total investment. At the same time, plan fulfillment for housing construction barely exceeded 50 percent for the first Five-Year Plan and fell considerably short of 50 percent for the second. Housing in the USSR may have been a public good, but public goods were considerably lower priorities than state imperatives, such as steelmaking, as the example of Magnitogorsk vividly demonstrated.29

How did a Magnitogorsk inhabitant come to occupy a precious parcel of living space? In principle, one could form a cooperative and build one’s own housing,30 but almost everyone was supposed to obtain living space by taking a job with a state enterprise.31 Newcomers to Magnitogorsk who signed up for work were usually assigned to a barracks, where they went to stake a claim on a bunk or a spot on the floor. The barracks were often already overfull when people arrived, but some room for the newcomers was inevitably found. (Those not fortunate enough to gain a toehold in the barracks, or simply not wanting to live in one, could build a mud hut, a theme to which we shall return.)

With the high rate of mobility and the general chaos that characterized the site in the early years, however, no set of officials could have kept close track of the dispensation of space in all the barracks, which at one point numbered more than one thousand. This meant that living space was allocated, at least for a time, as much by residents as by any official agency. A person departing or knowing of someone else departing could tip off his or her friends or acquaintances (or anyone, for “considerations”). Most people just took up residence anywhere they could, with or without official directives.32

Soon enough, however, allocation of even the least desirable space came to be handled through bureaucratic procedures. And, from the beginning, the choicest spaces were very tightly controlled. The authorities were well aware that control over the allocation of living space afforded them considerable power, which they exercised energetically. State policy openly proclaimed that housing be used as one of the most important of a variety of rewards to be granted to the loyal, or withheld from the disloyal.

When limited numbers of one- or two-room lodgings in the more substantial buildings of the Kirov district became available, priority was granted to favored categories of people, such as engineers and highly skilled workers, who often received their dwellings in much-publicized ceremonies. But “deserving” people always far outnumbered vacant spaces, and this scarcity, which undergirded the authorities’ power, frequently tied the authorities’ hands.

In this regard, the city newspaper highlighted the case of the steel smelter Makarov, who had been living in a mud hut that was torn down, after which he moved with his family into a friend’s residence. The two families shared a small two-room dwelling as the Makarovs waited months to get their own lodgings. Finally, he received a voucher granting him the right to occupy a room, but when he went to have a look, he discovered that the allegedly free space had already been occupied. Only after the newspaper chose to become involved—for the reason that Makarov was a well-known Stakhanovite (the top category for workers) in the open-hearth shop—did he finally succeed in obtaining his own separate quarters, although the newspaper neglected to specify exactly how or from whom.33

Makarov’s relatively benign plight indicated more than a problem of administrative oversight or inefficiency. It suggested that in the provision of housing an intricate allocation process existed that could be pitiless or kind, depending on who you were, whom you knew, and how much cunning, guile, or luck you had. Such a system favored the boisterous, but it encouraged all individuals to become their own advocates or risk being eclipsed by others. Of course, the intervention of the newspaper, or powerful officials, produced the best results, but these were options open only to a select few, many of whom already had sufficient “clout” without such recourse.

Even as it actively intervened in the distribution of precious living space, the newspaper denounced what it viewed as the irregularities of the patronage-like allocation whereby acquaintance (znakomstvo) or connections (sviazi), rather than merit, proved decisive. The paper never questioned the practice of preferentially awarding living space based on social status and allegiance, or putative importance, to the grand crusade. But in a situation where decisions were rendered entirely beyond the public view, the newspaper did pursue a kind of accountability. All the more curious, then, was the paper’s failure to specify to whom it appealed on Makarov’s behalf.

This was an important detail, for not only was available space in short supply, it remained far from clear which of the several state agencies at the site held final jurisdiction over any given structure: industrial managers? city authorities? both? In 1933, in an effort to clarify lines of authority and eliminate supposed inequities, local officials divided the urban territory into residential sectors (zhilraiony), which were to be responsible for distributing unoccupied living space strictly according to official priorities and procedures. This system was widely criticized, however, and soon changed.34

In August 1934, the allocation of all housing was transferred from residential sectors to the steel plant’s so-called Everyday-Life Administration (kulturno-bytovoe upravlenie), or KBU. Within the factory’s KBU a special “apartment” bureau was opened that was to have sole authority to issue vouchers permitting occupancy of free space across the entire urban territory, thereby supposedly ensuring both efficiency and fairness. But the changeover was not smooth: one investigation revealed that residential sectors, far from blithely giving up control over a valuable resource, continued to issue their own vouchers and failed to inform the KBU when lodgings were vacated, with the result that “in the KBU at the current moment [October 1934], there is no free space listed.”

Throughout the second half of 1934 the KBU and the residential sectors battled each other to exercise control over the prized resource of living space (between 22 August and 27 September 1934, the KBU allocated 118 spaces, the residential sectors, 260). Such bureaucratic scuffling among rival agencies became routine (and not just in housing questions), often undermining declared policy aims, such as the goal, in this case, of reforming a suspect allocation process. In fact, according to the newspaper account, within the KBU the same patronage system had emerged: allocation there was also done “unsystematically” and po-semeinomu—in other words, through connections.35

Prospective residents quickly learned from all this that to obtain living space, the key was to establish occupancy, for once ensconced somewhere a person could usually manage to remain. Eviction, limited by law, rarely occurred, even when technically justified. According to the local newspaper, almost no one was thrown out of his or her living space, even for misuse—doubtless a reflection of the desire to avoid creating a homeless population. Instead, the usual approach was to issue warnings or reprimands and impose fines.36 Although there were periodic evictions for debauchery or criminal activity, when the tenant in question was an important and valuable worker, or had connections, even criminal activities proved insufficient grounds for eviction.

Moreover, even though most people obtained their living space upon having been hired, being fired or even quitting by no means resulted in automatic eviction. In most cases the enterprise was law-bound to find alternative living space for any tenant it wanted to evict—a formidable task. Enterprises could and certainly did try to remove tenants without the offer of an alternative space, but those tenants had recourse to the city soviet, the newspaper, and the courts, not to mention steadfast challenges that they could only be made to leave forcibly. As a result, enterprises found “their” housing occupied by people other than their own workers.

In late 1931, for example, the local Komsomol newspaper divulged that a number of people living in the barracks of the coke and chemical construction trust had no connection to the coke plant, or to the construction site, for that matter.37 Four years later, a high-level official source reported that more than two thousand people lived in factory-owned housing who had no apparent ties to the factory.38 The Magnitogorsk steel complex seems to have had less control over the housing it built than private corporations had over “their” housing in American company towns.39

A severe-sounding November 1932 decree allowing enterprises to evict employees terminated for absenteeism apparently had less effect than hoped, since an almost identical decree was issued again in December 1938.40 Data for the first half of 1939 indicate that of the 2,295 firings at the Magnitogorsk factory (1,182 were for absenteeism), only 738 had resulted in successful evictions. In many cases, the living space in question was registered not in the name of the household’s main worker employed at the enterprise to whom the space had been allocated, but in the name of a wife or brother or some other relative, so that loss of a job by the chief breadwinner or a severe disciplinary action would not result in the family’s loss of housing.41 People maneuvered as best they could to get living space, and if they got it they clung to it, whatever that required.

As the maneuvers to avoid eviction in the case of firing demonstrated, it was not enough simply to occupy living space; it was also necessary to register (propisat) one’s occupancy with the local militia, as the regular police were called. The need for a reliable method of residency registration, a task that was begun around the country in systematic fashion only in 1933 (with the reintroduction of the tsarist system of internal passports), was a logical outgrowth of the state’s assumption of responsibility for the provision of housing. But because the militia reserved the right to refuse and revoke registration, the propiska constituted more than a simple tabulation. To undergo propiska meant to receive official permission to live in that particular locality, attested to by a conspicuous stamp in the internal passport, which one was required to carry at all times. This in effect conferred on the state an absolute, legal power to control everyone’s movements.42

To help enforce the mandatory registration system the local militia relied upon appointed or elected house managers and barracks commandants, who were also responsible for keeping an eye on the property.43 Nonetheless, it is not clear how efficient the registration system could have been in Magnitogorsk in the 1930s. As discussed in chapter 2, despite the resolve of the authorities to enforce severe restrictions, several factors, including the magnitude of the task, the level of document technique, and the insatiable demands for labor, conspired for several years to impede the realization of the state’s ambitious aims to wield control over all population movements. In Magnitogorsk, given that streets were without names and buildings were without numbers for much of the 1930s, it was not always possible to summon people to appear before the court, or to find them at all.44

Even for those people unable to obtain permission to reside in the city through proper channels—either because they had no job, had spent time in a labor camp, or were of “doubtful” social origin—there existed a number of alternatives, ranging from the use of false documents to the payment of bribes. These actions, however, carried risks.45 Far less risk was entailed in the so-called bogus marriage (fiktivnyi brak) to someone who had a valid passport and thus could obtain, or already possessed, a local residence permit.46 Indeed, the dreadful scarcity of living space and the occupancy registration system had a notable impact on personal relationships, inducing some people to marry, inhibiting others, and significantly complicating divorce.47 Living space was not something to be taken lightly.

Table 7. “Ownership” of Magnitogorsk’s Living Space, 1939



Other enterprises




City soviet


   Total sq. meters


SOURCE: GAChO, f. R-804, op. 11, d. 105, 1. 40.

Although everyone had to go through the sometimes cumbersome and time-consuming processes of applying for space, lobbying to see that application fulfilled, and finally bringing all the necessary paperwork to the militia and registering occupancy, which once secured could usually be counted on indefinitely, occupancy did not translate into outright ownership. A percentage of the living space in Magnitogorsk did more or less belong to individuals (as discussed below), but the bulk was “owned” by state enterprises, especially the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex. This meant that occupants were not legally responsible for maintaining what was, because of near permanent occupancy, “their” living space (see table 7).48 By proscribing legal construction of permanent private housing the state assumed a heavy burden—fiscal as well as managerial.

By dint of its majority ownership, the Magnitogorsk steel plant assumed de facto responsibility (in the form of its KBU) for the maintenance of virtually the entire urban housing stock.49 Establishing adequate financial and organizational arrangements to handle upkeep, however, proved complicated. The law of 27 January 1921 abolishing rents had been swiftly reversed by a law of 18 July 1921 providing for charging occupants rent to cover the costs of building maintenance and repair.50 But there persisted both in the popular imagination and in official publications the notion that free accommodations were, if not a fundamental right specified in the constitution, a benefit earned from the victorious revolution.

In such a spirit, for the first few years living space in Magnitogorsk was provided free, which also meant that there was essentially no budget for maintenance. Under budgetary pressure, however, this situation changed. Beginning in 1935 a small rental fee was assessed, calculated on the basis of total living space and the presence of amenities.51 The next year a more complicated system was introduced. The basic rental rate was set at forty kopecks per square meter; an additional one-ruble fifty-kopeck flat fee was levied for municipal services, such as the emptying of cesspools. In addition, the city was divided into two zones—the immediate city (the southeast), and the north and far west—with a 10 percent reduction in rent for those living far from the city center in zone two. Further discounts were offered for the lack of running water, sewage, or electricity, but a 10 percent surcharge was assessed on those who had hot water and a bath. Finally, there was a small additional charge for each dependent. KBU chief Lukashevich was charged with clarifying the reasons for charging rent and with supervising the operation of the new rent system. Calling for an end to “welfarism” (sobesovshchina), he wrote that “those living well should pay,” adding that “for the vast majority, there would be no great increase.”

To back up these arguments, Lukashevich offered three examples of how the new law had affected people. The metal worker Zakuev, with a family of four, earning 200 rubles per month and possessing 16 square meters was said previously to have paid 4.50 rubles per month; now he would be charged 7.29 rubles. The coke master worker Volotrub, with a family of three, earning 300 rubles and possessing 15 square meters previously paid 5.25 rubles, and now would be charged 11.62. Finally, a foreman of rolling mill construction, Krasnikov, with a family of four, earning 700 rubles and possessing 22 square meters, who previously paid 16.50, now would pay 22.04.52 After all the calculations were made, in other words, rents turned out to be quite low (usually less than 5 percent of household income), and Lukashevich promised that the KBU would use the new revenues to finance roads, bring electricity to the city’s outskirts, and so on.53

As the readers of the local newspaper knew from personal experience, the overmatched KBU could not forestall the deterioration of the housing stock, let alone build infrastructure. In 1933, of 1,054 barracks needing repairs, only 190 were worked on.54 In subsequent years the figures were little better, and in many cases when a barracks was considered repaired, it often still had broken doors, broken or missing windows, and nonfunctioning appliances. In 1935, the oblast newspaper called the situation of the Magnitogorsk barracks “catastrophic,” an assessment made every fall on the eve of the beginning of the long winter.55

Rather than the steel plant or the local party organization, let alone Moscow or Soviet power, the KBU was always held accountable for these aggravating problems. Naturally, the newspaper led the offensive, reporting that it received ten letters every day on the poor work of the KBU. Some of these venomous diatribes were printed, to which the newspaper appended its own editorial comments. In one typical blast, the paper wrote that “the staff of the Everyday-Life Administration call all these complaints by workers ‘everyday trifles.’”56

In response, Lukashevich patiently explained that the KBU’s 1936 budget for repairs was only 565,000 rubles, and that by midyear, 30 June, 409,000 rubles had already been spent. In July another 130,000 rubles were spent, and the plan for August called for a further allocation of 225,000, provided the steel plant permitted such a budget overrun. Pointing to the lack of adequate building materials, labor power, and finances, Lukashevich said of his forlorn repair policy, “We are doing only what cannot be put off.” Meanwhile, he issued a sensible plea for residents to get involved in the improvements and upkeep of “their” housing.57

Unable to arrest the disintegration of the housing stock, the local authorities arrested Lukashevich instead (his trial is discussed in chapters 6 and 7). Ananenko, Lukashevich’s eventual replacement, took up the unenviable task of explaining the housing calamity to the city’s inhabitants but added little to the discussion. “The wooden barracks were built quickly and improperly and do not last very long,” he wrote in the newspaper. “Within seven or eight years, most are exhausted and must be taken down.”58 In fact, barracks were constantly being removed, but for reasons other than anticipated decay. Rather, because many of the barracks were built on the factory grounds, their removal was necessitated by completion of industrial construction.59

In 1936, the entire Fourth Sector (site of the rolling mill shops) was “reclaimed” when thirteen barracks were torn down to make room for a new mill.60 That same year, in the old Magnitnyi Settlement, the makeshift homes lying in the flood plain of the second dam were either torn down or moved to another settlement. The newspaper reported in a subsequent article that 407 of 409 buildings (mostly mud huts) were torn down or removed, and that the owners were compensated 341 rubles each and promised new housing, which no doubt meant they would have to rebuild their own mud huts at another spot.61

As more and more barracks were torn down, those left standing continued to decay—and the KBU continued to lose ground.62 In a cost-cutting measure, the already overmatched KBU repair work force was ordered reduced in 1938, from 680 to 450; later that year, after the KBU was reorganized into the Municipal Economy Administration (upravlenie kommunalnogo khoziaistva—UKKh), its work force shrank again, this time to 374.63 “Repairs,” warned Ananenko, “are put off, funding and staff are cut—the day of reckoning will come.” For Lukashevich, the day of reckoning had already come, vaulting Ananenko into his position. But the state of most of the city’s housing remained desperate.

Much of the problem with looking after both temporary and permanent housing stock, and the major reason why the KBU was forced to reduce staff, was financial. In 1937 the KBU ran a deficit of 4.45 million rubles, and the projection for 1938 based on the first half of that year was for a deficit of 6 million.64 Admittedly, the KBU was not very efficient in its use of those funds at its disposal, but much of the organization’s deficit was derived from circumstances beyond its control. The KBU budget came partly from bus and tram receipts, which provided an excellent source of income.65 But the preponderance of funding came from rent payments, which were deliberately set far below costs. And despite the low rental fees, as of February 1936 the KBU was owed more than half a million rubles in back rent.

In desperation KBU officials began to turn out the lights in the residences of those behind in their rent payments.66 Some of those who owed back rents, however, had left Magnitogorsk, and of the delinquents who were still living in the city, not all had lights to turn out. Meanwhile, the newspaper, relishing its self-assigned gadfly role, pointed out that many of those owing the nominal payments earned large salaries. The paper took special delight in the discovery that the chief of the KBU’s housing department, Efimov, was in arrears.67

Besides failing to pay for his own housing, Efimov was accused of keeping a spare housing fund to award to personal favorites. He was also said to have engaged in the sale of choice apartments “for vodka, fabric, and simply for money, to people having nothing to do with the metallurgical complex.” For these alleged practices, Efimov, like Lukashevich, was soon fired and arrested. But this, too, did little to increase the amount of available space, or improve the condition of the existing stock.68

Mismanagement, an inadequate work force, shortages of the necessary construction materials, malfeasance, and the sorry state of the KBU’s financial affairs combined to hinder efforts to maintain the temporary housing. In fairness to the KBU, the organization faced a nearly impossible task in fighting the deterioration of a poorly built housing stock well after the time it was designed to last had expired. And in a situation where the occupants were not owners but where nonetheless the sanction of eviction was undermined by the social goal of ensuring that no one went homeless, few tenants seemed to have recognized a clear incentive to lend a hand in the upkeep of the housing they occupied.69 In this matter, as in many others, people looked to the state to provide. It was the state after all that built, allocated, registered, and owned the living space.


Virtually everyone who lived in Magnitogorsk spent some time, often several years, in a barracks. At first, all barracks were built in the form of dormitories, with large, common areas. “Our barracks was divided into four parts,” recalled one worker. “The sections formed one gigantic room, with metal cots.”70 Usually there were separate women’s barracks, or, less frequently, a women’s section was created by partitioning. True, barracks sometimes contained small separate rooms, often with jerry-built walls. But typically even families lived in one of the large common rooms, hanging a cloth or a sheet for a modicum of privacy.71

The first barracks were small, with the largest built for one hundred people, yet they were packed with two hundred people and more. Two workers frequently shared the same cot, one sleeping in it at night, the other during the day. Soon, larger barracks were built, but whatever their capacity, it was always exceeded. In 1931 one barracks was said to house as many as eight hundred people.72 That same year, one national newspaper said of Magnitogorsk that “inside the barracks it is suffocating, filthy and infested with parasites. People lie on bare boards with their arms under their heads for pillows. There is hardly any space between the beds. Every corner is packed with people.”73

The extreme lack of privacy in the dormitory barracks was perhaps their most unpopular feature, especially as more and more people married and started families. No doubt partly in response to the inhabitants’ demands, beginning in late 1932 dormitory (obshchie) barracks were converted into what were called “individual-room” (komnatnye) barracks.74 By 1938 there were only forty dormitory barracks—less than one-tenth of the city total. In most cases, however, the individual rooms were occupied by whole families, and sometimes even more than one.75

Whatever the scanty results in terms of added privacy, the reconstruction of the barracks was not intended to alter their basic orientation. The barracks were deliberately built without elementary equipment for personal needs, for the authorities planned a citywide system of service industries—and not just as an expedient to economize resources but as part of a bold vision to create a new type of social organization, a collectivized mode of existence. This remarkable ambition was carried out and maintained even in the face of grave difficulties.

To begin with, Magnitogorsk developed a system of public baths. In 1934, when the local population was between 170,000 and 200,000, the city counted thirty public baths with a total capacity of around 16,000 people a day. Queues were invariably long. Six of the baths were in mud huts, which were described as “dirty, raw, and with absolutely no elementary comforts,” raising the question of how clean one could get there.76 Cleaner than at home, at any rate, where for all but those who lived in Berezka or some buildings of the Kirov district there were no facilities whatsoever.

By 1939, the number of city baths was consolidated into eight, which that year were said to have served 1.36 million people, or roughly every inhabitant a mere seven times.77 Several were closed for months at a time for repairs.78 Some indication of the level of personal hygiene can be inferred from the pleas of city doctors who in the pages of the newspaper implored people to bathe. Abandoning the hope of getting them to bathe their whole bodies with some regularity, one doctor wrote that “civilized people” wash at least partially not less than once in four days.79 If the people wanted to follow the doctors’ advice, however, the system of public baths made their task difficult. Only in summer, when people could bathe in the Ural River, was it easy to keep reasonably clean.80

A number of public laundries, often attached to the bathhouses, were also opened. The newspaper reported, however, that they were few in number and required leaving the laundry for a few days, something workmen could not afford to do. More modest attempts simply to organize regular changes of bed linen for the barracks—there were also periodic disinfections and haircut visits—proved little more successful. People slept in dirty linen, in their dirty work clothes. Similarly, the interior of the barracks was supposed to be cleaned periodically by maids, but from frequent complaints aired in the local newspaper, maid service appears to have been irregular.

Like washrooms and showers, kitchens were not part of the basic equipment of the barracks. Residents were expected to rely on mass public dining halls, where the meals served were inexpensive. There were, however, frequent complaints that long lines and the lack of eating utensils resulted in annoying delays, that the meals were unappetizing, and that the conditions in the dining halls were generally deplorable, often leading to outbreaks of stomach ailments.81 A city party committee decree of 5 July 1931 cited bugs and unsanitary conditions in public canteens as the chief causes of near-epidemic stomach problems.82

To be sure, with time the public dining system expanded greatly and even improved: by 1939 Magnitogorsk had twenty-five dining halls and another ninety-seven snack bars, and the dining hall trust served more than thirty thousand meals per day, primarily at lunchtime. Despite persistent complaints about poor quality and service, the network of public dining halls provided an indispensable service for the large segments of the population that worked at a considerable distance from home, and for those unable or unwilling to prepare their own food.83 All the same, many people, especially those not employed in the largest shops of the steel plant, preferred to take meals at home in the barracks when they could, using the heating stoves for cooking.84

No doubt the chief virtue of a collectivist way of life was thought to consist in the “liberation” of women from household drudgery, so that they could work in the factories, doing what was called “productive” labor. In Magnitogorsk several nurseries were organized, providing subsidized child care for working mothers. But there were too few nurseries for most working women to be able to take advantage of one. And although the shortfall was to some extent compensated for by people who banded together and formed their own day-care centers in their barracks or building complexes, most households were left to themselves in matters of child care.85 Even when given the opportunity for child care, some people preferred to avoid the crowded nurseries because of the notorious spread of common children’s sicknesses in them.

Thus, although nurseries were to take care of children, public laundries the washing, maids the cleaning, and public kitchens the cooking, the reality in each case fell short of expectations, making the communal nature of barracks existence seem irritatingly out of sync. Too often elemental needs could not be satisfied either at home or in town. Of course, public bathhouses and factory canteen lunches, whatever their deficiencies, were relied upon of necessity (the often legitimate gripes about them being indirect confirmation of their use). But it was an open secret among male workers that whatever the collectivist rhetoric and, to some extent, practice, if they wanted to keep their living areas and clothes clean, and to improve their diet, they needed to get married. Female workers knew this “secret” too, as well as its wider meaning for their lives.86

Barracks, of course, were envisioned as merely temporary, and as time passed, some people did relocate to the buildings constructed in the “socialist city.” The logic underlying the housing design there, however, exhibited a striking similarity to that of the barracks. Although the collectivized nature of barracks life might be thought to have been largely an expedient, suitable chiefly for unmarried youth, the design of the permanent housing stock, along with the concerted efforts to develop public facilities throughout the urban territory, indicated that collectivism was fundamental to the vision of the new city.

Quite intentionally, the first permanent buildings in Magnitogorsk were made up of single-room “cells” with shared washrooms and toilets in the hall and without kitchens. As with the barracks, the inhabitants were to rely on mass, public dining halls. In the face of strong protests, a kitchen was belatedly installed in each of the first buildings—but only one, regardless of the number of rooms or residents. Thus, even when the residents of a single-room cell managed to expand their territory, laying claim to a vacated adjacent room, these new units were not self-contained apartments. They were variants of what was dubbed the “communal apartment.”

After the revolution, most large, single-family apartments were reassigned to several families, who shared the kitchen, toilet, and bathroom. Such lodgings, where there were usually as many families as rooms, gave birth to the expression “communal apartment” (kommunalka). Soon this designation came to be applied to the new housing built across the country, such as that of the first superblock at Magnitogorsk. In the new housing, though, far more families shared the common kitchen than was the case in the expropriated and converted private dwellings. There were, in short, degrees of “communality.”

Much like barracks, Magnitogorsk’s new communal apartments were clusters of rooms, sometimes but not always separated by doors, where complete strangers came together to live. The common washroom, toilet, and kitchen forced inhabitants to devise ways to live with each other; not surprisingly, disputes were common.87 “In our building there is one common kitchen for eighty apartments, where there are constant scandals: who lives better, who is better at making steel, who lives worse, who makes worse steel,” explained one Magnitogorsk resident. “It even happens that food is stolen from pots.”88 Not surprisingly, some people avoided the kitchens altogether.89

To handle these everyday conflicts “comrade courts” were organized in each building and in many of the barracks. Attached to the house managements or commandants, these courts could impose sanctions, such as public censure or small fines to be turned over to a fund for the use of the whole building, or they could require the guilty party to perform certain tasks needed by the residents.90 The efficacy of this judicious approach is hard to gauge. Just as frequently, it seems, the feuding parties sought the intervention of outside authorities, no matter how trivial the alleged offense.91 Such disputes, moreover, were not always innocent misunderstandings. One way to dislodge someone from his or her living space—perhaps in order to free the space up for oneself, a relative, or a friend—was by denunciation.

No better window onto Soviet domestic life could be had than that provided by a 1935 central decree, “On the Struggle against Hooliganism.” The decree stated that hooligan-like behavior on the part of tenants—which it characterized as “the holding of regular drinking bouts in the apartment, accompanied by noise, fights, and abusive language; the inflicting of beatings (especially of women and children), casting insults, threatening revenge by capitalizing on one’s work status or party position, perverse conduct, baiting of nationalities, defamation of character, other kinds of mischief (throwing out another person’s belongings from the kitchen and other rooms used in common, spoiling food prepared by other tenants, damaging other things and products, etc.)”—was “particularly inadmissible.”92

If not exactly collectivist, then, life in both the barracks and permanent buildings remained inescapably communal. At the same time, partly because of an absence of services and partly because of strong personal preferences, people struggled to live as separate families. The result of such communalism without collectivism was paradoxical: nominally equivalent and therefore interchangeable inhabitants reconstituted themselves as families. It was something of an inside out world. To the planners and administrators, it could all seem just so much aggregate living space, so many square meters in the various approved types of structures with their various configurations to be tallied, apportioned, and registered. But to the inhabitants, of course, these were their homes.

Nowhere was the persistence of family-centered living patterns, and their collision with a collectivist social vision, more visible than in the mud huts (zemlianki), in which about a quarter of the city’s population lived, many by choice. The primitive but sturdy structures afforded a degree of family privacy that could not be had in the barracks or even some of the brick buildings. From an official’s point of view, mud huts would seem to have offered significant relief from the pressure on the city’s insufficient aggregate living space. But the local authorities despised the mud huts and, after a period of grudging toleration, sought to eradicate them.93

Beginning in 1935, 376 mud huts were taken down at the authorities’ behest.94 In 1936, a special decree ordered the elimination of all mud huts by the end of the year (recall the case of Makarov), thereby accelerating the removals. The decree also banned the sale of mud huts and instructed the militia to discontinue new residence registration in them.95 There must have been something of an uproar, however, for the decree was amended three months later: only empty mud huts were to be immediately torn down. The rest would be gradually removed when alternative housing was found for the inhabitants, as prescribed by law. And residence registration was to be prohibited only for those trying to move into an abandoned mud hut.96

Desite the partial retreat, these were strong measures with far-reaching consequences. The official reason given for them was that the mud huts were hindering industrial construction. Admittedly, mud huts were often built right on construction territory, so that as construction progressed sometimes they did get in the way. But the motives for the decree and its amendment went beyond those explicitly stated. Mud huts were resented by the authorities as a reminder of the humiliating “backwardness” of Russia. They evoked the country’s rural poverty and primitive agricultural ways. In their shabby exteriors, the mud huts created what one correspondent for the oblast newspaper called “a sharp contrast . . . with the wonderful stone buildings” of Socialist City.97

Mud huts were strewn all over the city in unsightly clusters, the largest of which, located just to the side of the mine, was popularly known as “Shanghai.” The infamous Asian metropolis was synonymous in the early part of the twentieth century with all the evils of a capitalist city: dark, narrow streets littered with trash, drenched in soot, teeming with huddled masses, and generally overcome by squalor and reputed moral decadence. Of course, the new city of Magnitogorsk was intended to leave behind any trace of such Shanghai-like urban life. But here it was, a stain on the new world heroically coming into being.98

Beyond their appearance (derived from the agricultural origins and pursuits of their inhabitants), mud huts differed from other kinds of housing in Magnitogorsk in that they were owned by their inhabitants.99 In a city without private property and predicated on communal living, mud huts were an uncomfortable and ubiquitous anomaly. This was the other side of the charge of “backwardness”: mud huts were reviled as a vestige of a “petty-bourgeois” attachment to property incompatible with the new socialist system.

The 1936 mud hut removal decree suggested that mud huts were a convenient hiding place for criminals, a suspicion apparently shared by some city residents. One worker, who recalled that “it’s not so bad in the mud huts themselves: warm, dry, and clean,” nevertheless insisted that they served as hiding places for runaways and others.100 For the novelist Valentin Kataev, Magnitogorsk’s Shanghai was a place “where, in small sod huts, the refuse of the construction led a dark and isolated existence: bootleggers, sharpers, fugitives, thieves, buyers of stolen goods, prostitutes—all so horrible that they never left their lairs.”101 A 1937 article in the city newspaper devoted to “Greater Shanghai,” population five thousand, was less sensational in tone but approached the substance of Kataev’s vision of the settlement as a separate world cut off from the rest of the city.

In uncharacteristically poetic language, the newspaper correspondents took the reader to a “mysterious” place where “the lights grow dim, the streets are deserted.” They described how “in snow-covered pits, in the pitch dark, the mud huts of Greater Shanghai icily pressed next to each other . . . in crooked, narrow alleys,” where “cars did not venture.” Shanghai was said to be “cut off from all public life: no school, no library, no pharmacy, no savings bank, not even water (fetched from more than half a kilometer away). There’s electric light, but even this is sometimes lacking.” In the entire settlement, there was only one public organization: a precinct of the militia, itself housed in a mud hut.102

Whatever allowances we may want to make for the “urban” imaginations of the newspaper correspondents, it was clear that Shanghai outlived the 1936 mud hut removal decree. Indeed, finding themselves unable to eradicate the detested mud hut settlements entirely, the authorities tried to will them away by changing the informal designation “Shanghai” to the more comforting “Workers’ Settlement.” An article appeared in the newspaper in 1938 claiming that the locals had already forgotten the name Shanghai.103 To root out the mud huts and the “backward” culture they supposedly embodied, however, more serious measures were obviously necessary.

Such measures were already being undertaken. Even before the assault on the mud huts was launched, Magnitogorsk officials, with approval from Moscow, sanctioned what was, from the authorities’ point of view, a more acceptable form of “private” housing: so-called individual constructions. These were essentially bungalows, reminiscent of traditional wooden country homes, or dachas. Unlike dachas, however, most individual constructions were intended for year-round use.

Construction of such officially sanctioned bungalows in Magnitogorsk had begun in 1934, but owing to a variety of factors only nineteen had been built by 1936 (forty others were still awaiting completion).104 To rectify this situation, one of the provisions of the 1936 mud hut removal decree stipulated that credit be extended to the builders for buying bricks, cement, and other construction materials. But anyone granted permission to build a bungalow had to make sure materials were delivered as needed and either undertake the construction or hire others to do so. Permitting an individual to hire labor represented a radical concession on the part of the authorities, and the newspaper complained that this practice created “a bad atmosphere.”105 Even that did not deter the local authorities’ enthusiasm for the program, however, for in contrast to the mud huts, individual constructions could be built only with the authorities’ approval and assistance. They were, in short, the ultimate reward at the authorities’ disposal.

In 1936 a well-publicized campaign touted the various models, all of which were to have separate kitchens and dining rooms. According to Khazanov, deputy chief of the Magnitogorsk complex, there would be four types of individual homes: a single, two-bedroom model costing 5,150 rubles; a single, three-bedroom version costing 5,400; a double apartment, with two bedrooms, for 7,970 rubles; and a double apartment, with three bedrooms, for 9,930. Prospective builders were informed that in addition to providing the necessary materials and technical assistance, the steel plant was to pay 70 percent of all costs.106 Lists of applicants were compiled in the shops, and demand was enormous. Individual homes cost the factory a small fortune, conceded one official, “but the workers are building them with pleasure.”107

Inhabitants of the individual houses were invariably singled out as “the best people of Magnitka.”108 Natalia Ogorodnikova, for example, the wife of a well-known Stakhanovite, moved with her husband into such a bungalow in 1936. “It’s nice to live in one’s own home,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. “Having my own home and garden, I can now make my life such that there are no insufficiencies in it.”109 For others beside the fortunate Ogorodnikovs, however, problems with construction materials, transport of materials, credit, and other matters often doomed their efforts. Several hundred bungalows were built, but this was far fewer than the number planned.110 Individual bungalow homes, with their neat cottage-like appearance, were drowned in a tide of mud huts.

The mud huts’ persistence must be seen against the backdrop of the city’s housing crunch (and the insufficiencies and unpopularity of communal facilities). These primitive dwellings arose from the earliest days of the construction, not simply a necessity but for many also a preference (as some crusaders for the regime understood) and one that, even in the more “acceptable” form of bungalows, spoke volumes about people’s attitudes toward communal living.111 The regime recognized as much in its promotion of bungalows, and in the new designs for the second superblock in the latter half of the 1930s. This time, not cells or single rooms but apartments were the basic units, each to be occupied by a single family and to have a separate kitchen. Such a family-oriented design was part of a broad policy shift by the regime.

Motivated by a desire to spur population growth and inculcate reverence for hierarchy, and sobered by widespread juvenile delinquency and appalling infant mortality—in Magnitogorsk, the rate was officially 222 per 1,000—the Soviet regime belatedly embraced the family unit.112 In mid-1935, a campaign to promote motherhood and fertility, conducted with the assistance of the medical establishment, was launched. By the spring of the next year, the Magnitogorsk newspaper was writing of abortion that “the destruction of human life, is unacceptable in our building-socialism state.”113

In late June 1936 the central authorities issued a decree making divorce complicated and expensive, offering financial and other rewards to multiple-child families, and restricting abortion.114 In October 1936, another decree was issued making it a crime to refuse to hire or to lower the pay of pregnant women.115 Abortion constituted the main target. It was pronounced “an evil holdover from the order whereby an individual lived according to narrow, personal interests and not in the interests of the collective.” The newspaper added that “in our life there is no such gap between personal and collective life. For us it seems that even such ultimate questions as the family and the birth of children, are transformed from personal to social issues.”116

This was a long way from the “abolition of the family as the basic cell of society” announced in the Magnitogorsk newspaper back in 1930.117 But despite the policy reversal and the construction of self-contained apartments in the city’s second superblock, the communal apartment remained the basic form of permanent housing in Magnitogorsk. As for the great mass of “temporary” housing, the barracks, communal life also predominated, although well before the regime embarked on its pro-family policy, the inhabitants had introduced their own version of a pro-family orientation. Given the barracks’ structure, however, it was a decidedly uphill struggle.

The contrast between the new pro-family policy of the regime and the continued anti-family organization of housing was further brought home by the population’s often grudging dependence on the overburdened system of public facilities for meals, bathing and laundry, and child care. The popularity of the individual constructions sponsored by the authorities furnished an eloquent statement of people’s preferences. Meanwhile, it was no small irony that the housing most suited to the rehabilitation of the family which was also widely available remained the maligned mud huts. When it came to housing, abolishing capitalism and building socialism had its share of surprises.


Housing in Magnitogorsk was called upon not merely to shelter people but to mold them. For this purpose every barracks had a “red corner” (krasnyi ugolok)—an answer to the peasant household’s “icon corner”—where the new order was on display. In one typical red corner, according to John Scott, hung “the barrack[s] wallnewspaper, two udarnik [shock worker] banners, [and] pictures of Lenin, Stalin, and Voroshilov.”118 Intended as places to read, listen to lectures, watch films, and discuss political issues, the red corners were conceived as not simply showcases but also cultural training grounds for the new civilization of socialism.

What the culture of socialism might be, however, took a while to establish. In the early years at Magnitogorsk, the local Komsomol newspaper persistently hailed the barracks as the “smithy of proletarian culture,” by which was meant the places where workers would develop new cultural forms that were recognizably different from the culture produced under capitalism.119 Such forms largely failed to appear, however, and in the few cases when something resembling proletarian culture did appear (such as worker-written verses about labor), the results failed to inspire a mass following. This led to an approach handed down from on high that in effect recognized cultural output as “socialist” if it was created in the USSR and if it appeared to demonstrate the present (and especially future) superiority of socialism. This new approach was christened “socialist realism.”

As a slogan socialist realism may have caught on quickly, but its parameters remained elusive. Broadly speaking the USSR had embarked on an unprecedented search for a socialist—that is, noncapitalist—reality whose representation, no less than its substance, was not known beforehand. Precisely which kinds of images and activities were to be encouraged under the new slogan formed part of the groping process of experimentation that characterized the 1930s in all areas, politics and economics as well as culture. All that was known for sure was that socialist realism as a mirror of the truth would be different from simple or naive realism, which by failing to take into account concealed class “realities” was considered to be anything but realism. In short, however matters eventually played themselves out, the contrast with capitalism would remain paramount.120

Indeed, even though the notion of specifically proletarian culture was more or less abandoned after 1932, the category of class did not disappear from the Soviet understanding of culture, for just as the culture of the bourgeoisie was thought to be part of bourgeois class domination, under socialism the culture of the dominant class, the proletariat, was expected to help sustain that class’s political and economic “hegemony.” Paradoxically, however, actual workers for the most part exhibited what were excoriated as “petty-bourgeois” proclivities, from hard drinking, card playing, and rude speech to wife beating and belief in God. In the case of younger workers, who had recently emerged from the peasantry—viewed as an historically backward and doomed class—this was hardly surprising. But even long-time workers were said to suffer from a similar “absence of culture” [bezkulture], which in their case was attributed to the legacy of capitalist exploitation.

Whatever the justifications offered, such manifestations of bezkulture among workers remained a source of significant embarrassment and concern to the Bolsheviks. To be sure, well before the revolution, a “cultural gap” between the country’s educated minority and its great “unwashed” majority had been a subject of extensive commentary and heart pounding by the intelligentsia. But after October, in the context of the thinking on cultural hegemony, this discrepancy acquired special urgency.

Against the disquieting background of a culturally petty-bourgeois proletariat, and with the content of socialist culture still unsettled, the red corners in the Magnitogorsk barracks became the focus of massive publicity and activity. From this point of entry into the barracks, various cultural and political agencies, such as the trade unions and the Komsomol, joined the battle against the “old” way of life (byt) and for the new. Their goal, as they saw it, was “to conquer” (zavoevat) the barracks through “cultural work” (kulturnaia rabota), meaning not only political lectures and discussions but acceptable forms of leisure and contests for cleanliness.121 Rather than fostering a distinct proletarian culture, the class struggle on the “cultural front” focused on teaching people to pay homage to the icons and ideas of the revolution and on raising the general cultural level (kultur-nost) of the proletariat, in the hope of forming a culturally worthy Soviet working class.

The depth of the challenge confronting the authorities was highlighted by the case of the mud huts, which in contrast to the barracks afforded no entryway for campaigns to influence people’s way of life. There were no red corners in mud huts; there was nothing either “red” or “cultured” about them. It was as if the old peasant hut (izba) had reasserted itself—in the socialist city—with all its “backward,” “petty-bourgeois” traditions. Moreover, while the mud hut settlements appeared to be impervious to the drive for a new culture, it was not clear how much, if at all, life in the barracks was being affected by the cultural onslaught. All the slogans, rallying cries, and activities organized by the authorities and various enthusiasts did not always amount to much in the face of the severe overcrowding, state of general disrepair, staggering filth, and indifference and even open hostility of many of the barracks inhabitants to the efforts to teach them how to be more exemplary in matters of personal hygiene and recreation.

A typical account of barracks life in the early years painted a picture of anything but cultural refinement:

In the barracks, mud and ceaseless noise. Not enough light to read. The library is poor, newspapers are few. They are stolen to roll cigarettes. . . . Gossip, obscene anecdotes, and songs emerge from the mud-filled red corners. At night drunks return to the barracks, stupid from boredom. They disturb the sleep of the others. From time to time traveling artists drop in to Magnitogorsk: sword swallowers, jugglers, comedians. The workers laugh, but are sometimes exasperated.122

In later years the newspaper continued to carry frequent reports of what it castigated as debauchery. During a 1936 raid of barracks no. 8, for example, once cited for its exemplary condition (see chapter 5), gambling was found to be prominent among the residents. As for the red corner, it had people living in it.123 To the extent that there was cultural activity in the red corners, informal varieties seem to have predominated. Musical instruments, especially the balalaika and talianka (a form of harmonica), were highly valued.124 A few of the songs sung were political (often relating to the Civil War), but most appear to have been apolitical. A good many were bawdy. Almost all had roots in the genre of village ballads, which covered the gamut of emotions but were especially preoccupied with love—sometimes won, more often lost.125

Even if the forms of entertainment predominant in the barracks disappointed the cultural activists, at least a feeling persisted that the barracks were accessible to them. Resolutions adopted at an April 1932 conference on cultural work typically complained that “barracks had ceased to be a center of mass-political work,” but the organization of the conference itself testified to the fact that the “battle” was still being waged.126 Several years later the factory newspaper was still calling the barracks the “homefront of production” (tyl proizvodstva).127

Cultural and political activists could also reach the urban inhabitants outside the home in workers clubs, the “red corners” of the city. Organized by shops or enterprises, a club was supposed to be equipped with checkers and chess sets, a library, newspapers, billiards, table tennis, movie projectors, “circles” for the study of photography, painting, drama, history (for women it was often crocheting and knitting)—in short, with anything except vodka and playing cards. By the end of the 1930s, Magnitogorsk had twelve such clubs, most of which were situated in large, primitive barracks structures.128 Sometimes the clubs were without heat and even electric lighting; more often, such elementary services were provided, but this was no guarantee of effective functioning. In one newspaper “raid,” or spot investigation, entitled “Dull, Boring, and Disorganized,” for example, the Construction Workers’ Club came in for heavy criticism: the circles did not function, the chess and checker sets were not loaned out (due to fear that the workers would steal them), and despite the presence of a cleaning lady, the club was filthy inside, while outside there were mounds of garbage.129

The same raid, however, found much to praise at the Railroad Workers’ Club, and further reports praised other exemplary facilities, such as the NKVD Club (part of the NKVD building in the First Sector), which had its own sports facilities, the Engineers’ and Technicians’ Club (DITR) opposite the factory gates, and the remodeled Miners’ Club above Berezka (on the northern side of the mine). Each of these facilities appear to have been a popular gathering spot, although none came close to matching the grandeur of the most conspicuous and extensively equipped club in the city—the so-called Palace of Metallurgists (dvorets metallurgov).

Located at the heart of the Magnitogorsk’s “cultural center” on Theater Square (between the first and second superblocks), the Palace’s exterior was one of the most architecturally imposing in the city. Inside, its hallways were lined with marble and outfitted with chandeliers, while the walls of its main auditorium were decorated with sculptures. Although repeated complaints were aired in the newspaper that the interior sculptures were generally hackwork and not truly “socialist,” the Palace of Metallurgists was nonetheless hailed by the newspaper as a conspicuous monument to the “culture” of the Soviet working class. The implication appeared to be that whatever opinion one had of its architectural style, the Palace was indisputably “socialist” because it celebrated socialism, and also because workers could and did go there, to be “cultured.”130

Beyond the clubs, which tended to be frequented largely by a particular institution’s employees, the city also had a number of “cultural” institutions open to all urban residents, such as the sound cinema Magnit, which opened its doors in 1931 (within a year of the opening of the first sound cinema in Moscow).131 The Magnit could accommodate several thousand spectators in its big auditorium. A smaller second hall housed a reading room, a book kiosk, an area for playing chess, exhibitions, and a babysitting service for mothers. The foyer, meanwhile, boasted a comparatively well-stocked buffet, as well as busts of Lenin and Stalin. In 1938 Magnit was closed two years for renovations, as a result of which an indoor balcony was added from which an orchestra could be heard before and after screenings.132

With more than 600,000 patrons a year, Magnit was easily the most popular form of “cultured” entertainment in the city and a key mechanism for disseminating the values that came to be associated with socialism.133 True, many of the foreign films shown in the city (accompanied by subtitles and some live translation) had little or no relation to political questions, or to the goal of cultural transformation. (In 1936, for example, the best-liked imported films, judging by newspaper accounts, were La Cucaracha, a color production from Hollywood, and The Last Billionaire, a French-language farce.) But others, such as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, were readily assimilated into a “socialist” point of view.

Described as “the tragic story of a little man living in the capitalist jungle,” Modern Times was hailed by the city newspaper as “a rarity in bourgeois cinema—a great film.”134 Chaplin’s classic reinforced with sophistication and persuasiveness the relentless message contained in cruder form in newspapers and radio broadcasts about the capitalist world being one in which the workers had no rights. Moreover, newsreels shown before and after every film invariably included clips of goose-stepping German soldiers with Nazi armbands, various Japanese generals bestowing approval on assembled troops, and Italian fascists giving their signature dagger salute.135 Finally, all of the Soviet-made movies which played in Magnit in the mid- and late 1930s carried forceful political messages—which of course did not preclude them from also being entertaining. In fact, the considerable entertainment value of many Soviet films made their central idea regarding the superiority of socialism over capitalism that much more digestible.

Among the more successful Soviet-made films of the decade were the 1936 thrillers Party Card (see chapter 7) and a Mosfilm production called We’re from Kronstadt. The latter told the uplifting Civil War tale of the 1919 defense of Petrograd against White Guardists and Interventionists by the renowned Baltic Fleet sailors, whose allegiance to the Bolsheviks had been one of the most decisive factors in the party’s successful seizure of power in the name of the people. During its first seven days in Magnitogorsk, this historical drama depicting the sailors’ milieu, as well as the merciless execution of several of them by their White Russian captors, was said to have been seen by twenty-eight thousand people. The city newspaper reported that the only other domestic film which had been such a sensation was the 1934 production Chapaev.136

Released in connection with the 7 November holiday (Revolution Day), Chapaev—adapted for the screen from the novel of the same name by Dmitrii Furmanov, the former political commissar in the division of the real-life Vasilii Chapaev—told the story of a “simple proletarian” who became a national hero during the Civil War. It became one of the most popular films in the history of the Soviet cinema, hailed for its authenticity as much as for its message of the immortality of the people. The music from the film was also a success—although it did not rival the decade’s most popular song, “March,” which was also from a 1934 hit film, Happy Guys (Veselie rebiata). In that light-hearted musical comedy, the dreams of even the poorest of the poor were shown to come true—in the land of socialism.137

The well-received films Chapaev and Happy Guys formed the two poles of an emerging “socialist” popular culture in its most effective—that is, celluloid—guise. Soviet film studios, although they could not match Hollywood’s mythmaking powers, managed to gain large audiences by adapting the proven Hollywood formula: blend escapist fables of a cheerful life with dramatic tales of extraordinary exploits. For Hollywood the most frequent vehicle for portraying daring accomplishments was the Western, whose moral was invariably rugged individualism (often in contravention of the law). For Soviet studios, the preferred vehicle was the Civil War; the basic theme, the ferocity of the class struggle and the great sacrifices it required, sacrifices undertaken by humble representatives of the people for the benefit of the collective.138

The efforts to produce a “socialist” culture could also take a self-consciously highbrow turn. Magnitogorsk’s elegantly named Pushkin Drama Theater, if not quite as popular as the local sound cinema, managed to maintain a small but loyal following that grew over time. Founded in 1930 by dedicated enthusiasts as the TRAM, or Theater of Young Workers, the local drama group underwent several name changes and for its first seven years floated from one structure to another, often performing in red corners and factory shops. After stints in the NKVD Club and the DITR, in late 1936 the theater finally settled in its own properly outfitted and indeed luxurious building adjacent to the marblesque Palace of Metallurgists on Theater Square, In 1937 it took the name of Aleksandr Pushkin, in connection with the centennial of the great Russian poet’s death.

From 1934, when Boris Nikolskii of Moscow’s acclaimed Maly Theater was “mobilized” to Magnitogorsk, the professionalism of local productions increased noticeably. Their content also changed.139 From a concentration on agitprop skits, the players’ repertoire shifted to Russian and European classics.140 Political subjects were not abandoned, however. Instead, they were accorded greater solemnity, appropriate to the theater’s growing sense of its own sophistication and to the new international situation. Plays staged in 1936 included the dramas Enemies by Maxim Gorky and The Big Day by B. Kirshin, a production about how the next world war was going to start suddenly, without a formal declaration.141

Critical to the theater’s success was the sponsorship, financial and moral, of factory director Avraamii Zaveniagin, who relied on the theater to embellish the image of his reign.142 Zaveniagin’s patronage benefited the artists, too, who, like their counterparts in Moscow, enjoyed elevated status and frequently mingled with the managerial and political elite.143 A further reflection of this symbiosis was the fact that on the bottom floor of the new theater, the Council of Engineers’ Wives organized what was referred to as a “civilized” café. The announcement of the café’s opening was accompanied by a flattering photograph of the “high society” women—well-dressed patrons of the arts.144

A world away from the Drama Theater, but just around the corner from Magnit, were located the sports stadium and city circus. The stadium hosted matches of the city’s football club, Metallurg, first organized in 1936 (a larger second grandstand capable of holding two thousand people was under construction that year).145 Besides football there were also mini-olympics, called Spartakiads, in which competing teams were organized by shop. The winners moved up to the oblast-level competition, hoping for a shot at the all-Union championships.146 In conjunction with various holidays, there were also mass demonstrations of “physical culture,” and in winter, cross-country ski contests were held, usually paralleling production competitions between Magnitogorsk and other steel factories.147

As for the circus, it had a regular troupe and was visited by traveling groups, but performances of so-called French wrestling (scripted wrestling) were more likely to draw large audiences. One newspaper satire published in 1936 ruminated over the question, “Where to go in one’s spare time? To a film? A drama? A lecture on Abyssinia?” The answer came quickly: “to the circus to watch French wrestling, and argue if it’s real or not.”148 The paper made light of such facts but at the same time implicitly recognized that workers’ cooperation in the programs of cultural transformation had a limit. What to the proponents of kulturnost no doubt appeared as vulgar entertainment, however, was allowed to flourish.

Such was also to an extent the case with the city’s Metallurgists Park, which was carved out of the territory between the factory and the original socialist city, or Kirov district. Opened in June 1936 after a tree-planting “storm,”149 the park was an immediate success, receiving more than fifteen thousand visitors in its first two days. Anyone could pay the 75-kopeck entrance fee (later lowered to 50) to enter the grounds, which contained a children’s train ride, several outdoor snack bars, as well as a band shell and dance floor.150 In the summer months, the grounds were always crowded, particularly in the evening, when people could swing or tango to the latest dance tunes.151 Such frolicking took place in the shadow of various life-size statues of Stakhanovite workers, Soviet aviators, and the city’s patron saint, Sergo Ordzhonikidze.152 There were few more vivid expressions of how some nominally “bourgeois” cultural activities were permitted and at the same time enveloped in a “socialist” setting, without undue conflict.

A similar combination that did produce something of a clash was tried at the circus, whose performances could perhaps be made edifying but did not fit very easily into a socialist mold. The craze over French wrestling had been allowed to overshadow the circus’s original program—so much so that one correspondent complained in the city newspaper that for the regular act, even on weekends there were no queues to get in.153 Responding to this and other criticisms leveled in the press, the circus director, K. Chervotkin, advised that for the 1936–37 winter season there would be music during intermissions and a new dance hall, as well as an expanded cloak room, a café, kiosks selling flowers, an area set aside for chess, checkers, and billiards, plus “a really big program.”154 At the same time, there were also attempts to tie the expanded circus program to socialist construction and plan fulfillment. The newspaper remained silent on the results. John Scott wrote, however, that such efforts “tended to be ludicrous.”155 Nor were circus acts considered an entirely appropriate venue for the display of icons of the country’s leaders.

Some attempts to forge a “red” popular culture, such as those on view at the sound cinema, were extremely successful; others, such as those on view at the circus, apparently less so. Yet even in the latter case it bears remembering that no recognizably anti-socialist or avowedly pro-capitalist manifestations of popular culture were permitted. The theme of socialism’s superiority over capitalism may at times have been ineffectually put across, but it was never allowed to be publicly challenged—a circumstance whose wide-ranging importance will be considered more fully in chapter 5. Suffice it to say here that when evaluating the capacity of individuals living in the USSR to reject the regime and its values, we have to keep in mind the extraordinarily limited opportunities for acquiring and making use of alternative information and analyses of domestic, as well as international, events.

A new, cultured and socialist way of life was to arise not only through the work conducted in the red corners, clubs, and other cultural institutions but from the influence of the totality of the urban environment on the inhabitants. In this vein, marriage, birth, and death rites—even street names (when the authorities finally got around to naming streets)—formed part of the process of building a new culture. So too did the new Soviet holidays, such as 7 November (mentioned above) and 1 May, the day of labor, which involved a highly coordinated procession in which the people of Magnitogorsk marched in hierarchical groupings based on their place of work.

Leading the May Day parade were employees of the largest and most important enterprise, the steel plant, which was further divided into shops, the largest and most prestigious of which—blast furnace, open-hearth, and rolling mills—were accorded the forward positions in the march. Each shop or enterprise delegation, furthermore, was led by representatives from top management and “outstanding” workers, usually the victors in competitions specially organized to award the honor of marching in front and holding the shop’s banner.156 Contributing to the atmosphere of pride and accomplishment, the parade had numerous floats, most of which resembled blast furnaces, and a large quantity of hand-held portraits of the country’s wise leaders. In 1936, some sixty thousand people were said to have turned out, either to march or watch. Among the slogans displayed that year were “Thank You Comrade Stalin for a Happy Life” and “Life Has Become Merrier.”157

By contrast, the newspaper almost never alluded to religious practices and holidays, such as Ramadan and Orthodox Christmas or Easter.158 In fact, Magnitogorsk may have been the first city built in what had been a predominantly Christian country in which the construction of a church was forbidden.159 There was, after all, little point in building a new life and then according a place in it to the opiate of the people. Meanwhile, the May Day celebration, which took place during the Easter season, demonstrated that even as they struggled to provide popular distractions whose “red” character was sometimes questionable, the authorities nonetheless had ample opportunities to emphasize that theirs was a “socialist” city—and often with considerable entertainment effect, too.160

Entertainment and the struggle for the new way of life (and against survivals [perezhitki] of the old) seemed to go hand in hand, as for example when the authorities made use of the circus and the cinema for trials involving “economic crimes” (see chapter 6) and domestic violence. Such “shows,” reported in the newspaper under the rubric “Court Chronicle,” seem to have been held regularly and enjoyed considerable popularity.161 One trial of a woman accused of murdering her husband, given extensive coverage in the newspaper, related how, after being subjected to repeated physical abuse, she had attacked and killed him with an ax. Convicted of murder, the woman was sentenced to seven years. The newspaper account made no mention of who made up the trial’s audience, or what their views on it were, except to say that the proceedings had to change location three times to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds, finally moving to the stadium where more than one thousand people were said to have been in attendance.162

Stories of male abuse of women were frequently published in the newspaper as part of the campaign for raising the general level of culture.163 Some men were accused of refusing to let their wives work, or even to go out of the house.164 Other men in positions of authority were reported to have used their power to force female subordinates to have sexual relations. Such was the case, for example, with Ivan Lomakin, deputy manager of store no. 34, who received a three-year sentence for attempted rape. In condemning such actions the newspaper cited article 122 of the 1936 constitution on the equal rights of women and the protection of mother and child. But the paper conceded that many men “continued to live in the old way,” treating women as slaves. Spousal abandonment and nonpayment of alimony and child support were perennial targets of the newspaper’s indignation.165

As a further demonstration of their determination to use the urban environment to impart new values, and of the obstacles they met along the way, the local authorities struggled to implement a “dry law.” While it lasted (the first two years of settlement), the sale of beer or vodka was not permitted. According to one journalist, however, vodka (called monakh in slang) could be purchased only a few kilometers out of town for the handsome sum of twenty to thirty rubles a bottle.166 Despite the prohibitions on open sale and the resultant prohibitive prices, many sources agree that during the dry law drunkenness was common.167 Not only was the ineffective law soon repealed, but by the mid-1930s the city had special stores for the sale of wine, beer, and vodka.168 The authorities also opened up a few pubs. In April 1936, for example, the newspaper announced that one beer hall (pivnoi) called “Amerikanka” served hot and cold snacks along with alcohol and was open until 1 A.M. It was located in the central building of the dining hall trust on the Central Chaussée, almost directly across from the main factory gates.169

Discouraging alcohol consumption turned out to be as difficult as persuading men to respect women. One establishment bearing the nonalcoholic designation “café” appeared in building no. 11 on Pioneer Street, in the Kirov district, and was said to “enjoy exceptional popularity.”170 An investigation by the newspaper uncovered why: the “café” served neither coffee, nor tea, nor cocoa, nor soft drinks, but rather beer and wine, as well as vodka with hors d’oeuvres (zakuski). Irate residents living above it led a crusade against the nightly drunkenness that spilled onto the street, but their indignation was drowned in the café’s popularity.171 In 1937, meanwhile, the counterpart to this “café”—the city’s first sobering-up station [vytrezvitel]—was organized.172

Tirelessly exposing these foibles of the vaunted hegemonic working class, the city newspaper also publicized the many “cultured” recreational possibilities available to Soviet workers and continuously advanced the claim that the working class’s “best representatives” were availing themselves of such opportunities. In August 1936 there appeared a “survey” of the activities of eight workers of the prestigious blooming mill on a day off from work. According to the list, one worker strolled in the park. Another went swimming in the artificial lake and saw a film at night (The Last Billionaire). A third played pool in the red corner of the shop and at night took a walk in the park. A fourth read a book, swung by the shop for a few hours, and then returned home to the book. A fifth went to the nearby mountain lake, Bannoe ozero, to swim, sing songs, and play sports. A sixth spent the whole day at home reading newspapers. A seventh went to the mountain lake to gather berries and go dancing. The eighth stopped by the shop in the morning to collect his pay (it turned out that the cashier had no money) and while there, shot some pool, at night going to see The Last Billionaire.173

To the extent that these skilled workers enjoyed some form of diversion, all claimed to have engaged in a respectable “cultural” activity. Although most, if not all of their reports, may have been made sincerely and reported accurately, none of these workers would have wanted to claim otherwise. Nor would any answer that smacked of “hooliganism” have been printed, for the publication of such a survey in the newspaper was intended to serve a definite purpose: these people were being exhibited as the standard bearers of the “new culture.”174 It was all the more revealing, therefore, that the newspaper account of worker leisure activities unwittingly demonstrated that their lives were centered neither in the home nor in the clubs, but in the shops.175 Compared with organized leisure inside and outside the barracks, the factory was potentially a more potent device for transforming people’s way of life (see chapter 5).

Nonetheless, what stands out in this survey of workers’ leisure time, as well as in the many other accounts of cultural activities, is the strong public accent placed on worker kulturnost. Taking particular delight in announcing when workers departed for the Black Sea, the newspaper challenged its readers to “try and find a worker of the open-hearth or blast furnace shops these days who doesn’t have a nice suit.” It added that four high-priced pianos had appeared in the store on one day, and all four were instantly bought up.176 Neatly dressed as many workers may have been, obviously only very few had pianos at home. Yet the above-mentioned survey and other reports indicated that some people were evidently receptive to the calls for cultural refinement.

Perhaps the best evidence of this receptivity could be found in the population’s reading habits. Newspapers, which were saturated with the idealization of socialism and advocacy for the ethos of self-improvement through culture, were the most widespread source for leisure reading, but books also appear to have been popular. As of January 1936, Magnitogorsk stores were said to have received and sold a staggering 40,000 books, identified as “mostly technical literature and fiction.” The city also had several public libraries, whose facilities were said to be too small to accommodate readers or new books, but nevertheless ten thousand people held library cards. The books most frequently borrowed were said to be Nikolai Ostrovkii’s How the Steel Was Tempered (Kak zakalialas stal), André Barbusse’s biography of Stalin, the classics of Tolstoy and Turgenev, and the works of the great “proletarian writer” Maxim Gorky.177 In a country that only a generation earlier had suffered widespread illiteracy, the level of reading interest and ability among the population was remarkable—and it had political implications.

Since almost all workers had become literate, even if some drank too much, mistreated their wives, took a far greater interest in “French wrestling” than in proper toothbrushing, and maybe secretly believed in God, it could still seem to be the case that great strides were being made in the direction of cultural enhancement. And whatever their present shortcomings, the workers were expected to make even greater strides in the radiant future—as the doctrine of socialist realism repeatedly emphasized. In the end, although the notion of the cultural hegemony of the working class had implicitly shifted to that class’s “best representatives,” much reassurance could be derived from the general advance of literacy, which brought with it a heightened capacity to absorb the lessons of a socialist popular culture containing numerous, if far from exclusively, “red” themes.

That the varied activities made possible by the mobilization of substantial resources somehow added up to a “socialist culture”—which the elite’s indulgence of highbrow diversions did not contradict—appears to have been accepted by contemporaries, if only because it had become axiomatic, with the elimination of capitalism, that the inhabitants of the USSR lived under socialism and therefore by definition could not have had a “capitalist” culture. Looking at the question another way, because of socialism’s supposed inherent moral superiority, the development of culture in the service of socialism rendered culture under socialism, whatever its content, qualitatively different from culture under capitalism. The concept of “socialist culture” may have appeared vague and at times self-contradictory, but for contemporaries it formed an important part of their experience.

To be sure, there were many uncertainties and problems attendant upon the compromise that came to be socialist culture. The simultaneous quest for recognizably socialist themes and cultural refinement sometimes conflicted, as evidenced by the controversy over the sculptures at the ostentatious Palace of Metallurgists. From the opposite side, the indulgence of various “bourgeois” cultural activities, such as jazz, continued to elicit cries of incomprehension. But whatever the objections to certain artifacts of cultural enhancement or to occasional cultural “excesses,” the Magnitogorsk newspaper had little trouble repeatedly suggesting that by adopting a refined lifestyle, even if only in part, Soviet workers had risen “above” their rude prerevolutionary incarnations, as well as their counterparts still living under capitalism, for whom culture was seen, not without reason, as a means of social control in a society sharply divided by class.178

To prove the point that culturally, socialism involved the conscious advancement of workers, the Magnitogorsk newspaper highlighted the case of blooming mill operator Aleksei Tishchenko, who along with his wife Zoia had arrived in Magnitogorsk in 1933 with all their possessions in a single homemade suitcase. By 1936, the couple owned furniture, including a couch and a wardrobe, as well as dress clothes, including two overcoats, some women’s dresses, men’s suits, shoes, and other items indicative of anything but a downtrodden, uncouth existence. Lest it be thought that their acquisition of kulturnost was limited to matters of consumption and grooming, the newspaper pointed out that the Tishchenkos went to the theater and concerts together and borrowed books from the public library. In short, no evidence of bezkulture emanated from this exemplary socialist couple, who also enjoyed another advantage afforded by socialism: a working class family living in its own neat, orderly cottage.179 As long as the image of capitalism remained what it then was, the cultural rise of the Tishchenkos could be presented as an achievement of socialism.


For a while tents, stationary railroad cars, and even offices; later, a few apartment buildings and some cottages; throughout, numerous mud huts and barracks—such was housing in Magnitogorsk. On the surface, it is a rather unexceptional picture for a new industrial town. But despite similarities in the primitiveness of the building materials or in the jerry-built nature of construction, housing in Magnitogorsk differed sharply from working-class housing in capitalist cities of the past (and from shantytown settlements in developing-world cities of the future). Those differences consisted in the ownership, allocation, maintenance, and very definition of the housing stock, as well as in the fact that housing was thought to have a purpose beyond merely providing shelter.

Nothing except prevailing notions of socialist city planning should have compelled the schema of housing that arose in Magnitogorsk, which was, after all, built from scratch by a single landlord. But the pressure to build, and to do so quickly, forced local leaders to rely on expedient accommodations, such as barracks, to house the majority of the population. It also forced some of the inhabitants to construct their own shelters, which the local authorities grudgingly tolerated, even though such shelters violated many of the authorities’ highest goals. Those goals, based on a renunciation of capitalist practice, included the prohibition of the private ownership of housing, the provision of cost-free or inexpensive accommodations for all, the upholding of the superiority of collective living, and the use of housing in programs for cultural refinement and inculcation of “socialist” values.

On each of these points the authorities were obliged to compromise. Indeed, in the competition between mud huts and bungalows the regime compromised some of its most cherished values. But this does not mean that the theoretical underpinnings that guided the authorities’ actions can be ignored. It was above all the theory on the withering away of the family under socialism that permitted the orientation of all housing to the collective and the division of urban housing not into rooms or apartments but indeterminate parcels of space. These notions contributed, no less than expediency, to the way Magnitogorsk housing was structured.

A preference for communal living may have been encouraged by the severe scarcity of housing, yet the readiness to design the permanent housing in the same way shows that promoting communalism, rather than merely making a virtue of necessity, was based on the desire to encourage a new way of life. This desire expressed itself in other ways, such as the construction of special red corners in the barracks, the organization of mass leisure activities, and the development of communal dining and service facilities. Organized leisure obviously had an impact, yet leaving aside for now the image of socialism put forth in popular culture (see chapter 5), the extent of organized leisure’s impact on personal habits and hygiene remains difficult to gauge beyond the fact that an ethic of self-improvement was widely propagated. It is, however, beyond doubt that the provision of communal facilities to pool resources and to encourage collectivism rarely resulted in a collectivist mode of existence and sometimes caused unwanted dependence on inadequate facilities.

When in 1936 the central authorities “rehabilitated” the family, they came up against what the people themselves had been battling for some time: the anti-family organization of the housing stock. Of course, the regime and the people did not necessarily agree on how to promote the family. For the regime, a pro-family policy meant the production of as many children as possible, regardless of the economic consequences for real families, or the effects on women’s lives. For most people, family life seems to have meant the chance to enjoy the privacy of a separate home and the freedom to make their own decisions on family matters, including family size. In the event, living space was conducive to neither’s understanding of enhanced family life.

Most new permanent housing built after 1934 was reconceptualized to accommodate the family unit, but the notion of living space was retained. Not only were construction targets for housing conceived and expressed in amounts of living space, a number of operations performed on the housing stock were carried out on the basis of it. In place of sequestering whole buildings, for example, as had been done in the period immediately after the revolution, the authorities “penalized” individuals for having “excessive” space: living space above certain arbitrarily determined “norms” was either taken away or subject to significantly higher rent charges. Similarly, a person legally qualified for new housing on the basis of his or her current amount of living space, which had to be below a certain arbitrarily established “norm.” As for these norms, not even the authorities’ humiliating inability to meet their own hygienic standards reduced the attraction for them of the category of living space: it was easily quantifiable and as such permitted ready manipulation of the urban housing stock, often for political ends.

The concept of living space, which encouraged the subdivision of rooms and facilitated the use of rooms other than bedrooms for sleeping quarters, did not entirely replace the notion of a room (or apartment). But for official purposes, even when his or her housing came in the form of a room or apartment, a resident technically occupied a measurable amount of space. A curtain hung across the corner of a living room, a partition marking off a section in the back of a kitchen, a bunk in a barracks, a mattress in a parked railroad car, a single-room “cell” in the first superblock, or a self-contained apartment in the second superblock—it was all so much living space, registered with the authorities, who issued permits for its occupancy and struggled desperately to avert its deterioration.

Living space formed an arena in which new kinds of behavior arose and the petty struggles of everyday life were fought, challenging the urban inhabitants to show the extent of their resourcefulness. With more than one generation living together and with several people frequently living in the same room, all manner of tricks were required to secure some privacy. Marital and sexual relations could be enormously complicated and required more planning than spontaneity. Bargains permitting exclusive use of the space for certain periods of time had to be struck with other residents.

Communalism was nothing new in Russia, yet what was once excoriated as a breeding ground of crime and immorality was now, for a time, celebrated as the highest form of living. But if in the Soviet Union few could own their own homes, almost no one had to worry about eviction for failure to pay the rent. Not only did the authorities want to avoid creating a floating, homeless population, they also strove to live up to the promise of improved welfare that everyone understood to be one of the central aspects of the revolution. Nowhere was that commitment to social welfare more evident than in the understanding of housing.

The principle of living space operated independently of the communal organization of life, yet it reinforced many of the worst features of communal life, such as the lack of privacy. Indeed, within the already not very private communal structure, living space provided for even greater juxtaposition of strangers. This circumstance took on important significance in the context of the authorities’ all-consuming preoccupation with the people’s behavior and political attitudes, especially manifestations of their allegiance to the regime.

For the regime, people’s homes were within the public realm, for in practice there was no such thing as a private sphere. Although “the inviolability of the homes of citizens” was guaranteed in the 1936 Soviet constitution,180 the constitutional guarantee was belied by the searches conducted by the security police, or NKVD. Even if the NKVD did follow procedures governing investigations (including calling in neighbors as independent witnesses and writing out receipts for confiscated property), they went by the maxim, “If you have nothing to hide, why protest? If you protest, you have something to hide.” Homes were anything but inviolable, and attempts to protest were futile.

Of course, even had they wanted to watch over the lives of all 200,000 inhabitants in Magnitogorsk—which, after all, was their mandate—the NKVD alone could not have performed such a task. They were, however, assisted by the barracks commandants and house managers (upravdomy), whose job it was to cooperate in providing information about tenants whenever the militia or security police asked.181 Some adept upravdomy, who could only see and hear so much, did not hesitate to call on the tenants to help them keep track of the goings-on under their roof. Nor did the NKVD, who could appeal directly to residents for information on other residents.182

The cooperation of tenants in their own mutual surveillance was the ultimate weapon of the security police. Although that weapon was not invoked every minute of every day, there was a pervasive feeling that it could be called on whenever deemed necessary, making it that much more effective.183 In all of this, the organization of housing as living space came to play a crucial if inadvertent role. The unavoidability of the stranger’s gaze that resulted from both the crowded living conditions and the intentional accentuation of communal life turned out to be ideal for the goal of constant surveillance that the regime encouraged and intently pursued.

Although the interlocking web of state surveillance and tenants’ mutual surveillance was facilitated by the sudivision of rooms attendant upon the principle of living space, there was nothing inherent in crowded conditions or the coming together of strangers that necessitated that residents keep tabs on each other. It took the complicity of the residents. In Magnitogorsk (and elsewhere in the Soviet Union) people did watch one another and report, some enthusiastically, others only reluctantly, forming the nets in which they themselves could be and sometimes were trapped. The reasons behind such collaboration should become clearer in the next chapter.

Whatever the hopes and exigencies that brought it into widespread use, the concept of living space, which underlay and facilitated the emphasis on communal life, produced a number of surprises for authorities and ordinary citizens alike. This study of housing in Magnitogorsk in the early Stalin period has proved to be an inquiry into ingenious and devious ways to establish occupancy, into the ordeals of manipulating pitifully small spaces to obtain some privacy, and into the constitution of an environment conducive to mutual surveillance. In the end, even though rapid, across-the-board cultural enhancement by means of red corners and organized leisure proved a formidable task, new ways of thinking and behaving flourished, in housing and elsewhere, under the aegis of socialism.

5 Speaking Bolshevik

Magnitka taught us how to work. Magnitka taught us how to live.

Elena Dzhaparidze, Magnitogorsk Komsomol1

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 of self-identification became routine and enveloped the entire society.

In the study of tsarist Russia’s workers, the chief task has been to explain how it came to pass that “within a period of less than sixty years, the workers of the most politically ‘backward’ European country were transformed from a small segment of a caste of peasant-serfs into Europe’s most class-conscious and revolutionary proletariat.”3 Precisely the opposite question might be posed about Soviet workers: how did it come about that within a period of less than twenty years, the revolutionary proletariat of Europe’s first self-proclaimed workers and peasants state were turned into Europe’s most quiescent working class? A substantial part of the answer to that question, and to the question of Stalinism’s character and potency, is contained on that simple shred of paper tacked onto a Magnitogorsk barracks.

Magnetic Mountain

Ordinarily, the study of a working-class town would be expected to devote considerable attention to worker self-expression, even if only in extreme situations (such as during strikes and demonstrations), and to explore the causes of worker unrest. But in Magnitogorsk there were neither strikes nor riots, and the only demonstrations were state-organized glorifications of the regime and its leadership. In this sprawling steeltown, organized worker protest was conspicuous by its absence.

For the Soviet regime and its defenders, this was no paradox. The absence of strikes followed logically from the proposition that workers themselves held power and thus by definition welcomed the policy of industrialization, “their” policy, with enthusiasm. That there was mass enthusiasm lends an ostensible plausibility to this Soviet view. Indeed, although there is scattered evidence of worker discontent in the contemporary Soviet press, manifestations of worker consciousness in official sources were overwhelmingly supportive of the status quo.4

Rejecting state-censored expressions of worker consciousness, non-Soviet commentators at first adopted two sets of explanations for the apparent “quietism” of the Soviet working class under Stalin. One view held that the regime’s mono-organizational structure and repressiveness precluded any possibility of worker autonomy and collective action, an argument bolstered by the testimony of many former Soviet citizens.5 Another view, not incompatible with the first, saw the lack of worker political activism in the disintegration of the working class as a result of the Civil War and the so-called peasantization of the work force that began in the early 1930s, when the surviving working class was “diluted” by “raw recruits.” The new proletarians were characterized by a cultural backwardness that made them desirous of strong rule by a tsar-father and disinclined to pursue their “proper” working-class interests.6 Against the Soviet assertion of harmony between worker and regime, these scholars assumed the existence of an objective antagonism, even when an overwhelming preponderance of the available sources indicated support.

In reaction to the assumption that the regime and the people had no common interests, a wave of “revisionist” scholarship arose. Agreeing with certain of their predecessors on the existence of widespread support for Stalin and his programs, revisionists regarded such support not as the “false consciousness” of a “backward” proletariat but as an expression of genuine self-interest linked to worker advancement or social mobility. Such a view tended not only to accept at face value the absence of visible social discontent but even to suggest the presence of genuine social cohesion.7 It would be hard to imagine an interpretive controversy with the opposing sides farther apart: either disgruntled workers who despised the regime, or contented workers who applauded it (whether “falsely” or “correctly”). Perhaps the time has come to approach the issues from a different angle.

There can be no doubt that the regime was repressive, that the influx of millions of peasants changed the composition of the labor force, and that many thousands of workers “moved up” to become administrators and party officials. But the usefulness of all these conceptions for understanding workers’ lives and behavior is limited for at least two reasons. First, these categories are trapped within the terms of the phenomena they are trying to analyze. Moving from the primary to the secondary sources, one is struck by the extent to which the categories and debates of contemporaries pervade subsequent “analyses.” Historians are able to study the “peasantization” of the work force in the 1930s, to take one example, precisely because the authorities thought in such terms and collected data accordingly. For us the fact that large numbers of peasants entered the working classes ought to be important not because they were “backward” or even peasants but because the regime defined and treated them as such.

Second, these conceptions are limited by their polarization along a single axis of repression and enthusiasm so that one can “demonstrate” worker support by referring to official sources and worker opposition by citing émigré ones. But how, in fact, do we recognize social support? What constitutes evidence of it? Is the absence of organized political protest a sign of atomization or of social cohesion, or of neither? Does it make sense to analyze social support in terms of groups, and if so, by what criteria should such groups be differentiated? By income and social status? Level of education? Membership in the party? Class? Finally, what is the relative usefulness of sources, official versus émigré, that often tell a diametrically opposed story?

Amid such an incongruity of views in the understanding of workers under Stalin, an important advance was made by Donald Filtzer. Taking up where Solomon Schwarz left off (although without saying as much), Filtzer combined a diligent and sophisticated reading of the contemporary Soviet press with an equally exhaustive review of émigré testimony, and displayed a fine appreciation of paradox and contradiction. Characterizing Stalinist industrialization as inherently exploitative in a Marxist sense, he assumed that workers ought to have recognized their “class interests” and resisted the expropriation of their “surplus value” by the emerging elite, or bureaucracy. But workers did not do so.

By way of explanation Filtzer revived the argument that the old working class was crushed by industrialization: depoliticized, it could manage only individualized responses, such as changing jobs and getting drunk. He also argued that although a new “working class” did form, its members were not up to collective action, preoccupied as they were with personal survival in the difficult circumstances of widespread shortages, speed-ups, physical intimidation, and public ridicule. At the same time, Filtzer did show that workers often “resisted” the new terms of work, just not on a collective basis. He recognized the importance of worker self-expression as demonstrated in a variety of behaviors (turnover, soldiering) otherwise dismissed as evidence of disorientation and anomie. Yet he did not treat the remarkable proliferation of statements about workers’ identities made by workers and others, including the authorities, with the same seriousness.8 As a result, his analysis of the terms on which workers became part of the Stalinist enterprise, though the best to date, was unnecessarily incomplete.

The approach adopted here will be to trace the various ways of seeing and conceptualizing work, the work process, and the worker that were prevalent. My point of departure will be the identification of certain problems: productivity, worker discipline and aptitudes, social origin, and political loyalty. My aim will be to show the effects of these conceptualizations on the kinds of lives workers led and on their self-understanding. Such formulations are not reducible to “ideology.” They are better thought of as dynamic relations of power. For this reason, the task is to approach them not from the point of view of meaning, or symbolic constructs, but as a question of maneuver and countermaneuver—in short, as part of the little tactics of the habitat.

The far-reaching effects that resulted from understanding work and workers in particular ways were made possible by the links of these formulations with the practices and techniques that were introduced to address the problems identified. Those techniques ranged from questionnaires to the numerical assignment of skill levels, output quotas, and piece rates, to labor books and autobiographical confessions. It is to the techniques themselves and the context into which they were introduced that I turn to analyze the ways that things said about work and the work place became a determinant in how workers were understood by others, and how they understood themselves.


Upon hearing in February 1932 that the first Magnitogorsk blast furnace was blown in, a telegram was dispatched in the name of the party and the state and signed by Stalin. “I congratulate the workers and the administrative and technical personnel of the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex on their successful fulfillment of the first order of the construction program,” Stalin said, adding: “I have no doubt that the Magnitogorsk workers will likewise successfully fulfill the main part of the 1932 program, will build three more blast furnaces, open-hearth furnaces, and rolling mills, and will thus fulfill with honor their duty to their country.”9

As Stalin’s telegram, among many other documents, shows, in the Soviet context work was not simply a material necessity but also a civic obligation. Everyone had the right to work; no one had the right not to work.10 Failure to work, or to work in a “socially useful” manner, was a punishable offense, and the chief punishment was forced labor (prinuditelnaia rabota). Convicts were required to work not merely to make good their “debt” to society but above all to be able to rejoin that society as transformed individuals. Work served as both the instrument and measure of normality.11

In addition, anyone who belonged to the social group “workers” shouldered the historical responsibilities that, according to the regime’s ideology, fell to this special class. As is well known, Marxism-Leninism conceptualized social structure in class terms.12 Class analysis, which provided a coherent and simplified worldview and thus a ready-made interpretation of any event or situation, explained and justified numerous state policies, including the liquidation of the “kulaks” as a class and their deportation to places such as Magnitogorsk. Class analysis also helped make possible numerous campaigns and mobilizations for increased vigilance or greater industrial output that were predicated on emotional appeals against class enemies, both inside and outside the country. And it allowed mere individuals to become a part of the movement of history.

Whereas under “capitalism” work was thought to consist of the appropriation of “surplus value” by a small number of individuals for their own benefit, under socialism such exploitation by definition did not exist: there were no “capitalists.” Instead, people worked for themselves and by doing so were building a better world. Not all work sites were equally “strategic,” but through class analysis the output of an individual miner or steel smelter acquired international significance as a blow against capitalism and a contribution to the furthering of socialism. In other words, the exertions of every worker at the bench were inscribed in an international struggle.

Class analysis served as a sophisticated technique of rule, and armed with this class-based view of the world, the Soviet leadership pursued as one of its chief goals the creation of a specifically Soviet working class.13 Although the country had supposedly experienced a proletarian revolution in 1917, twelve years later the leadership still worried about what it considered to be an embarrassingly small proletariat. With the crash industrialization program, however, the ranks of the proletariat expanded greatly, indeed even more than the planners had originally foreseen.

Total employment was about the only target of the first Five-Year Plan that was surpassed, and the bulge in the country’s work force was even greater during the second Five-Year Plan.14 Magnitogorsk was a case in point. By 1938, less than ten years after the arrival of the first group of settlers, the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex employed almost twenty thousand people in its various shops, from the blast furnaces to the state farms.15 Several thousand more people were employed by the construction trust Magnitostroi, the coke plant, and the railroad.16 As of 1940, the city’s total work force numbered approximately 51,100 people.17

This new work force created virtually ex nihilo had to be trained, and that training was conceived in specific terms.18 For new workers, learning how to work became more than a question of exchanging agricultural time and the agricultural calendar for the eight-hour shift, the five-day work week and the Five-Year Plan.19 Anxious to create a Soviet working class, the leadership was no less concerned about workers’ political attitudes and allegiance. New workers had to be taught how to work, and all workers had to be taught how properly to understand the political significance of their work. Soviet-style proletarianization meant acquiring industrial and political literacy, understood as the complete acceptance of the party’s rule and willing participation in the grand crusade of “building socialism.”20

To attain such goals much faith was placed in the transformative powers of the factory system. With the “Socialist revolution,” the factory, far from being a place of exploitation and of shame—as it was reputed to have been under capitalism—was to become a palace of labor manned by politically conscious, literate, and skilled workers filled with pride in their work.21 In the event, most new workers, even those who eventually staffed the factories, began as construction workers, and it was in construction that they first confronted the problem of what were called “socialist attitudes [ot-nosheniia] to labor.”22

Construction work during the Five-Year Plan was performed in rushes, or “storms,” a style that, although it has been likened to “the very old, rural, rhythm-setting work cry (vziali),”23 was christened with a new term, shock work (udarnyi trud)24 Predicated on the belief that vastly higher productivity could be achieved through a combination of labor exploits and better work organization, shock work was facilitated by the generally low level of mechanization and was carried out in gangs or brigades. Although the obsession with dramatically raising productivity was sometimes associated with the introduction of new technology, in construction, where shock work was most widely developed, given the level of technology, extra effort became the main method of “rationalization.”25

The authorities sought to extend the shock brigades into a mass movement (udarnichestvo) through a series of campaigns and mobilizations, the most important of which, “socialist competition,” began in 1929. Socialist competition took the form of a challenge, often in writing, of one factory, shop, brigade, or individual by another. Challenges were also made of the plan in the form of a counterplan (vstrechnyi), or a proposal to accomplish more in less time. In practice, this meant that singular feats of daring and overexertion compelled almost everyone else to do likewise or risk ridicule, suspicion, and, in some cases, arrest.

Theoretically, socialist competition differed from competition under capitalism in that the aim was not supposed to be the triumph of a victor but the raising of everyone up to the level of the most advanced (peredovik). Such terms as tugboating (buksirovat) and sponsorship (shefstvo) were used to express the goal of lifting up the less advanced. Yet although intended as a socially cohesive device to raise productivity, socialist competition more often served as a means of dividing enthusiastic militants willing to attempt extraordinary feats of labor exertion (shock work) from more established workers and workers who generally tried to avoid political effusions.

The effects of the productivity campaigns involving shock work were reinforced by the new wage policy introduced in 1931, when “equalization” was condemned and replaced by differentiation. Wages were individualized and, through the device of piece rates, geared to each unit of output. Each worker was assigned an output quota, or norm, and outstanding work performance, defined as production above the norm, was to be rewarded.26 In theory, as more and more of the work force moved over to piece rates, wages could become a powerful lever for raising productivity. In practice, managers and especially foremen, desperate to hold onto “scarce” labor power, readily credited workers for fictitious work and, in any case, could award supplementary payments and bonuses to workers to make up for deductions that resulted from the failure to fulfill norms.27

Not surprisingly, there were fierce struggles over the calculation and assignment of norms, and considerable invention was displayed in the measurement and recording of output—so much invention that although a large majority of workers in Magnitogorsk theoretically worked above their norms, production at the plant continually fell below plan targets.28 (Meanwhile, the number of norm-setters and piece-rate calculators proliferated.)29 Yet although the impact of the differentiated wage policy on productivity may have been questionable, its effect on the understanding of workers was plain. Workers were individualized and their performance measured on a percentage basis, allowing for ready comparisons.30

Shock work, combined with socialist competition, became a means of differentiating individuals as well as a technique of political recruitment within the working class. As such, its effectiveness was augmented by the calculated use of publicity. Mobile displays of honor and shame, colored red and black respectively, carried lists of workers’ names. Airplanes were used to adorn those racing forward, crocodiles those lagging behind. “Lightning sheets” were issued in which the best workers and “slackers” were named, and banners were awarded to the victors of competitions. With the banners circulating as the fortunes of brigades rose and fell, sometimes from shift to shift, work could become a sort of sport.31 Before long permanent honor rolls for recognizing a shop’s “best workers” were posted, adding to the pressure on workers.32

This extensive politicization of work was facilitated by the presence in and around the work place of agencies other than management. Each construction area and factory shop, for example, had its own primary party organization, which maintained a strong party presence through membership and meetings.33 The party also sought to reach out to the nonparty mass in the factory, a task for which each shop employed “agitators,” that is, people whose job it was to discuss political issues and present interpretations of domestic and international events.34

One agitator in Magnitogorsk’s mill 300, Z. S. Grishchenko, delivered twelve reports on domestic and international affairs and conducted six readings of newspapers during the course of a single month in 1936. To be able to lead discussions and steer them in the desired direction, Grishchenko prepared by scrutinizing as many Soviet newspapers as possible, paying particular attention to the speeches and directives of Stalin and the party leadership. He could also rely on agitation manuals published by the party’s agitprop department. Grishchenko was said to take extra time to tutor those workers who appeared unable to grasp the issues, or who had somehow fallen behind.35

Not all of the 214 agitators at the steel plant as of 1936 were as motivated or thorough as Grishchenko appears to have been, and the effects of such agitation varied. When queried as to why he failed to conduct agitation, one organizer in the coke shop remarked, “What will I babble [to them]?” He added ominously, “and what happens if I confuse something, make a mistake, then I will be charged!”36 Such hesitancy could draw backing from reports in the central press, which ridiculed the way agitators visited a shop and interrupted production to harangue workers about the problems of lost work time.37

But shops continued to be visited by agitators, whose work was considered integral to promoting production even though their agitation sometimes subverted it. A speech by Stalin at an All-Union Gathering of Stakhanovites in November 1935, for example, was printed, distributed, and discussed throughout the Magnitogorsk steel plant in a massive effort to induce entire shops into accepting “obligations” for increased output.38 Typically, such exhortations for increased output—indeed, all discussion of domestic events—were placed against the international background, which was made to seem anything but remote yet could be extremely complex. Only one month into his new job as agitator for mill 500, the activist Sazhko reported that workers asked a great many questions about foreign news, especially after his presentations on the Italian-Abyssinian War and the 1936 Soviet-French Diplomatic Agreement.39

If the presence of the party in the factory was the most visible, that of the security police, or NKVD, was no less consequential. In the Magnitogorsk complex, just as in every Soviet industrial undertaking, government bureau, or higher educational institution, there was a so-called special department connected with the NKVD. The special departments, whose work was secret and separate from the factory administration, employed networks of informants, operated without limits, either from law or custom, and generally made sure that everyone, manager and worker, assisted them in their undertakings.40 For NKVD officials, the discovery of security problems served as a surefire means to advance their careers (see chapter 7).

Trade unions, too, were prominent in the workplace, even though they could not perform their traditional role, as under capitalism, of defending worker interests against owners since in a workers’ state the workers were technically the owners. Instead, unions in the USSR were enlisted in the regime’s efforts to achieve higher productivity, with the unsurprising result that they commanded little respect from the workers. This situation, known to the Soviet leadership, soon changed, however.41 According to John Scott, workers’ assessments of trade unions were altered in 1934 and 1935, when the unions reorganized their work and assumed responsibility for the wide range of social welfare activities sponsored by the regime.42

In 1937 alone, the Magnitogorsk branch of the Metal Workers’ Union had a budget of 2.7 million rubles, plus a social insurance fund of 8.8 million rubles (financed by pay deductions). That year, more than 3 million rubles of social insurance funds were distributed for pregnancy leave and temporary or permanent incapacity. Trade union funds were also used to buy cows, pigs, sewing machines, and motorcycles for workers; send workers’ children to summer camp; and pay for sport clubs. Trade unions had become central to Soviet workers’ lives.43

Soviet production space was a focal point for the intersection of a variety of agencies: party, NKVD, trade unions, as well as safety inspectors and health experts. Their many concerns ranged from increased steel production and proper ventilation of the shops to political education, police intrigue, and aiding injured workers or their families. That some of these aims were contradictory and that some organizations worked at cross-purposes only underscored the workplace’s designation as an arena of singular importance requiring the utmost attention. Yet although management, the party, the NKVD, the trade unions, and technical experts were all present in the factory, they wielded varying degrees of influence. Some concerns obviously enjoyed a higher priority, none more so than the broadly defined notion of state security (gosudarstvennaia bezopasnost), a reflection in part of the international “class struggle.”

In the Soviet workplace the terms at issue were neither workers’ ownership nor control; both already existed by virtue of the regime’s self-definition as a workers’ state. What mattered were the performance of the workers and all actions and attitudes related to their work performance, including actual or suspected political loyalties. Within such parameters, the relentless campaigns to boost productivity and political awareness through enhanced individual performance were logically promoted as expressions of advanced worker consciousness and as the distinctive character of labor in a socialist society. No doubt the quintessential campaign in this regard was Stakhanovism, a movement sponsored by the regime following the coal-hewing feats of a Donbas miner, Aleksei Stakhanov, achieved one day in August 1935.44

After Stakhanov’s “record” shift, attempts were organized to achieve analogous breakthroughs in other industries, and then to convert these record-setting shifts into longer mobilizations. Across the country, 11 January 1936 was declared a Stakhanovite Twenty-Four Hours (sutki), which was followed by a Stakhanovite Five-Day (piatidnevka) between 21 and 25 January, a Stakhanovite Ten-Day (dekada), then a Stakhanovite Month, and so on, until 1936 was christened the Stakhanovite Year.45 Some Stakhanovites do seem to have become obsessed with making records, coming to the shop early, checking over the work space, keeping it clean, and inspecting the machinery.46 Other workers, however, were said to have “incorrectly” understood the Stakhanovite Ten-Day: when the rush period ended, they drew the conclusion that “we worked for ten days, now we can relax.”47

But relaxation was not part of the official program. In early 1936, newspaper headlines proclaimed the advent of “new norms for the new times.”48 Nikolai Zaitsev, chief of Magnitogorsk open-hearth shop no. 2, admitted in unpublished remarks that although Stakhanovism in his shop began only in January 1936, already by February the norms were raised, from 297 to 350 tons of steel per shift. Zaitsev added that no one was meeting the new norms.49 In this vein, one worker in the coke shop was reported to have told the factory newspaper, “With the norms now in existence I can’t work as a Stakhanovite. If the norms are lowered, then I can call myself a Stakhanovite.” Another reportedly said to the same source that “in winter I can work as a Stakhanovite, but in summer it is so hot by the ovens, I can’t stand it.”50

The center of the Stakhanovite movement in Magnitogorsk was the blooming mill, where behind the celebrated records lay much sweat and blood.51 “Nowadays work in the blooming mill has become very difficult physically,” the Stakhanovite operator V. P. Ogorodnikov remarked, also in an unpublished discussion. “Earlier it was easy, because we handled 100 to 120 ingots, and for two to three hours of each shift we rested. Now we work practically the full eight hours, and it is very difficult.”52 The increased burden on the blooming’s management, moreover, was no less great.

Fedor Golubitskii, who took over as chief of the blooming mill in 1936, expressed what must have been a prevalent view of labor relations, that it was the manager’s task to “study people.” He suggested that a manager had to get to know subordinates, how to interact with them, what their needs and moods were. Above all, he said, it was necessary not to lose contact with the masses. But Golubitskii conceded that during the periods of heightened activity associated with Stakhanovism, the shops were “working as if at war,” and his job had become “a serious strain.”53

Apart from the pressures, Stakhanovism involved what appears to have been a genuine record-mania that transformed the task of rolling or smelting steel into sport. Under the heading “A Remarkable Year,” an article commemorating the first anniversary of Stakhanov’s record shift appeared under the name of Dmitrii Bogatyrenko, a worker in the blooming mill. In looking back over the year, Bogatyrenko divided it up by the number of ingots cut in “record-breaking” shifts:

Magnetic Mountain

He concluded succinctly: “This is what enthusiasm could accomplish.”54

Such gamesmanship, which was lavishly reported in the newspaper (often with accompanying photographs), seems to have captured the imagination of an emergent Soviet working class. In unpublished remarks, Ogorodnikov explained that

My wife asks, “Why don’t you go anywhere, or do anything?” Why? Because I have to leave for work early, prepare everything, check things over, make sure everything’s right. Work in the blooming mill is a contagious disease, [and] once you catch it, it sticks.55

After their back-to-back records on 11 January 1936, both he and Chernysh received brand new motorcycles.56 For helping to organize record shifts, shop bosses were also given various awards, including large money bonuses, sometimes as high as 10,000 rubles. In March 1936, just before taking over as chief of the blooming mill, Golubitskii became one of four people in Magnitogorsk to be awarded a motorcar.57

The Stakhanovite movement was noteworthy for opening broad new vistas for Soviet workers, whose meteoric rise was something to behold. Aleksei Tishchenko (mentioned in chapter 4), who by the age of seventeen was a stevedore at a Donbas mine, came to Magnitogorsk in the fall of 1933 and was immediately made an apprentice bridge crane operator in the blooming mill. By May 1935, the twenty-five-year-old Tishchenko was a full-fledged scissors operator, and over the next few months he competed with other Young Turks for the record of most ingots cut in a single shift.58

The advance on the job of young workers like Tishchenko was usually guided by one of the few established workers on hand. Mikhail Zuev, head foreman (obermaster) in mill 300, a veteran worker with fifty years’ experience, asserted that whereas in the past, master artisans concealed the secrets of their skills, in the socialist society of 1936 they willingly imparted their skills to the new generation. The sixty-one-year-old Zuev, who had been “mobilized” to Magnitogorsk from Mariupol in March 1935, was frequently called upon to make speeches, usually with the title “All Roads Are Open to Us,” in which he would relate to the younger generation how for more than thirty years he worked for “exploiters,” but since the October revolution he worked “only for the people.”59

Pay increases for some Stakhanovites, predicated on the bonus system, were purposefully dramatic. The Zuev family—father Mikhail and three sons (Fedor, Vasilii, and Arsenii) whom he had trained—together earned almost 54,000 rubles in 1936, when Mikhail Zuev topped all workers in Magnitogorsk with an annual salary of 18,524 rubles.60 In December 1935, Zuev had become one of the first Magnitogorsk workers to receive the second highest state medal, the Order of the Red Banner.61 The following summer, he received a subsidized trip (putevka) for his entire family to Sochi.62

Second to Zuev in earnings was Ogorodnikov. The blooming operator earned 17,774 rubles in 1936, part of which he spent on the construction of an individual house (discussed in chapter 4). “My house cost 17,000 rubles,” Ogorodnikov related in an unpublished interview. “I paid 2,000 rubles [down] of my own money, and will pay another 7,800 in installments over twenty years. The rest the factory is paying.” Before the revolution, perhaps only a factory’s owner and top technical staff could put together that much money and buy a private home.63

Probably no Magnitogorsk Stakhanovite did better than Vladimir Shevchuk. A foreman (master) in the medium sorting mill (mill 500), Shevchuk was said to have averaged 935 rubles per month in the second half of 1935, and 1,169 in the first half of 1936. When asked what he did with all his money, he explained that he spent much of it on clothes. “My wife has three overcoats, a good fur coat, and I have two suits,” Shevchuk reported. “Plus, I deposit money in the savings bank.” He also had a rare three-room apartment and that summer had taken his family to the Crimea on vacation. Along with a bicycle, gramophone, and hunting gun, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. The bargain was completed when, according to the newspaper, Shevchuk “greeted” the death sentence handed out to the Trotskyites in 1936 “with a feeling of deep satisfaction.”64

Shevchuk, Zuev, Ogorodnikov, Tishchenko, Bogatyrenko, Chernysh, and several others became household names. An August 1936 photographic display in the city newspaper commemorating the first anniversary of Aleksei Stakhanov’s record included a list of twenty Magnitogorsk Stakhanovites: four from the rolling mill, one from the blast furnace shop, one from the open-hearth shop, and the rest from around the factory. They were identified as the workers who had been placed on the plant’s honor roll (pochetnaia doska) and “earned the right to make a report to Stalin and Ordzhonikidze.”65 One scholar has suggested distinguishing between “ordinary” and “outstanding” Stakhanovites, limiting the latter designation to perhaps a hundred or so for the entire country. Rather than outstanding, it makes sense to call them “high-profile,” for that is how we know of them.66

Such publicity surrounding “high-profile” workers was of course part of a calculated strategy. “To bathe individuals [liudi] from the people [narod] in glory is of enormous significance,” Ordzhonikidze had said in Pravda. “In capitalist countries, nothing can compare with the popularity of gangsters like Al Capone. In our country, under socialism, heroes of labor must become the most famous.”67 Not long after Ordzhonikidze’s remarks were published, Rafael Khitarov, Magnitogorsk party secretary during the heyday of the Stakhanovite movement, declared that Stakhanovites were “revolutionaries” in production.68

Khitarov compared the Stakhanovite campaign with party activism, blending Stakhanovism into the political discourse on raised vigilance and equating the “discoveries” in the workplace supposedly made possible by Stakhanovism with those in the party organization supposedly made possible by the exchange and verification of party cards (see chapter 7).69 Not all Stakhanovites were party members, however. Ogorodnikov, who was apparently prevented from joining the party owing to his class background, wrote that “when I’m rolling steel and I overtake [Dmitrii] Bogatyrenko (a party member), no one notices. But when Bogatyrenko overtakes me, then that’s good. I was like a partisan.”70

Whether such intense competition between Ogorodnikov and Bogatyrenko was healthy became one of the principal themes of an unpublished manuscript about Stakhanovism in Magnitogorsk, written during the course of events. The author remarked on the pressures felt in each shop by each shift and shop boss to produce records, pointing out that one by one the machines broke down and that one worker in the record-breaking blooming shop lost his leg. He also wrote of the “unhealthy atmosphere” that had arisen in the shops where anointed workers went around “thinking they were Gods.”71

Tensions stemming from Stakhanovism were high. Ogorodnikov, who claimed that he was discriminated against in the shop and called “a self-seeker and a man only after money, an un-Soviet element with a kulak heritage,” bolted from the mill on 30 March 1936, relocating to Makeevka and in the process causing a national scandal. It required the intervention of NKTP to return him to Magnitogorsk.72 A related case involved the forced return of Andrei Diundikov, a distinguished worker with four years’ experience in the blast furnace shop, who had departed in a huff because “he couldn’t understand why some people were awarded automobiles and he wasn’t.”73

Resentment arose not only among high-profile Stakhanovites but between them and the rest of the workers, as well as management. One Magnitogorsk shop chief, Leonid Vaisberg, after pointing out that “we frequently create conditions, let’s say, a bit better than usual, for the establishment of a record,” privately expressed dismay that individual workers “failed to recognize that without such assistance they would not be heroes.”74 Without stating his own view, Zaitsev of the open-hearth shop commented that engineers resented Stakhanovites, who were made into heroes at the expense of equipment.75

Zaitsev added that some workers held the view that Stakhanovite methods were dangerous for the equipment—not surprising, since during the first attempts to introduce “Stakhanovite methods” in the open-hearth shop, the furnaces were burnt out. Meanwhile, the newspaper reported that one of the scholars at the Mining and Metallurgical Institute lectured that Stakhanovite practices of speeding up the steelmaking process had adverse effects on machinery. “Overloading ovens,” the professor warned, “was technologically absurd.” The newspaper countered that the factory’s shops were proving the opposite.76

As the newspaper emphasized, Stakhanovism made possible “assaults” on the technical “capacity” of machines and equipment, much of which had been imported from capitalist countries. Questioning capacities was said to be a way of discovering and unleashing supposed “hidden reserves,” thereby proving the superiority of Soviet workers and work methods, asserting Soviet independence from foreigners and foreign technology, and impugning the motives of foreign suppliers—all of which served to heighten the political awareness of the populace. After each new record, Soviet managers would announce that projected capacities set by foreign engineers were being “reexamined” and “revised” by “Soviet specialists.”77 These supposed leaps in productivity acquired further political significance in the context of the international “class struggle.” “The Stakhanovite movement,” the Magnitogorsk newspaper instructed, was “a blow to fascism.”78

As managers, engineers, and workers came to learn, however, “revising” capacities upward could backfire; when serious, sometimes fatal, accidents resulted, production had to be halted or curtailed, and arrests were made. In August 1936, the newspaper reported that the chief of the pressing (obzhimnyi) shop of the blooming mill, Vasilev, was fired (and replaced by Golubitskii) when the shop had to operate at half-capacity for three days. Vasilev was then turned over to the courts, for “exceeding what was permissible” and allowing the machinery to be “injured.” In norm-busting, who decided what was permissible, and how a decision was arrived at, remained unclear.79 What was clear was that both excessive zeal in promoting Stakhanovism and the failure to do so could be dangerous.80 One nonparty engineer who apparently did oppose Stakhanovism was criminally charged amid a shower of adverse publicity.81

Workers, for their part, could scarcely fail to see that Stakhanovism resembled a sweating campaign, placing inordinate strain on managers and creating much friction between managers and workers, as well as between foremen and workers—with often questionable results in production.82 But the costs of open opposition for workers were also high. One steel smelter’s helper, said to have remarked that Stakhanovism was an attempt to enslave the working class, was arrested in November 1935 and sentenced to forced labor.83 No less significant, however, were the benefits of acceptance. Stakhanovism meant that the most difficult jobs in the “hot shops” were invested with the greatest prestige, affording anyone who would take them up high status and pay.84

Stakhanovism reinforced tendencies already present in the ongoing articulation of industrial activity as a problem of labor productivity, which in turn was understood as a question of “rationalization,” that is, inordinate individual exertion, reflecting the attainment of advanced consciousness. The “Stakhanovite” was soon hailed as a new type of worker, and Stakhanovism came to eclipse (without entirely replacing) shock work as the archetypal form of “socialist labor.” Throughout 1936, the number of Stakhanovites in Magnitogorsk grew daily, until by December more than half the steel plant had earned either that classification, or the one “shock worker.” The dramatic increase in the number of workers so designated was eloquent testimony to the workers’ and managements’ embracing of such classifications, and the new relations that arose out of them.85

With material incentives reinforced by moral ones, workers of all ages, not just younger ones, struggled to “overfulfill” their norms and earn credentials as 150- or 200-percenters—identifications that were duly recorded in a worker’s personnel profile and pay schedule, and with luck, reported in the city newspaper for all to read. A certain amount of stratification among workers obviously took place, yet its significance has perhaps been somewhat exaggerated (bosses remained bosses, after all). The more important development was that in the general hubbub, all workers, not just Stakhanovites, were enveloped in extensive publicity about their importance and membership in a distinct social group.86

The constant references to workers as members of a new Soviet working class retained a large audience. Vasilii Radziukevich, who came to Magnitogorsk in 1931 from Minsk (via Leningrad), recalled five years later that when he first arrived the blooming mill was still in crates. He helped build it. When in 1936 the mill celebrated its third anniversary, Radziukevich was a skilled worker in one of the even newer sorting mills.87 The Rubicon for such people was the acquisition of a trade. P. E. Velizhanin, after arriving in Magnitogorsk on 29 December 1930, was randomly included in a brigade of assembly workers to work on boilers, which he had never before seen. “At that time,” he recalled four years later, “I had no conception of what a boiler assembly worker [nagrevalshchik] was or what he did.” But by 1934 he had mastered his new profession.88

Radziukevich’s and Velizhanin’s fate was that of tens of thousands.89 They obtained a set of work clothes (spetsovka) and real boots (sapogi) in place of bast sandals (lapti), which marked their arrival as a skilled worker with a trade. Moreover, their ascent in the work world was often paralleled by their movement from tents to dormitory barracks to individual-room barracks to perhaps their own room in a brick building. True, the work was often backbreaking.90 And it remains questionable whether in private workers felt that they had traversed a notable trajectory from victims of exploitation to masters of production; from forlorn, illiterate, uncouth slaves to builders of a new world and a new culture. But even if workers knew they were not bosses (the rhetoric of the regime notwithstanding), they also knew that they were part of a Soviet working class, and that whatever its shortcomings, such a status was different from being a worker under capitalism. These axioms appeared to be confirmed by their own rise.

Behind the exhortations to self-improvement lay a concrete process of continuous education centered on the labor process. Filatov, who came to Magnitogorsk in January 1931, gave the following response to a question about his work history: “I began as an unskilled laborer, then I went into a brigade and strove to raise my pay category [razriad] and to improve my skills. Had I been literate, I would have attended courses, but as an illiterate I only went to the literacy circle [likbez].” But Filatov was soon “graduated” from his literacy course and then moved on to production-related matters. “Now I read, write, and solve problems,” he added. “And I’m learning the ins-and-outs of blueprints.”91 It was from such people that several of the high-profile Stakhanovites had sprung.92

If the workplace was like a school, schools became an extension of the workplace, as workers struggled to acquire literacy, master a trade, and continually raise their skills.93 In the early years, there were many informal courses and study circles, including open-air, on-the-job discussions and “technical hours,” introduced in 1931.94 Later, the authorities encouraged workers’ participation in so-called supplemental training (dopolnitelnoe rabochee obrazovanie, or DRO) in a variety of ways, the most important of which was the examination for the technical minimum (gostekhekzamen), analogous to basic literacy.95

In and out of the workplace, virtually everyone in Magnitogorsk, even those who worked full time, attended some form of schooling, which reinforced the socialization and politicization processes visible at work.96 John Scott attributed the workers’ hunger for education to wage differentials and to the assurance of being able to obtain a job in any profession one learned or supplemented.97 To these reasons must be added a sense of adventure and, above all, accomplishment.98 Those singled out by the authorities as “precisely the new type of worker” were said to “understand that the success of their work consists in the uninterrupted raising of their skill levels.”99

Of course, workers could scarcely afford to be complacent. In addition to their potential job advancement, their access to food, clothes, and shelter was preferentially distributed through the centrally managed supply system (see chapter 6). Strong moral pressure was also exerted on individuals to demonstrate evidence of a desire for self-improvement. But many people were only too glad to take up the party’s threat-backed summons and continuously struggle to better themselves.

It is within this cursorily sketched context of the special importance attached to labor and to being a worker, the tying of each individual’s labor to the international class struggle, the use of output norms and piece rates to individualize and make quantifiable a worker’s performance, the obsession with productivity and the organization of the work process as a series of campaigns, the understanding of worker training as political education, the prominence of political agencies in the workplace, and the strong imperative for self-improvement that we can begin to evaluate the significance of the emerging social identity evident in the list posted on the entrance to barracks no. 8.


For a Soviet worker, reporting on one’s work history became an important ritual in defining oneself before others, and among the most important details of one’s work history was the time and place of one’s original work experience. It was not uncommon for workers to trade boasts about who started work at the youngest age: fifteen, twelve, and so on.100 Extra value was attached to that initial experience if it had been gained in industry, especially in one of the older and well-known industrial enterprises, such as Putilov (renamed Kirov) in Leningrad or Gujon (renamed Serp i molot) in Moscow. The ultimate boast was when one could trace one’s lineage back to a family of workers: father, grandfather, great-grandfather. Such was the proud background of Pavel Korobov, a blast furnace apprentice who was descended from a “dynasty of blast furnace operators” and who catapulted to the Magnitogorsk factory directorship during the dizzying social mobility of 1937.101

Elements of a worker’s identity stressed achievements, but identification could also be “negative.” For example, if a worker was “breakdown” prone, he or she would be labeled as such (avariishchik), which was cause for dismissal. In 1936 the newspaper carried a list of breakdown-prone individuals and a table of breakdown frequency.102 With the passage of time, the negative components of a worker’s record received greater and greater emphasis. What remained constant, however, was that everyone had to have a work history, and one conceived in politically charged categories.

Materially speaking, a worker’s record was made up of various documents, such as the questionnaire (anketa), periodic professional evaluations (kharakteristiki), and the short-form personnel file (lichnaia kartochka), which all workers filled out upon being hired and which were subsequently updated. Later, workers were required to have a “labor book” (trudovaia knizhka), without which they were not to be hired.103 But the technique of defining workers by recording their work histories was in operation well before labor books were introduced.104

Because the practice of identifying individuals through their work history was so integral, it could be seen in almost any official document. The reverse side of one archival file consisting of worker memoirs was found to contain a list from either 1933 or 1934 of individuals granted “shock rations.” The list specified name, profession, party status, record on absenteeism, appearances at production conferences, study or course attendance, rationalization suggestions, norm fulfillment percentages, and socialist competitions entered. What made such records particularly significant was that they were not simply collected and filed away but used as a basis to distribute material benefits.105 Work histories were also reported in public, thereby becoming an important ritual for gaining admission to peer and other groups.

Oral presentations were promoted through evenings of remembrances, which in turn formed part of an ambitious project to write the history of the construction of the Magnitogorsk factory. For the history project, which was never published, hundreds of workers were either interviewed or given questionnaires to fill out. Not surprisingly, the questions were formulated so as to elicit discussion of certain topics (and discourage discussion of others). Much of the discussion was directed at the Stakhanovite movement, which is mentioned in a great many of the memoirs (the majority of which were recorded in 1935 and 1936).106 And since some memoirs are in handwritten form and contain grammatical mistakes, while others are neatly typed without errors, it is clear that the workers’ accounts were at least in part rewritten.107 It would be erroneous, however, to conclude that the workers’ memoirs were “biased” and thus of little or no value. That workers were encouraged to write about certain matters while avoiding others is precisely the point. The very fact that workers sometimes “erred” and had to be corrected, both for grammar and content, shows how they were implicated in a process of adopting the official method of speaking about themselves.108

It is, of course, highly significant that workers’ memoirs would be sought and celebrated at all. In fact, whether or not he or she was being interviewed for the factory history project, a Magnitogorsk worker was frequently called upon to discuss his or her biography. On the day they arrived, dekulakized peasants were interviewed extensively for their biography, which was thought to be an indication of the degree of danger they posed.109 But noncriminal workers were also prompted into relating their social origin, political past, and work history for security reasons. More often, they were encouraged to “confess” simply as a matter of course, as something one did.

Even when these confessions extended to nonwork activities, they tended to revolve around work. On the seventh anniversary of socialist competition in 1936, some Magnitogorsk workers were “surveyed” on their activities after work. Of the ten answers published in the city newspaper, virtually all began with a discussion of the relation between plan fulfillment and personal satisfaction (given that both wages and esteem were tied to plan fulfillment, such an equation was not as ridiculous as it might sound). Virtually every worker claimed to read in their spare time, not surprisingly, since reading and the desire for self-improvement were considered necessary. Most revealing of all, almost all spent their “time off” from work visiting the shop, in the words of one, “to see how things were doing.”110

Identification with one’s shop was apparently strong. An apprentice, Aleksei Griaznov, who recalled in November 1936 that when he arrived three years earlier there had been only one open-hearth oven (now there were twelve), kept a diary of his becoming a bona fide steel smelter (stalevar). Excerpts were published in the factory newspaper telling the tale of his developing relationship with his furnace.111 The city newspaper, meanwhile, quoted Ogorodnikov to the effect that Magnitogorsk was his “native factory” (rodnoi zavod).112 The expression rodnoi, normally applied to one’s birthplace, captured the relation these workers had with their factory: it had given birth to them. For these people there was no dichotomy between home and work; no division of their lives into separate spheres, the public and the private: all was “public,” and public meant the factory.

Workers’ wives were also encouraged to make the shop the basis of their lives. “Here at Magnitka, more than anywhere else,” asserted Leonid Vaisberg, “the whole family takes part in and lives the life of our production.” He claimed that there were even cases when wives would not allow their husbands to spend the night at home because they had performed poorly in the shop. And such disapproval was not motivated by considerations of money alone. Wives took pride in their husbands’ work performance, and many got directly involved. Wives’ tribunals were organized to shame men to stop drinking and to work harder, while some wives regularly visited the shop on their own, to inspect, offer encouragement, or scold.113

Just how the new terms of social identity were articulated and made effectual, sometimes with wives’ participation, can be seen in a long letter preserved in the history project archives from the wife of the best locomotive driver in internal factory transport, Anna Kovaleva, to the wife of the worst, Marfa Gudzia. It is quoted in full:

Dear Marfa!

We are both wives of locomotive drivers of the rail transport of Magnitka. You probably know that the rail transport workers of the MMK [Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex] are not fulfilling the plan, that they are disrupting the supply of the blast furnaces, open hearths, and rolling shops. . . . All the workers of Magnitka accuse our husbands, saying that the rail workers hinder the fulfillment of the [overall] industrial plan. It is offensive, painful, and annoying to hear this. And moreover, it is doubly painful, because all of it is the plain truth. Every day there were stoppages and breakdowns in rail transport. Yet our internal factory transport has everything it needs in order to fulfill the plan. For that, it is necessary to work like the best workers of our country work. Among such shock workers is my husband, Aleksandr Panteleevich Kovalev. He always works like a shock worker, exceeding his norms, while economizing on fuel and lubricating oil. His engine is on profit and loss accounting. . . . My husband trains locomotive drivers’ helpers out of unskilled laborers. He takes other locomotive drivers under his wing. . . . My husband receives prizes virtually every month. . . . And I too have won awards. . . .

    My husband’s locomotive is always clean and well taken care of. You, Marfa, are always complaining that it is difficult for your family to live. And why is that so? Because your husband, Iakov Stepanovich, does not fulfill the plan. He has frequent breakdowns on his locomotive, his locomotive is dirty, and he always overconsumes fuel. Indeed, all the locomotive drivers laugh at him. All the rail workers of Magnitka know him—for the wrong reasons, as the worst driver. By contrast, my husband is known as a shock worker [my italics]. He is written up and praised in the newspapers. . . . He and I are honored everywhere as shock workers. At the store we get everything without having to wait in queues. We moved to the building for shock workers [dom udarnika]. We will get an apartment with rugs, a gramophone, a radio, and other comforts. Now we are being assigned to a new store for shock workers and will receive double rations. . . . Soon the Seventeenth Party Congress of our Bolshevik Party will take place. All rail workers are obliged to work so that Magnitka greets the Congress of Victors at full production capacity.

    Therefore, I ask you, Marfa, to talk to your husband heart to heart, read him my letter. You, Marfa, explain to Iakov Stepanovich that he just can’t go on working the way he has. Persuade him that he must work honorably, conscientiously, like a shock worker. Teach him to understand the words of comrade Stalin, that work is a matter of honor, glory, valor, and heroism.

    You tell him that if he does not correct himself and continues to work poorly, he will be fired and lose his supplies. I will ask my Aleksandr Panteleevich to take your husband in tow, help him improve himself and become a shock worker, earn more. I want you, Marfa, and Iakov Stepanovich to be honored and respected, so that you live as well as we do.

    I know that many women, yourself included, will say: “What business is it of a wife to interfere in her husband’s work. You live well, so hold your tongue.” But it is not like that. . . . We all must help our husbands to fight for the uninterrupted work of transport in the winter. Ok, enough. You catch my drift. This letter is already long. In conclusion, I’d like to say one thing. It’s pretty good to be a wife of a shock worker. It’s within our power. Let’s get down to the task, amicably. I await your answer.

Anna Kovaleva114

In Anna Kovaleva’s words, Marfa’s husband, Iakov Gudzia, was known to all as the worst locomotive driver, while her husband, Aleksandr Kovalev, was known as the best. Whether Iakov Gudzia wanted to see himself in such terms was in a sense irrelevant; that was how he would be seen. For his own benefit, it was best to play the game according to the rules. Gudzia’s locomotive was dirty and overconsumed fuel. What kind of person could he be? What could his family be like? Indeed, after sending off the letter, Kovaleva discovered that Marfa Gudzia was illiterate. But Marfa was more than simply functionally “illiterate”: she did not know, nor apparently did her husband, how to live and “speak Bolshevik,” the obligatory language for self-identification and as such, the barometer of one’s political allegiance to the cause.115

Publicly expressing loyalty by knowing how to “speak Bolshevik” became an overriding concern, but we must be careful in interpreting these acts. Strictly speaking, it was not necessary that Anna Kovaleva herself write the above cited letter, although she may well have. What was necessary was that she recognize, even if only by allowing her name to be attached to the letter, how to think and behave as the wife of a Soviet locomotive driver should. We should not interpret her letter to mean she believed in what she likely wrote and signed. It was not necessary to believe. It was necessary, however, to participate as if one believed—a stricture that appears to have been well understood, since what could be construed as direct, openly disloyal behavior became rare.

Although the process of social identification that demanded mastery of a certain vocabulary, or official language, was formidable, it was not irreversible. For one thing, swearing—what was called blatnoi iazyk—could usually serve as a kind of “safety valve.” And we know from oral and literary accounts that a person could “speak Bolshevik” one moment, “innocent peasant” the next, begging indulgence for a professed inability to master fully the demanding new language and behavior.116 Such a dynamic was evident in the interchange between Marfa and Anna.

With wives writing to other wives, husbands were in a way permitted to continue their faulty behavior. Intended to put pressure on another woman’s husband, such wives’ letters actually may instead have taken much of the pressure off the transgressor: the wife could constantly reiterate the formula while the husband constantly deviated from it. It might even be said that a kind of unacknowledged “private sphere” reemerged, a pocket of structural resistance based on the couple, playing the game according to the rules and yet constantly violating them.117

If indirect, or less than fully intentional, contestations were built into the operation of the identification game, however, more direct challenges to the new terms of life and labor were dangerous. Yet even these were not impossible—as long as they were couched within the new language itself, and preferably with references to the teachings of Lenin or Stalin. In at least one case encountered in the city newspaper, people were allowed to use certain of the officially promoted ideals to challenge regime policy through the very public-speaking rituals normally intended as exercises of affirmation.

Women, when they were quoted in the newspaper, rarely spoke as anything other than loyal wives. One exception occurred on International Women’s Day, 8 March, when women were spotlighted as workers.118 Another exception was the shortlived but startling debate in the pages of the newspaper following the introduction of “pro-family” laws in 1936, when women were heard protesting the new policy. One woman assailed the proposed fee of up to 1,000 rubles to register a divorce as far too high. Another pointed out that the prohibitive cost for divorces would have the effect of discouraging the registration of marriages, which she implied would be bad for women. Still a third condemned the restrictions on abortion even more forcefully, writing that “women want to study and to work” and that “having children . . . removes women from public life.”119

Even as this example shows, however, the state-sponsored game of social identity as the one permissible and necessary mode of participation in the public realm remained all-encompassing. There were sources of identity other than the Bolshevik crusade, some from the past—such as peasant life, folklore, religion, one’s native village or place of origin (rodina)—and some from the present—such as age, marital status, and parenthood. And people continued to confront understandings of themselves in terms of gender and nationality. But all of these ways of speaking about oneself came to be refracted through the inescapable political lens of Bolshevism.

Take the case of nationality. Gubaiduli, an electrician in the blast furnace shop, purportedly wrote a letter that appeared in the city newspaper.

I am a Tatar. Before October, in old tsarist Russia, we weren’t even considered people. We couldn’t even dream about education, or getting a job in a state enterprise. And now I’m a citizen of the USSR. Like all citizens, I have the right to a job, to education, to leisure. I can elect and be elected to the soviet. Is this not an indication of the supreme achievements of our country? . . .

Two years ago I worked as the chairman of a village soviet in the Tatar republic. I was the first person there to enter the kolkhoz and then I led the collectivization campaign. Collective farming is flourishing with each year in the Tatar republic.

In 1931 I came to Magnitogorsk. From a common laborer I have turned into a skilled worker. I was elected a member of the city soviet. As a deputy, every day I receive workers who have questions or need help. I listen to each one like to my own brother, and try to do what is necessary to make each one satisfied.

I live in a country where one feels like living and learning. And if the enemy should attack this country, I will sacrifice my life in order to destroy the enemy and save my country.120

Even if such a clear and unequivocal expression of the official viewpoint was not written entirely by Gubaiduli himself, whose Russian language skills may in fact have been adequate to the task (as was the case with many Tatars),121 what is important is that Gubaiduli “played the game,” whether out of self-interest, or fear, or both. Perhaps he was still learning how to speak Russian; he was certainly learning how to “speak Bolshevik.”

As every worker soon learned, just as it was necessary for party members to show vigilance and “activism” in party affairs, it was necessary for workers, whether party members or not, to show activism in politics and production. The range of proliferating activities thought to demonstrate activism included making “voluntary” contributions to the state loan programs (for which shop agitators and trade union organizers conducted harangues); taking part in periodic subbotniki; putting forth “worker suggestions” (predlozheniia) for improvements (which were quantified to demonstrate compliance and then usually ignored); and holding production conferences (proizvodstvennye soveshchaniia).

Regarding the latter, the newspaper inveighed against their tendency to degenerate into “a meeting fetish” (mitingovshchina), and one may suppose that tangible results were not always those intended.122 Much the same could be said about so-called suggestions.123 But God help the shop that tried to do without these practices, for workers often took them seriously. According to John Scott, at production meetings “workers could and did speak up with the utmost freedom, criticize the director, complain about the wages, bad living conditions, lack of things to buy in the store—in short, swear about anything, except the general line of the party and a half-dozen of its sacrosanct leaders.”124

Scott was writing of 1936, a time when the regime encouraged criticism of higher-ups “from below,” and such freewheeling populist activism was common. Just as often, however, official gatherings could be characterized by strict formalism, making activism “from below” a charade.125 And we know from émigré testimony that workers were held back from expressing their grievances by the fear of informants.126 But when the signals came from above that it was time to open up, workers always seemed to be ready to do so. And woe to the foreman or shop party organizer who failed to canvass and take account of worker moods before introducing a resolution, or a new rule.127

Certain workers no doubt looked for every opportunity to ingratiate themselves, while others perhaps tried to steer clear of the highly charged rituals. But there was really nowhere to hide. If before the industrialization drive virtually two-thirds of the population was self-employed, a decade later such a category scarcely existed: virtually everyone was technically an employee of the state. Simply put, almost no legal alternatives to the state existed for earning a livelihood.128 Here the contrast between Bolshevization and the “Americanization” of immigrants in the United States is instructive.

Americanization—a variety of campaigns for acculturation—could also be extremely coercive.129 But not every American town was a company town; even in the case of company towns, people could often leave in search of greener pastures elsewhere. And if they stayed, some had the option of achieving a degree of independence by becoming shopkeepers, merchants, or smallholders. As an arena of negotiation, Americanization, however oppressive, afforded more possibilities and thus contained within it far wider latitude than Bolshevization.

Even so, it should not be thought that Soviet workers were passive objects of the state’s heavy-handed designs. For one thing, many people gladly embraced the opportunity to become a “Soviet worker,” with all that such a designation required, from demonstrations of complete loyalty to feats of extraordinary self-sacrifice. Acquisition of the new social identity conveyed benefits, ranging from the dignity of possessing a trade to paid vacations, free health care, pensions upon retirement, and social insurance funds for pregnancy, temporary incapacity, and death of the family’s principal wage earner.130 The new identity was empowering, if demanding.

Notwithstanding the existence of an imposing repressive apparatus, there were still many stratagems available with which to retain some say over one’s life, in and out of the workplace. Workers reacted to the oppressive terms of work, for example, with absenteeism, turnover, slowdowns (volynka), and removal of tools and materials in order to work at home for private gain.131 To be sure, the regime fought back. There was, for example, the law of 15 November 1932 that provided for dismissal, denial of ration cards, and eviction from housing for absenteeism of as little as one hour.132 Yet the very circumstances that had in a sense called forth this desperate law rendered it extremely difficult to enforce.

The rapid industrial expansion, combined with the inefficiency and uncertainty characteristic of a planned economy, resulted in a perpetual labor shortage. “Throughout the city,” wrote the Magnitogorsk newspaper, “hang announcements of the department of cadres of the metallurgical complex explaining to the population that the complex needed workers in unlimited numbers and of various qualifications.”133 Desperate to hold on to and even acquire more laborers, managers would often not heed instructions ordering them to fire workers for violating the stringent rules, or forbidding them to hire workers who had been fired elsewhere. In the battle against absentees, workers “booted out of one place, were taken in at another,” as the Magnitogorsk newspaper continually complained.134

The state policy of full employment further reinforced workers’ leverage.135 Workers discovered that in the absence of unemployment or a “reserve army,” managers and especially foremen under severe pressure to meet obligations could become accommodating. What resulted could be called a kind of unequal but nonetheless real codependency. Workers became dependent on the authorities who, wielding the weapon placed in their hands by a state supply system that created perpetual scarcity, were able to determine the size and location of a worker’s apartment, the freshness and variety of his or her food, the length and location of his or her vacation, and the quality of the medical care available to him or her and to additional family members. But the authorities in turn were dependent on the workers to achieve production targets.

None of this is meant to diminish the importance of overt coercion. The workers’ state did not shrink from the use of repression against individual workers, especially when the general “class interests” of all workers was alleged to be at stake. We know from émigré sources that the authorities searched for any signs of independent worker initiative and were extremely sensitive to informal gatherings among workers, lest some type of solidarity outside the state develop.136 But a far more subtle and in the end no less effective method of coercion was at hand: the ability to define who people were.

The argument is not that the new social identity grounded in a kind of official language of public expression was erroneous, or that it was accurate, but that it was unavoidable and, furthermore, gave meaning to people’s lives. Even if we find the notions absurd, we must take seriously whether a person was a shock worker or a shirker, an award-winner or breakdown-prone, because Magnitogorsk workers had to. What is more, if the people of Magnitogorsk took pride in themselves for their accomplishments and rewards, or felt disappointment at their failures, we must accept the reality of these feelings, however disagreeable we may find the social and political values that lent these social assessments significance.

Unavoidable as the new terms of social identity were, they must not be thought of as some kind of hegemonic device, which explains everything and therefore nothing.137 Rather, they should be seen as a “field of play” in which people engaged the “rules of the game” of urban life. The rules were promulgated by the state with the express intention of achieving unquestioned control, but in the process of implementation they were sometimes challenged and often circumvented. Workers did not set the terms of their relation to the regime, but they did, to an extent, negotiate these terms, as they quietly understood.138 That negotiation, however unequal, arose out of the restrictions, as well as the enabling provisions, of the game of social identification. It was largely through this game that people became members of the public realm, or, if you will, of the “official” society.


Granted that behind any given person’s participation in the Bolshevik crusade (by adopting the new terms of identity) stood naked self-interest and omnipresent coercion, but what of the possibility of sincere belief? No doubt repeatedly mouthing the proper words involved some degree of internalization, but can we go further and speak about authentic, broad support for the regime, its policies, and its visionary teleology beyond an internalization of values through language? This question—with which the chapter began—is not easy to answer, in part because of the high value placed on the public display of allegiance, but mostly because of a lack of source materials. One way out of this dilemma, however, is to begin not with the question of belief but, following Lucien Febvre, with its opposite: namely, radical “unbelief.” The task then becomes to analyze the possible support, the sources and grounds, for the wholesale rejection of the regime and its universal precepts.139

During the 1930s the USSR became something of a world closed in on itself. Around the middle of the decade, the borders were essentially sealed, making external travel an impossibility for all but a specially chosen few.140 Furthermore, strict control was exerted over the information the public could receive, and everything the public was permitted to see and hear was filtered through an all-encompassing ideology.

Never a set of policies, Marxism-Leninism, the official ideology of the Soviet state, has always been a powerful dream for salvation on earth, and one that spoke the language of science. This does not mean that the scientifically derived vision was without uncertainties. On the contrary, the ambiguity surrounding the Communist vision, not to say the usage of other mobilizing phrases as synonyms—Soviet, socialism, Bolshevism—proved very useful, conveniently allowing for appeals on various bases with subtle shifts of emphasis when necessary. Together with this ambiguity, the scientific nature of the official ideology remained one of its principal strengths.

Marxism-Leninism posited that history was governed by scientific laws and that the existing regime embodied those laws. Thus, it was irrational—even psychopathic—to oppose the regime. And if Marxism-Leninism essentially criminalized nonconformity, heavy-handed state censorship denied people the very means for opposition. Censors suppressed “negative” information, reworked statistics, and rewrote history to the point of making sensible discussion, let alone informed criticism, virtually impossible.141

No less consequential than their “prophylactic” role was the censors’ encouragement of an inexhaustible stream of information and analysis designed to teach people what and how to think. Censors were quintessential “social engineers,” with the media serving as their instruments—or weapons, as Lenin wrote—in the battle to construct a Communist society. The instructional messages emanating from reading matter, radio, and, especially, films were paralleled by training received in schools, including obligatory courses in Marxism-Leninism, beginning at an early age. Such ideological immersion, although perhaps not remarkable by postwar American standards, was extraordinary at the time, especially in its extent and depth.

Enormous energy and resources went into the deployment of the official ideology, which was grounded in the great revolutionary events of 1917, victory in the Civil War, and the canonical texts of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. Equally important, the general message conveyed was as simple in its basic elements as it was profound in its implications. Marxism-Leninism offered a total system, a complete and apparently consistent worldview based, not on hate or arrogance, but on a sense of social justice and the promise of a better life for all, and with a call for international solidarity against oppressed peoples everywhere. Much like Christianity’s message regarding the circumstances of life in the next world, Marxism-Leninism in power appeared to embody the triumph of the underdog, and the historical vanquishing of injustice—but here, in this world.142

Replete with religious overtones, grounded in a body of scientific knowledge, promoted by “positive” censorship, the revolutionary truth was also expressed in a language of citizens’ rights, including social rights encompassing the right to work, enjoy recreation, send one’s children to school, receive medical care, and so on. And the revolutionary truth was spoken by the highest authority, the party. The party was in power; the party was leading the country to great victories; society was being utterly transformed—how could what the party and its lionized leaders said not be true?

In this regard the role of Stalin can scarcely be overemphasized. If Stalin was a master of the techniques of authoritarian rule, one of the main techniques of that rule was the Stalin cult.143 Statues, portraits, cast metal, arranged flowers, printed fabric, silk-screened china—Stalin’s visage was everywhere. Long before Dubcek and the Prague Spring, as two émigré historians have remarked, the Soviet Union had socialism with a human face: that wise, reassuring face was Stalin’s.144 Stalin became the personification of the country’s vast construction and rise in status, associated with technology and machines.

Stalin’s speeches, his catechizing, his reduction of complexities to almost absurd simplicities and slogans, his logical mistakes, are easy to ridicule.145 But Stalin, who lived relatively modestly and dressed simply, like a “proletarian,” employed a direct, accessible style and showed uncanny insight into the beliefs and hopes—the psychology—of his audience. Although initially portrayed as a political type, when the cult became functional in the mid-1930s, Stalin was transformed into a warm and personal figure of father, teacher, and friend.146 Again, it is easy to make light of the many public effusions of love and gratitude for Stalin as enforced rituals agreed to by cynical people, but these expressions were often deeply laden with affect and revealed a devout quality transcending reasoned argument.147 Before the television age, the cult brought about a reassuring immediacy between Stalin and ordinary people, testified to by the photographs, clipped from newspapers, magazines, and books, that hung in people’s rooms.

Further diminishing the possibility of unbelief was the international context. In the 1930s, the capitalist world was in deep depression, and the USSR was undergoing unprecedented development—a contrast remarked on tirelessly by the Magnitogorsk newspaper, sometimes in articles written by visiting American workers.148 Capitalism was, furthermore, marked by militarism. When juxtaposed against the peace-loving social and economic construction prevailing inside the USSR, reports of the ever-present threats of “capitalist encirclement,” and fascism—seen as a result of the capitalist economic depression—added greatly to the force of the revolutionary vision.149

The strengthening of fascism, and the USSR’s response to this threat, played an important part in the reinforcement and subtle redefinition of the country’s revolutionary mission: from building to defending socialism. This transformation became most visible in the coverage of the Spanish Civil War, which was portrayed as the “first phase” in the battle to the death between capitalist fascism and socialism. Whereas Hitler’s Germany decisively aided the Falangist forces, the USSR under Stalin appeared to be actively supporting the Spanish people’s heroic resistance, a circumstance in which the Soviet population seems to have taken considerable pride. Magnitogorsk, too, did its part. In the fall of 1936 the Magnitogorsk newspaper reported that fifty thousand people had gathered the day before on Factory Administration Square at an outdoor “demonstration of solidarity” with Spain’s Republican forces.150

If there seems to have been little support or grounds for radical unbelief in the Communist cause for those living inside the USSR under Stalin, however, this does not mean that universal, uncritical acceptance was the result. John Barber, citing the 1950s Harvard Interview Project of Soviet émigrés, estimated that one-fifth of all workers enthusiastically supported the regime and its policies, while another minority was opposed, although not overtly. This left the great mass of workers, who according to Barber were neither supporters nor opponents but nonetheless more or less “accepted” the regime for its social welfare policies.151 This common-sense assessment has much to commend it but requires some clarification.

Elements of “belief” and “disbelief” appear to have coexisted within everyone, along with a certain residual resentment. The same people who in Barber’s judgment “rejected” the regime might well have benefited from, and therefore sincerely appreciated, the regime’s social welfare policies. Alternatively, even in the case of the category of “true believers” it is necessary to think in terms of a shifting compromise, of rigidity and the search for slack, of daily negotiation and compromise within certain well-defined but not inviolate limits. Those limits were defined by recognition of the basic righteousness of socialism—always as contrasted with capitalism—a proposition that few people did or could have rejected, whatever resentment or ill-will toward the Soviet regime they harbored.152

If acceptance of the basic righteousness of socialism, and along with it the legitimacy of the Soviet regime, went hand in hand with an enduring ambivalence, that ambivalence acquired a special quality. Of course, with any belief system, it would be necessary to admit the possibility of half-belief and of simultaneous belief in contradictory things.153 But the “regime of truth” in the Stalin years required of people just such a tactic, although without public acknowledgment, for the scientifically determined picture of reality sometimes clashed with events of daily life.

The discrepancies between lived experience and revolutionary interpretation appears to have given rise to a dual reality: observational truth based on experience, and a higher revolutionary truth based partly on experience but ultimately on theory. If discrepancies were by no means as jarring as it might seem at first glance, especially given the flexibility and adaptability of the theory, life could still resemble a split existence: sometimes in one truth, sometimes in the other.154 Problems occurred when a person became suspended between the two, and so people developed a sense of the dangerousness of confusing one for the other and a certain facility for switching back and forth.

How much people consciously thought through the inconsistencies they saw and the affronts they suffered is difficult to gauge. It does seem to be the case that many wives and husbands privately discussed strategies for handling conversation with neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, for talking to the children, for behaving in public and at work. Women appear to have played important roles as counselors and as defenders of the safety of the family and home, which may have afforded some sanctity for unguarded discussion.

Even in the absence of documents from the security police archives it is possible to imagine occasional public moments of “catharsis.” But to what effect? Suppose that in the factories some did speak out, did curse the “activists” and the ritual incantations of falsehoods on the shop floor. These may not have been the reckless but the most authoritative “core” proletarians, hard-working, self-sacrificing and dedicated men who had sufficient clout to say what others could not and just had had enough. Their brief but blunt words could have momentarily devastated the lingering falseness, but life would have resumed, speeches would have been made, “contributions” to the latest state loan drive collected, the fight to increase production continued, and so on. And anyway, capitalism was worse, wasn’t it?

Whether such moments of catharsis took place, it would be a mistake to regard only the truth of lived experience as “true”; even when the theoretical truth was contradicted by observation and common sense, it still formed an important part of people’s everyday experience. Without an understanding of revolutionary truth it was impossible to survive, impossible to interpret and understand a great deal of everyday activity, of what was demanded of one, of what one could or could not do. Furthermore, accepting the truthfulness of the revolutionary truth was not simply a necessary part of daily life; it was also a way to transcend the pettiness of daily life, to see the whole picture, to relate mundane events to a larger design; it offered something to strive for.

This sense of purpose, derived from a revolutionary national mission, became infused with a powerful patriotism promoted from above with increasing effort and effect as the 1930s wore on. Some contemporaries were incensed by what they saw as this “retreat” from revolutionary internationalism and communism. Of course, exactly the opposite argument could be made, namely, that the revolution was in fact consolidated by the skillful cultivation of a renewed national identity.155

Indeed, what stands out about the surprisingly powerful new national identity developed under Stalin was its Soviet, rather than solely Russian, character and how a sense of belonging to the Soviet Union was melded with the enhancement of a parallel, but subordinated, ethnic or national character: Soviet citizens, and Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar, or Uzbek nationals. The polemics about the supposed “great retreat” or betrayal perpetrated under Stalin have drawn attention away from the integration of the country during his reign on the basis of a strong sense of Soviet nationhood and citizenship. The Magnitogorsk newspaper did its part, inculcating a sense of the “Union” with such rubrics as “A Day of Our Motherland” and “From Around the USSR.”156

When a compelling revolutionary vision resembling the “higher truth” of a revealed religion is refracted through patriotic concerns and a real rise in international stature, we should not underestimate the popular will to believe or, more accurately, the willing suspension of disbelief. It is not necessary to argue that popular support forced radical policies on the regime to acknowledge that the revolutionary truth was maintained not merely by the power of the security police but by the collective actions of millions of people who participated in it, for a variety of reasons, including the apparent authenticity of the cause—whatever its nagging deficiencies.157


In the absence of primary documents directly attesting to the population’s mood, this discussion of revolutionary truth admittedly remains somewhat speculative. Further support, however, can be indirectly adduced from the the margins of the grand crusade—that is, the Magnitogorsk Corrective Labor Colony, or ITK. There, the authorities also tried to create a version of the revolutionary crusade and impart its values to the convicts but with what appears to have been far less success.

Magnitogorsk’s ITK was formed in July 1932 (as discussed in chapter 3). John Scott, acknowledging the presence among them of a small group of orthodox priests, wrote correctly that colony inmates were by and large “non-political offenders.” Because sentences generally ranged from half a year to five years—some were serving “tenners,” then the maximum—the majority of these common criminals were expected to return to society.158 In the interim, they were supposed to have acquired a profession along with useful work experience—in a word, to have been “reforged.” This was the “bargain” the authorities offered, and true to the practice among the city’s noncriminal population, the authorities placed the greatest hope for acceptance of these terms on the colony’s youth, who appear to have constituted the bulk of the inmate population.159

“Every person temporarily deprived of freedom,” the colony newspaper proudly proclaimed, “is not deprived of the opportunity to take part in the great construction of the USSR.”160 Except for those confined to punishment barracks, convicts were, just like noncriminal workers, organized into brigades. These convict brigades transported coal and iron ore, built the brick buildings of the left-bank socialist city and the right-bank city, helped assemble the open-hearth ovens and rolling mills, worked on the second dam, and cleaned factory territory. As the colony newspaper wrote, “in the construction of the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex no small place belongs to the colony.”161

Much like regular workers, convicts were evaluated as to “class position,” political loyalty, and labor performance by low-level colony officials, who were often convicts themselves.162 A convict’s labor, which was minimally compensated, was measured in work days put in and norm fulfillment percentages.163 To encourage better performance the authorities offered short “vacations,” warm clothing and felt boots, extra rations, and the possibility of being released early. Convicts who attained especially high plan fulfillment percentages, attended meetings, gave speeches, organized others in various assigned tasks, sat on the comrade court, reported conversations and improprieties, and generally made a convincing show of their dedication to the cause were promoted to brigadiers.164 As such they earned a spot on the “public honor rolls,” and enjoyed not only whatever privileges were to be had, mostly in and around the kitchen, but even powers of patronage.165

It is doubtful, however, whether the use of incentives and the promotion of supposed loyalists also had the effect of raising productivity above what were minimal levels. According to the colony newspaper, one cultural instructor (kulturnik), responsible for lecturing other convicts on food scarcity being insufficient reason for failing to fulfill the industrial plan, was supposedly more interested in using his influence to obtain more than one lunch, after which he was imagined thinking to himself, “in the end an intelligent person can manage to live in the ITK.”166 Similarly, a convict brigadier was allegedly overheard saying to his forces, “Let them storm [work hard], and I’ll watch how it goes.” The colony newspaper added that “it is not possible to say that [the brigadier also] doesn’t feel as if in a storm, for he storms the public kitchen.”167 Not surprisingly, fictitious labor and double counting—what was generally referred to as tukhta—predominated even more so than outside the colony, much to the colony newspaper’s chagrin.

Beyond the chicanery, accurate record keeping was in any case subverted by frequent transfers, both within the separate divisions of the Magnitogorsk colony and to and from other colonies.168 In addition, there were simply not enough record and review commissions to keep track of all the convicts of the various divisions of the colony.169 Yet because the convicts themselves were no less concerned that officials keep regular labor performance reports, without which their petitions for early release could not be considered, some effective “accommodation” was reached.170 Thousands of convicts were in fact let go before their terms were formally up on the basis of having performed “shock work.”171 Were these people in fact “reforged”?

Invariably, convicts professed that they had turned over a new leaf.172 Profiles of convicts claiming to have been reformed appeared in almost every issue of the colony newspaper, in language strikingly reminiscent of what could be heard from accomplished workers outside the colony: they were laboring, studying, making sacrifices, and trying to better themselves.173 But even if, as John Scott believed, a few of the convicts learned to “value human labor,”174 there were limits to the authorities’ ability to elicit more than minimal cooperation from them. With convicts, threats and, above all, shame, only went so far. Among convicts, open expression of antiregime sentiments appears to have been common, as was knowing sabotage of regime mobilizations.

To foster an atmosphere of labor enthusiasm, the colony held several conferences of shock workers, complete with orchestra and singing of the “Internationale,” and in November 1935 even had its own Stakhanovite conference, attended by 1,500 of its best workers.175 But in a sharp piece on a typical brigade, the colony newspaper described how much of their work day was lost owing to disorganization and the fact that among the convicts there were “not a few slackers.”176 One convict had 750 unauthorized absences (proguly). Brigadiers were constantly blamed for temporarily losing track of convicts, who ambled off the job and over to the bazaar to engage in “speculation.”177 Some were said to be agitating among the others against working.178 Exasperated, the colony newspaper complained that “we are located here not in order to get drunk and simulate [sickness], but in order to build Magnitostroi.”179

Propaganda among the convicts was extensive,180 but here again, the crusading colony newspaper reluctantly conceded that the myriad activities organized to raise the level of the convicts’ culture could do little in the face of the persistent and ubiquitous use of foul language (mat) among them.181 According to a report in the paper of the oblast labor colony administration by the colony chief, Aleksandr Geineman, there were sixteen periodic newspapers for camp convicts in Magnitogorsk besides the main one, Borba za metall, plus a twelve-thousand-book library, regular plays, films, political circles, and technical courses. But Geineman conceded that reading was not compulsory and that there were not enough trained leaders for the circles. More serious problems cited included what he called “the struggle with anti-sanitary conditions, and with old prison traditions (swearing, theft, card playing, and drunkenness).”182

Nor was it clear who actually “controlled” the colony on a day-to-day basis. Geineman wrote, no doubt in earnest, that administering the colony was no small task. A distance of thirty kilometers separated the colony’s five divisions, one of which was located eighteen kilometers from headquarters. 183 As of January 1933 the colony had only 138 operatives, 111 administrative and economic personnel, and a total staff of 287 people (against a “plan” specifying 457). This was when the number of convicts hovered around 10,000.184

Of necessity, the convicts played a large role in managing the affairs of the colony, and the threat of violence by some convicts against those who “cooperated” with the authorities was real.185 The colony newspaper encouraged anonymous letters concerning observed “shortcomings” and shenanigans,186 but at a conference of its “worker correspondents,” the paper claimed to have discovered that many were afraid to write. One such correspondent was quoted as saying, “As soon as someone writes in, the [other convicts] begin to dig: ‘Who, how, and why did he write.’”187

In sum, the ITK was a colony for criminals and not a socialist city, however flawed. The convicts were probably less intimidated by the prospect of being sent to a harsher labor colony than nonconvicts were of being arrested. Even after being released, convicts carried the stigma of a criminal record in their official documents.188 True, upon discharge they received papers, provided they returned their mattress, bedspread, pillow case, towel, boots, summer pants, arm protectors, and padded jacket.189 And those willing to stay in town were offered space in a dormitory and food until the steel plant found them a job and a place to live (the factory was even willing to pay to bring a former inmate’s family to Magnitogorsk). But in an appeal to convicts to remain at the construction site, the colony newspaper admitted that “the majority . . . leave Magnitka without knowing where they’re going.”190 They were simply not part of the grand crusade.

A stark contrast to the rootlessness of colony convicts was presented by the social rehabilitation achieved by the dekulakized peasants. At first, exactly the opposite was expected. Because the dekulakized peasants were considered “class aliens” and therefore more dangerous, they initially lived behind barbed wire and went to work escorted by convoy. Each day after work, upon arrival back at the settlement, they were checked off at the command post. Considered incorrigible by virtue of their class background, they were subject to far less intensive propaganda.191 Soon, however, the barbed wire came down around the settlement. With rare exceptions they were not permitted to relocate to another city and were obliged once a month to obtain a stamp on their registration papers (kontrolnaia kartochka) at commandant headquarters. But the dekulakized peasant exiles were allowed to sign up for work individually according to their professional abilities.192

“Many of these peasants,” according to John Scott, “were terribly embittered because they had been deprived of everything and been forced to work under a system which, in many cases, had killed off members of their families.” But Scott added that most “worked doggedly.” To be sure, they continued to live in wretched and overcrowded barracks, yet in Scott’s opinion “many of them lived comparatively well” and “the rise of some of these men was heroic.” Even if they themselves sought nothing, their children’s futures were at stake. Although stigmatized, the children of the dekulakized were permitted to attend school, where many worked diligently. Mariia Scott taught in one of the three schools for such children and reported that they were widely considered among the best students in the whole city.193

Central authorities adopted a policy of trying to integrate the dekulakized into the new society that after a number of years of half-hearted implementation finally began to be taken more seriously and have an effect. In July 1931 the regime issued a decree on the restoration of voting rights for dekulakized peasants after five years if during this time they proved that they had become honest toilers. The efficacy of this first decree was cast in doubt by the fact that in May 1934, another decree allowed them to apply for early restoration if they met the same criterion.194 Most of the petitions for reinstatement dating from 1934 were refused, but by 1936 a more favorable attitude toward them was taken. If their request was granted, the petitioners were allowed to leave the Special Labor Settlement, attend school, and even (theoretically) join the party.195

Furthermore, well before 1936 the children of the dekulakized were given special attention.196 With a 17 March 1934 decree, these children had their voting rights restored, once they reached legal age (eighteen), provided they attained the status of shock workers in production and became active in public work. As a sign of encouragement, lists of those who had been reinstated began to be published in the Labor Settlement newspaper.197 Whatever resentment they might have harbored over their family’s fate, the youth had little to lose and everything to gain by joining in. As the paper put it, “the growth of our country is proceeding by gigantic strides forward. From this every special resettler should understand that there is and cannot be any return to the past.”198

Unlike many of the dekulakized peasants and their children, the predominantly male convicts of the labor colony, despite all the surface resemblances of their lives to the lives of the people in the city, were only partially, if at all, integrated into the grand crusade. An ever-present and persuasive backdrop to the regime’s practices of intimidation, the existence of the colony underscored both the necessity of participating in the building of socialism and that the complex identification game arising out of such a process was effective because people accepted at some level the larger political mission put forward by the state. Beyond merely calculating what they had to gain or lose, people made their individual compacts with the regime’s ambitions, adopting them in whole or, more often, in part, having little else to guide their thoughts and actions and remaining prone to doubts and ambivalence.199


In 1931 the German writer Emil Ludwig was granted a rare interview with Stalin. Ludwig broached a delicate issue: “It seems to me that a significant part of the Soviet population is experiencing a feeling of fear, dread of Soviet power, and that to a certain extent the stability of Soviet power is based on this fear.” Stalin responded forcefully: “You are wrong, although your mistake is the mistake of many. Do you really think that it would be possible to retain power for fourteen years and to have the backing of the masses, millions of people, owing to methods of intimidation and fear? This is impossible.”200 Stalin was right, but for the wrong reasons.

Communism inspired people—so much so that even intimate knowledge and genuine abhorrence of repression need not have induced “true believers” to abandon the cause.201 But equally important, the image of capitalism inside the USSR had little innate appeal. During an era of depression and militarism, capitalism served as a ready-to-hand, all-purpose bogeyman for excusing socialism’s shortcomings. Only if the reality and image of capitalism had been considerably different would it have been possible within the USSR to imagine the wholesale rejection of the cause of socialism.

Given the menacing nature of capitalism, the task of drawing a principled distinction between the cause of socialism and the existing Soviet regime, already difficult because of censorship, was made that much more difficult. Such critiques were, of course, made by the “old guard” of revolutionaries, most famously by Trotsky. But what Trotsky had to say was for all intents and purposes unavailable within the USSR. And even if people had been able to make themselves familiar with his books and articles, it is far from clear whether they would have accepted his ambiguous analysis of “the Thermidor.” What could Thermidor matter in the face of the fascist threat and the success of socialist construction? For the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk the descent of capitalism into fascism and the ascent of the USSR into socialism appeared inextricably linked and was felt with great immediacy in their own lives.

That immediacy was achieved by means of the game of social identification, exemplified by the practice of speaking Bolshevik. Through this new social identity, the state was able to appropriate much of the basis for social solidarity and to render opposition impossible. Émigré testimony on the pervasiveness of informants and the perception that the regime meant business has lent credence to the notion that the entire society under Stalin was “atomized,” leaving people only the privacy of the kitchen table to express their anger and innermost feelings. In that sense, “atomization,” if not as total as some commentators have claimed, was considerable. At the same time, however, the terms of the new social identity also forged the people into a larger political community. This “positive” integration of the Soviet working class brought obligations and a general state of dependency but also benefits and, owing to the absence of unemployment, a degree of control over the labor process.

The process of “positive integration” by which people became part of the “official society” involved a subtle, if unequal negotiation, for which it was essential to learn the terms at issue and the techniques of engagement. Workers marched in choreographed holiday festivals and they were often compelled to listen, and sometimes called upon to deliver, oily speeches. But they also had occasions when they could express frustrations, and even grievances—within unspoken if widely recognized limits. People had no choice but to learn that there was a boundary in public behavior and even private thought between the realistic and the unrealistic. But they also had to see that they could “work the system” to their “minimum disadvantage.”202 These were the lessons that life itself taught them.

Life in Magnitogorsk taught cynicism as well as labor enthusiasm, fear as well as pride. Most of all, life in Magnitogorsk taught one how to identify oneself and speak in the acceptable terms. If ever there was a case where the political significance of things said, or discourse, stood out, it was in the articulation of social identity under Stalin.203 This subtle mechanism of power, within the circumstances of the revolutionary crusade, accounted for the strength of Stalinism. Fifty years later, surviving workers in Magnitogorsk still spoke the way they and their contemporaries did in the memoirs from the 1930s. By the late 1980s, however, their image of capitalism would radically change, and with it, their understanding of and allegiance to socialism, as represented by the Soviet regime.

6 Bread and a Circus

That sovereign people which once bestowed military commands, consulships, legions, what it pleased, now narrows its field, and anxiously longs for two things only—bread and circuses.

Juvenal, Tenth Satire1

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 of the bread shops, one could observe the other side of the state supply system—at the local circus. The jerry-built but attractive structure, “an odd kind of monumental building in wood, with a very conspicuous little red and white cupola perched on top of it,”3 became a favorite spot of the urban inhabitants. The circus’s popularity, however, derived less from its acrobats, dancing bears, or even beloved clown, who went by the name of Charlie Chaplin, than from that most popular of all public spectacles, the demonstration (pokazatelnyi) trial. Staged for educational purposes, these productions were held for the entire range of what were called “economic crimes,”4 which accounted for 80 percent of Magnitogorsk’s criminal proceedings and frequently filled the big top with what was a deadly serious show.5

Between the two closely connected spectacles—the official supply network, with its ration cards, forlorn stores, and fixed prices symbolized by inexpensive bread, and the circus, where unauthorized “entrepreneurs” unlucky enough to be caught were demonstratively “tried”—there flourished a game of ruse and camouflage, of opportunity and risk. This game touched the lives of nearly every urban inhabitant, forming an expansive arena of activities and relationships—a form of the market—that proved remarkably resilient and indeed indispensable to the authorities no less than to ordinary people.

Market activities had been one of the primary targets of the revolution. Nineteen seventeen marked a watershed in the economic life of the former Russian empire because Soviet Russia’s new rulers assumed power branding “capitalism” as the source of the country’s past misery and hailing the suppression of capitalist relations as the key to a brighter future. True, in 1921 the Bolshevik leadership announced a temporary truce, the New Economic Policy. But throughout the 1920s private trade remained a stigmatized, illegitimate endeavor, with questionable longterm prospects, conducted outside the framework of universally accepted laws and at the forbearance of avowedly anticapitalist officials. If the authorities grudgingly accepted certain forms of private activity, they ardently, albeit inconsistently, applied numerous “administrative measures,” from “punitive” taxation and price deflations to arrest and outright confiscation of all property, as a way to voice displeasure and assert political control over such activity.6

When the Soviet Union entered the 1930s with what was trumpeted as “the socialist offensive on all fronts,”7 the private hiring of labor was further restricted and then proscribed. In 1932, the private ownership of shops was prohibited, and all “middlemen” were decreed out of legal existence.8 Private manufacturing too became illegal, and small-scale urban artisan production, although still legal, was sharply curtailed by the withholding of inputs and raw materials, a tactic that forced most independent artisans into joining state-sponsored “cooperatives.” In a brief period, virtually the entire national economy became state-owned and state-run, technically a single entity. Soviet propagandists, with an eye on the largest European and American companies, boasted of “our” firm, “the USSR.”

But as it turned out, the complete suppression of capitalism proved impossible. Many privateers took their businesses underground, where some flourished, while the state, after considerable soul-searching, felt compelled to make “concessions” to the “market.” These included permitting small household plots for collective farmers9 and urban markets where the collective farmers could sell their personal output and purchase industrial and consumer goods, as well as enticing harassed artisans to resume plying their trades. Even more significant than such “concessions” to the market, however, was the deployment of the planned economy itself, which gave rise to an economic system that could not function without widespread illicit behavior reminiscent of capitalist relations—the so-called “shadow” (tenavaia) economy.

As its name makes clear, the “shadow” economy was a silhouette of the planned economy.10 Significantly, contemporaries at first had no name for this vast “other” domain and set of relations that, by definition, should not have existed. When such activities nonetheless made their insistent appearance, they fell under the time-honored designation of unwholesome operations performed “on the left” (nalevo). So stigmatized, these activities became the targets of the doggedly determined authorities, who sought to eradicate them through a combination of the mobilization of public opinion and the development of a new, socialist court system based on the “hegemony” of the proletariat.

Only glimpses into the formation and operation of the Magnitogorsk court system were furnished by the city newspaper and the local affiliate of the state archives.11 The picture that emerges is of a rudimentary legal system that was profoundly influenced by the political system, to be sure, but that also had some sense of the law and struggled to regularize its procedures.12 The courts were chronically understaffed, however, and the staff at hand was not especially qualified.13 In 1935, an official report complained that Magnitogorsk judges “do not have great legal qualifications,” which was putting it mildly. In addition, ten judges left the city during 1933 and 1934, so that by 1935 there was not a single judge on the bench who had been working more than a year. The court chambers, moreover, were located in a barracks, which, ironically enough, was said to “present an unsightly spectacle.”14

Even though they discovered that instituting and managing a workable legal system was far from easy, the local authorities had come to understand this was something they had to do, in part because unexpectedly for all concerned, the establishment of a noncapitalist municipal economy brought forth a proliferation of illegalities. This is not to say, however, that all the business of the shadow economy was, strictly speaking, illegal. Many of the activities nominally outside the planned economy were prohibited but others were actually promoted, while many of the activities formally prohibited were tacitly condoned. That such activities were often tolerated reflected more than the inability of the authorities to suppress them. These activities were extremely “useful,” and not merely in permitting a means of survival for people otherwise unable to get by.

In a sense, here was a part of the “society” in the Soviet Union under Stalin whose existence one generation of historians denied, then another asserted but never demonstrated in detail. It was neither the party, the Komsomol, nor even the trade unions, but the ubiquitous “market” of trade, resale, barter, and domestic manufacture that was the largest “social organization” in Magnitogorsk—a spontaneous complement to the orchestrated rallies, endless mobilizations, and solemn party meetings.

Market activities in Magnitogorsk cannot be mistaken for the workings of something like a “civil society.” There was no private property, and much of market-related activity took place secretly, or at least discreetly, without recourse to the legal system. Market society in the Soviet Union remained a shadowy sphere of existence, even when it was more or less open. Nonetheless, against the background of the official socialist ideology and the party’s rule, the unforeseen relations that arose within Magnitogorsk’s non-capitalist municipal economy constituted not only an alternative form of economic organization but a kind of “countersociety.” This world of quasi-contracts and informal “businesses” was brought into being by people who may not have intended “opposition” to the state but whose actions in many cases came to be interpreted as just that. More simply, Magnitogorsk’s inhabitants, finding themselves charged with the task of creating and sustaining a noncapitalist municipal economy, could be seen as pioneers making their way in unmapped terrain—and make their way they did, deploying a rich arsenal in the humble encounters encompassing the little tactics of the habitat.

Magnetic Mountain

Whereas the end of the NEP has been perhaps the most analyzed problem in the history of the USSR (from both a political and economic standpoint), there has been little study of the system of socialist trade and supply that replaced NEP.15 This chapter should be seen as an attempt in that direction. For such a task, some guidance is provided by a comparison with Peru’s “informal economy” in the 1980s, as analyzed by Hernando de Soto.

De Soto, who examines an enormous range and depth of productive economic activity that takes place outside sanctioned channels, defines informality as the “refuge of individuals who find that the costs of abiding by existing laws in the pursuit of legitimate economic objectives exceed the benefits.” In contrast to the state’s elephantine bureaucracies, with their proliferation of nonproductive, parasitic activities, “the people” work hard against great odds to create businesses that serve their own and others’ needs. But because legality is a privilege available only to those with political and economic power, such informal businesses, of necessity built on transitory and tactical alliances, cannot grow easily, find investment hazardous, and become vulnerable to theft and extortion. In conclusion, the author argues that whereas the “informal economy,” or black market, is usually thought of as the problem, in countries like Peru “the problem is not the black market but the state itself.”16

In all these matters the parallels with the Soviet shadow economy as it took shape in the Stalin years are striking. There are also differences, however. In the Peruvian case the people’s initiative and creativity become perforce enmeshed with shady operations whose stigma furnishes the state with an apparent justification for condemning and attempting to eradicate manifold productive activities, usually allowing state functionaries to exact tribute in the process. But private property is not banned; the vast majority of people are simply forced to operate with only de facto property. Their activities can be against the law but are just as frequently simply outside it. In many cases, if they accumulate enough wealth, they can, if they chose, pay the fee to register their businesses. In the Soviet case, “protection payments” could have been made to forestall punitive measures, but they could never completely guarantee legal status. “Private” businesses were outlawed.

In the USSR, moreover, “the state” was often the most energetic unauthorized “marketeer” of all. Just to perform their regular jobs, everyone from the low-level managers of Magnitogorsk’s public canteens to the big “pine cones” (shishki) running the great steel plant came to rely not only on the fruits of the official supply network but also on the inputs, goods, and services provided outside or alongside the sanctioned channels of the planned economy. More than that, such people often took an active role as producers of goods and purveyors of services, in direct contravention of the law.

If the everyday behavior of almost the entire Soviet populace, without repudiating the grand crusade, nonetheless interjected a certain slack or flexibility into the unrelenting drive to build socialism, the mentality and methods of the Bolshevik quest for accelerated noncapitalist modernization shaped the range and type of maneuvers that arose within the arena of supply and distribution, stamping them as “counteractivities.” The weight of this contradiction fell on ordinary people, to be sure, but also on the zealous authorities.


At Magnetic Mountain the first settlers arrived not long after “rationing” was introduced around the country, first for bread, then for other food products and manufactured goods. Normally a wartime practice ensuring fair and orderly distribution of limited supplies, rationing appears not to have been implemented at the remote site until late 1931, however, when the local population suddenly jumped to more than 100,000 people and the food situation in the country took a turn for the worse as a result of the disorganization brought on by collectivization.17 Still, from the beginning at Magnitogorsk it was in the name of the state that a local supply system was organized, as private operators were prohibited.

The state supply network was officially called the Central Workers’ Cooperative (Tsentralnyi rabochii kooperativ), or TsRK (add an i after the ts to pronounce the acronym and you get the Russian word for circus, tsirk). TsRK was the first organization formed in Magnitogorsk, predating even the local party organization. It was also one of the largest organizations at the site. By November 1932, after rationing was locally in place, TsRK grew to have a staff of more than five thousand.18

TsRK oversaw the city’s supply system, but the task of issuing workers their rations cards, which entitled them to purchase a maximum amount of certain goods at so-called hard (tverdye)—that is, fixed—prices, fell to the various construction objectives, or to already functioning shops and enterprises. Having distributed pieces of paper, these organizations then struggled in cooperation with TsRK to supply the specified items. This was an awesome responsibility, for in 1932 famine was ravaging many parts of the countryside, and despite the decided urban tilt of regime policies, the cities also experienced less than bountiful supplies. Even without these added difficulties, TsRK’s assignment was daunting. Singling out shoes, supplies, work clothes, and especially food, one of the site’s early directors, Iakov Gugel, admitted that “organizing the lives of 200,000 people was not easy.”19

Not much can be said with assurance about the agricultural hinterland surrounding Magnitogorsk, except that it was not exceedingly rich.20 With time the region’s agriculture improved, but in the city there remained a widespread feeling, which the authorities were at pains to dispel, that nothing could be made to grow in such an inhospitable region.21 The factory, which owned most of the state farms in the immediate vicinity, also operated several successful greenhouses, where onions, radishes, cucumbers, and other fruits and vegetables were grown.22 But throughout the decade vegetables were treated as if they were a strategic resource. The city’s large enclosed vegetable warehouse was located under the watchful eye of the factory administrative building.23

To increase local production of vegetables the authorities eventually adopted the same approach that the Soviet government adopted vis-à-vis the collective farms: encouraging the cultivation of household plots. Estimates differ on the number of urban cultivators, but whatever the precise totals they certainly ranged in the many thousands.24 By the late 1930s, household plots produced a significant amount of Magnitogorsk’s food, including more than 20 percent of all potatoes consumed in the city.25 But such supplementary urban “harvests,” important as they became, were no substitute for large-scale agriculture, which grew only gradually.26

In the early years, when there was not enough food, local authorities were directed to use the shortages to make people take up work: without a job, a person could not get a bread card, and life with a bread card was harsh enough. So great was the demand for labor, however, that each enterprise or organization became desperate to sign up as many workers as possible and thus gave out bread cards liberally. Some people,’ especially those who signed up for more than one job, managed to obtain an extra bread card—a perquisite that could provoke condemnation when secured “spontaneously,” but one that was handed out readily by bosses.

Rations were differentiated on the basis of profession, skill level, and in some cases, perceived loyalty or political importance. With bread cards, to take the most important dietary item, there was a range for nonbosses of 400 to 1,000 grams per day.27 These were, of course, upper limits, and as with other items, including milk, sugar, and meat, often much less than the specified amount was actually available.28 Naturally, those in the lower categories endeavored to raise their status, and there was a limited upward movement toward the upper categories, particularly for anyone who answered the summons to greater labor exertion.29 Food, no less than housing, was an important political device for the authorities, imposing on them extraordinary responsibilities but also affording them significant leverage.

Magnitogorsk’s supply system underwent changes in January 1933 that gave an indication of growing size and complexity. Separate ration cards for each item were replaced by monthly ration booklets (zabornye knizhki) to be carried by each person (in part to combat the possession or sale of extra coupons). And the swollen TsRK bureaucracy was reorganized and renamed the Department of Workers’ Supply (otdel rabochego snabzheniia), or ORS. ORS took over the management of TsRK’s numerous subdivisions, or distribution outlets, still known individually as “workers’ cooperatives.”

Neither of these changes was meant to alter the supply network’s openly differentiated structure, which was confirmed in a highly revealing list of the population served by each “workers’ cooperative” published in the newspaper along with the announcement of the reorganization. According to the list, “workers’ cooperative” no. 1 was allotted to the GPU, or security police; no. 2, to the city party committee; no. 3 was set aside for what were called “responsible workers” while no. 4 was for “special workers”—both euphemisms for favored groups not already included in the police or upper ranks of the party; no. 5 was reserved for the chiefs of the labor colony, and so on down the list to the cooperatives for ordinary workers.30 The stock available at each outlet varied, depending on whom the outlet was designated to serve: the more important the clientele, the more ample the outlet’s selection of goods.31

The published list was not the whole story, for it omitted reference to insnab, an acronym formed from the words “foreigners’ supply,” described by John Scott as “the famous and fabulous foreigners’ store,” which as it turned out was not exclusively for foreigners.32 At the other extreme, the list also failed to mention “special resettlers,” that is, exiled peasants, or the inmates of the city’s labor colony, who were both attached to a separate supply system.33 During a time when hardship was the rule for virtually everyone, the exiled peasants and colony inmates suffered additional deprivations.34

Alongside the ranked distribution outlets run by ORS where workers could purchase goods in accordance with their ration coupons (but sometimes without), “each industrial organization ran one or more dining-rooms where workers ate, likewise by card, once a day.” Scott described dining hall no. 30 (located in a barracks) as “jammed full: the long bare wooden tables were surrounded by workers, and behind almost every client somebody was waiting.” He added that “it was cold in the dining-room; one could see one’s breath before one’s face; but it was so much warmer than outside that everybody unbuttoned his sheepskin and rolled his hat from around his ears.”35 Such “dining halls” were actually an improvement over the ones from the earlier years, which had been nothing more than outdoor gatherings around mobile kitchens.36

Like the distribution outlets for goods, the various dining rooms were organized according to rank. Although there were differences between those in the middle and those at the bottom of the dining hall pyramid, the biggest difference was at the top, in the dining rooms that few people saw, where the highest-level police, party, factory officials, and, for a time, foreigners took their meals.37 But within even the low-level dining halls there was differentiation: some people accumulated extra meal tickets, usually as incentives or rewards, entitling them to more than one meal.38 In the dining halls no less than in the workers cooperatives, an elaborate system of “privileges” was created.

In addition to controlling access to better food and hard-to-obtain goods, the authorities could grant or withhold the pick of scarce housing, use of an automobile, and preferential access to medical care. According to a leading physician who subsequently wrote an unpublished history of the city’s health care system, “employees [rabotniki] of the Magnitogorsk Works had a ‘closed policlinic,’ opened for them by the city health department on 3 October 1934 in the central medical station of the blast furnace shop, on factory territory. In March 1938, they were [also] given a separate wing of the first floor of the city hospital, with thirty rooms.” Doctors said to be among the best in the city even made house calls for bosses as well as favored workers and their families.39

Throughout the archives one can find mountains of paperwork devoted to the granting of “privileges” to selected individuals. One such record compiled in 1935 by the factory trade union committee listed clothes, shoes, winter coats, radios, trips for children, and apartments for around twenty workers.40 Even for the relatively less privileged, there were many “privileges” to be gained or lost; there was always something to be had that someone else did not have, if one could gain the favor of the person who controlled it. Intentionally hierarchical and stratified, Magnitogorsk’s official supply network looked more like a heavy-handed political club than the public service it was said to be.

Scarcity, far from being the Soviet political system’s Achilles heel, was one of the keys to its strength. The tighter the overall balance of services or supplies, the more leverage the authorities could exercise. Even after basic necessities became more plentiful in the latter half of the 1930s, the distribution of “luxury” items—from suits and better quality sausage to vacations and places in day care for one’s children—still provided a powerful mechanism of political control.

For obtaining all manner of goods and services, what were called “connections” (sviazi) and “pull” (blat) came to eclipse money in importance.41 Money did not, however, lose all value, for in addition to the sale of goods by ration cards at “hard” prices there existed a system of stores derisively known as “Mikoyan shops,” after the people’s commissar for trade, that sold goods at what were called “commercial prices.” These prices were far higher than those charged for goods obtained with ration cards, but in commercial shops one could usually buy as much as one’s income allowed. Such an arrangement also prevailed at the city’s Central Market, popularly referred to as the bazaar.

At first the new socialist city of Magnitogorsk was not supposed to have a “market” (rynok). But by a city party committee decree of 28 July 1932, the periodically held “interregional collective-farmers’ fair” was converted into a permanent marketplace for the exchange of goods between Magnitogorsk and the countryside.42 Of course, the decree did not conjure informal goods exchange into being; it acknowledged the trade already being conducted, while seeking to localize it at a designated area, where the authorities hoped it could be observed and controlled.43 This hope proved to be in vain, although it was never relinquished.

Controlled or not, trade at the market apparently attained high volume. Official data for 1937 placed the sale of potatoes there at nearly 1 million tons, and that of meat at 640,000 tons. That year 4,460 head of cattle were also traded at the market (supposedly for an average price of only 800 rubles). It is unclear what percentage of total trade the authorities managed to register, or how these figures were derived. Some trade may have escaped the authorities’ efforts at measurements. But the reported totals clearly reflected a significant amount of the food consumed in the city.44 In the mid-1930s, furthermore, the authorities opened a second market near the railroad station, in Fertilizer Settlement, which was more convenient to the large agglomeration of people in the northern end of town—and a further sign of such markets’ indispensability.45

In Magnitogorsk the two sanctioned market spaces came to occupy a position in the local economy far beyond what the authorities had envisioned. Many goods notoriously difficult to find in state shops remained readily available at the markets throughout the 1930s, admittedly for much higher prices than they would have been sold for in state shops, as the newspaper repeatedly emphasized.46 Despite the higher prices, these markets served as the urban dwellers’ lifeline.47 As such, they also served as a constant reminder that the state trade network, if not a failure, was certainly inadequate.48 Moreover, the availability of goods at the markets cut into the authorities’ leverage over people’s lives. From the regime’s point of view, the promotion of the urban markets was something of a devil’s bargain.

As if to compete with the activity at the bazaars, the regime decided to phase out comprehensive rationing in favor of what was called trade (torgovlia) in the existing network of state shops. Famine had ended in 1933, giving the country a much-needed respite in 1934, and during the second half of that year the Soviet government decreed that rationing of bread would be discontinued as of 1 January 1935. After the central edict to begin trade was announced, the Magnitogorsk newspaper began sounding the alarm, warning that there were neither enough local “trading points” being organized nor enough salespeople being recruited. “Are we ready to end rationing?” asked the newspaper. “No,” was the frightened reply.49

The depth of the challenge involved in creating trade was revealed by a satire in the factory newspaper on the administrative mentality accumulated from the several years of rationing. The satire took aim at “the bureaucratic language” in which the city’s population was referred to as “supply quotas” (kontigenty snabzheniia) and its stores as “trading points.” “Not shops [larki], not booths [palatki], not stores [magaziny]” the newspaper emphasized, “but precisely ‘points.’ ‘Quotas’ go to ‘points’ and are supplied with goods.”50

As the satire demonstrated, the changeover from bread rationing was serious business. It was made even more so in September 1935 when a second decree followed, ordering the closing of commercial stores and the end of rationing for meat, fish, sugar, animal fats, and potatoes.51 For these and other goods, Magnitogorsk would have to set up a trade network—only without private traders and with low, regulated prices, for this was “socialist” trade. Precisely how socialist trade would work in practice, however, was still a mystery.

To bring about and oversee the unprecedented noncapitalist form of trade, the first step taken was the creation of a new bureaucracy, Magnittorg.52 Placing a premium on image, Magnittorg ostentatiously opened a handful of “model” food emporiums (gastromy), as well as a department store, in select neighborhoods and stocked them with all the goods the city could get its hands on. “New stores were built, and supplies of all kinds made their appearance in quantity and at reasonable prices,” according to John Scott, who saw the changeover in 1935 as something of a watershed. “Fuel, clothing of all kinds, and other elementary necessities became available.”53 Newspaper reports for 1936, however, were less ebullient than Scott in their characterizations of socialist trade.

Spot investigations of city store inventories were frequently conducted by various Magnitogorsk agencies, and the grim results were always the same.54 Despite the existence of an electrical store in the Kirov district, for example, the newspaper reported in January 1936 that “no cords, switches, plugs, electric tea kettles, pots, or irons have been for sale in more than half a year.”55 A similar inspection that same month revealed that there was no ink, mustard, eggs, or shoe cleaner for sale anywhere in the city.56 And after another raid in May, the newspaper reported that “not a single store has meat,” and that in general the sale of meat in state stores “was quite rare.”57

Scott, too, gave information that contradicts, or at least softens, his upbeat presentation of the changeover from rationing to trade. He noted that “the problem of drygoods, which was eclipsed by the food question until there was enough food, became exceedingly acute after 1936.” And in a memorable passage, he described the city as “full of potential buyers, with steady incomes, their pockets full of money, who spent their free days every week hunting avidly for suits, furniture, sewing machines, materials, china, cutlery, shoes, radio sets, and the thousand and one other things which are furnished by light industry and distributed in the United States by Sears-Roebuck, Macy’s, and Woolworth’s.”58

It was not that the stores had absolutely nothing for sale. According to a newspaper article in 1938, stores and warehouses held more than 1 million rubles’ worth of goods—but no one wanted to buy them. There were, for example, large supplies of dried potatoes, holiday tree ornaments (Christmas trees were “rehabilitated” in 1936 as New Year trees), and an estimated three-year supply of dry kisel, a kind of starchy jelly. Evidently even under socialism there was such a thing as customer demand. Some of these accumulated products reportedly had been languishing on the shelves since 1932.59

By contrast, rumors of the appearance of a desired item were sure to occasion the sudden formation of long queues, which could become unruly. “When scarce items [defitsity] go on sale, such as enamelware,” the newspaper revealed, “there are crushes” (davki) and even instances of “mob violence.” Sometimes the militia would be called in. But in the case of the enamelware, instead of restoring order the militiamen were said to have “gone to the front of the line, made a purchase for themselves, and left.”60

Part of the reason behind the formation of queues derived from the concentration of the city’s stores in the Kirov district. According to a report in the oblast newspaper, industrial goods were, “as a rule, thrown only into the stores located in the center of the city. The population living in the outskirts heads for the center, resulting in the creation of queues.”61 The oblast paper’s point is well taken, but the underlying cause remained availability. Indeed, all over town, queuing became one of the many unanticipated yet prominent features of socialist trade.

For most people it was impossible to learn beforehand when, in the piquant language of the day, scarce goods were “thrown out” (tovary vybra-syvali) to the public, so one had to be ready to queue at any moment. Not everyone had the time to join a suddenly formed queue, however, and some enterprising people managed to turn this situation to their advantage, as the Magnitogorsk newspaper repeatedly protested. Those who did not need to report to a job during the day, such as housewives, nightshift workers, students, and others, were said to be standing in queues many hours each day for scarce items, in most cases hoping to resell these goods for a profit.62

Such resale of goods with the intention of making a profit was known as “speculation” and prohibited by law. A series of central decrees culminated in a 1932 addition to the RSFSR Criminal Code in which speculation was defined as “the purchase and resale by private persons, for profit, of agricultural products and other objects of mass consumption,” and made punishable by deprivation of liberty for not less than five years with confiscation of all or part of the accused’s property.63 Following this intensification of the law, which was reinforced with sharp public comments by Stalin, the Magnitogorsk newspaper redoubled its efforts in condemning speculation. The newspaper claimed that despite the tough laws, speculation was going on in full view of the militia and trade inspectors at the city market—an obvious call to action.64

That many among the huge throng of peddlers of agricultural products at Magnitogorsk’s sanctioned markets were not collective farmers was often cited by the newspaper as damning evidence of wrongdoing. “Speculators” who supposedly bought up the state stores’ supply of onions at 1.5 rubles per kilo, for example, were excoriated by the newspaper for breaking up the kilo into eight or nine bunches and selling them for fifty kopecks apiece, netting a resale profit of around 3 rubles per kilo. Never mind that apparently there was no shortage of willing customers: this was scandalous and illegal behavior. Even more confusingly, the newspaper often reported favorably on the officially encouraged, and extensive, practice of home vegetable cultivation—meaning that possibly the onions sold at sanctioned markets were not store-bought but homegrown, and thus their sale was technically not speculation. But even this activity would have been viewed as scandalous given the contrast with state-set prices. Such stigmatization tended to enlarge the coverage of the ambiguous speculation law.65 In practice, the label “speculator” was applied to anyone who sold goods at a price that happened to offend a responsible official or simply attract an official’s attention.

Further ambiguity arose because resale trade at the “collective farmers” bazaar was not limited to food products but also included household goods and clothing.66 These kinds of items, made in small quantities by the seller, as well as older articles offered secondhand, could be sold within what were ultimately undefined and arbitrarily enforced price limits—provided one could prove the goods were not purchased in state stores or, if they were, that the goods were “used” and that the price being charged was lower than the original purchase price. Here the line between legality and speculation was perhaps most difficult to establish beforehand. What one got away with was, in a sense, what was permissible.67

In the name of combating speculation, the authorities struggled to suppress such transactions.68 People observed waiting in queues to buy up scarce goods that they allegedly resold at the markets were often singled out for condemnation in the newspaper.69 One “woman” detained for selling “suspicious goods” at the markets turned out to be a man who had recently been released from the corrective labor colony and was trying to conceal his identity.70 Insinuating that such individuals constituted a kind of criminal class, the newspaper asserted that it was possible to make one’s living solely off such speculation.71 Perhaps, but more often than not, those selling or reselling goods at the markets were ordinary people otherwise without criminal backgrounds. For the vast majority of people this was just much-appreciated supplementary income, or a way to barter for otherwise unobtainable necessities. The director of a school, for example, when admonished by the factory newspaper for neglecting his duties in favor of unspecified activities at the markets, allegedly told the correspondent, “Ah, but my salary is so low.”72

In the acquisition and resale of scarce items, some people went to great lengths. The newspaper carried a story on Guzeeva, the wife of a worker of the Magnitogorsk railroad depot, who “used her husband’s right to free transport and, together with her friend Kozhevnikova, traveled to the Donbas, to Rostov, and to the gold mines of the Kucharskii region. There she purchased fabrics, shoes, winter and semi-seasonal overcoats, and butter,” all of which, we are told, she “resold at the market in Magnitogorsk, and at home in the barracks.” Guzeeva evidently realized a handsome profit: the overcoats she picked up for 200 rubles during her travels fetched more than 500 rubles in Magnitogorsk. Her traveling came to an end; she was caught and sentenced to five years with confiscation of all property (otherwise we could not have heard her story). Others less brazen, however, might well have read this story with knowing smiles.73

Most everyone who traveled outside the city took advantage of the opportunity to purchase whatever they could and bring it back to Magnitogorsk, sometimes for personal use, sometimes for friends, and often for resale, or at least barter.74 Some were fortunate enough to be sent on state-paid business trips.75 Others foraged in search of usable and resalable items on their own. One case reported in the newspaper involved some workers from the rolling mill shop who drove out to a nearby agricultural district with a supply of industrial goods and exchanged them for flour and grain, which they brought back to Magnitogorsk and sold, turning a nice profit.76

Ironically, the city’s official trading organizations were forced to do the same. In 1936 the newspaper revealed that the nearby Kyshtym pasta factory had informed Magnittorg that it was not able to fill its order for macaroni (for reasons not stated). Magnittorg was chastized for being slow to locate a new supplier of the badly needed product, and the city suffered what were called “interruptions” (pereboi) in the supply of pasta. Meanwhile, agents of ORS and Magnittorg were dispatched to Moscow, Leningrad, and other large cities to conclude new long-term agreements with more reliable suppliers, and to purchase goods for immediate resale in Magnitogorsk.77

Alongside and even within the state supply network, then, other informal distribution networks arose, comprised of private “middlemen” and even state agents performing their regular jobs. Such a state of affairs was even more true of the metallurgical complex, where scarce resources were concentrated. The newspaper accused the coke shop construction agency of bartering scarce construction materials with a nearby state farm for food. The agency’s boss, Fomenko, was said to have wide experience in such matters. Previously as head of blast furnace construction, he had allegedly set up his own de facto “department store.”78

Not all the goods being resold in Magnitogorsk had been purchased; many were stolen. “The single flourishing branch of criminal activity is theft,” revealed the newspaper. “People steal fur coats, suits, and shoes from apartments, crawl their way into stores, break into shops. Every day in the city two to three thefts take place.”79 Much of the stolen property made its way to the markets, where the police were of course on the lookout for it.80 The newspaper alleged once again that escapees from the local corrective labor colony and from other colonies, such as the one in Zlatoust, perpetrated almost all the petty theft.81 But many more people than a handful of escaped convicts were engaged in stealing.

Theft from individuals was but one form of what appears to have been widespread pilfering in the new society. Far more serious from the regime’s standpoint was the theft of what was called “socialist,” or state, property from institutions.82 This species of theft was evidently extensive. According to Moshe Lewin, who lived in the Urals during World War II, the abbreviation ORS, which officially stood for Department of Workers’ Supply, colloquially signified either “dress yourself first” (odevai, ranshe, sebia), or “what’s left over to the working white-collar employees” (ostalnoe rabochim sluzhashchim)—that is, to the ORS staff.83

Money, too, was stolen from the state, sometimes in hefty quantities. The dining halls, which handled large amounts of cash, were particularly susceptible to theft. Charges were brought against one Khvorostinskii, from dining hall no. 6, who was accused of stealing 10,000 rubles and disappearing. A similar case from dining hall no. 21 netted 6,500 rubles.84 Back before the October revolution, it had been thought in Russia and elsewhere that theft might well disappear with the advent of socialism. Tony Gamier, a French socialist known for the first comprehensive design for a modern industrial city (exhibited in 1904, published in 1917), deliberately excluded law courts and a police force. When asked why, he is said to have replied that in the new society, “as capitalism would be suppressed, there would be no swindlers, robbers, or murderers.”85 Gamier was proven wrong—as the authorities in Magnitogorsk’s real-life laboratory could have told him.

Sometimes the theft of state-owned property was not a means but a cover for profitable resale. State-dispensed linen turned in to be washed at the public bath-laundry of the Kirov district, for example, was said to have been sold and then reported stolen by employees—a roundabout way of certifying that state stores must not have stocked much linen.86 And that was the point. People stole or resold needed goods that were otherwise unobtainable. Surveys taken decades later would show that most citizens of the USSR made a distinction between stealing from individuals and stealing from the state, regarding only the former as morally wrong.87 From his time in the Urals Lewin also recalled the proverb, “He who does not steal robs his family.”

The “bazaaring” (razbazarivanie), as it was known, of state linen and similar items was small change compared with some of the transactions involving industrial supplies, whether removed bit by bit over the long haul, or grabbed in one swoop.88 Facilitating industrial larceny, there were at first few enclosed storage facilities and no fences around the sprawling industrial territory, which was guarded by armed soldiers and unarmed Komsomol volunteers.89 Beginning in 1932, passes were required to enter factory areas, but only in 1936 did construction begin on a fence around the steel plant.

Taking advantage of this situation, the chairman of a low-priority collective farm in nearby Bashkiriia periodically visited Magnitogorsk in search of scarce equipment, loading up his truck and driving off in broad daylight with whatever equipment he could “find.” Back at the collective farm he would then concoct the necessary paperwork to make it seem as if the equipment had been legally obtained through state supply channels. “In two years,” the newspaper reported incredulously, “no one from the Magnitogorsk metallurgical complex noticed the missing motors and other equipment.” This culprit was caught and sentenced to ten years. But what of others?90

To deter such activity, the Soviet government had promulgated the infamous “law on the strengthening of societal (socialist) property,” which became known as the law of seven-eighths after the day it was issued (7 August 1932). For the theft of what was interchangeably called societal and socialist property, the law specified “the supreme measure [vysshaia mera] of social defense” (execution by shooting—vysshka, in slang), with confiscation of all personal property. In extenuating circumstances sentences were to be commuted to five to ten years’ deprivation of freedom, with confiscation of all property.91 Enforcement was highly selective. But the severe law could come down on one’s head at any moment.92

Draconian as its provisions were, the seven-eighths law was in a certain sense just a concise statement of the new property relations.93 In the explanatory preamble, it was remarked that “the Central Executive Committee and the Soviet of People’s Commissars consider societal [obshchest-vennaia] property (state, collective farm, and cooperative) to be the foundation of the Soviet system.” Societal property, no less than private property under a capitalist system, was deemed “sacred and inviolable,” requiring the state’s protection. When it came to socialist trade, however, protection of societal property was no mean feat. Even allowing that a good many, perhaps the overwhelming majority, of trade infractions went unnoticed or unreported, the need to investigate constantly and to prosecute those who were caught increased the already formidable administrative burden of feeding and clothing the population.

Socialist trade was a veritable school for insider theft. One of the myriad tricks involved charging customers a bit more for goods than the official price in an effort to increase income surreptitiously or guard against potential losses.94 The newspaper reported one especially profitable variant of generating extra revenues that involved taking advantage of the bottle-return policy. A local correspondent claimed to have been startled to learn that none other than the famed Georgian Borzhomi-brand mineral water was being sold in Magnitogorsk stores. It was then discovered, however, that the bottles labeled “Borzhomi” were filled with tap water, which the store sold at the nifty price legally established for the fine mineral water.95

Sales personnel and store managers could usually pocket the difference between the specified price and the one charged, or take home the “surplus” goods created by the extra revenues.96 Such added margins, which ranged from a few rubles to a few hundred,97 were not always easy to spot despite the system of “hard” prices. Prices for many state goods took into account the distance over which they were transported and thus were not the same as in other cities closer to the goods’ origin. As explained in the factory newspaper, the USSR was divided into radia (poiasy), and Magnitogorsk was in the third radius for bread, meat, sausage, and sugar, but the fourth for fish. A full list of local prices for these items accompanied the explanation, but it was confusing all the same.98

Alongside padded price margins, the Magnitogorsk newspaper spotlighted another connivance that seems to have been particularly common. In one version, a customer paid a store cashier three rubles, then proceeded to the salesclerk to exchange the receipt for three rubles’ worth of goods. Instead, her friend, working as a salesclerk, handed her 100 to 200 rubles’ worth of merchandise.99 In another variant, a woman simply walked up to the goods counter without having paid even a nominal amount, and picked up 105 rubles’ worth of goods from the saleswoman. The two women involved in the exchange were sisters.100

Goods pilfered in this manner from stores were almost always intended for resale, and often involved some kind of “partnership.” A man who worked in a grocery store and took home candy without paying, for example, enlisted an acquaintance of his to operate a makeshift stall in the northern outskirts of town where the candy was resold for personal profit.101 It might be thought that few people could have been so brash as to sell stolen goods so openly, but supply personnel often showed exceptional impudence.102

Sales personnel soon learned that it was safest to skim off goods before they went on sale, by putting them aside. An inventory of goods found “under the counter” at one store, as reported by the newspaper, included

two overcoats (a child’s and woman’s) two pieces of knit fabric, a child’s jumper, a man’s suit, two pairs of children’s underwear, one child’s dress, a man’s shirt, four pairs of rubber shoes, one pair of tarpaulin boots, two pairs of leather shoes, two pairs of men’s shoes, and fifteen pairs of galoshes, including three pairs of the same size.103

The purpose behind these stashes was not in doubt. Letters to the newspaper told of many instances when “there was a lengthy queue, and the salesclerk handed bread to friends out the back door.” The newspaper printed such letters regularly, heightening the perception that such actions were widespread.104

The replacement of the “natural” economy of distribution, or rationing, with a noncapitalist system of trade turned out to be full of surprises, many of them unpleasant. These included exasperating queues, profiteering, and rampant theft. It did not take a person employed in socialist trade very long to decipher the ins and outs of a situation of perpetual scarcity.105 There were some extremely “enterprising” people in the city’s trade network, although their initiative and talent in working the extremely pliable system for personal gain involved a great deal of deception. In such circumstances, how could the state watch over its inventories?


Beginning in 1930, the so-called people’s court (narodnyi sud) became the basic element in the Soviet judiciary, handling both criminal and civil cases. At least one people’s court was established in every raion of an oblast.106 Above the people’s court stood the oblast court, responsible for appeals from the people’s court and cases deemed serious. The oblast court also oversaw the operation of the people’s courts. Above the oblast courts stood the republic-level Supreme Court and then the all-union Supreme Court. (Special courts existed for the railways and waterways, while the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, or NKVD, charged with investigating and prosecuting state crimes, had its own special judicial board.) The judges of the people’s court, who were elected, had complete authority to pass judgment as they saw fit, although technically they were assisted by two so-called people’s assessors (temporary, rotating personnel without legal backgrounds on loan from enterprises). In addition to verdicts, judges were responsible for the popular image of the court and the legal edification of the public.107

According to the prevailing notions of socialist justice, the entire socialist court system was supposed to serve an educational function, especially trials—and none more so than the so-called demonstration trial.108 A demonstration trial differed from a regular trial only in that it was organized to allow as many people as possible to attend and therefore took place in a large public hall, such as the city circus, rather than the smaller confines of the court building. A number of demonstration trials were held after the work day had ended. One evening proceeding in 1938 in which the defendant, Cherniovanenko, was an employee of the dining hall trust was heard in that organization’s club. It was said to have attracted 400 spectators in a hall with seating for 150.109

As this example shows, the circus was not the only site for such proceedings. During the first five months of 1933, for example, seven demonstration trials were held in the various industrial clubs and the city cinema, Magnit. In a report prepared by City Procurator B. Krepyshev for City Party Secretary Spirov, attendance at these hearings was said to vary from 1,000, for a case involving six people accused of embezzling 18,000 rubles’ worth of goods from the milk trust, to 2,500 for a case involving nineteen supply employees accused of having caused a shortfall of 82,000 rubles. True to the demonstrative nature of the trials, death sentences were handed out for at least one of the accused in each case.110 The “moral” of each production, moreover, was almost always reinforced through media publicity.

Coverage in the city newspaper of the problems surrounding supply reflected a legitimate anxiety on the part of the authorities as well as an apparent curiosity of the newspaper correspondents and editors. And no wonder. One cashier for the hairdressers’ artel, accused of stealing more than 3,000 rubles from the hair salon’s revenues, was said to have remarked at her demonstration trial: “I needed the money to be able to live the beautiful life [zhit krasivo].”111

Whether it was acceptable under socialism to live the beautiful life constituted a serious question for contemporaries and was certainly part of the fascination with such trials that came through in the newspaper’s reporting. Yet although newspaper reports of theft in socialist trade sometimes betrayed a degree of wistful fascination, they were published for didactic purposes. A story of a group of bookkeepers in the open-hearth shop, for example, related that by padding the payroll, the group managed during the course of a year to swindle the state out of 200,000 rubles. Few details were offered about who they were or how they did it. But such insinuations, which were extended to other shops, conveniently served to explain such highly unpopular problems as delays in the payment of wages.112 Behind “the circus,” in other words, stood the newspaper. The spectators were not only those on the wooden benches but the entire literate public.

Within a month of Industry Commissar Ordzhonikidze’s 1933 visit to Magnitogorsk, a widely publicized trial presided over by the Magnitogorsk raion people’s court took place. Among the defendants were Bondarev, the chief of ORS, his deputy Ershov, and Ershov’s deputy, Sikharulidze, said to be notorious for his drinking bouts and debauchery. In all, some twenty supply officials were in the block, including the heads of most of the supply organization’s warehouses. The charge was embezzlement. For a period of fifty days, from 1 July through 20 August, Magnitogorsk workers were said to have experienced a shortfall of 700 tons of bread, or about 15,000 kilograms per day. Unspecified “missing” quantities of sugar, meat, and vegetables were also discovered. The city newspaper let it be known that admission to the circus for the trial of these “speculators” and “thieves” was free.113

The Magnitogorsk procuracy and control commission (GorKK) were accused of having protected these thieves, so the criminal investigation was taken over by a brigade from the Central Control Commission, which brought along a correspondent for Pravda who provided a national spotlight. ORS was said to have suffered a financial loss (ubytok) of 903,000 rubles, of which 400,000 was said to represent missing inventory (the latter number was subsequently raised to 550,000). “Not a single trading unit,” the correspondent wrote, “has been without an incident of embezzlement, either in the past or present.” Of the eighty-seven embezzlers identified up to that point, thirty were said to be party members. In some cases Communists had organized the theft of entire deliveries. “People stole with the certainty that they would not be punished,” Pravda reported. “They did not even consider it necessary to cover their tracks.” Store no. 18 was said to carry the special designation of being the place that dispensed goods to “favored clientele” (po blatu). Documents were also found detailing the home delivery of a suckling pig to the wife of ORS’s deputy chief.114

Bondarev was relieved of his post and expelled from the party, and much of the high-level staff of ORS was decimated.115 By contrast, Narpit, the city’s dining hall trust, although also technically responsible for feeding the population, did not suffer nearly as badly. It was reported that Pastukhov, the chief of Narpit, had pointed out the irregularities and struggled to fight them before the investigation began. Despite his high position in the city supply network, he was not charged. But N. Kirishkova, party secretary of Narpit, was given a “severe party reprimand” for her supposed “Nepman tendency.” Narpit had achieved an annual “profit” of 1.8 million rubles, against a “plan” anticipating only 463,000 rubles.116

The great ORS trial under the big top lasted more than a month, and at the end Bondarev was sentenced to death. It was further reported that in connection with the supply deficiencies, Myshkin, director of the Magnitogorsk Works, Spirov, secretary of the city party committee, Krepyshev, city procurator, and A. Savelev, chairman of the city party control commission—in a word, the entire local leadership—were also given party reprimands. They were all presently relieved of their duties. None of them had come up in the first newspaper reports of either the investigation or the trial.117

Bondarev’s expulsion and conviction, along with the reprimands and removal of high officials, coincided with Beso Lominadze’s assumption of control over the city party committee and Avraamii Zaveniagin’s over the factory. Marking a transition in the local leadership, the trial served as an opportunity to affix blame for the city’s lamentable living conditions on the outgoing leaders.118 Soviet power was implicitly absolved from its investment policies neglecting consumer goods, and the inherent shortcomings in the socialist municipal economy were passed over. As Pravda wrote in a simple formula, “thieves, swindlers, embezzlers, and plunders of socialist property had established a comfortable nest in Magnitogorsk’s ORS.”119

But the investigation had uncovered the curious circumstance whereby ORS, despite being responsible for supplying the whole city, had no money. ORS management was reduced to selling some goods at “speculative prices” to assemble working capital. And whatever agency or enterprise could put up the money to pay for a shipment acquired the right to distribute those goods exclusively to its workers.120 Instead of considering such a situation as mitigating for the ORS management, however, the opposite conclusion was reached. Less than one year after the 1933 ORS trial, little had apparently changed—and the same scapegoat was found: the ORS leadership was once again given reprimands and replaced, along with the director of the local bread factory, and then put under criminal investigation.121 Each year, in fact, the story was the same.122 Supply a problem? Arrest some supply officials and organize a resounding demonstration trial, which would invariably be heralded as a “big lesson” for the chiefs of city trade.123

Repeatedly, the newspaper suggested that the city’s trading apparatus was “polluted” by degenerate elements, former Nepmen and other “parasites,” and that these devious individuals were responsible for the constant shortages and other problems. Anonymous denunciations of “embezzling” store managers, signed simply “salesperson,” were continually published in the newspaper for all to read.124 Periodic “purges” of sales personnel lent concrete substance to the accusations.125 “Let the enemies of the people who stand behind Soviet sales counters know that the proletarian court will be merciless!” the newspaper foamed, demanding the eradication of the “rotten liberal” attitude supposedly prevalent in trade supervisory circles.126

Supply issues already occupied a sizable amount of space in the newspaper when in 1936—the year of the great campaigns (including Stakhanovism in industry)—accounts of trade-related improprieties increased markedly. In the first eight months of 1936, thirty cases of insider theft (raskhishchenie) in the city’s trade organizations were said to have been uncovered, with a total loss of inventory valued at 100,000 rubles. Examples were made of several people. The impression was given that not just publicity but police activity had intensified.127

Whatever the relationship between police activity and newspaper reports of police activity, the statistics on insider theft require clarification. When the newspaper wrote of embezzlement it meant all losses, not just those attributable to theft. In the case of one store manager who was tried for four months’ worth of missing goods valued at 16,800 rubles, the accused insisted that he stole nothing but admitted that he did not know where the goods and money had gone. During the trial it was revealed that neither inventory nor accounting were practiced in the store, and that spoilage was high, including almost 2,000 rubles’ worth of meat. The manager, however, was convicted not of mismanagement but of peculation (rastrata).128

Anything less than 100 percent accounting of all items—regardless of the circumstances—could be considered embezzlement, meaning that there was a huge number of potential criminals available for “mobilization.”129 There were some feeble attempts to instill in trade personnel a sense of service, such as the campaign to single out exemplary workers (otlichniki) who were commended for getting to know the needs of their customers. But customers needed goods that were very scarce, and in this matter sales personnel had little to offer aside from favoritism. As for the image of store managers, they were accused of everything under the sun, including trying to cover up their misdeeds by attributing missing inventory to the theft of the employees who worked under them.130 Not surprisingly, trade personnel appear to have been highly unpopular.131

The year 1936 began what turned out to be three banner years for public trials involving supply officials. In an April 1937 trial that lasted fifteen days, Pestrov, the chief of the fence building trust, was said to have built three fences (for the factory, hospital, and corrective labor colony) at a cost more than twice the budget. The newspaper further reported that the fence building trust was missing 40,000 rubles’ worth of materials, and that Pestrov had delivered construction materials to a nearby Machine Tractor Station for which he received an automobile that he later sold to another state agency (for 15,000 rubles), keeping the money for himself. He was also accused of having sold construction materials to people building individual homes, recorded the materials on the books of fence construction, and then pocketed the payments.132

Although he refused to admit his guilt, Pestrov was “sentenced to the highest form of punishment, shooting, with confiscation of all property.” His several codefendants received lesser, if still severe, sentences, and the newspaper reported that others implicated in the case would be tried in the near future.133 No public trial of any of these lesser officials was ever reported, however. Instead, seven months later, a trial of the chief of the powerful KBU, Lukashevich, was publicly held after a long press campaign vilified him.

Lukashevich was accused of diverting construction materials to the building of his own house, setting up his own garden at the expense of the factory, and awarding bonuses to himself—all practices that anyone in a management position was likely to have engaged in. John Scott, who appears to have faithfully rendered the state’s version of the case, wrote that “not satisfied with his two-room apartment,” Lukashevich “built himself a house. . . . When he moved in, he was able to furnish the five large rooms with silk hangings, a grand piano, and other luxuries. Then he began riding around in a motor car, when it was well known that his organization had none.” Scott added that Lukashevich paid bribes to subordinates to keep them quiet.134

Presided over by the Cheliabinsk oblast court, the trial, at which more than forty witnesses testified and many internal memoranda were introduced as evidence, lasted six days. For those who could not attend, the most important moments were broadcast over the radio. Lukashevich, said to have admitted his guilt only on the last day, was sentenced to eight years’ loss of freedom.135 Whether he really admitted his guilt (perhaps in exchange for a waiver of the death penalty or to protect his family), Lukashevich became a scapegoat offered up for the disaster of individual home construction and workers’ housing in general. What effect his sentencing could have had on the problems of the city’s economy was hard to say. But one thing was clear: “the circus” played a large role in defining the city’s socialist economy and popular attitudes.

Reports of demonstration trials at the circus and elsewhere rarely mentioned the reaction of the audience, but such events would not have been complete without the participation of the masses. In fact, the “activism” of the masses in matters of trade and supply began even before trials, with the promotion of “suggestions” (predlozheniia) for improving trade.136 These formed part of what was called “mass control,” the socialist answer to the “control” exercised in capitalist society largely by the market mechanism.

After the demonstration trial perhaps the most widespread method of mass control was the consumer conference, at which irate consumers angrily criticized officials of the city’s trade network and demanded that stores adhere to the so-called assortment minimum. The law on the assortment minimum, introduced in 1936, required all stores to maintain in stock at all times the full range of specified products that the store traded in. Heralded as a lever to force trade officials and employees to perform their jobs better, the law was to be enforced by inspections. Managers were not going to be able to withhold goods for themselves, relatives, and friends any longer. Public meetings on the law were given maximum coverage in the newspaper, putting considerable pressure on store managers and trade officials, who tried to fight off the scrutiny and mass pressure.

In response to a stormy meeting in the Fourteenth Sector in March 1936—which attracted almost two hundred angry consumers who complained that stores were violating the assortment minimum—one hundred trade representatives and store managers hurriedly held a countermeeting a few days later.137 But in a similar lynch-mob atmosphere, trade officials were forced to admit that of the city’s thirty-one trading entities, only five had fulfilled their plans, and that none of the larger, more important stores was among the five successes. Stefanovich, the director of Magnittorg, nonetheless tried to defend trade officials.

He explained that after a store manager heard of an impending investigation to check the store’s assortment, he or she would scramble to have special goods brought in so the store could pass the test. When consumers spotted these scarce goods they naturally sought to purchase them. But if the manager allowed the goods to be sold, the items would sell out well before the inspector arrived to verify the store’s compliance with the assortment minimum. Unfortunately for Stefanovich, this kind of straight talk was easily dismissed as the sophistry of the class enemy.138 The effect of the assortment minimum law became not the encouragement of managers to stock scarce goods in order that they be sold but the stocking of goods temporarily to satisfy the inspectors. This logical response on the part of managers to the difficult situation they were placed in by the law only increased consumer dissatisfaction.

Perhaps the assortment minimum law, which was accompanied by all the misinformation and hatred that local propagandists could muster, was a cynical ploy designed to deflect blame for supply problems from Bolshevik policies onto expendable trade officials. More likely, it was sincere. Cynical or not, however, deflecting blame and sacrificing managers was precisely what the law achieved, in the process becoming, through the newspaper, an extension of the mass control that periodically had recourse to the circus. The pressure could be stepped up, as it was in 1937, but the underlying approach grew out of the logic and consequences of suppressing capitalism and creating a socialist municipal economy.

The state monopoly that helped perpetuate the scarcity of almost everything meant that consumers could not use their pocketbooks to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a particular store. How, then, could “socialism” address, or appear to be addressing, customers’ grievances? The consumer conference was one way; the complaint book, another.

Each store had a notebook in which customers could express themselves. The store’s management was compelled to respond in writing to any complaints or suggestions raised by customers and to indicate what concrete measures would be taken. This practice was reminiscent of the procedures at the circus trials: accuse and punish targeted individuals. The newspaper published the following excerpts from the complaint book of a store manager named Zhukov:


I consider it an outrage when the customer wants to buy a box of matches [which cost one kopeck] and the cashier refuses to give change from a ruble, even though she has plenty of change.


I won’t answer the complaint since the complainer does not give an address.


It is essential to have sausage for sale since it is required by the law on the assortment minimum.


If sausage is available from the warehouse, we have it; if there is none there, we have none.


I consider it totally inappropriate that I came to buy butter and they gave it to me with no wrapping or paper.


I consider the complaint just, but the store has no paper.139

Zhukov wrote an answer beside every complaint registered; similar inquiries into other complaint books showed that complaints almost always went unanswered.140 But instead of applauding Zhukov for responding to complaints and for doing so reasonably and without malice, the newspaper upbraided him for his dismissive attitude toward customers.

The complaint book both testified to and worsened the bitter relations between customers and store managers and sales help, a situation that the newspaper was eager to perpetuate. Indeed, dissatisfied customers were not limited to the complaint books in stores but could also write to the citywide “complaint book,” that is, the local newspaper. Letters from dissatisfied shoppers were frequently published in which the letter writers complained that they could not buy what they wanted, that they had been rudely treated by sales personnel, that such and such a store was in violation of the law on the assortment minimum, and so on. Many of the letters, such as one from a certain Kostyrev, ended with the universal suggestion for solving all problems: “the problem will be solved only when the prosecutor intervenes.”141

In this vein, the newspaper promoted the notion that “the shelves of our stores are frequently empty while the warehouses are full.” One of the articles that conveyed this idea also revealed the contradictory information that at the current moment there was no pasta, tea, vegetables, or salt in any city warehouse.142 In subsequent reports, the newspaper was evidently more careful not to undermine the image of well-stocked warehouses, remaining silent about warehouse inventories. But the numerous stories about the general inability of the city’s trade organizations to secure goods by contract with suppliers served as indirect reminders that the store shelves were empty because the warehouses were empty.

Of course, sometimes when shelves were empty there really were goods languishing in the warehouse. For example, fifty-two tons of fish arrived in the city during the summer of 1936, but the fish were already starting to grow moldy when they arrived. A doctor who inspected the moldy fish ordered that they be offered for sale immediately, before they all went bad. The trade organizations, however, decided not to sell the partially rotten fish but instead to seek redress with the supplier. The supplier held firm, claiming that any spoilage was the fault of the addressee. Meanwhile, the fish, 120,000 rubles’ worth, were lying on the ground in the warehouse.143

With the example of the fish, the newspaper raised the theme of empty shelves in the face of overflowing warehouses to a “higher level,” in the popular phrase, by accusing the trade organizations—specifically, the food department of Magnittorg (headed by Shukin) and the ORS (headed by Smirkin)—of sabotage. Furthermore, in addition to “fresh” fish, the warehouses were said to be bursting with sour cream, preserves, and tomato paste, yet “the trading organizations don’t want to trade because, in the opinion of their leaders, it is disadvantageous to deal in such products. They don’t move well.”144 By this logic, of course, it could not have been advantageous to the trade organizations to trade in rotten fish, which people would not buy but for which officials in the organizations would be held fully accountable.

There were numerous items languishing untouched in the city’s stores which the trade organizations had been compelled to purchase from suppliers and which were a financial burden on the organizations; sour cream, preserves, and tomato paste, however, were not likely to be among them. What is more, the newspaper was not above reporting that the warehouse contained large quantities of certain items without explaining that this was a consequence of having just received a shipment. All of this could be seen as secondary to the importance of showing “vigilance” when “threatened” by “saboteurs.”

The more the newspaper sought to electrify the atmosphere, however, the more information it provided—until it worked itself into such a frenzy that it began to undermine its own mandate to promote an image of the superiority of socialism. “Filth, queues, rude sales help, the absence of window or other displays, scandalous breeches of the assortment minimum,” wrote the newspaper, “all these outrages can be found in almost every store in Magnitogorsk.”145 According to the official record, it was a dismal story. But when examining the system of socialist trade in Magnitogorsk, it is important to keep in mind that even well-financed and high-priority enterprises suffered from a lack of adequate transport, while the lowly trade network possessed just a few dozen horses and a handful of vehicles to distribute goods throughout the entire city.146 High turnover among trade personnel also took its toll.147

Underlying these causes were the many unanticipated complexities involved in trade and supply that threw the local authorities for a loss. “About the fact that trade is not handled well in Magnitogorsk we have written more than once,” lectured the newspaper. “But even after the signals from the newspaper, no observable changes in the work of the stores has followed.”148 All the while, Magnitogorsk courts were choking with cases involving trade employees.149

Prosecutions for speculation, by contrast, do not seem to have been particularly frequent.150 Around mid-1936, however, a fierce campaign against that vice was also launched (for which the historian must be grateful), showing the familiar patterns, and limitations, of mass control. To kick off the campaign, a special meeting of trade officials and representatives of the militia and procurator’s office was held. One official pointed out that the nature of speculation in the city had changed. “Before, people would buy products in other cities and bring them to Magnitogorsk for resale,” he was quoted as having remarked. “Now people are buying goods right in Magnitogorsk itself and reselling them at the market.”151 To combat such activities, four recommendations were put forward: requiring sellers at the markets to submit to the management a prior list of items (sbor) to be sold and a valid passport with an authorized place of residence; having Magnittorg improve its secondhand retail shop and open up its own buying outlet; forming a permanent staff of market inspectors; and organizing more demonstration trials.

Of the proposed measures, the trials received the most coverage, and the number of arrests for speculation reportedly underwent a dramatic increase.152 In trials before large audiences, furthermore, almost no one was acquitted. Few sentences were for less than five years, and ten-year sentences, plus another three or five years disfranchisement, were not uncommon for “ringleaders.”153 Despite such stiff sentences and the continued surveillance at the market, however, repeated attempts to curtail speculation met with little success.

Individuals who recognized opportunities to make something extra were able to respond creatively to police interventions, and to turn what looked like initial defeat into new winning strategies. Given the poor selection of clothes available in state stores, for example, fabric with which people could make their own clothes (or pay someone to do so) became exceedingly valuable. Not long after going on sale in state stores, fabric would frequently appear at the markets, where it was resold for very high prices. The city authorities decided to intervene and began regular, surprise raids at the markets in search of store-bought fabric. Much fabric was confiscated. Arrests were made. But the newspaper had to admit that once it became dangerous to trade in fabric, people instead used the fabric to make clothing at home, which could be sold more easily.154

The battle to eradicate speculation revealed a clash of worldviews. Characteristically, the announcement in the Magnitogorsk newspaper of the opening of a “collective farmers” market back in 1932 (during rationing) did not refer to the activities expected to take place there as “trade” (torgovlia). Engaging in tortuous verbal gyrations to announce the advent of trade without using the word, the newspaper devoted the better part of the announcement to a discussion of “speculation,” the need to combat speculative practices, the supposed “Nepman” atmosphere in supply institutions, and the social importance of inspections and raids.155 Four years later, the newspaper was still continuously reviling the “bazaar” as a source of hooliganism, fighting, unsanitary muck, and speculation.156

By contrast, a satire that appeared in the factory newspaper offered a glimpse into the everyday language of slang expressions for the entrenched practices that the authorities condemned as speculation. “There are people about whom others speak with a touch of envy: ‘Yeah, he knows how to live,’” wrote the author of the satire, calling such a person Lovkach (“the dodger”), who, it was imagined, did not mind showing off his special knack. When asked, for example, where he procured (dostal) his fancy new suit, Lovkach responds, “Me? I got it by using pull [po blatu]. If you want, I can let you have it [mogu tebe ustupit].’” Of course, Lovkach names a sum “three times what he paid,” with the understanding that he could easily and inexpensively obtain another suit for himself, despite their status as extremely scarce items (ostrodefitsity). The author went on to name several real-life Lovkaches, the rare goods they somehow managed to obtain for resale, and the profit they realized, even ridiculing those who settled for less than the “market” price. “No one views this kind of thing as speculation!” fumed the satirist. “No, it is as if it were just the normal order of things.”157

Commensurate with, and an obvious complement to, the city newspaper’s thunderous yet impotent anti-speculation campaign, an attempt was made to glamorize the socialist trade network. Advertisements appeared on the back page of the daily newspaper showing highly desirable items for sale in what looked like well-outfitted stores. To render these messages concrete, photographs of happy workers and their wives, dressed in new clothes and loaded down with bundles, were also published. “A worker of the mechanical workshop of the rolling shop, Andreiashin, and his wife, Marusa,” read the caption beneath one photograph, “purchased 1,300 rubles’ worth of goods in the new department store: an overcoat, a suit, three pairs of shoes, some women’s blouses, a few pairs of men’s underwear, bed linen, two pairs of gloves, etc.”158 The ability of the “proletariat” to acquire high-fashion goods had become an event to be celebrated.

As with the anti-speculation campaign, however, the message of such representations was not altogether straightforward. The newspaper did not reveal the prices for any of the items, their general availability, or the income of the Andreiashin family and its relation to the norm. The photograph conveyed an image of status and the link between status and patterns of consumption, yet such enhanced status did not derive from, but in fact permitted, conspicuous consumption. Everyone in the city knew that purchases of the most coveted items in the department store were possible only with official authorization. Moreover, as the newspaper reported, many hard-to-obtain goods were sold directly in factory shops.159 Pushed to its logical conclusion, the photograph of a “proletarian” acquiring scarce goods underscored the exclusion of the majority from what might be called the “dream worlds” of socialism.160

Even if their import was perhaps contradictory, however, such photographs testified that “standard of living” notions constituted an important category used by the Soviet regime to demonstrate the supposed material advantages of life under socialism. Socialism was being built, according to the official ideology, precisely to attain the higher level of abundance that capitalism with all its contradictions was said to be incapable of reaching.161 In making such comparisons the regime was flirting with danger, but the regime shielded itself with censorship. A Soviet worker’s lot could be compared only with the gloomy image of the masses living under capitalism, and with that of his or her undeniably downtrodden prerevolutionary counterpart.162 “Each month I can buy what I need,” one Magnitogorsk worker was quoted as saying in response to questions about his family budget. “We are pleased with the wise decisions of the party and government.”163

But the people of Magnitogorsk observed with their own eyes the jarring discrepancies between the low “fixed” prices at the often pitifully stocked state stores and the high “real” prices at the plentifully supplied open market. Because of a general acceptance of the superiority of socialism to capitalism (see chapter 5), most urban inhabitants no doubt failed to comprehend the eloquent commentary on the city’s state-run economy spoken by this state of affairs. But no amount of dialectics could completely wipe away what they knew to be true from their own daily experience: everything was scarce. Throughout the decade, to take only the example of food, except for a brief period every autumn fruit and vegetables were not plentiful.164 Meat and milk were also periodically difficult to obtain.165 And even bread became a problematic acquisition after the bad harvest of 1936.166

In recognition of these deficiencies and to prevent hoarding, limits were imposed on the amount of certain items that could be purchased at any one time in state stores, a form of rationing without the coupons. According to the factory newspaper, in 1935 the following limits were in force: meat and sausage, two kilos; fish, three kilos; sugar, two kilos; butter, 500 grams. Shoppers could theoretically make a purchase and get back in line, hoping to get a different salesperson. And if they encountered resistance, they could simply repeat their purchase by waiting in the queue at another store. But the limits on quantity lengthened the time goods were on sale, and thus perhaps widened the circle of those able to buy them directly from the state stores.167

Because of the chronic scarcity, such purchase limitations and rationing seem to have been widely appreciated, according to people who lived through the 1930s and were interviewed many years later. As they explained it, rationing implied not equal access to goods but access for all nonetheless. And any differentiation was based on ostensibly meritocratic criteria (labor skills and performance). True, some stores carried goods that could not be purchased no matter how much money the client had. But here too the criteria of “reward” were ostensibly labor performance and patriotic dedication to the cause, while everyone was to be taken care of at a basic level. Underlying rationing and purchase limitations, in other words, was a popular expectation of social justice, an expectation that the regime encouraged and in its own way tried to meet, in the state stores with low fixed prices as well as in the campaigns against embezzlement and speculation.168

In the society forming in Magnitogorsk, “food conditions were the subject of constant discussion,” according to John Scott, whose depiction of “a day in Magnitogorsk” is itself devoted in large part to questions of food and supplies. While generally freewheeling, these heartfelt discussions, Scott attested, were usually resolved in a flurry of reassurances about the country’s achievements and its even brighter future. This was understandable enough given the restrictions on travel abroad and the conjunction of the Great Depression with the great socialist construction, of which Magnitogorsk was the quintessential example.169 More remarkable than the acceptance of sacrifice in these refrains was the assumption that the government had a duty to provide for the people—an assumption that was revealed in the fervor that its violation engendered.

In Magnitogorsk, a belief in social justice, and of the government’s duty to ensure it, appear to have been pervasive. It was after all a socialist, not a capitalist, city. Ultimately, that promise of social justice, and not just a desire for momentary diversion, was what brought the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk to the circus for demonstration trials and made them receptive to the calls to exercise mass control. Conniving as many people proved to be, most appear to have made subtle distinctions regarding the morality of various illegal actions. Struggling to get away with whatever they could, they still evidently believed that no one should have an “unfair” advantage.


Often lamenting the size of the harvests provided by the region’s collectivized agriculture, the Magnitogorsk newspaper also justifiably cursed the inept organization of processed food distribution within the city. When it came to bread, for example, the paper pointed out that “the system of payment for distributors is such that the distributor suffers a loss if he supplies stores with small quantities of bread.” As a result, distributors “either refuse to supply a given store or require the store manager to take in gigantic quantities, two to three times more than the store could sell.” Here was yet another unforeseen complication of socialist trade, with far-ranging consequences. The paper noted that it was nearly impossible for stores or shoppers to predict when deliveries might be made.170

Behind the difficulties encountered in mounting a reliable distribution network lay the decision to organize food processing in a so-called food complex (pishchevoi kombinat). Rather than opening, say, several small bakeries or butcheries placed throughout the city where people lived—to say nothing of allowing individuals to open up their own establishments171—the food complex was modelled after the Metallurgical Works. Its “shops,” just like those of the steel complex, were the size of whole factories and referred to as such: the flour mill, the bread factory, the beverage factory, the sausage factory, the milk factory, the factory for canned foods, and the refrigerator factory that made bulk ice and ice cream.172 Despite the anticipated economies of scale, distribution was problematic and the goal of the food complex, self-sufficiency for the city, was apparently not reached.

A chance statistic published in the newspaper indicated that the sausage factory produced a total of 1,211 tons of sausage in 1935, and 1,635 tons in the first ten months of 1937.173 The purpose of presenting the data was, of course, to demonstrate that production had increased. But using a lower-end population figure for 1937 of 170,000, and assuming zero spoilage, the 1937 data still translated into about only two pounds of sausage per person per month—a calculation that the newspaper itself stopped short of making, for obvious reasons. Figures for the intervening year, 1936, were skipped, but in articles published early that year the newspaper indicated that spoilage may have been significant. One report claimed that there was no place at the factory to hang sausages, and thus that they were laid on the floor.174 Another asserted that not only was the factory itself filthy, sausages were delivered in the same trucks used to transport coal and kerosene and packed in crates previously used for tobacco and shoes.175

It is unclear whether the city was able to import sausage. But Magnitogorsk’s one large meat factory, intended to take care of all the city’s sausage needs, was not able to do so—a conclusion that seems to have applied to other “shops” in the food complex, including the all-important bread factory176 and the milk factory, which produced only 10 to 13 tons of milk products per day in 1938, against a daily demand estimated at 44.5 tons.177 As for the local production of nonfood necessities, such as clothing, substantial unmet demand also prevailed, according to newspaper reports on the local shoe and sewing factories.178 The bulk of clothing worn by Magnitogorsk residents either had to be “imported” from other cities or made by hand.

Magnitogorsk did have a number of city-regulated cooperatives, which were nominally worker-owned businesses, intended as the socialist answer to the small privately owned shops and service enterprises of capitalist cities. As of 1 January 1932, the city counted only one such artisanal cooperative, called Gigant, which contained around fifty artisans, but a year later, the number of cooperatives had risen to six employing a total of 851 artisans. The increase was no doubt due to the fact that individual artisans were pressured to join or cease plying their crafts.179 Even if formed coercively, these cooperatives might have become a powerful force, compensating for the inadequacies of the city’s state-owned light industry. But the newspaper reported that the cooperatives “eke out a miserable existence,” their constant ruin being an inability to procure raw materials.

One cooperative, Energiia, had a furniture-making workshop but was not supplied with any wood. Instead, as the newspaper pointed out, the cooperative had to “find” its own wood—no mean feat. The predictable result, in the newspaper’s words, was the paradox of a city with “220,000 people and no place to buy a stick of furniture.” The city’s one specialized furniture store, located in the Kirov district, was said to be almost always empty. “Once in a blue moon, something will miraculously appear in the stores. It will be total junk,” the newspaper wrote, “but even this will sell out quickly.”180 In a related story, the paper quipped that “it is as easy to find good furniture in Magnitogorsk, as it is, say, to find hot tea or coffee in a Magnitogorsk café.”181

To foster the development of a state-sector consumer woodworking industry in the provinces, a 1936 Soviet law prohibited the transportation of new furniture over a distance of more than 150 kilometers.182 This apparently had little effect, for a new law introduced on 22 September 1938 extended the transport limit to 600 kilometers. In response, no consumer woodworking factory arose in Magnitogorsk. Meanwhile, within 600 kilometers of the city there were only two small furniture factories whose production was earmarked for residences. So some people began making their own furniture, a few even using nickel, which for a time was a bit less scarce than wood.183

The metallurgical complex operated a large woodworking factory, or DOK (derevo-obrabatyvaiushchii kombinat), yet according to the newspaper, the DOK, which operated only one shift, produced exclusively for the steel plant. While adamantly insisting that the DOK also ought to be producing furniture for the city, the newspaper had to admit that there were “no nails to be had.”184 But the problem was really one of priorities—when one of the steel plant’s shops needed nails, they could be found. In the Soviet economy, the overwhelming emphasis placed on heavy industry—in part dictated by military considerations, in part by Bolshevik preconceptions concerning modernity—the questionable heavy-industrial organization of consumer production, and the ban on legal private initiative combined to create a situation in which Magnitogorsk suffered perpetual shortages of basic goods amid full employment.

In an unpublished analysis of the municipal economy prepared by the city soviet’s planning commission in 1939, light industry was said to have “a subordinate and narrow local significance, and in comparison with the size of the Metallurgical complex,” to be “literally insignificant.”185 That year, the newspaper launched a vigorous campaign to promote the development of light industry. One article noted that despite the existence in the city of a large economic base with ample raw materials—the list included metal products, coal debris, sand, gypsum, limestone, granite, and wood discards—light industrial production (in value terms) amounted to only 9.7 million rubles (of which 1 million was accounted for by artels). But as it turned out, only 240,000 rubles of the overall sum represented, strictly speaking, consumer goods—in a city employing more than fifty thousand people.

Widening the scope of the debate, the article raised the parallel issue of the general lack of services in the city. Given the impossibility of finding replacement articles, it singled out as particularly inexcusable the city’s lack of establishments for the repair of briefcases, shopping sacks, umbrellas, suitcases, suits, and coats. And dry cleaning was so untrustworthy, the author stated, “only a fool would bring in an irreplaceable article of clothing to be cleaned.” In conclusion, the author insisted that it was time to get serious about local industry, but, typically, not a single practical measure was proposed.186 Seven months later, another exasperated city official fumed that “in the stores and at the market, locally produced products for sale can be counted on two hands.”187

In organizing the production of consumer goods, local representatives of the state found themselves with a burden as great as that of organizing socialist trade. Indeed, the problems in consumer production obviously underlay the deficiencies of trade. Yet the urban inhabitants needed to eat every day and to dress warmly, not to say fashionably. Regrettably for the regime’s professed ideals but fortunately for all concerned, as in agriculture, so too in clothing, household goods, and services: the people, acting as private individuals, took matters into their own hands, come what may.

A vivid illustration of this was supplied by a tailor employed at the Magnitogorsk sewing factory who was promoted from stitching work to taking state orders. In taking orders for the factory, he began taking some for himself, and at home he and his wife made clothes to fill these extra orders, no doubt with materials removed from his workplace. The tailor also used his influence to place his own orders at the sewing factory for suits, which he then sold on the market to raise capital: Some of the suits he traded to the director of a nearby Machine Tractor Station for bicycles, which the tailor resold at the Magnitogorsk market. During a search of his place of residence, the militia discovered more than one hundred children’s outfits, many of which he and his wife had made.188 Such inventories were part of the shadow economy, a theme to which we must now return.

Raw materials, supplies, and tools were the basic capital of the shadow economy, and that capital could only come from one source—state-owned enterprises. People made use of anything and everything available at their state jobs, sometimes working after hours at the shop, sometimes turning their homes into small-scale manufacturing sites and creating informal “businesses.”189 Many “deals,” however, were one-time affairs, either the fulfillment of word-of-mouth “contracts” or spontaneous efforts to take advantage of chance opportunities, in both cases predicated on the hope that mutual interest would prevent disclosure.

One-time deals were often connected with drivers who operated vehicles for state firms. Efimov, a driver employed by the auto park, was supposed to deliver bricks—an extraordinarily scarce item—to the site of a nursery being built in the Kirov district. Instead, he took a short detour to the nearby Eleventh Sector, the site of individual home construction, where he discovered how easy it was to sell “surplus” bricks to the eager home builders.190 Efimov was caught—otherwise we could never have become privy to his activities—but how many more Efimovs went about their business unsuspected, or in collusion with the authorities? Such actions as his were demand-created.

In another shadow-economy transport story entitled “Private Excursion,” the newspaper reported that two drivers from the auto park administration decided to use one of the state’s buses to take a trip with their wives up to the town of Verkhne-Uralsk. Since gasoline allocations were strictly controlled, the two men found it necessary to use drinking alcohol for fuel. At the end of the day, heading back after the trip, the men decided to recoup their “expenses” by offering people rides into Magnitogorsk, at 10 rubles per person. There was no shortage of willing customers: the drivers stopped to pick up people until the bus was full. The newspaper, which somehow caught wind of the “private excursion,” appealed to the public to come forward with information about the incident, since the newspaper’s source had failed to note the names of the drivers.191

No further report about the incident appeared, nor was the question of the effect of the substitute fuel on the operation of the bus addressed. But the newspaper did report that rather than enter Magnitogorsk with such a conspicuous cargo, the operators of the “private” service thought it prudent to unload everyone at the train station, which was quite far from the rest of the city. This meant that the paying passengers had to walk a considerable distance even to get to the tram line. Perhaps one of the passengers, annoyed at being deposited so far from town, informed the authorities of the illegal activity. Or maybe someone at the train station, eager to ingratiate him or herself with the authorities, witnessed the passengers alighting from the vehicle and blew the whistle. The story of the “Private Excursion” highlighted the risks inherent in the shadow economy.192

Judging by the spotty accounts published several times each week in the city newspaper, Magnitogorsk’s shadow economy appears to have been extensive. How extensive is difficult to say. Its size belongs to that set of questions that would remain unanswered even if all the surviving documents became accessible. Although it is possible that the police, in conjunction with local economic planners, attempted to determine the rough proportion of nonplan economic activity in the city’s economy, there is no reason to suppose that their estimates could be credited. Secrecy was often one of the conditions for the operation of the shadow economy, which existed only insofar as it escaped the view of the police, even if this sometimes meant the police averted their eyes.193 Keep in mind that the shadow economy was not limited to individuals engaged in short-lived “businesses.” Managers and officials under pressure to meet plan targets were constantly wheeling and dealing.194

If it would be wrong to try to fix the size of the shadow economy, it would be just as wrong to assume that there were two entirely separate economies. The shadow economy was not an independent entity but a corollary to the official economy; it was the shadow economy that permitted the official economy to function, and vice versa. The two economies were mutually dependent and shaded off one into the other; separated, each would have ceased to exist. Put simply, there was really one economy with a dual aspect: some activities were legal, others were not; some illegal activities were condoned, but not all. And the determination more often than not was arbitrary.

Much, though far from all, of the activity that might be placed under the rubric of the shadow economy was centered on the officially sanctioned but stigmatized city markets. When it came to the markets, much was deemed at stake in the most trivial of actions. The resale of store-bought onions or the sale of home-manufactured shoes—activities which helped keep the city afloat economically—had political consequences regardless of whether behind them there was political intent. Such activities, which we might equate with initiative and entrepreneurship, were denounced as corrupt and dangerous, a violation of the principles on which the socialist economy were founded.

John Scott wrote of the two facing hills in the area between the factory and the socialist city proper. “The plain grey NKVD building dominated one of the two little hills, and the bazaar the other. The latter was teeming with buyers and sellers.”195 The former, Scott might have added, was teeming with investigators and informants. It was fitting that the main urban market and the police should both stand above the city and face each other. There could have been no better metaphor for the new system of economic relations that arose in the city of Magnitogorsk than the juxtaposition of these two hills: market relations had to be tolerated; market relations had to be policed.

Market trade took place under the watchful eye of the police, and it was here that the police recruited much of the unlucky “cast” for the public trials. But the rules governing market transactions were blurred. What was considered honest trade could at one moment suddenly become speculation, or the other way around. Often even the authorities themselves did not know what constituted speculation and what permissible exchange. Activities legal and illegal, encouraged and discouraged, open and clandestine could be found side by side at the city’s market, as people traded in all manner of goods at whatever prices the “market” would bear—and the capricious authorities would tolerate.

Whenever the authorities attempted to crack down on the markets as the loci of the shadow economy, market activities were naturally and easily “decentered.” One of the primary effects of the anti-speculation drives at the markets was to further disperse marketing activities throughout the city. From the beginning, however, the “marketing” of home-manufactured products was never really completely confined to the marketplaces themselves. Often people sold goods “right out of their apartments,” or even traveled “door to door.”196 An amorphous “market space” enveloped the entire city, a whole society of petty traders, barterers, household cultivators, domestic manufacturers, queue sitters, and deal-makers—in the land of socialism!

These were people of disparate activities, to be sure, but they were all tarred with a single brush.197 In the end, there was little to distinguish between siphoning off scarce construction materials to build one’s own home at state expense and concluding a private deal with a state farm to obtain foodstuffs to ensure uninterrupted operation of a public dining hall under one’s supervision. Both sorts of activities could lead to prosecution, and both were frequently tolerated. Nothing became illegal until the regime so decided, and decisions had less to do with the nature of the specific activities than with shifting political alignments, or individual whim. The only constant in the economy was inconstancy: the police could lower the boom at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all. There was perpetual tension, but there was also ambition and hustle, much brazen theft, and enterprise too.


In the second century A.D. the great satirist Juvenal mocked what he saw as the downfall of the once proud “sovereign people” of Rome who, he wrote, had been so confident as to take up and pass judgment on issues of the greatest political moment but now “longed for two things only—bread and circuses.” Bread—panis—meant the system of supplying corn below the market price to the residents of Rome, a program first introduced by Gaius Gracchus in 123 B.C. Later, the corn was supplied free. Circuses—circenses—meant the chariot races that, along with other games, were enormously popular spectacles to which the people thronged.

By an irony of history, Juvenal’s encapsulation of the Roman empire in decline would ring true for an empire on the rise eighteen centuries later. The citizens of Magnitogorsk—the microcosm of the Soviet Union—were also sovereign in principle, and they seemed to be attracted by the state’s program for providing low-cost bread, as well as the new forms of entertainment. Indeed, bread (meaning state supply) and circuses (meaning the entire panoply of political propaganda and organized amusement) could be taken as a metaphor for the official policy used by the Soviet regime to erect Magnitogorsk—along with a healthy dose of nationalism and the insurance provided by the “security” police.198

In the Bolshevik version of bread and circuses, sometimes bread was scarce while coercion was widespread. But the Bolshevik leadership could point to the grand designs of the Soviet state: to lift a thoroughly backward society by its bootstraps high enough until it could support the industrial and military needs of a modern power in an uncertain and technically advanced world, and to do this with the utmost haste. What is more, the Bolshevik leadership chose to undertake this daunting task while simultaneously endeavoring to create nothing less than a new form of existence: socialism.

With the building of socialism, the Bolsheviks imparted to the “bread and circuses” expedient a novel twist. On the one hand, the “bread” aspect was taken to an extreme: not simply bread, but almost everything was supposed to be supplied by the state. On the other hand, the circus was not limited to its “displacement” entertainment value but called on to perform the political function of housing demonstration trials for “economic crimes.” Because it was precisely the attempt to distribute supplies that encouraged the proliferation of economic crimes, Soviet bread and circuses were integrally linked.

The building of socialism began with the suppression of capitalism, but in suppressing capitalism and attempting to establish a state-owned and state-run economy, the regime took on tasks it did not have the capacity to resolve. In Magnitogorsk the authorities discovered that organizing a municipal economy along noncapitalist lines was no easy matter. It turned out to be far easier to manipulate the myriad riddles of socialist trade for political purposes than to solve them. Meanwhile, nonplan economic activity flourished, especially in and around the metallurgical works, where resources, labor power, and know-how were concentrated. And because of the system of fixed low prices for goods that were in chronically short supply, as well as the absence of effective mechanisms for controlling state-owned inventories, the purchase and theft of scarce goods for resale—“speculation”—became widespread.

In Magnitogorsk two markets were opened by the authorities for the exchange of goods between city inhabitants and collective farmers, a purpose that was not being particularly well served.199 At the same time, the markets began to be used for other purposes: quickly unloading stolen goods, reselling goods purchased in state stores, hawking merchandise manufactured at home, retailing raw materials and machine parts removed surreptitiously from factory shops and storehouses, and offering a range of indispensable but otherwise unavailable city services. The markets encouraged and focused a number of activities outside the official economy, and thus outside the control of the authorities.

Even if such activity was thought to be for fulfilling the plan rather than for private gain, it still could invite the attention of the investigative authorities. What for individuals was primarily a question of survival or personal gain, for the authorities was often a manifestation of political opposition, of “economic counterrevolution.” Because of the expressly noncapitalist nature of the Soviet economy, the markets became spaces of “resistance,” and marketing a tactic of “resistance,” to the state system of trade and supply.

What bothered the authorities most about the markets as the set of relations they entailed, relations that were not only outside their control but resembled the very system against which the revolution had been directed. The markets represented in concrete form the supreme evil in the Bolshevik imagination: capitalist economic relations. This concern was not merely an abstract hatred for capitalism but also a realistic assessment of the relation between economic power and political power, between the freedom to make decisions and to engage in associations within a political system that arrogated to itself the sole authority to make all decisions and expressly forbid individuals the right to enter nonsanctioned associations. The markets, particularly as “bazaar,” implied forms of sociability, interaction, and perhaps political conversation inimical to Communist ideals and the grand crusade of the revolution.

The vast extent of conniving does not mean that the official socialist supply system and its low prices were unappreciated. In fact, the establishment of a nonmarket economy in the USSR brought to the fore manifestations of a popular concern for social justice, just as in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe the spread of a market economy produced a flood of talk about speculators and hoarders derived from an outraged sense of “moral economy” centered not on the rights of individuals but on the community.200 If in the case of market societies this language was ultimately rendered invisible by the market, in Magnitogorsk the language of social justice was conspicuously stage-managed and appropriated by the state, although perhaps not as fully as it might seem.

To be sure, the various guises of mass participatory action were orchestrated, yet even the most heavy-handed orchestrations retain degrees of unpredictability. It is possible to imagine—if not to prove, given the source limitations—that the tensions revealed in the accounts of the circus dimension of Magnitogorsk’s nonmarket economy reflect not just obsessiveness and general apprehension but justified anxiety, on the part of state functionaries, over the spontaneity inherent in demonstration trials, consumer conferences, suggestion solicitations, and complaint books.

In the end, the interlocking set of circumstances formed by the imperative to police extralegal economic relations and the fact that policing could in no way keep pace with the spontaneous generation of illegalities inherent in the official economy proved inimical to correction. And yet, the efforts at reform, far from being abandoned, were redoubled—at what must have been a considerable cost in manpower and energy. Given the enormity of the task and the strains on their resources, perhaps the regular police engaged in a kind of selective enforcement against economic crimes. But the authorities could never abandon the struggle without also relinquishing their fundamental ideals.

Finally, it is important to remember that the perverse assemblage of unintended consequences that flowed from the implementation of the Bolshevik understanding of economics was kept in motion by the actions of individuals, actions bespeaking ingenuity and undertaken sometimes despite considerable risk. The state’s monopoly on the legal production of consumer products meant that Magnitogorsk was a city virtually without a “first floor,” or commercial infrastructure, but into this gap rushed an army of private individuals. In that sense, the municipal economy in Magnitogorsk more than any other “organization” showed the potential of the masses for “activism.” It was the participation of the masses in the socialist system, on negotiated terms, that helped account for that system’s basic stability. Between bread and the circus took root one side—the hidden or “unofficial” side—of the extensive society formed under Stalin.

7 Dizzy with Success

Metal is important, but politics is more important.

Mark Riazanov, a fictional

construction site chief modeled

on Avraamii Zaveniagin1

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 gathering of Magnitogorsk bosses and invited guests in December 1936 opened with the collective singing of the proletariat anthem, the “Internationale.” When the names of the country’s top leaders were put forth as honorary members of the meeting’s presidium, all present rose and combined in a thunderous ovation. One speaker after another hailed the new constitution and the advent of a new epoch. The plenum concluded with a tribute dashed off to Stalin in which the participants exclaimed, “we cannot express in words the full force of our love for you,” and pledged their readiness to “meet the enemy.”4 The officials who made this vow of absolute loyalty did not know it then, but as it turned out, they were the enemy.

In the months that followed this celebratory plenum, “the enemy” came to include not only the city soviet but the local party leadership, the factory administration, the medical and educational establishments, local literary figures, the procuracy, and eventually even the mighty agency charged with ferreting out enemies, the NKVD. As the great showcase of socialism entered the new epoch, it was rocked—along with the rest of the country—by mass arrests for wrecking, spying, and diversion. Almost all the people who had devotedly led the arduous construction at Magnitogorsk were ignominiously chased from the historical stage, accused of vilely betraying the cause.

At one level, for those living in the USSR during the 1930s the ubiquity of enemies was to be expected. Building socialism was an adversarial process from which several immutable consequences seemed to flow. Soviet industrialization, carried out under the banner of social justice, was not simple “development” but class war, and with the destruction of the old property relations through the expropriation of private capital, the elimination of the Nepmen, and the deportation of the kulaks or peasant “bourgeoisie,” legions of internal enemies were created. Secondly, because capital and the bourgeoisie were international, socialist construction in the USSR also created battalions of external enemies.

Regardless of what they might say or do at any given time, bourgeois powers were thought to be incapable of accepting socialism, the advent of which was assumed to signal their eventual demise. Had the capitalist powers not intervened in Russia during the Civil War? With the “socialist offensive along the whole front” having been launched, was it not conceivable that the capitalists might recruit agents among the remnants of the USSR’s “dying classes” to engage in sabotage and diversion, or even to overthrow socialism and restore capitalism, as various trials in the late 1920s and early 1930s seemed to indicate? Stalin often emphasized, and events repeatedly seemed to confirm, that the “class struggle” became sharper the closer the USSR moved to socialism.

At another level, however, the outbreak of seditious plots and criminal conspiracies was confounding, for with the adoption of the new constitution, socialism was declared built in its foundations, yet the “class struggle,” seemingly won, only intensified. Moreover, all of a sudden a colossal number of enemies and wreckers were identified throughput the highest reaches of industry, the state, and the military. Faithful servants of the people metamorphosed into enemies of the people overnight—and after a succession of spectacular achievements. It was just such a stunning turn of events that Stalin addressed in his frightening report to a Central Committee plenum on 3 March 1937.

Precisely the USSR’s unprecedented triumphs, Stalin argued, had paradoxically brought about its increased insecurity. Members of the counterrevolutionary “underground,” dangerous apostates from the revolutionary movement, were said to have sensed their impending doom and had begun resorting to “the most desperate means.” This was supposedly happening at a time when Soviet officials had become complacent owing to the country’s economic progress and had forgotten what Stalin called “the basic fact” determining the international position of the USSR, the “real and very unpleasant phenomenon” of capitalist encirclement. The only proper response to such a state of siege, Stalin insisted, was to check each and every official until all internal wreckers were unmasked (razoblachen). So that his message would be clear, Stalin recapitulated the possible objections to his analysis of the increased danger that had resulted from the USSR’s success, citing such objections as prime evidence of the very lightheartedness (bespechnost) that gravely imperiled the encircled country.5

Press reports before and after Stalin’s speech reinforced his grim assessment, contrasting the ever more daring feats performed by Soviet aviators and the Herculean Stakhanovites with the imperialist war waged and won by the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini in Abyssinia, the threat to Europe posed by a rearmed Germany under Hitler (attested by the Nazis’ support for General Franco’s Falangist forces in the Spanish Civil War), and Japanese aggression and expansion in the Far East. The depression and militarism of the surrounding capitalist world, with whom Trotsky and his diabolic followers were said to be in league, appeared to necessitate internal unity and constant vigilance inside the USSR. With the revolution itself said to be at stake, it was better to be safe than sorry.6 As the clouds of war hovered, the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk practiced marching in gas masks while all around them spies and wreckers were unmasked.

Magnetic Mountain

Few historical problems have been studied more than Soviet politics and administration of the 1930s. To briefly assess this extensive literature, a good point of departure is Merle Fainsod’s case study of Smolensk, based on what for a long time remained unique access to party archives.7 Fainsod chose as his line of inquiry “the organization of authority in the region, the way in which controls operated, and their impact on the people who lived under their sway.” Implicit in such a formulation was the presupposition that structures of authority were “controls,” rather than a form of legitimate political representation. Fainsod called the Communist party’s assumption of such “control” over all areas of life “the process of totalitarianization.”8

Fainsod appeared to undermine his own interpretive framework, however, when he admitted that “the impression derived from the archive is one of almost chaotic disorganization, with the party itself more a helpless victim than master of the whirlwinds which it had helped unleash.” So chaotic was the party’s rule in the locality that the wonder became “not merely that the party was victorious, but that it managed to survive at all.”9 Still stressing the totalitarian aspirations of the regime and its local representatives,10 Fainsod presented a picture that, when reduced to its essentials, amounted to a combination of the regime’s monopoly on power and its inefficiency.11

Despite this sensible, if incomplete, explanation for the regime’s durability, and many insights into its craving for control amid manifest bureaucratic clumsiness, Fainsod’s characterization of the Soviet political system remained remarkably vague. He noted, for example, what he called “the deliberate overlap in Soviet methods of rule,” but offered no explanation for the origin, continued existence, or significance of duplicate state and party structures. As for his treatment of the “great terror,” which he viewed as a continuous process reaching climax in 1937–38, narrative substituted for analysis.12 In the end, Fainsod seemed not to have made up his mind whether he had discovered an awesome administrative machine, or a congenitally inept one. These are the issues that have engaged a vast scholarly literature still grappling with the question, “What kind of political system was this?”

Of the many students of the Soviet political system, few have made as significant a contribution as T. H. Rigby, best known for his characterization of the USSR as a “mono-organizational society.” In an influential article, Rigby argued that since “nearly all social activities were run by hierarchies of appointed officials under the direction of a single chain of command,” Soviet society was actually “a single, vast and immensely complex organization” united by the rule of the Communist party.13 Ironically, the value of such a formulation has been called into question most strongly by Rigby’s own work, which has traced the establishment of two separate and parallel ruling bodies, the Communist party and the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars). Rigby shows that the latter came to be dominated by the former, but that both still operated.14

Other scholars have noted the party’s “domination” over the network of state organs, or soviets, and how nonetheless the soviets also continued to function and maintain their own apparat.15 As for industry, it was managed both by a self-standing economic bureaucracy—the various “commissariats” whose chiefs sat in the Council of People’s Commissars—and parallel departments of the party’s Central Committee apparat (after January 1934). Far from being mono-organizational, in other words, the Soviet political system—to say nothing of the “society”—comprised a set of overlapping, parallel governing structures, a fact, to be sure, that Rigby (and Fainsod) pointed out. But obsessed with the party’s assertion of “control” over other institutions, these and other commentators have failed to take seriously the persistence of dualism, using the term “party-state” to call attention not to the redundancy of power structures but to party supremacy. The duplication of state and party structures remains a question crying out for historical conceptualization.16

Stranger still, what most scholars regard as the defining episode for understanding the Soviet political system, the great terror, seems scarcely better explained today than when it happened.17 Robert Conquest’s study remains the prevailing interpretation. For him the terror, although “rooted in” the nature of the party created by Lenin, was a gratuitous, methodical assault on the country’s elites by a dictator. However appropriate the assignment of primary responsibility to Stalin, in Conquest’s narrative there is a notable absence of dispute or infighting among leading actors during the vast upheaval. The terror appears to have been carried out as if its scale and the identity of almost all its targets were known in advance. Everyone, executioners and executed, seems to have dutifully assembled for the mass liquidation as if it were a holiday parade.

Conquest reduces the terror to a problem of explaining the motivations of Stalin (a power-hungry and paranoid personality) as well as those of the Old Bolsheviks who “confessed” to imagined crimes at the three great “show trials” (coercion, combined with a tragic belief in the infallibility of the party). His other main task, to catalogue the extent of the suffering, gives his book its enormous length. But notwithstanding such bulk, Conquest’s study pays virtually no attention to the language of the accusations and indictments, the international context, the regime’s problems of administration, or institutional dynamics. In a word, Conquest’s is a terror largely without process.18 This manifestly problematic work long provoked remarkably little criticism, but there have finally appeared two related challenges.

Where Conquest sees calculation and obedient implementation, J. Arch Getty, relying on the Smolensk archive, sees the confusion, inefficiency, and “chaos” Fainsod noted in his study of the same materials. Getty goes much farther than Fainsod in his emphasis on chaos, however, until it seems almost to become the force driving events. Similarly, in recovering the “discord” within the top leadership (even among Stalin’s entourage), Getty omits direct discussion of Stalin’s personal despotism.19 His main goal is to diminish the scope and significance of the terror, which he depicts as neither a continuous nor a premeditated process but, rather, a series of “conflicts” arising out of a “natural” center-periphery “struggle” that somehow got out of hand. He reaches this startling and baffling conclusion on the basis of party, not police, documents received by an agricultural backwater rather than those of the inner workings of the regime in Moscow (which remained inaccessible). Still, in the end Getty’s challenge of Conquest succeeds in shifting some of the attention from Stalin to the process, even if his revisionist interpretation of that process is shot through with unsupported assertions and lapses in logic.20

Gabor Rittersporn, whose forceful critique of the standard historiography’s irreconcilable gaps surpasses Getty’s, proposes an equally idiosyncratic alternative. Rittersporn argues that the party-state, having assumed responsibility for managing everything, found itself incapable of doing so; when it tried to correct itself, the terror—a civil war within the apparatus fought against a background of “dangerous social tensions”—was the “inevitable” result.21 At one point Rittersporn seems to concede that Stalin unleashed the campaigns that began the terror, but he substantially reduces the tyrant’s role, insisting that “police violence, rather than proceeding from the realization of a single will and design of an omnipotent center of power by its invincible armed forces, was in fact increasingly chaotic and out of control.” In other words, if the terror can be shown to have been chaotic (which it surely was) and rife with contradictions (ad infinitum), then there was no central design, just an “uncontrollable process.”22 Rittersporn never explains how an uncontrollable process could have been halted as it was in 1938, or why chaos and powerful elements of design cannot coexist, as appears to have been the case.23 Ferreting out the least signs of diversity of opinion in the party press, he treats the “apparatus” as an abstract monolith, failing to specify the institutional links of power, especially to the NKVD. In short, although he offers many insights, Rittersporn, like Getty, has an easier time knocking down the standard account than constructing a replacement.24

With regard to the terror, we are left, it would seem, with an orthodoxy that cannot stand and alternatives that cannot take its place. The impetus came either from Stalin or from the “system”; the terror was either a gratuitous planned operation or an unplanned yet inevitable descent into chaos; there was either total central control or the virtual absence of control. It is tempting to take the path of least resistance and argue for a “middle ground.” But in doing so we overlook another compelling problem. We need to know not just why the terror occurred but how it could happen.

Instead of seeking the origins of the terror, a problem that must await detailed study of the NKVD and party secretariat archives, we can ask what made the terror possible, what forms it took, and what its effects were. Answers to these questions require a consideration of the adversarial character of Soviet industrialization (as briefly outlined above), a sense of how the international context appeared in the minds of contemporaries, and an analysis of the institutional dynamics of the party and NKVD, with due attention to political language. It is just such an approach that will be tried here, as we seek to relate the process of the terror in Magnitogorsk to an understanding of the dualistic nature of the Soviet party-state.

What became the epic struggle against counterrevolution and sabotage waged at the hour of socialism’s “victory” was the culmination of efforts to “reactivate” the Communist party. The mobilization of the party for the sake of mobilizing the country convulsed both party and country and threatened to overwhelm the success of the grand crusade itself. If during the building of socialism the leaders in Magnitogorsk went through a crash course in urban administration, the structures of authority they helped deploy made their experiences that much more dizzying. Life in and around the party was easily the most complex dimension of the little tactics of the habitat.

The terror, which touched a large number of people, involved far more than the use of massive force by the state against the population. Thousands of the country’s most loyal cadres were arrested for, and in many cases confessed to, the most improbable crimes in what seemed a grotesque episode almost defying rational understanding. But the terror had a certain rationality, and no matter how apparently bizarre or disgusting, at some level it “made sense” if one accepted the premises and categories of the Communist party’s self-understanding and crusade. Showing how the terror made sense, and thus why so many people could and did participate in a process that often led to their own undoing, is the chief goal of this chapter.


With the establishment of the settlement at Magnetic Mountain, the area to the immediate east of the proposed main factory entrance was designated the First Sector. Here makeshift wooden buildings for offices sprung up, as well as a path-like street that led from the First Sector to the rising “temple of industrialism.” Just before reaching the still unbuilt factory gates, the path opened onto a large, formless space across which caravans of horses, wooden carts, camels, and Fords lugged construction materials from the temporary railroad terminus to the various locations of the future shops. This initially amorphous territory between the nascent steel plant and the First Sector became both the symbolic and functional hub of local authority, which centered on the industrial enterprise (see map 5).

On one flank of the future factory gates appeared the first brick structure in Magnitogorsk, the five-story factory administration building. On the other flank, appeared the Central Hotel, which housed offices that could not be accommodated within the factory administration building, as well as all personnel on temporary assignment—a sort of second factory administration building.25 Together these two buildings formed the nerve center of the site, housing the telephone and telegraph network, and thus the communications link with Moscow. A visiting journalist, impressed by the contrast between the emptiness and chaos of the site and the physical presence of the administration building, wrote in 1930 that the factory administration “looks like an army headquarters located in the frontline area,” which indeed it was, controlling virtually all local resources.26

Among the residents of the Central Hotel was a sprawling contingent of journalists and writers assigned to Magnitogorsk to make it an international symbol of the first Five-Year Plan. At first the correspondents lived in the hallways, awaiting completion of the hotel, but very soon they all got rooms, except the representative of the satirical magazine Krokodil, who, it was said, lived in the toilet.27 Locally the press furnished a “Bolshevik” presence, casting the spell of what was called Soviet power (Sovetskaia vlast) over a wide-open territory that stretched out in all directions from the emerging central square. The square itself, meanwhile, served as the site for all large outdoor celebrations. In 1936 a large statue of Stalin was placed in front of the factory gates and equipped with a small platform from which the local leadership observed all mass gatherings, waving to the banner-carrying builders of a new world who marched by arranged according to factory shop.

Across from the factory administration and hotel on the central square—in addition to a branch outlet of the state bank, a model school, and the exclusive club for engineers and technical personnel (DITR)—were eventually located the offices of the city soviet and the Communist party city committee, or gorkom. The eight-story gorkom building was the tallest local structure, dwarfing the squat city soviet that stood parallel to it, on the other side of a dirt path. Even though it was the institution from which the country derived its name, no one could have mistaken the soviet for the party, whose physical presence bespoke a greater concentration of energies and higher political stakes. But neither would anyone have mistaken the party for the factory headquarters. The central square bore the name Factory Administration Square (ploshchad zavodupravleniia).

Magnetic Mountain

Map 5. Magnitogorsk, geography of authority, 1937.

The layout and architecture of Magnitogorsk’s administrative agencies expressed a complicated system of authority: a weighty factory administration, a lofty party committee, and a lowly soviet, situated around a central square that was presided over by Stalin and enveloped in a whirl of talk and ritual. Two different institutions, city soviet and factory administration, represented the state, each with essentially the same unlimited mandate. Moreover, both state agencies contained party committees, which came under the jurisdiction not of those agencies but of the gorkom, whose mandate was equally comprehensive. Given such overlap, it should come as no surprise that all three organizations existed in uneasy relationship with each other, a circumstance that did not cause the terror but was central to the process.

There was, in addition, a fourth political agency in the city whose existence complicated matters even more, and without which there could have been no terror. This was the GPU, which in 1934 became the NKVD, or People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. Technically just one part of the state bureaucracy, the NKVD, like all other commissariats, was nominally subordinated to Sovnarkom. In reality, the NKVD was a state within the state—a commanding position that also found expression in the political geography of Magnitogorsk.

Although the gorkom building was allowed to be the city’s most conspicuous, it was physically overshadowed by the nearby NKVD building. Only two-stories tall, the NKVD building, finished in 1934, was strategically perched above the rest of the city on a hill (just off the main square, in the direction of Socialist City). The newspaper pointed out, furthermore, that the NKVD had “perhaps the single building in Magnitogorsk completed without ‘unfinished parts’ [nedodelki] [and] in an extraordinarily brief time.”28 The NKVD also had its own lock-up in the basement (a compliment to the main city prison across the industrial lake)29 as well as one of the best equipped multipurpose clubs in town. It was in this club that important party meetings usually took place, since the gorkom building was completed only in 1937 (seven years after the factory administration building).

Even after the party headquarters was completed, however, the gorkom remained under the watchful eye of the security police. This was a striking reversal of the party’s basic relationship with all other institutions (as discussed below) but in keeping with the mandate of the NKVD, or self-described “sword of the revolution.” The NKVD performed the same inquisitorial tasks for the whole society that the party did on itself, creating more than a little ambiguity since the party, too, was part of society. In fact, the terror could be said to have truly begun when the NKVD assumed complete control over the process of political vetting within the party—but this is jumping ahead. First it is necessary to disentangle the nature and operation of the USSR’s system of authority.

By law the city soviet was Magnitogorsk’s highest governing body, the embodiment of “Soviet power.” Comprising a policy-making chamber of popularly “elected” deputies and a policy-enacting executive committee elected by the chamber, city soviets in the early 1930s added planning commissions and a number of “sections” staffed by volunteers.30 The Magnitogorsk newspaper emphasized the soviet’s wide mandate, pointing out that “there is no area of life they miss.”31 Yet the examples of the soviet’s work put forward most often by the newspaper—combating drunkenness, addressing family problems, checking up on the operation of stores and the city’s market—suggested a more limited role as a repository of citizens’ complaints32 and a grassroots social welfare agency,33 as well as a bureau for collecting trade and other statistics. At full strength the city soviet met intermittently (only when summoned by the executive committee or by at least half the deputies); in between sessions it was run by a presidium consisting at various times of anywhere from six to fifteen people, including the chairman of the soviet but mostly officials whose authority derived from positions they held in other agencies.34

Day-to-day administration of Magnitogorsk’s urban affairs was carried out by the factory, through its KBU, or department of everyday life, which in effect usurped the functions of the city soviet’s executive committee. The factory, not the city soviet, built the city’s schools, nurseries and daycare centers, and the bulk of its housing stock. The factory also built and owned the urban transport system, the city’s baths and laundries, the water supply, and the electric power station. The urban food supply and the distribution of dry goods, although technically controlled by separate trade agencies, were largely dependent on the factory’s actions. Even the air breathed by the urban inhabitants, although not legally owned by the plant, bore the unmistakable influence of the factory.35

In terms of staff size, the KBU surpassed all the other departments of the factory administration taken together. For some time the Magnitogorsk newspaper carried urgent calls for “relieving” the already overburdened factory administration of responsibility for the management of the city. The city soviet, it was argued, should exercise its duties. But the proposed transfer of urban property and administration from one agency of the state to another never occurred, not even after a direct order from Moscow in 1939.36 Even if a transfer of Magnitogorsk’s infrastructure to nominal city soviet ownership and/or management had been carried out, however, it would have had little practical effect.

Making steel entailed more than securing raw materials or acquiring particular technologies; it required assembling a large pool of people and providing for their needs, which meant finding and training not just steel workers, engineers, and managers, but also doctors, store clerks, and school teachers. Making steel necessitated creating a city—a task that, because of the prohibitions against private property and hired labor, was assumed by the state. And the part of the “state” that had power over the country’s resources and thus the wherewithal to carry off such a task were the industrial commissariats, especially NKTP. City soviets did not even have the authority to regulate the factories that operated within their territory. The literal meaning of “Soviet power,” in other words, did not amount to much in the face of near absolute corporatist (vedomstvennyi) rule.

If in order to make steel, members of the factory administration understood that they had to provide for and manage the lives of a large urban population, they also knew that making steel was a political as well as an economic task: each steel rail produced was thought to “strengthen socialism.” In practical managerial terms, this meant simply producing greater and greater quantities. But politically speaking, there turned out to be far more to making steel than just making steel, as every Soviet industrial manager came to understand. There was, in fact, an entire organization devoted exclusively to the purpose of expounding and acting upon the complex relationship between politics and industrial production. That organization was, of course, the Communist party.

Contemporaries thought of the Communist party as the key to the Soviet Union’s political system and the backbone of the country. But the party, far from guaranteeing stability, turned out to be a source of near continuous turmoil. In fact, the more complex the political situation inside and outside the country seemed to become, the greater was the turmoil in and around the party. This unforeseen instability connected with the party grew out of the nature of its special role, which in turn was a consequence of its revolutionary origins.

In tsarist Russia the Bolshevik party had justified its existence on the grounds that workers, if left to their own devices, were capable of developing only trade-union consciousness. To make a socialist revolution, the argument went, there had to be a vanguard of revolutionary consciousness, which the Bolshevik party claimed to be. But once the revolution occurred and power was transferred to the workers (and peasants), what would be the party’s role? Soviet Russia had a government, Sovnarkom, and state organs, the soviets, so why did it need a parallel structure of party organizations? The answer to this question was far from obvious. In the early years of the revolution there were suggestions to abolish the party.37

Far from being abolished, however, the Bolshevik party, which in 1918 renamed itself the All-Russian Communist Party (of Bolsheviks), achieved a “monopoly” on power through the repression of other parties. This notorious turn of events occurred during the complicated Civil War, and remains a matter of historiographical dispute.38 Whatever the important historical processes involved in the Bolsheviks’ startling achievement of a monopoly, such an outcome was consistent with the party’s origins and self-perception as the advanced guard of the working class.39 In fact, no less profound a development during the Civil War than the achievement of a monopoly was the party’s discovery of a rationale and model for its post-revolutionary existence in that status as the vanguard of revolutionary consciousness.

In 1918, when the new regime found itself forced to enlist the skills of former tsarist officers whose allegiance was considered suspect, the party leadership, on Trotsky’s initiative, introduced political commissars to work alongside the military specialists and ensure their loyalty. On an analogous principle, in the judiciary, schools, industry, trade unions, soviets, and government the equivalent of political commissars—party “fractions,” made up of party members who worked in these bodies—were formed. By “shadowing” the gamut of institutions, the party sought to verify (kontrolirovat) that their operation conformed to what was defined as the “interests of the working class,” determined by the party leadership. Thus was born a structural division between expertise and “proper” ideology, with the latter becoming the duty of the party and the justification for its prominent postrevolutionary role.

It was not long before the party leadership tried to systematize the practice of loyalty verification by compiling lists of what were considered key administrative posts—the so-called nomenklatura, or nomenclature—to be filled by Communists. Beginning with the Twelfth Party Congress in April 1923, the nomenklatura system of appointing personnel to designated “key posts” was extended to state-controlled industry and reproduced on the local level.40 Using the nomenklatura mechanism, the party functioned as an ever-expanding personnel machine, placing Communists from its appointment lists in positions of responsibility throughout industry and government, or requiring those already in such positions to join the party. Improving the educational level and competence of its own members, as well as validating their loyalty (predannost), became, logically enough, the primary preoccupations of the party.

Although individual party members could possess managerial and scientific skills, the party’s raison d’être remained ideological, not professional or technical. Accordingly, the party’s systematic permeation, or shadowing, of institutions with party cells to safeguard political loyalty and “correct” decision making did not signify that the party would replace, say, factory administrations or soviets. Rather, the party would imbue such bodies with partiinost, or party spirit, by which was meant a historical and political understanding derived from ideology. Party “verification,” in other words, institutionalized a permanent dualism in the Soviet political system, which appropriately came to be called a party-state.

To decide any single set of issues, almost all officials had to meet twice: the first time they usually assembled in the guise of party members, the second as executives of a state institution. Because the party was not an administrative organ, this practice of duplication remained the case long after the notion of providing ideological guidance lost its luster. Binding decisions had to be issued and implemented, at least formally, in the name of the government or the state (soviets).41 In short, both parts of the party-state were functional, but their functions were different: whereas the state’s role was defined in terms of competent technical and economic administration, the party’s was defined in terms of ideological and political guidance. Such a bifurcated political system, with the party analogous to a church, resembled a kind of theocracy.

In relation to events and its own internal dynamic, the party’s organizational structure evolved, and its membership composition changed. But what remained constant was its ideological raison d’être, derived from its origins and institutionalized in every organization, giving the country a duplicate set of administrative structures, party and state. The consequences of having a theocratic system, which gradually acquired a corresponding religious aura, were profound, beginning with the sacralization of all affairs, great and small, and ending with the party’s self-immolation.


The terror began in the party, whose unique attributes presented a many-sided challenge to contemporaries. The party was neither a governmental body nor a political party in the traditional sense, and its legal status long remained ambiguous. With the new constitution of 1936, the party was finally designated a “public organization” (obshchestvennaia organizatsiia) formed as an expression of the will of its members (the party was not mentioned in the sections dealing with organs of state power and administration). Unlike other “public organizations” named in the constitution, however, the party was empowered as nothing less than “the leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state.”42 In practice, this paradoxical nongovernmental yet omnicompetent status meant that the party could arrogate to itself the authority to intervene in any and all matters.

Of course, the party fell far short of “directing” all institutions, but it struggled incessantly—and from its self-definition quite properly—to do so.43 Nothing was beyond the party’s purview.44 As a result of the party’s auto-universalization, the entire space in which Soviet life took place was politicized. Any activity, even thinking or speaking one’s mind, became a political act. Every citizen, but especially party members, had to measure his or her thoughts and actions against the goals and pronouncements of the party leadership. Whether the task at hand was selling vegetables or making steel, “proper” politics became not simply a means but an end in itself, at enormous cost to society.

For the party, living up to its own mandate was far from easy. Ironically, the industrialization drive, heralded as the wise policy of the party, unexpectedly threw the party’s self-assigned “leading role” into confusion. The suppression of capitalism and the building of socialism empowered the state—the legions of officials acting in its name—to manage the mushrooming noncapitalist industrial economy. The vast economic apparat, in contrast to the party, possessed the technical and administrative skills required to run modern industry. With so many economic and technical matters awaiting resolution, party meetings could seem not only superfluous but detrimental, “interference” rather than “guidance,” although it was dangerous to say so openly and thereby question the country’s most sacred institution.

At the same time, “party work” proved to be highly intricate and labor-intensive, consuming enormous energy and resources. In the localities no less than in Moscow, party organizations had to arrange continual public celebrations of their own rule in the form of meetings. These opened and closed with familiar rituals, including the invocation of the latest doctrinal truths, an abject homage to the Leader, and a collective singing of the “Internationale.” The hallowed color of red predominated. Iconic portraits of party leaders looked down on the proceedings, and the “presence” of these high priests was often reinforced by their honorary inclusion on the presidium elected by acclamation to preside over each meeting. Unity of will and purpose was the overriding goal, and through incantations of the party’s achievements, often called miracles (chudesa), assembled Communists publicly reaffirmed their absolute faith and devotion to the party and to its “sacred cause” (sviatoe delo), building socialism and, ultimately, Communism. These ceremonies, at which often considerable business also had to be transacted, took place with great frequency.45

No less elaborate was the process of entering the party, which meant becoming part of a diligently cultivated revolutionary tradition (the underground, Siberian exile, October, the Civil War, Lenin, Stalin). A prospective member had to be recommended by current members, make a full confession of his or her (presumably appropriate) social background and life history, and go through an apprenticeship as a “candidate” before being welcomed into “the ranks” and taking on the “high title” of a “Bolshevik” and “Communist.”46 Once admitted, a Communist stood above the law, subject to arrest or criminal investigation only after the party had taken up the matter and rendered a decision. To maintain what was called the “purity” (chistota) of the ranks, periodic “purges” (chistki) were undertaken. Unworthy members were expelled, underscoring for those remaining the “special calling” involved in being a Communist after what were rather exhausting procedures.47

Individual Communists were encouraged to consider themselves part of an elect and to shoulder appropriate responsibilities. Perhaps the most important duty deriving from membership in a movement founded on a shared universal faith cast as the one true theory was familiarity with that theory (the revolutionary “scripture”—the works of Marx-Engels-Lenin, the speeches of Stalin—whose interpretation was entrusted to party theologians, called “ideologists”). Communists were also expected to be well versed in the recent decisions of the Central Committee, current events, and the background of the revolutionary movement, and to improve their knowledge continually—no small assignment! Every member had to keep party secrets, or as it was sometimes put, “observe the conspiracy” (sobliudat konspiratsiiu).

Keeping secrets was a part of the oath party members took to uphold “party discipline,” which in effect meant submitting without question to all decisions of the party. Indeed, Communists were expected to carry out the party’s directives “tirelessly,” thereby demonstrating their political “activeness” and ability to lead by example.48 Lenin had called the party “the mind, honor, and conscience of the epoch,” and these words were often displayed on banners in the local party headquarters, party clubs, and other gathering spots. Those were very high ideals to live up to, but living up to them was part of what it meant to be a church.

As is well known, the church-like party was organized according to a strict, military-like hierarchy, built from the bottom up. All party members were affiliated with the party organization at their place of work (or at a neighboring one, if theirs was too small to have one). The lowest level organizations were called party fractions (fraktsii) or cells (iacehiki) until 1934, when they were officially named primary party organizations (PPOs). PPOs were subordinated to district committees, called raikoms, which were in turn subordinated to gorkoms (city committees). City committees came under the supervision of the provincial committees, or obkoms, which were subordinated to the Central Committee of the USSR in a pyramid.49 Such centralization of the party was christened “democratic centralism,” which despite appearances was not without friction and even open confrontation.50

Orders came down the chain of command, to be carried out without question, provoking resentment and subtle forms of resistance. At the same time, on many matters a formal motion had to begin at the bottom and then be “confirmed” at each successive level up the hierarchy. Leadership positions, for example, were usually assigned from above, but even so, candidates to them were formally “elected” at meetings by the rank and file. Between these poles of democracy and military-like centralism a certain tension persisted under the surface, and could sometimes burst through, momentarily reversing the pyramid. This tension within the hierarchy became a vital part of the process of the terror.

By far the greatest source of tension, as well as conflict, arose from the parallelism of party and state. Obkoms, equivalent to episcopates, were in some ways the linchpins to the Soviet political system. Like the Central Committee, the authority the obkoms exercised was rooted in the regulation of personnel appointments. By the 1930s an obkom nomenklatura included the staff of the gorkoms and raikoms, soviets, trade organizations, directors of scientific institutes and universities, state farm chairmen, and factory directors within its territory.51 With the industrialization drive, however, the central apparatus came to depend on the obkoms more for control of rural areas than for control of urban ones or substantial urban pockets within rural provinces. Where large factories were located, Moscow asserted its prerogatives largely by means of “the state,” that is, through the economic commissariats.52 Thus, local factory administrations often eclipsed the corresponding obkoms as the critical battlegrounds in Moscow’s quest for hegemony.53 But the obkoms continued to assert “their prerogatives.”

Although the Magnitogorsk plant administration was subordinated directly to Moscow—both the city soviet and gorkom were subordinated to Cheliabinsk, where the provincial, or oblast, soviet and obkom were located—shops bosses, the factory director, and his deputies remained on the obkom’s nomenklatura. As a result, struggling to assert itself in the face of Moscow’s accusations of evasion or subversion of central directives, the obkom fought just as tenaciously to maintain influence over industrial enterprises, concentrations of wealth and resources that were outside the obkom’s day-to-day control but still nominally within its territory.

Within Magnitogorsk, battles for supremacy were waged between the party’s first secretary, who controlled the local press, and the factory director, who controlled local economic resources (from housing to food supply) and was usually a man of greater stature in the national party organization than the local party secretary.54 There were similar rivalries all the way down the parallel hierarchies, as well as throughout the factory administration.55 The everyday functioning of the dual apparats brought forth suspicions, grudges, webs of alliances—in short, everything from petty squabbling to bureaucratic warfare, which, although mostly invisible, was quite real and was compounded by the parallelism.

In this bureaucratic Leviathan, throughout which authority was perpetually contested, infighting, intrigues, and provocations were the modi operandi. This kind of strife, endemic to bureaucracies and organizations, was perhaps not particularly worrisome, except that it took place on a vast scale—the apparats managed all the affairs of the entire country—and within a highly charged political atmosphere. Added to this were the tensions arising from the unlimited jurisdiction of the GPU/NKVD,56 whose clandestine operations were independent of local control.57 If only to protect itself, the Magnitogorsk NKVD had no choice but to keep a close watch on the local party organization and factory administration.58

Strict military hierarchy combined with various democratic practices, deliberately overlapping jurisdictions derived from the theocratic structure of the party-state, and the hypervigilance of the NKVD were not the only sources of tensions in the Soviet political system. Communists professed an ethic of devoted service for the people, but that ethic often clashed with their methods. To administer party matters, for example, many Communists—the staff of the raikoms, gorkoms, and obkoms, and the secretaries of the largest primary party organizations—were “released” from the duty to hold a regular job.59 These were the so-called apparatchiks, who in some cases could appear to be performing no other function than lording over other people’s lives—people who may have been party members and thus had to participate in party matters, but who also held full-time jobs.

In fact, the party nomenklatura was set up as a literal ruling elite. Members of the nomenklatura could be and were appointed in any official capacity, regardless of their particular skills, because they were thought to have the general capacity to rule (pravit). Inevitably, with even low-level positions came the spoils of office: not always a motorcar with driver, telephone, and secretary, but probably at least the pick of scarce clothing, some extra sausage, and a real apartment. Such were the conditions of Magnitogorsk life that the perquisites of the nomenklatura and its favored associates could not remain entirely inconspicuous. On the contrary, elite lifestyles emerged as a central theme of the terror, as we shall see.

The party’s activities as spiritual guide turned out to be a source of strength but also a deadly burden for both the party and the country. Life in the party was characterized alternately by feelings of omnipotence and utter vulnerability, by a smug complacency shattered by periods of unremitting tension, by proclamations of ironclad “truths” amid threatening uncertainties. To be sure, the party was deadly serious about its ideological mission (indeed, to act or think otherwise was to open up troublesome questions about the nature of the socialist revolution and the legitimacy of the Soviet regime).60 Yet the more the party tried to live up to its role, the more strident and brittle it appeared to become. Predictably, a self-declared vanguard organization that was also a movement founded on iron discipline, absolute purity, and supreme personal sacrifice had a difficult time remaining true to its own ideals. But try it did, laying the basis for the terror.


The first party affiliate in the Magnitogorsk region was formed in June 1929, and consisted of around twelve members.61 By the beginning of 1933, less than four years after its establishment, the local party organization claimed an apparently robust membership of 8,200.62 Over the next five years, however, it shrank to less than 2,000 members and candidates (only 300 of whom were women).63 This massive contraction in the Magnitogorsk ranks began with the unionwide party “purge,” regulated by a central directive sent in April 1933—the first of a series of increasingly violent political shocks sent to the provinces along the party’s communications fault line.64

Periodic “cleansings” of incompetents, drunkards, and thieves, as well as “oppositionists,” had occurred virtually since the party came to power, the last and largest one having taken place in 1929. But well more than half the membership in Magnitogorsk had joined since 1929, so 1933 was their first experience of a purge. The close scrutiny must have looked like a drastic change from the open-arms reception that had propelled the rapid growth of the early 1930s, when the regime strove to convert the “pathos of socialist construction” into a greater political base of support.65

From the regime’s point of view, however, the wholesale expansion necessitated a careful, albeit ex post facto, screening of new members. Membership in the party, considered a unique honor available only to certain classes and earned and continuously affirmed by deeds, also brought various privileges amid scarcity and hardship. And beyond the issue of privileges, the political reliability of party members needed to be ensured, especially since the 1933 purge was being prepared under unprecedented circumstances:66 the upheaval of collectivization and the famine, which together provoked a crisis in the regime and considerable second-guessing around the country. Already unsure of itself and its grip on the country, the regime appears to have been inundated with complaints regarding the abuses, high-handedness, and “moral degeneracy” of low-level officials.

Particularly troublesome from the regime’s point of view were the instances whereby apparatchiks swore allegiance to the party but supposedly refused to carry out or even make public its decisions. “An enemy with a party card in his pocket,” the party’s main newspaper noted ominously in late 1932, “is more dangerous than an open counterrevolutionary.”67 It was just such a formulation, occasioned by the trauma of collectivization, that made the purge, however much a response to legitimate housekeeping and security concerns, the beginning of a process comparable in some ways to the Inquisition, but in the end far nastier.

Yet another complicating factor in the 1933 purge also connected with collectivization were the muted doubts expressed toward the end of 1932 about the leadership of Stalin. Stalin had triumphed over the other pretenders to become Lenin’s successor, but he was blamed for having led the country into near ruin and was conducting a curious foreign policy branding social democrats as more dangerous than fascists.68 A bumper harvest in 1933 set the country on the path of recovery. But misgivings about the regime’s rash policies and Stalin’s authority persisted, constituting the unspoken background to the party purge.69

Within the dictatorship of the party Stalin achieved a personal dictatorship, and from his position atop the party apparat, or secretariat, he oversaw the purge, as well as all information sent via party channels. Untrusting to the point of paranoia (he listened in on wiretaps of aides’ conversations) and ambitious to the point of megalomania (he became avidly involved in the rewriting of history and his role in it), he had already demonstrated with the launching of collectivization that even if he did not always have his way at plenary meetings, for all intents and purposes he was beyond the control of the Central Committee and the politburo. Within ruling circles, the need for a party purge does not appear to have been a matter of dispute, but there may well have been concern that Stalin would simultaneously pursue his own personal agenda.

And so the purge. One by one party members were called in front of an ad hoc commission formed by representatives of local party leaderships. Approaching the front of the room, Communists placed their party cards on a red-draped table and, with portraits of the party’s leaders in the background, recited their political biographies and prepared to answer questions. Commission members, occasionally joined by an audience of invited “party activists” and the “nonparty mass,” then explored the depths of a Communist’s political sophistication and sometimes challenged the veracity of the autobiographical presentations. Many party members had only an elementary education and were ignorant of political theory and history, decisive areas of knowledge for a Communist. Moreover, in the buildup to the purge, special receptacles had been installed inside all institutions for the collection of signed or more often anonymous testimony about the Communists in that organization. No party member could be certain of what the commission had managed to find out or might ask. The atmosphere in the hall could turn hostile or friendly, depending on the disposition of the commission toward the particular party member before it.70

Members who passed the interrogation were handed back their party cards, frequently with an official reprimand (vygovor) entered into their dossiers for one or another “shortcoming” discovered about them. Anyone whose case seemed “suspicious” had his or her card “detained,” pending further investigation. Some were “expelled” outright, their cards unconditionally “confiscated,” for what was viewed as an inappropriate social background or political biography, or for misconduct. A large number of Communists whose understanding of ideology was deemed rudimentary were expelled; others so judged were allowed to remain in the ranks but were issued reprimands for “political literacy.”

All expelled Communists who hoped to be reinstated, and even many of those not expelled, were required to offer public acts of repentance, or “self-criticism” (samokritika), and to redouble their efforts at political education in party schools and circles for the study of history and theory. Since there were procedures for overcoming one’s shortcomings and achieving reinstatement, neither a reprimand nor even an expulsion appeared to be cause for undue concern, however disappointing or disagreeable for the one purged. Expelled Communists were not supposed to be dismissed from their everyday jobs.71

Those for whom party work was their everyday job constituted a special case. Accountability of apparatchiks before the regime and the public was a serious concern. During the purge, “self-criticism” by the rank and file of the “situation” in their party organizations was promoted as a way to combat the “bureaucratism” of lazy, unresponsive, or recalcitrant officials. With apparatchiks in charge of the purge, however, criticism of them by subordinates seemed an unrealistic goal. True, in Magnitogorsk the purge did lead to the removal of First Secretary Spirov, who was replaced in July 1933 by Beso Lominadze.72 But this transpired only as a result of a visit to the site by People’s Commissar of Heavy Industry and politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze, in whose weighty presence criticism of local officials “from below” was possible. More often, such “criticism” came anonymously, in the form of denunciations incited by bureaucratic jealousies and infighting. Such denunciations were not necessarily acted upon, yet even when set aside they could still become part of an apparatchik’s file.73

Along with a change in the local party leadership, one of the chief consequences of the purge in Magnitogorsk, as elsewhere, was a staggering reduction in membership. More than two thousand Magnitogorsk Communists were expelled.74 Predictably, the expulsions were not primarily from among the apparat, which conducted the purge, but from the rank and file, who were recent entries and whose presence in the party could be seen as perhaps superfluous, just so much extra “ballast” that could be tossed overboard without upsetting the ship. Somewhat unexpectedly, but in apparent confirmation that there had been a need for the purge, at least two thousand more party members simply disappeared from the rolls. Some of these were self-described Communists who turned out not to be members.75 The vast majority were those who evidently declined to admit they were members, rather than face the scrutiny of the purge.76

The purge dragged on for quite some time. Originally scheduled to end in November 1933, it was still not officially complete in May 1935, when the party leadership in Moscow decided to extend the process with what was called a party document “verification” (proverka).77 The verification was directed at “party economy” (khoziaistvo), by which was meant record keeping (uchet), for some time said to be in disarray. While many party cards had been lost or stolen, or were defective, without official seals and signatures, or forged, corresponding personnel files at the local level rarely kept pace with frequent transfers and rapid expansion. The power of the top of the party pyramid—the secretariat and Central Committee apparat—was predicated on the appointment system, which required accurate information on personnel. The more ambitious the central authorities were in making or supervising appointments, the lower they searched in the party pyramid for data on “cadres.”

For the localities, reliable documentation on each Communist was deemed important because it served as the basis for evaluating the flood of petitions requesting reinstatement and because the verification, like the purge, was intended to expose not just the sots, swindlers, and “moral degenerates” who discredited the party, but Communists who showed no outward signs of disloyalty yet who entered or remained in the party by means of deception (obmannym putem) and may also have been hidden “class aliens.”78 A less than impeccable “proletarian” past and the act of having concealed this or any other information from the party were both targets of the procedure.79 Indeed, the verification appeared to be designed to catch those who had “slipped through” the purge.80 With new entrances into the party suspended as of January 1933, the verification portended a further reduction in membership, not to mention ample work for the apparat.81

Local party secretaries were given responsibility for the labor-intensive process, and so it appeared that the apparats would again determine which additional Communists might be expelled or reprimanded, or which might be reinstated. To an extent, however, the power of apparatchiks was counterbalanced by the reinforcement in December 1934 of the concept of the “party active” (aktiv). This device was designed to increase participation at party plenary meetings, which in violation of party rules were often conducted with only officials present but now had to be more inclusive.82 In what was yet another manifestation of the longstanding tension between “democracy” and “centralism,” members of the “active” were encouraged to discuss and thus “check” the decisions routinely taken behind closed doors by small circles of apparatchiks. The verification process was billed as a vehicle to “activate” the “party mass” and raise its political consciousness.

For all party members, the anxiety inherent in the scrutiny of the verification was heightened by the assassination of politburo member Sergei Kirov back on 1 December 1934 at Leningrad party headquarters by someone in possession of a party card. At first the Kirov murder was treated as a limited though evil plot perpetrated by “White Guardists.”83 But on 23 December, to an audience of thousands in Magnitogorsk, Beso Lominadze reported the additional “findings” of the NKVD regarding the existence of a “Leningrad Center,” a group of former top Bolsheviks accused of creating an atmosphere conducive to the killing.84

The announcement one week later in the central press of death sentences for all the accused was followed by a notice of the discovery of a “Moscow Center,” comprised of more former Bolsheviks accused of directing the Leningrad Center and having ties to White Guard organizations.85 The second trial testified to the sharpening of the political atmosphere in the aftermath of the Kirov murder. Equally momentous in this regard was the 1933 ascension to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler, whose hostile and expansionist rhetoric began to be taken seriously in 1934 and led to a dramatic change in Soviet foreign policy, which now belatedly formed a “united front” with socialists and other leftists against fascism.86

That there was a link between the assassination of a member of the Soviet leadership and the advent of an aggressive regime in Germany that called itself “National Socialist” yet singled out leftist socialists as its death enemy no doubt seemed plausible enough. In any case, such a suspicion was persistently reinforced by Soviet propaganda, which was based on the assumption—again plausible—that numerous “agents” of hostile “forces” were constantly being recruited from among the legions of internal enemies generated by the deliberately adversarial nature of Soviet industrialization. German National Socialism, in other words, was not only a real threat but a powerful context that reinforced and made more concrete already widespread apprehensions.

On 16 January 1935, five- and ten-year sentences in the Moscow Center trial were handed down, and two days later the Central Committee dispatched a secret letter on the treacherous role in the assassination of masked former “oppositionists” that called on all party organizations to be on guard for further signs of their activity.87 Lominadze, responsible for delivering speeches and organizing public discussions in Magnitogorsk of the party’s secret communication, was himself a former “oppositionist,” “exiled” to the city after having served in far higher posts.88 Perhaps in anticipation of his arrest, on 18 January 1935, the date of the secret Central Committee letter, he attempted suicide, dying later that night.89 There was no mention of this newsworthy event in Magnitogorsk newspapers, although rumors circulated throughout the city.90 What transpired in the immediate aftermath, as Lominadze was buried, remains mysterious.91

On 20 January, an outsider, Rafael Khitarov, the party secretary in Stalinsk (Novokuznetsk), was dispatched to Magnitogorsk. He was formally “elected” the new first secretary at a hastily called gorkom plenum on 5 February.92 That same day, a ferocious article appeared in Pravda attacking several people said to belong to a “Lominadze group,” including deputy factory director Iosif Alperovich and city newspaper editor Fedor Bezbabichev, who were soon removed and arrested for what was termed “double-dealing” (dvurushnichestvo).93 Factory director Avraamii Zaveniagin, who had recently become a candidate member of the Central Committee, was not implicated.94

The parallel with the Leningrad and Moscow Centers was unmistakable. In Magnitogorsk, those who had observed Lominadze and his closest associates knew them to be eminently qualified and dedicated, but they also knew that the cause shone brighter than any individual.95 Some people reasoned that if Lominadze were not “guilty,” he would not have taken his own life; others understood that it was none of their business.96 But in either case, the charge of “double-dealing” could be taken literally.

Contemporaries could scarcely deny that the history of the party, from its foundation up through the early 1930s, seemed to have been a continuous “struggle” to uphold what was called “the general line” or the “Leninist path” against one “opposition” after another. And even though Stalin declared at the Seventeenth Congress that the various oppositions had been defeated and that there was no one left to fight, this did not eliminate the need for “revolutionary vigilance.” In fact, the following year the party’s “enemies” were said to have resorted to “lying, political jesuitry and double-dealing.”97 “Opposition” had not disappeared; rather, divested of the possibility of carrying on open struggle, it had been forced “underground.” This was the logic of the party’s struggle for unity: precisely because of the party’s success in achieving unity, “conspiracy” had become the only way to fight it.98

Such “conspiracies” were difficult to detect, but not completely fanciful. Lominadze’s “opposition” to collectivization was well known; it had gotten him into trouble and landed him in Magnitogorsk. By the accepted rules of party discipline, neither he nor anyone else was permitted to disagree publicly with party policy. But what of his nonpublic views? Notwithstanding his “repentance” at the Seventeenth Party Congress in January-February 1934, it was plausible to reason that Lominadze may not have changed his mind and therefore could be understood to have put on a duplicitous face to “mask” his inner feelings.99 How dangerous this might be was another matter, especially since Lominadze discharged his duties with distinction, but the authorities in Moscow had pronounced it cause for alarm. And they had the palpable threat posed by fascism to back them up.

The imputation of double-dealing would have made no sense in the absence of the party’s obsession with orthodoxy as well as the appearance of unanimity, an obsession that was made operational by Stalin’s relentless drive for absolute power.100 But orthodoxy and outward unanimity could have become necessary only because the party’s authority was based on absolute claims, meaning that even a single dissenting voice became dangerous as the potential ground for an alternative orthodoxy. Such were the implications of the party’s church-like status which every Communist, especially those who disagreed with specific party policies, had to confront and which almost always elicited their capitulation.101

It should be kept in mind that Lominadze was not accused of perpetrating any specific acts. Thus, the charge of “double-dealing” against him was for a kind of thought-crime analogous to medieval heresy. For the medieval inquisitor, according to a leading historian, “the crime he sought to suppress by punishment was purely a mental one—acts, however criminal, were beyond his jurisdiction.”102 This was essentially the jurisdiction of the party purge as well. But like the Inquisition, the party could and did rely upon the “secular arm,” or state, to enforce its judgments against heretics. If the party’s inquisition was grounded in the nature of the party’s identity and the logic of its struggle for unity, it was nonetheless the threat of arrest by the NKVD that made the party’s inquisition so fearful.

In Magnitogorsk Lominadze’s posthumously declared “objective” guilt contaminated others like an infection from the grave—but this seemingly bizarre turn of events also had a certain logic. If conspiracy was the method of struggle against the party, close association with a known enemy could be taken as prima facie proof of complicity. Thus, once Lominadze had been pronounced a heretic, anyone who had consorted with him had much to fear, regardless of how well they were known to have performed their duties. There was no undoing past contacts.103 Those who defended him, moreover, automatically incriminated themselves.

In late March, at a local party conference called to ratify Rafael Khitarov’s assumption of the position of first secretary, several more of Lominadze’s associates, including the first secretary of the city Komsomol committee, Aleksandr Epeltsveig, were inculpated, thrown out of the party, and arrested.104 But in the infectious atmosphere, accusations against party members not associated with Lominadze also proliferated, confronting Khitarov with the unenviable task of sanctioning a wider bloodletting, or risking charges of protecting enemies.105 Khitarov’s position was further complicated by the fact that he had known the capable and dedicated Lominadze since their days together in the Caucasus in the 1920s.106 Between 19 and 21 June 1935, obkom First Secretary Kuzma Ryndin visited Magnitogorsk, and spoke of the “difficult ordeals” of the Lominadze period. The really difficult ordeals for Ryndin, Khitarov, and the Magnitogorsk party organization, however, were still ahead.107

Under such anxious circumstances, the party verification went forward in Magnitogorsk, until by mid-summer 1935 it seemed to be coming to a close. Altogether only ninety-two party cards were withheld, and a mere eighteen Communists expelled, a stark contrast to the purge.108 But in August, the Central Committee unexpectedly annulled the results of the verification across the country, and announced the necessity of repeating the entire procedure.109 Through the intervention of the obkom, the co-chairmen of the Magnitogorsk verification commission, Matvei Larin (the city soviet chairman and former chairman of the defunct city Control Commission) and Umanskii (the arrested Bezbabichev’s replacement as editor of the city newspaper), were given reprimands for allegedly permitting known White Guardists to retain their party cards.110 In September 1935, after a struggle with the obkom, Umanskii was removed as editor of the Magnitogorsk newspaper. Both he and Larin were soon expelled from the party, sending a powerful message to their replacements.111

The Cheliabinsk obkom, itself under pressure from Moscow, oversaw an intensification of the verification within the Magnitogorsk party organization and a widening of its scope beyond a dozen ill-starred associates of Lominadze and a handful of rogues, to a past, and possible future “White Guard” said to be in possession of party cards.112 As the obkom authorities were aware, during the Civil War large portions of the country, including the entire Urals, had been held by the Whites for a considerable period. For the many local people who later rose to positions of authority in Magnitogorsk, some contact with the arch-counterrevolutionaries had been unavoidable. Now, more than fifteen years after the events and despite any loyalty demonstrated in the interim, anything less than heroic resistance to the occupying Whites could be judged retrospectively as collaboration unworthy of a Communist.113

If a person had once failed to fight against or even fought for the “restoration of capitalism,” what was to prevent him or her, when the moment was propitious, from doing so again? In conditions of capitalist encirclement, “forgiveness” meant a possible invitation to disaster. Compelling logic dictated vigilance and, presumably, further expulsions from the party. No party secretary could assert that there were definitely no hidden White Guardists inside his or her primary party organization without inviting denunciation for, at best, political blindness.114 But having so spoken, each official then had to find such concealed former White Guards, or at least some hidden “class aliens.” Scapegoating was unavoidable.

Discussions of the verification, like the purge, combined the rhetoric of hygiene with that of inquisition.115 Under the slogan “Know Every Communist,” Magnitogorsk’s new verification commission, which included First Secretary Khitarov and an obkom representative, collected denunciations, both anonymous and signed, about party members and their families that served as the basis for inquiries sent to a party member’s birthplace or previous place of employment. At the interrogation itself, which like the purge began with the placement of one’s party card on the table but unlike the purge was without an audience, the questioning could become intense. Statements made by each member during the first verification, the 1933–34 purge, and other occasions were compared, as party members’ biographies, and the way they had been previously reported, became potential traps.116

Some Communists refused to say where they first joined the party, and this was by itself considered incriminating.117 Others told personal stories that seemed on the surface suspicious,118 or unknowingly contradicted previous statements they had made.119 Those who tried to be flip were punished.120 Even people who came forward with “corrections” of their autobiographies, in an attempt to preempt damaging revelations, could well suffer the same fate as those who offered no assistance in the uncovering of inconvenient facts.121 And unlike the 1933–34 purge, a Communist could not “disappear” by concealing party membership. For everyone in possession of a party card, the verification was inescapable. Verification commission members had wide latitude in the treatment of individual members whom they favored, but those in charge felt pressures to investigate everyone. Writers of denunciations sometimes sent copies to the obkom, Central Committee, Stalin, and the NKVD. Rivalries among apparatchiks at all levels, many of whom cultivated ambitions, increased the flow of information. And primary party meetings, where issues could be publicly aired under the slogan of “self-criticism,” continued throughout.

Within the party conspiracy, no one could be completely sure of his or her position. The deference usually shown to members of the party hierarchy coexisted with an all-around vulnerability, even among top local officials. Seemingly unassailable party chieftains in the localities were kept off-balance by the secretariat in Moscow, which, in its persistent pursuit of tighter supervision of regional party machines, frequently resorted to populist appeals to the “party mass” to exercise “control.” For local officials this meant that precisely those Communists most apt to question or denounce their rule had to be either placated or thoroughly destroyed. Pravda reported that there was some grumbling in the ranks about the verification being a “repression” of party members.122

The intensification of the verification in Magnitogorsk imposed by the obkom increased the number of expulsions. By October 1935, after 97 percent of the Magnitogorsk membership had undergone the second verification, there had been 234 expulsions, representing 8.6 percent of the total membership, considerably more than the first time around.123 But even more important, having become an ex-Communist a person ceased to be above the law, and in some instances expulsions were now followed with arrest by the NKVD. In two top-secret reports to Procurator General Andrei Vyshinskii, dated 19 October 1935 and 7 January 1936, Magnitogorsk Procurator Petr Kefala wrote that criminal charges were brought in twenty-eight cases of expulsion: twelve for hiding service in the White Army, twelve for hiding a kulak past, three for “Trotskyism,” and one for “counterrevolutionary activity.”124 The fate of these excommunicated Communists had passed from party bodies to the “secular authorities.” Such were the potential stakes of having deceived or challenged the party.

In Moscow the verification was declared officially completed on 25 December 1935, when Nikolai Ezhov, chairman of the Commission of Party Control, addressed a plenum of the Central Committee on its results.125 In Magnitogorsk, however, the second verification continued after Ezhov’s report. Sometime in early 1936 a special obkom brigade arrived to further investigate individual cases. As a result the number of expulsions seems to have risen to 334 (which represented 12 percent of the membership). No explanation was offered for the 100 additional expulsions, a figure exceeding the entire total from the first verification and apparently effected in just two months. Pressure on the obkom from Moscow appears the likely cause although for reasons that remain unclear.126

In his report on the verification to a Magnitogorsk party plenum, Khitarov followed Central Committee directives and made a point of going beyond the matter of expulsions, declaring that the Magnitogorsk organization had discovered badly inadequate record keeping and a whole layer of “passive” Communists. “It is one thing to expose alien people, deceivers of the party,” explained Khitarov. “The verification had another goal of seeing how each Communist works, how he works in political matters, in order to help him grow, in order to improve the entire party’s mass work.”127 It was just such a radical revival of the party’s ideological mission that served not only to justify but to necessitate the expulsion of “alien,” illiterate, and passive Communists.128

The need for an ideological revival in the party could scarcely be denied.129 It was regime policy to offer higher and faster promotions for party members, and the verification established what anyone could have guessed: that careerism served as one of the principal motivations for seeking party membership.130 Nor did it require the verification to know that many comrades did not read the party press, let alone study revolutionary theory. One Communist, Bukov, allegedly protested that “I fought against the Whites and will still fight them, but I just can’t study.”131 In the party schools, the subjects included Russian language and spelling, for native speakers too.132

Despite a mandatory attendance rule, moreover, the verification “revealed” that many Communists regularly missed party meetings, and that the party was overwhelmed trying to mobilize resources for construction and industry, notwithstanding the existence for that purpose of a separate economic administration. Such failings were not just lamentable, they were dangerous. If the redundant party machine did not uphold higher ideals or an ideological mission, it was nothing more than a parasitical stratum of apparatchiks lording over a rank and file burdened by apparently irrelevant extra responsibilities and resentful of the apparatchiks’ “ruling class” privileges and lifestyles.

Thanks to the verification the rampant political “passivity” said to have gripped the party was reportedly being replaced by renewed activeness (aktivnost) and a rediscovery of the party’s revolutionary calling. In Magnitogorsk’s central electric station, for example, attendance at party meetings had been averaging 75 to 80 percent, but with the verification it was said to have risen to 100 percent, while the meetings were said to have become very lively. Party school attendance, which had been 70 to 80 percent, also rose, to 95 percent. And the electric station’s wall newspaper was issued more frequently.133 Such an apparent revitalization supposedly swept all Magnitogorsk shops, further stimulated by a general reorganization of party work.134

In February 1936, Khitarov could conclude that “the verification of party documents to a significant degree revived [ozhivila] internal party work and party mass work.” But he added, as was customary for a Bolshevik who practiced “self-criticism,” there was more to be done.135 Khitarov was right, of course. Ezhov, in his December 1935 report on the verification, had announced that after a purge and two document verifications that had together dragged on for more three years, there would be yet another operation, an exchange (obmen) of old party cards for new ones. More than a technical matter of replacing worn documents, the 1936 exchange served in effect as a third verification, just when a relaxation might have been expected to set in.136

Although central directives stressed that the exchange was designed chiefly to reinforce the revitalizing effects of the second verification by rooting out remaining “passive” elements and was not to be another hunt for enemies, it was governed by even tighter procedures than the verification.137 Magnitogorsk Communists were sternly advised to know all the facts about their lives and avoid making any mistakes, either when they gave oral presentations or filled in new personnel forms.138 Only the local first secretary was to hand out the new cards, which were to be received directly from the Central Committee by NKVD field courier and to be filled out in special ink provided by Moscow.

“Not one card in the hands of the enemy!” warned the Magnitogorsk newspaper, which carried such a barrage of stories about fascism—“Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”; “Japan occupies Manchuria, which borders on the Soviet Far East”; “Fascism is War!”—that one might have assumed it had in mind Germans, Italians, or Japanese. But as an example of an “enemy,” the newspaper cited the case of a Magnitogorsk Communist, Tsarev-Ivanov of mill 300, who had claimed to be an old revolutionary. During the verification, in the preferred party euphemism, “documents came forward” characterizing him as a “class-alien element.” When the Magnitogorsk apparat contacted the city from which Tsarev-Ivanov hailed, it discovered that he had been an artisan who had once employed hired labor, for which “he was known far and wide as a kulak.” The “enemy” Tsarev-Ivanov was expelled from the ranks.139

Khitarov, quoting from the Central Committee instructions, remarked during the verification that “never before has the title of a party member been so high.”140 For that very reason, however, the purity of party members also had to be higher than ever.141 The upshot of this inference, although derived from the party’s self-understanding and the circumstances of the time, was self-destructive. As the party struggled in an uncertain international situation to put its house in order and reclaim its revolutionary mission, that mission came more and more to resemble an all-consuming witch-hunt for “enemies” within.

Party propaganda openly emphasized the inquisitorial aspect of the document “exchange,” which coincided with the May 1936 release of the film Party Card, a thriller about the collaboration of internal and external enemies. In the film, Pavel, the son of a former kulak who has become a shock worker, secretly works for a foreign intelligence agency, from which he receives the assignment of obtaining a party card to facilitate diversionary activity. Owing to a lack of “vigilance” (bditelnost) by his party-member wife, Anna, this enemy disguised as a peasant lad is initially successful, although in the end the hypervigilant NKVD uncovers and foils Pavel’s plot. Although they love her, Anna’s comrades at a party meeting rise one by one with “Bolshevik frankness” to speak about her lack of vigilance. Attention is devoted to the sacred calling of being a Communist, as members recall the heroic struggle in the underground and Civil War. But the overriding message is that no one can be trusted, that everyone should be on the lookout for suspicious behavior, and that given the supposed value for enemies of a party card, Communists especially have to be thoroughly verified. Enough examples from “real life” appeared in the press, dating back to the Kirov assassination, to reinforce the film’s lessons.142

In such tense circumstances the party-card exchange continued throughout the spring and summer of 1936. On 17 August, approximately four months after it had begun, Khitarov reported to a gorkom plenum that the exchange could be considered finished, even though around one hundred Communists, most of whom were away, had yet to participate.143 He maintained that the process, although not perfect, had been carried out with a high degree of care (only two blank cards were said to have been invalidated by accidental mutilation). He also disclosed that the eradication of what he now called Magnitogorsk’s “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Center” had required an enormous amount of time owing to the leadership of the double-dealer Lominadze.144 It was the first time Lominadze had been accused of anything in the Magnitogorsk newspaper and only the second time his name had come up since his death nineteen months earlier. Something had happened.

On the day before the city plenum announced the end of the exchange, the Magnitogorsk newspaper carried a notice that a demonstration trial for a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Bloc” in Moscow had been set for 19 August 1936. Sixteen former oppositionists (eleven of whom were Jews), in cahoots with the arch-oppositionist and publisher of the émigré Biulleten oppozitsii, Leon Trotsky (since 1929 living in exile abroad), were now said to have carried out the Kirov assassination as well as to have plotted the murder of most of the party leadership, including Stalin. The “transcript” of the trial proceedings, during which the accused terrorists confessed, took up virtually the entire Magnitogorsk newspaper several days running. The verdict, execution by shooting, was reported on 24 August, accompanied by cries of “death to the evil dogs” and “no mercy for the vile enemies.” It was the first time the death penalty was used against former Communists, signaling a further intensification of the “class struggle.” Trotsky was convicted in absentia.145

Three weeks before the trial, on 29 July 1936, the Central Committee had dispatched a top secret letter to party organizations that explained how the “bloc” had formed in 1932, when the defeated oppositionists, without any chance of regaining power by ordinary political means, made contact with émigré Trotskyites and adopted a course of terror and assassination. According to the letter, the special danger of the bloc stemmed from its class base—it was said to be the “force for the remnants of smashed classes” and “the leading detachment of the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie”—and from its successful covert penetration of the party apparat. Notwithstanding the trial and conviction, this ominous state of affairs would persist and required the highest vigilance. “Under present conditions,” the letter concluded, “the inalienable quality of every Bolshevik must be the ability to detect an enemy of the party, however well he may be masked.”146

Discussion of the trial and accompanying materials was mandatory for all primary party organizations, as a result of which accusations against “masked enemies” within the party multiplied.147 In Magnitogorsk several more former associates of the “oppositionist” Lominadze, such as Margarita Dalinger, the party secretary in the dining hall trust, were “unmasked.” Dalinger had evidently stated that there were no Trotskyites or Zinovievites in her organization—the surest possible evidence of their presence and her own guilt! Excoriated by the newspaper for such a “lapse of vigilance” and accused of being a close associate of “the double-dealing Lominadze,” she admitted that she had “often visited him in his apartment.” For this Dalinger was immediately arrested.148 Others expelled from the party and arrested for having been associated with Lominadze included Magnitogorsk’s highest legal official, City Procurator Petr Kefala, who had sanctioned the arrests of all previously identified members of the Lominadze “group.”149

The setting for such accusations were the now boisterous primary party organization meetings, attended at Moscow’s insistence by the mass of Communists who had been given official reprimands by their superiors and even many Communists who had been expelled. Suppressed grievances came to the fore; taboo subjects were broached. Something of the concealed “opposition” that the self-criticism campaign was designed to expose did indeed surface—but much of this “opposition” was directed at the unmasking campaign itself. At one meeting in August 1936 to discuss the Moscow trial of Zinovievites and Trotskyites, an economist, Inozemtsev from factory supply, evidently made a motion to vote against the government’s recommended death sentence.150

Statements implicitly and explicitly criticizing Stalin appear to have been made. According to a Soviet journalist who in the period of glasnost gained access to party archives, a “sympathizer” named Zologarev remarked at a party meeting in 1936 that “if Lenin were alive, he would show us the correct path—NEP. But Lenin died, and so they repealed it.” Tit Zyk, a former party member in the mechanical shop who had been expelled in 1935 for being a “self-seeker who refused to help collect the harvest,” was said to have “condemned centralism, according to which ‘they issue directives from above and we implement them without thinking. Collectivization was launched in 1929 by Stalin, and this is considered correct. . . . We are the bottom rungs [nizy].’”151

Neither Zyk’s outburst nor Inozemtsev’s suggestion to vote against the proposed death sentence was quoted in the local press. The factory newspaper did, however, report the comments of Mikhail Vasilev, the party organizer in the boiler repair shop, who supposedly claimed that “during the study of the materials of the trial of the counterrevolutionary band in our shop, under the guise of asking seemingly naive [nedoumennye] questions, certain people conducted manifest counterrevolutionary conversations.” Vasilev offered only one example, accusing an economist of having remarked, “to plan, that means to finagle [fokusnichat].”152 With the help of such acrimonious verbal exchanges, something of a leveling atmosphere was created in which the charges of “Trotskyism” and “double-dealing” could not be concentrated solely on Lominadze associates.

As the Magnitogorsk party became engulfed in a flood of accusations that touched management personnel, a few officials, such as Evgenii Kudriavtsev from the city soviet, tried to flee. But there was little chance to escape the pressure: Kudriavtsev was located and ordered to return.153 Some idea of the atmosphere of the time comes across in the words of the young steel smelter and party stalwart, Aleksei Griaznov, who, when asked by the factory newspaper what to do with enemies, reportedly remarked: “Give them to us, we’ll burn them in the open-hearth ovens.”154

Griaznov could offer what may well have been a sincere suggestion in part because of an unshakable confidence about his own absolute loyalty, a feeling that the majority of Communists no doubt shared. But those making accusations could have other opinions, or ulterior motives. In such an environment, the normal interaction among Communists that arose during the course of party work became a source of possible incrimination and as such, a way to do in rivals, settle scores, or vent frustration.

“It happened that [Emil] Bekker [the chief of rolling mill construction] was connected to Lominadze, and [Moisei] Ioffe [chief of the steel plant’s administrative-economic department (AKhU)] to Bekker, but Bekker remained in the party and Ioffe was expelled,” wrote the factory newspaper, implying that by this reasoning Bekker too should have been expelled. Moreover, the newspaper asked, “Why didn’t they also expel people who were tied to Ioffe?” commenting that “in this manner you can keep going a very long way.”155 If the factory newspaper could reason thusly, so could the ambitious or rancorous within the lower levels of the apparat and among the rank and file.

The Magnitogorsk apparat evidently endeavored to contain this internal convulsion. Some Communists were said by the gorkom to have been “wrongly” expelled because they were on the obkom nomenklatura (and as such could be removed only with the obkom’s approval) and also because the charges against them were false. The three examples cited were city soviet chairman Dmitrii Snopov, expelled for being close to Evgenii Kudriavtsev and helping him escape (called true, but exaggerated); Ermolai Prokhorovich, chief of the city health department, expelled for giving Lominadze medical treatment (said to have been his duty); and Ioffe, who was accused of taking part in the burial of Lominadze (he was said not to have been in Magnitogorsk at the time).156 To be sure, according to party statutes, primary party organizations were charged with the responsibility for voting expulsions. But everyone knew that these low-level bodies did not normally take action on such major questions without written or verbal instructions from above. Thus the “unauthorized” expulsions were a sign that Moscow’s frequent calls to the “party mass” to become “active” were being heeded.

The obkom accused gorkom officials of shielding their own, a charge that in all likelihood was accurate.157 Magnitogorsk party officials may have been frightened by where all this “activism” and “vigilance” from below was leading.158 It was one matter to accept or even assist the destruction of a handful of the deceased Lominadze’s associates, a few former officers in the White Army, and some supposedly better-off peasants who at one time might have been “exploiters.” It was quite another to preside over the expulsion, and possible arrest, of one’s own trusted friends and colleagues, not to say oneself. But short of a complete reinterpretation of the political situation by Moscow, the process could not be stopped.

Meetings could not be suspended or avoided, and accusations, once publicly stated, acquired a kind of irrefutability regardless of how implausible they might be. Denials were often seen as incriminating, and anyone who spoke on behalf of an accused Communist risked denunciation for “protecting enemies” or “defending vile murders and bandits.”159 Even when not immediately acted upon, the denunciations ensured that some “negative” information about a large number, perhaps a majority, of Communists was introduced into party files.160

The party in Magnitogorsk was enmeshed in a process whose premises and justifications all made sense, but one that was nonetheless becoming more and more bizarre as well as personally threatening. Yet precisely because the internal search for enemies was so logical—indeed necessary—from a party point of view, Communists could scarcely avoid participation in it. The continuation of the inquisition, in other words, appeared to be dictated by the fundamental tenets and basic political language of the worldview that party members held dear. At the same time, however, many apparatchiks no doubt began to feel that their only defense lay in attacking others.

In this highly uncertain mood within the party, after a few dozen arrests and a deluge of denunciations by Communists and ex-Communists of each other, the Sixth Magnitogorsk City Party Conference took place. It was late December 1936, and the Stalin constitution had just been formally adopted in Moscow. With the entire body of conference delegates standing, Magnitogorsk school children sang “Shiroka strana moia rodnaia,” afterward calling out “thank you comrade Stalin for a happy childhood.” Obkom First Secretary Ryndin gave a two-hour opening report, which was reportedly “greeted with a rousing ovation.”161 The principal topic of discussion appears to have been expulsions and “enemies.”162

In what was described as an effort to improve party work, the Magnitogorsk gorkom was divided into three raikoms, or district committees—named for Kirov, Ordzhonikidze, and Stalin, the latter replacing the factory party committee.163 What else the conference accomplished remains unclear. Outside the main hall, lavish buffet tables groaned under the weight of otherwise scarce food and drink supplied gratis to the delegates. But for many of those in attendance the conference would in retrospect come to look like a kind of last supper. As the year 1936 came to a close, the party inquisition in Magnitogorsk and localities around the country acquired a new character as a result of further decisive intervention by the party’s top leadership.


In the main political task said to lay before the party and the country—the “struggle” to deploy Bolshevik “self-criticism” to “unmask” concealed internal enemies—Moscow effected a dramatic radicalization in November 1936 with Pravda’s report of a trial in Novosibirsk for industrial sabotage. To be sure, charges of wrecking and sabotage dated from the first days of the new regime (serving as the rationale for the establishment of the security police), and several high-profile trials of industrial saboteurs had been held before (the so-called Shakhty affair in 1928 and Industrial Party affair in 1930, for example). Now, however, the alleged perpetrators were not “bourgeois” engineers, or holdovers from the tsarist regime, but traitorous “Soviet-era” personnel.164

Six engineers and administrative cadres from the Kemerovo central mine, one of whom was a German, were charged with having arranged a series of explosions on 23 September that killed ten miners and injured fourteen others. Their actions were said to constitute a “subversive Trotskyite conspiracy,” involving foreign industrialists and the Gestapo, to restore capitalism in the USSR. On the last day of the trial, all six defendants were shot. The announcement of the sentence was accompanied by outpourings of indignation from “leading” workers who were quoted as demanding “no mercy for the swine.” “Stenographic” accounts of the proceedings were reprinted in local newspapers, including Magnitogorskii rabochii, to convey the trial’s “lessons” regarding the supposed prevalence of subversion and to provide a guide for discussions at local party meetings.165

The events in Kemerovo were portrayed as signifying a transformation in “the enemy’s” methods: from “double-dealing,” a largely internal party affair that sometimes required the subsequent intervention of the “secular authorities,” to “wrecking” (vreditelstvo), a matter that a priori fell within the jurisdiction of the “secular authorities.” In a reflection of this declared change, on the eve of the Novosibirsk trial in late August 1936, Ezhov, one of Stalin’s principal protégés and the person who had overseen the party verification, was transferred from the party apparat to the NKVD. Simultaneous with the trial, USSR Procurator General Vyshinskii, also a Stalin loyalist, issued a secret directive instructing local procurators to review all cases involving large-scale fires, breakdowns, and the production of defective goods for hints of counterrevolutionary wrecking.166

When it came to suspicions of industrial sabotage, Magnitogorsk, like all Soviet enterprises, was indeed rich in potential.167 Altogether, industrial mishaps on the site numbered in the many thousands annually.168 Even more serious, many of the “subversive” activities named in the Novosibirsk trial resembled everyday management practices in the planned economy. As was well known, in the efforts to fulfill the plan, numerous violations of procedures were knowingly made. This was especially true with Stakhanovism, whose deliberate adventurism led to numerous breakdowns and served as the basis for many of the concrete charges in cases of wrecking (even as the regime encouraged a revival of Stakhanovism to combat the wave of wrecking).169 Given these circumstances, no engineer or manager was beyond accusation.170

The interpretation laid down in November 1936 that all unfortunate occurrences in industry were deliberate wrecking appears to have taken Magnitogorsk officials by surprise. A May 1936 gas poisoning in the coke shop resulting in twenty-two victims, including four fatalities (called “serious injuries” in the newspaper), had not been portrayed as “wrecking.”171 What is more, the first announced local case of “wrecking” following the Novosibirsk trial was a feeble one, involving the alleged poisoning of coke plant workers with contaminated milk by unnamed individuals.172

It was fully seven weeks after this dubious first report, and more than two months after the Novosibirsk trial, that a major instance of wrecking in Magnitogorsk with named perpetrators was announced in the local press. That case was also said to have occurred at the coke plant, whose former chief of construction, A. M. Mariasin, had been arrested in Moscow in connection with the January 1937 trial of Deputy Industry Commissar Georgii Piatakov and sixteen others (the so-called Parallel Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Center).173 On 30 January, Piatakov was sentenced to death and executed.174 Like the Novosibirsk case, discussion of the Piatakov trial and its “lessons” was made mandatory for all party organizations. This time, the effect in the localities appears to have been greater, although not immediately.

On February 9, N. Kartashov [Rafael Shneiveis], who at age twenty-seven was the Magnitogorsk newspaper’s chief political correspondent, wrote a sharp piece about “wrecking” in the Magnitogorsk coke plant.175 As “enemies” Kartashov named Manych, the former chief of the coke ovens shop who had left Magnitogorsk two years earlier and was now under arrest elsewhere, and Sazhin. Of the latter, Kartashov wrote that “in his time he was unmasked as an enemy and thrown out of the shop, only to reappear a few days later.” In addition, Sazhin was said to have been given a new, equipped apartment in the second superblock. “Who sheltered the enemy?” Kartashov asked. “Who let him back into the plant? No one can say for sure.” Of course, the only person with such authority was the shop chief, Vasilii Shevchenko, who only two years earlier had received the state’s highest award, the Order of Lenin, and was now being indirectly impugned.176

Kartashov cast his account of wrecking in the coke plant as a revolutionary breakthrough in activism. “What is most evident in the coke shop today is that the trial of the Trotskyite band has generated considerable activeness,” he wrote, adding that “one gets the impression that only now have the flood gates of self-criticism been opened.” What made such “self-criticism” remarkable was that it was directed at top management. Workers, said to have been “afraid to open their mouths for fear of being fired,” were now allegedly coming forward. The one “worker” cited by name, however, Maleev, said to be a foreman, offered only metaphors. He was quoted as saying that he could keep silent no longer “because if I keep silent and others do too, then the enemy will worm his way back in. The enemy hides himself in the burrow, and then comes out into the light and will wreck and ruin.” Maleev pledged to unmask the enemy because “my shop is dearer than my life.”177

Whether a “revolutionary breakthrough” in activism had yet been achieved seems doubtful. A similar exposé on the problems in the open-hearth shop by Aleksei Griaznov had appeared even earlier, on 6 February, but no wreckers were identified.178 Considerable pressure from above was visible in the press, however. On 10 February, the Magnitogorskii rabochii had carried the lead editorial from Pravda, dated two days earlier: “Bolshevik Self-Criticism—The Basis of Party Action” (the entire rest of the issue was devoted to the Pushkin centenary).179 On the eleventh, the obkom newspaper accused the Magnitogorsk gorkom of having limited trial discussions to those organizations where serious wrecking had already been unmasked (i.e., the coke plant).180 Comparable pressure was no doubt also being applied behind the scenes.

Within two weeks of the obkom newspaper’s published exhortation, “revelations” were announced concerning the discovery of wrecking in fire-clay production,181 the construction trust,182 coal storage,183 rail transport,184 steam generation,185 rolling mills186—indeed, in virtually every corner of the Magnitogorsk plant. By the second half of February 1937, moreover, what had been only intimations of the culpability of top managers became direct accusations. Judging by the stories in the city newspaper, one could almost conclude that wrecking had suddenly become the most frequent activity engaged in by Soviet managers and engineers.187

Vasilii Shevchenko of the coke plant was the first to fall. In the obkom newspaper, he was denounced for having resisted firing people who had been “unmasked,” for having relented only after pressure had been applied, and for having fired personnel in a way that was most advantageous to them (i.e., “let go in accordance with personal wishes”). Shevchenko was also accused of defending Manych, who had been arrested as a wrecker. Such actions led to Shevchenko’s expulsion from the party.188 Meanwhile, his assistant, Ivan Gavrilin, had apparently defended his boss at party meetings of the coke plant on 4 and 14 February (for which he, too, was expelled from the party).189 No longer protected by party immunity, Shevchenko and Gavrilin were soon arrested by the “secular power” along with almost two dozen others—in the coke shop alone.190 There were similar cases in other shops with comparable numbers of arrests.191

Committees to “liquidate the consequences of wrecking” were founded in each shop, and the supposed “lessons” of the many instances of “exposure” were endlessly analyzed and publicized.192 In a follow-up piece on the coke plant, Kartashov wrote that “what yesterday was unclear, what earlier seemed mysterious and incomprehensible, today has become completely clear and transparent.”193 The exposure of wrecking in the coke plant, in other words, provided not only the definitive inducement to activism, but also a comprehensive explanation for the factory’s well-known ills. Kartashov reiterated this “message” again, in greater detail, a few days later.194

To contemporaries, repeated mishaps and routine problems might seem to have resulted from carelessness arising out of worker inexperience or negligence on the part of foremen and other lower-level supervisory personnel, but some problems obviously stemmed from faulty design. Among the latter were the system of factory transport between shops and the facilities for loading and unloading raw materials, whose inefficient set-up and operation led to unnecessary work and expensive waste. More seriously, most “hot shops” at the steel plant were characterized by dangerously high temperatures, thick concentrations of dust, and the absence of ventilation, resulting in periodic gas poisonings.195 Was such manifestly harmful design an accident? Was negligence really careless, or could it also be deliberate? Why were almost sixty workers a year being killed on the job?196

The many troubles and often poor performance of the steel plant and its auxiliary factories served as apparent confirmation that some people were indeed engaging in “sabotage,” yet these wreckers were portrayed not as aggrieved persons acting individually, but as spies and agents engaged in conspiracies. The charge of wrecking may have seemed credible, but did the saturation of the USSR by enemies working for the foreign bourgeoisie really make sense? Stalin tackled this question directly in his published and widely disseminated report at the watershed Central Committee plenum in February-March 1937 (cited at the beginning of this chapter) devoted to the so-called right opposition and to wrecking.197

“Why should [bourgeois states] send fewer spies, wreckers, diversionaries, and murderers into the Soviet interior than they send into other bourgeois states?” Stalin asked rhetorically. “Wouldn’t it be truer, from the point of view of Marxism, to suppose that into the interior of the Soviet Union bourgeois states ought to send twice and thrice more wreckers, spies, diversionaries, and murderers?” Mimicking doubters, he continued:

Capitalist encirclement? Oh, that’s rubbish! What significance can some kind of capitalist encirclement have if we fulfill and surpass our economic plans? New forms of wrecking, the struggle with Trotskyism? All nonsense! What significance can these trifles have if we fulfill and overfulfill our plan? Party rules, elections to party organs, the accountability of party leaders before the party mass? Is there a need for all this? Is it worth bothering with these trifles if our economy grows, if the material situation of workers and peasants improves more and more? Trifles, all of it! The plans we overfulfill, our party is not bad, the party’s Central Committee is also not bad, what the hell more do we need? Strange people sit there in Moscow, in the Central Committee of the party: they think up all sorts of questions, instigate about some kind of wrecking; they themselves don’t sleep and don’t allow others to.

Such an attitude Stalin called a “glaring example” of the dangerous “political blindness” among those carried away by “dizzy excitement over economic successes.”198

This was the same infamous formula Stalin had hit upon to deflect blame from himself during the disastrous opening stages of the collectivization campaign in 1930, when he ridiculed local officials for “laughable attempts to jump over themselves,” attributing such missteps to “the fact that the heads of certain of our comrades are dizzy with success.”199 In 1937, the consequences of such giddiness were said to have been far more serious, having allowed traitorous Soviet engineers and managers to launch a countrywide wrecking campaign. The only answer could be to “raise vigilance” against Communist party officials, who, even if not deliberate enemies, could be held criminally accountable for their de facto encouragement of “wrecking.” The plenum itself demonstrated this severe approach.200

Behind this probe for “objective” abetters of industrial saboteurs in the party apparat lay the presupposition that economic advances were nothing without commensurate strides in “political consciousness.” This was after all the rationale for the party’s role in the industrialization. Why did the party exist, if not to exercise political vigilance? But the party was being accused of being the main culprit in a general lapse of vigilance. Notwithstanding the previous several years’ efforts of raising the party’s ideological level, there was apparently more to be done. Aided by the press’s incessant goading—“more self-criticism, comrades”—the linkage of industrial “wrecking” to “political carelessness” by the party laid down at the February-March Central Committee plenum finally seemed to bring about the party’s long-sought total activization—as demonstrated by the spirited gathering of the Magnitogorsk “party active,” held from 22 to 25 March 1937 to discuss the Moscow plenum.201

The ground for the Magnitogorsk meeting had been prepared a few days prior. On 20 March 1937, the Magnitogorsk newspaper printed a summary of a highly critical obkom plenum, held from 14 to 16 March, along with a vicious attack on the Magnitogorsk gorkom signed by A. Zakharov that had appeared in the Cheliabinskii rabochii on 18 March 1937.202 The obkom’s heavy-handedness toward the gorkom had been prompted largely by the obkom’s own vulnerability, since even earlier it had been subjected to heavy fire in Pravda and again at the Central Committee plenum.203 By means of the party press and public discussion, the grim instructions contained in internal communications sent from above were publicly fortified, reaching all the way down to the lowest levels of the party pyramid, no matter how far from Moscow.

According to the account in the city newspaper, the first day of the four-day Magnitogorsk plenary meeting was taken up with a report on the Central Committee plenum by Vladislav Shurov, second secretary of the Cheliabinsk obkom (filling in for First Secretary Ryndin, who was presiding over an obkom “party active” at the same time). The rest of the Magnitogorsk session was given over to discussion of Shurov’s report, normally a pro forma exercise of slavish endorsement, and now anything but that. Indeed, the newspaper’s account of the discussion following Shurov’s report began with stinging charges by Aleksandr Lopaev, the director of the local branch office of the state bank, that Kasperovich, chief of the factory’s Department of Capital Construction (OKS), had concealed the steel plant’s true financial picture at a recent city soviet plenum.204

In this no doubt common practice, which impinged directly on the bank official’s job and may have involved him in unavoidable financial shenanigans, Lopaev also implicated the former plant director, Avraamii Zaveniagin, who had just been promoted to first deputy commissar of NKTP.205 “After the[ir] deception,” Lopaev was quoted as saying, “I asked in an article, ‘Whom are the construction people tricking?’ Because of this comrade Zaveniagin pounced on me, promising to ‘wipe me from the face of the earth.’” Lopaev added that the gorkom and its secretary, Khitarov, also “knew about the false figures a year before from written reports,” but had kept quiet. It is not clear what set Lopaev off. Given the steel plant’s messy financial condition, perhaps he anticipated being held criminally accountable and concluded that going on the offensive was the best way to save his own skin. In any case, such a public attack against the highest local officials while they were still in power was unprecedented, and set the tone for the rest of the newspaper’s report of the meeting.206

In the published version of the party meeting, after Lopaev came A. Goltsev, director of the sewing factory, who underlined the “historical significance” of the Central Committee plenum, then directed sharp words toward obkom First Secretary Ryndin, one of the seventy-one full members of the Central Committee, as well as Shurov, for their rude “bossing” (administratirovanie) of the Magnitogorsk party organization. The assault by members of the gorkom on the top party officials in the oblast—one of whom, Shurov, was present—may have been a survival tactic. All the same, it was in keeping with the logic of the process: those “below,” after chafing under the millstone of “iron party discipline,” were “activated” by “signals” in Pravda and secret party circulars to voice their accumulated grievances in the name of “inner-party democracy.”

Fedor Savelev, party secretary for Magnitogorsk’s Kirov raikom, followed Goltsev and adopted a different tactic. Although Goltsev too underscored the importance of the Central Committee plenum, he went on to malign not the obkom but the Magnitogorsk gorkom. Savelev was himself a prominent member of the gorkom, yet he did not admit his own part in the failures. He instead singled out First Secretary Khitarov, suggesting that the charges leveled at the gorkom ought to be directed at the top person, not his lieutenants. As Savelev’s denunciation of Khitarov demonstrated, the apparat had a large hand in its own undoing.

At this point in the text, the chief of the construction trust Magnitostroi, Konstantin Valerius, condemned the deferential and rigidly hierarchical relations of power characteristic of economic and political administration. But of the thirteen people directly quoted in the newspaper’s account of the meeting, Valerius was the only one not to attack others—for the time being. After Valerius, L. Rudnitskii, the city Komsomol secretary, also criticized the cultishness of the local party leadership and flattery, including his own. He faulted Khitarov for failing to put an end to these practices and then “brought up examples of the arbitrariness [proizvol] of certain local workers [rabotnikov]” as the newspaper observed. Rudnitskii named “deputy complex director Khazanov, also the chairman of the city sports club ‘Metal Worker,’ [who] acquired for himself a hired football squad.” According to Rudnitskii, “the city committee of the Komsomol struggled against this.” As a result, he claimed that “Khazanov forbade his employees to go to the Komsomol. We turned to the member of the bureau of the city committee comrade Kolbin, who remarked: ‘Are you serious? Khazanov is the deputy director of the complex. You can’t push this.’” Rudnitskii added that “the pattern of servility reached the point that there appeared in the city a settlement named after Khazanov.” Having apparently staked his own survival and that of the rest of the city Komsomol leadership on criticism of even higher local officials, Rudnitskii directed a final barb at Kariaev, the editor of the city newspaper, for failing to criticize the mistakes of the gorkom.

A. Zakharov of the obkom spoke next in the published sequence, accusing Khitarov of having painted a rosy picture of the situation in Magnitogorsk to the obkom. Zakharov also noted that during December and January alone, seven or eight photographs of Khitarov had appeared in the Magnitogorsk newspaper (previously considered de rigueur). After Zakharov spoke, deputy factory chief Khazanov blasted his own administration, in extremely general terms, using the now stock phrase, it was “cut off from the masses.” He repeated a question that may have been posed to him: why, since there were so many enemies in the factory, had he not known about them? Khazanov gave no answer, although he implied that shop bosses—his subordinates—were at fault.

Echoing the earlier remarks by Goltsev, two prominent members of the Magnitogorsk gorkom lashed out at the obkom. Lev Berman, the secretary of the city’s Ordzhonikidze raikom, accused the obkom of mutual-protection (semeistvennost) and cliquishness (artelshchina). “Comrade Berman pointed out,” the newspaper wrote, “that the newspaper Magnitogorskii rabochii struggled to criticize the gorkom.” The paper’s editor, Kariaev, followed this self-serving paraphrase by bashing the obkom for “toadyism, nepotism, squelching self-criticism, and violating and perverting internal party democracy.” Unlike Berman, however, Kariaev also criticized the gorkom and admitted in careful language that the newspaper was “not on the level it should have been on” with respect to criticism of the gorkom’s mistakes. Kariaev’s appeared as one of the more adroit performances, considerably more sophisticated than Khazanov’s.

Golushkin, second secretary of the gorkom, admitted the correctness of the criticism leveled at the gorkom, acknowledging that it had not paid enough attention to “party” matters. “I, for example, can more or less exactly say, what the situation regarding plan fulfillment is in construction, what is going on in the open-hearth shop, the blast furnace shop, what materials are lacking, how finished products are shipped, because every day five to six expediters [tolkachi] visit me,” Golushkin revealed. “But about the situation in party organizations of this or that shop, about party organizers, I, very likely, don’t know anything.” The utter lack of embellishment or guile in Golushkin’s self-criticism seems striking, as does his blunt admission that for him, the second highest Magnitogorsk party official, party work was really the same as factory administration. The party was made to appear redundant.

The voice of the police was printed next. Dorozhko, the deputy chief of the city NKVD, delivered a tirade against wreckers in the form of innuendo and slogans: “Wreckers are everywhere”; “We must maintain our vigilance”; “Not for one minute lessen your revolutionary vigilance.” In what the city newspaper printed of his speech, there was little that was concrete, although according to the obkom newspaper, “the party active listened with great attention to the speech of comrade Dorozhko, who told of facts of wrecking work on the blast furnace, blooming, and railroad construction.” His comments reflected the NKVD’s broad-brush approach in the panicky political situation that they had deliberately strived to create.

Next, in a speech that must have lifted the spirits of the Magnitogorsk comrades, Syrkin, the editor of the obkom newspaper Cheliabinskii rabochii, added force to the charges leveled by the Magnitogorsk gorkom against the obkom. Made vulnerable by the collapse of its own solidarity, some members of the Magnitogorsk gorkom exploited the cleavages in the obkom. “Comrade Syrkin spoke about comrade Ryndin’s incorrect selection of cadres according to nepotism and cliquishness,” wrote the Magnitogorsk newspaper, “as a result of which in and around the obkom bureau there turned out to be not a few reticents [malchalnikov] and along with them blatant toadies.” With this fortified grenade tossed at the obkom by Syrkin, who named several names, the report of the first day of discussion came to a close.

The newspaper’s account of the second and third days’ discussion began with a speech by Rafael Khitarov, who endeavored to meet the challenge of self-criticism. Having accepted blame, however, Khitarov soon redirected his comments toward the obkom, accusing it of squelching self-criticism. “Self-criticism,” he quipped, “was on vacation.” Although faulting obkom First Secretary Ryndin for intimidation (zapugivanie) and bossing (komandovanie), Khitarov acknowledged having known of the unsatisfactory state of affairs in the obkom and yet having failed to point it out. Of Khitarov’s harsh appraisal of the obkom someone remarked that his criticism of the gorkom ought to have been as sharp.

Nikolai Saraikin, secretary of the Stalin raikom (the steel plant party committee), spoke in scandalous tones of how the arrested former coke plant director Vasilii Shevchenko “was praised until the last days, his portrait was published in the newspaper and in the collection published for the fifth-year anniversary of the factory, which was edited by Zaveniagin and Kariaev. They did not see that Shevchenko was an enemy.” At the end of the account of the day’s events the newspaper enigmatically noted that “Saraikin presented a statement acknowledging the erroneousness of his remarks,” without specifying which remarks were erroneous and why. Leonid Vaisberg, then chief of mill 500, criticized Valerius and Khazanov, both of whom had been named by many others, but omitted any reference to Zaveniagin, Magnitogorsk’s former director. Vaisberg was followed by Ivan Sorokin, the city procurator and the man with the power to sanction arrests. Sorokin was accused in editorial comments of not having discussed his own mistakes, but no details of his speech were offered. After Sorokin, Valerius spoke again, this time going mildly on the offensive.

Valerius claimed that Khitarov had strongly recommended he relate to Mrs. Zaveniagin, the president of the Council of Engineers’ Wives, “with respect toward rank [chinopochitanie],” even though the work of the council was judged “very, very unsatisfactory.” This was the one instance he accused anyone by name. For the next several months Valerius was savagely attacked, but he always defended himself without damaging others. Like many others in high positions, he probably hoped to ride things out. (A month later, in April 1937, the newspaper wrote that Valerius thought “the criticism of the construction trust had gone too far, but he also considered this ‘unavoidable,’ for it was now that kind of ‘time’ [seichas takoi ‘moment’].” Meanwhile, he evidently protected people, for he was accused of sending “doubtful people” away on business trips or securing them posts elsewhere.)207

Following Valerius came Dmitrii Gleizer, secretary of the party committee in open-hearth shop no. 1, whose remarks were paraphrased. “He pointed out, allegedly,” wrote the newspaper, “that the Magnitogorskii rabochii, squelching criticism, at the time of the city party conference did not publish in the summary account that part of his speech in which he had criticized the Magnitogorskii rabochii.”208 “After the speech by Gleizer,” the newspaper added, “the discussion period was cut off [and] obkom secretary comrade Shurov gave the final word.”209

In apparent confirmation of Gleizer’s charges, what Shurov had said in closing was not reported, perhaps because he had berated the gorkom.210 The newspaper, the organ of the gorkom, was understandably reluctant to use its own pages to destroy itself as well as the rest of the gorkom. But such self-destruction had become unavoidable. If the principal support for enemies was the suppression of “self-criticism,” to suppress self-criticism was to incriminate oneself as a collaborator. The only choice was to practice self-criticism, thereby incriminating oneself anyway. Having struggled to limit the damage of the March meeting, the city newspaper ended up doing just that, publishing a devastating lead editorial on 27 March that was far sharper in tone and more focused on the gorkom, especially on the Magnitogorskii rabochii and its editor, Kariaev, than the account of the meeting itself had been.

The unsigned editorial could only have been written by someone familiar with the internal mood of the local party hierarchy. It accused the gorkom of having fallen into a period of “complacency, heedlessness, and light-heartedness” after the unmasking of Lominadze, the event that had been used by Moscow as a means for radicalizing the process begun with the 1933 party purge. In an indirect disclosure of the tension that had come to envelop Magnitogorsk party circles, the editorial related how following the completion of the 1935 exchange of party documents many members of the gorkom had come to feel that the party was “completely clean” and that the situation was “safe.” But “all of a sudden,” the editorial continued (tellingly emphasizing the surprise), new wreckers “were found.” The reason given for this lamentable turn of events was analogous to the one Stalin put forth at the Central Committee plenum: at the top of the Magnitogorsk apparat, in the gorkom bureau itself, “there was no self-criticism,” only “nepotism, toadyism, and complacency,” which had allowed wreckers a free hand.211 (The same analysis was applied to the factory administration.)212

That the party leadership in Magnitogorsk pursued the search for internal enemies only with considerable prodding from above, that it had hoped to control the process and limit its effects to people tied to Lominadze, and that it had then been caught unawares when Moscow further radicalized the campaign and directed it at the local leadership itself seems credible. For the local apparat, in March 1937 the world was suddenly turned upside down. What a cunning and unpredictable practice Bolshevik self-criticism had turned out to be! The more it was deployed, the more it still needed to be deployed, and the higher up the local hierarchy it went.

Self-criticism had come to mean outright condemnation, but much like the Inquisition, the “self-criticism” campaign of the party spoke of “saving” people, not destroying them. An article in the central press explained that “the real way to protect and preserve party officials is to be ruthless in the criticism of shortcomings, to expose them ruthlessly to the public opinion of the party.” The article concluded that “one has to correct a man at the right moment, to save him for the party.” In such a way were political denunciations made to appear altruistic.213

It also must be kept in mind that the search for internal enemies was conducted under the banner of “party revival” and “democratization.” These concepts were not only accepted by all party members; they were also far from abstract, for as specified by the Central Committee at the February-March plenum, throughout April there were unprecedented secret-ballot elections to leadership positions in primary party organizations. This process led to a dramatic turnover of lower-level officeholders.214 In Magnitogorsk, the city newspaper reported that in the Kirov raikom, 50 percent of party secretaries and organizers were new. Similar results were reported for the city’s other two raikoms, and were confirmed at the Seventh Magnitogorsk Party Conference, held in late May 1937.215 Previously, “voting” for such positions meant applying a rubber stamp to appointments made from above—a practice that was now “exposed” and condemned, further intensifying the atmosphere of “democratization.”

When asked by the newspaper how he got involved in party work, Cherenkov, the secretary of the party committee in the KBO (the Kirov district branch of the KBU), reportedly responded that “once, comrade Savelev [of the raikom] summoned me and the chief of the KBO Tabunov and said to him: ‘For party secretary I think I’ll send you this here guy (he nods toward me). What do you think?’” Tabunov, of course, accepted raikom Secretary Savelev’s “suggestion.” Such a picture of the relationship between the raikom and primary party organizations was elaborated by another Magnitogorsk Communist, Likhachev, who was quoted to the effect that “the secretary of the Kirov raikom Savelev showed up at the KBU party committee, informed them that their party secretary, Larichev, was being summoned for work in the raikom and recommended Efimov in his place.” According to Likhachev, “some members of the KBU party committee objected, but the secretary of the raikom insisted. And so they ‘agreed’ with him.” In the recent secret-ballot party election, however, Efimov was not reelected.216

Elections were but one part of the process of “democratization.” During and after the March meeting of the party “active” and the subsequent April party elections, political bombs continued to be detonated in the city newspaper. In addition to the charges of wrecking up and down the steel plant, “counterrevolutionary bands” were said to have been unmasked in the Komsomol, the city’s medical department,217 and the mining institute.218 Group arrests by the NKVD shook these and other organizations. Such was the grim backdrop to the talk of democratization and “renewal.” Within a few months of the March party “active” meeting, most of the fourteen gorkom speakers cited in the newspaper were expelled from the party and arrested; at least seven were executed.219 As for the three obkom representatives at the meeting, two were expelled and arrested; the third escaped arrest but not death.

On 11 May 1937, six weeks after the “party active” meeting in Magnitogorsk, came the spectacular announcement that Vladislav Shurov of the obkom had “died” the previous day. He was thirty-seven years old. No cause of death was disclosed. Suicide seems likely.220 Although the obkom and First Secretary Ryndin had been slammed by Pravda back in February, with the approach of the Second Cheliabinsk Obkom Party Conference, scheduled for June, the attacks grew fiercer.221 The obkom leadership seems to have survived the conference,222 but not long thereafter Magnitogorsk’s A. Kariaev, despite having been mercilessly attacked by the obkom, was promoted to the editorship of the obkom newspaper, replacing Syrkin, who was arrested.223 And a few months later, in October 1937, Khitarov was moved up to second secretary of the obkom, evidently to replace someone just arrested.224 Before the end of the year, Khitarov too was arrested along with Ryndin (both were soon executed). In January 1938 new second and third secretaries, sent from Moscow, were named, but no first secretary.225 In May 1938, when Dmitrii Antonov arrived from the Central Committee apparat to take over as first secretary, the rout of the obkom was complete.226

Back in Magnitogorsk, after Khitarov had moved to the obkom, he was replaced by the city’s second secretary, Lev Berman. But at a gorkom plenum in December 1937, attended by K. M. Ogurtsov, the new acting obkom second secretary, and Pavel Chistov, the new chief of the oblast NKVD, Berman was relieved of his post as first secretary for “failing in the deployment of the struggle against enemies of the people”—a formulaic charge that can perhaps be taken literally. Soon expelled from the party, Berman was arrested and executed. (Konstantin Ivanov of the steel plant administration took over as acting first secretary of the gorkom.)227 Several other ranking Communists were also removed from the gorkom plenum, including the secretaries of all three raikoms. There is reason to believe that most, if not all, were also arrested.228

Such a turn of events was a long way from the limited arrests by the “secular arm” in connection with the purge, verification, and exchange of party documents that had begun in 1933. But even amid the mass arrests and routing of both the obkom and gorkom, the party’s self-criticism campaign retained its rhetoric of renewal. Moreover, scapegoats for the devastation were found when a January 1938 plenum of the decimated Central Committee issued a warning that the campaign to unmask enemies was being distorted by “hostile maneuvers.”229

Energetic unmasking had been encouraged at every turn by Moscow’s relentless calls for activism, yet now it could be taken as evidence of wrecking. Of the situation in Magnitogorsk the obkom newspaper reported that “many Communists were expelled as a result of provocational petitions by enemies of the people, slanderers, and careerists.”230 As examples of what were euphemistically called perestrakhovshchiki (those who play it safe, literally, “the over-insurers”) the newspaper pointed to the ex-Communist Kekin, who was accused of having “slandered” twenty-seven party members. By such means, concluded the obkom paper with a ring of authenticity, “enemies of the people introduced uncertainty in the ranks of party organizations.”231 To make matters worse, the city newspaper complained that the Communists expelled by what were now categorized as unsubstantiated rumors were being treated like pariahs, shunned by colleagues and friends fearful of incrimination by association.232

The Central Committee plenum’s decree on “mistakes in expulsions” and “the criminal treatment of the fate of party members,” whatever the maneuvers and motivations in the capital, placed the responsibility for creating a situation conducive to mass expulsions, recriminations, and arrests on embittered enemies rather than on Moscow. While skillfully deflecting blame, the decree did nothing to stop the arrests by the NKVD. But it did set off a reinstatement frenzy within the party.

In Magnitogorsk the appeals process for expelled Communists started slowly (the official reason given was that documents had to be collected from primary party organizations), but by April the three Magnitogorsk raikoms held mini-party conferences to consider the matter of “groundless” expulsions. In the city’s Stalin raikom, there were forty reinstatements (said to be about half the number of recent expulsions there). But the city newspaper complained that some of these reinstated Communists were in fact enemies, implying that the raikoms were trying to take advantage of the Central Committee resolution.233 Nonetheless, up to a quarter of the Communists expelled in 1937–38 may have been reinstated, although some were again expelled.234

Adding to the confusion, alongside the reconsideration of expulsions the January Central Committee plenum ordered the review of all recent admissions to the party. Entrance to the party, which had been closed since January 1933, was reopened as of 1 November 1936 (by a 29 September 1936 Central Committee decree).235 By the end of 1937, however, only 40 people had been admitted to the party in Magnitogorsk, and the entrance of even these few was now called into question. The drive for new members was renewed in early 1938, and by the middle of the year, 180 people were enrolled in the party as candidate members (against what was viewed as a potential recruit population of 8,000 Stakhanovites, 5,012 Komsomols, and 572 sympathizers).236 Also, some 90 party candidates (of more than 750) were promoted to full membership.237 But in terms of sheer numbers, neither the new enrollments nor the reinstatements compensated for the steep decline initiated in 1933, although they did contribute to the confusion and may have sowed what for many people turned out to be false hopes of survival.

With the reinstatement frenzy underway, a Magnitogorsk gorkom plenum took place in late February 1938 at which Konstantin Ivanov, acting first secretary, was demoted to acting second secretary, the position of first secretary remaining unfilled. Except for Ivanov, the entire gorkom bureau was also changed in what again appears to have been a group arrest.238 On 23 March, Aleksandr Semenov arrived to take over as the city’s new first secretary. Like Antonov, his recently arrived counterpart in the obkom, Semenov was a “plenipotentiary” sent by Moscow. A hereditary proletarian and veteran of the GPU troops, Semenov was graduated from the Leningrad Industrial Academy in 1937, after which he served as secretary of the Kirov factory party committee, the largest PPO in the country, before his assignment to Magnitogorsk.239

Semenov’s appointment was voted at the Eighth Magnitogorsk Party Conference in June 1938, during which Magnitogorsk NKVD chief Aleksandr Pridorogin delivered a thunderous although nearly incoherent speech about wreckers in industry and the party.240 Behind what were by now ritualistic incantations lay a political minefield requiring complicated maneuvers and countermaneuvers.241 After the seemingly unassailable Semenov was blasted by Factory Director Pavel Korobov and by the obkom for not being sufficiently “self-critical,” lesser figures joined in the fray, attacking not Semenov but people who had or could threaten them.242

Goltsev, director of the sewing factory, accused two members of the gorkom leadership, Prokhorchik and Kuznetsov, of making telephone calls to order expulsions of certain Communists and acting Second Secretary Ivanov of having gone along with them—all without ever holding a meeting of the gorkom bureau (as if the bureau, and not the primary party organizations, decided on expulsions). Ivanov, for his part, charged City Procurator Ivan Sorokin with defamation after the latter had accused Ivanov of showing up unannounced at a meeting of the Kirov raikom and demanding that the raikom officials submit to a “verification.”243 Vicious infighting between the gorkom and the three raikoms was also apparent.244

Semenov’s closing words to the conference—“Communism is invincible! Communism will live eternally!”—were said to have been “drowned out by a rousing ovation and voices shouting ‘Long Live Comrade Stalin!’ ” which was followed by the singing of “the anthem of the proletarian socialist revolution, the Internationale.” After this, the newspaper reported that there were “again shouts: ‘Long Live the Stalinist Commissar of Internal Affairs, Comrade Ezhov!’ ‘To the Comrade in Arms of Stalin, the Commissar of Heavy Industry, Comrade Kaganovich Hurrah!’ ‘Long Live the Communist Party of Bolsheviks and its Leader, Comrade Stalin!’ These words are drowned in a rousing ovation and shouts of ‘Hurrah!’”245

Notwithstanding the appearance at the conference of great “activism” and of the party’s having rediscovered its revolutionary mission, however, newspaper reports indicated that attendance at party school was back down to minimal levels.246 And although great fanfare accompanied the publication in 1938 of the short course history of the party, Communists admitted having no time to study it, or anything else, owing to the need to attend perpetual gatherings (one apparatchik in the Ordzhonikidze raikom during nineteen days in November 1938 was said to have attended thirty-three meetings).247 Meetings of the gorkom bureau as a rule were said to be conducted from 10 P.M. until 7 A.M.,248 while the gorkom plenary meeting prior to the June party conference lasted twelve hours, from 4 P.M. to 4 A.M. “Some comrades slept,” the newspaper reported.249 “Activism” had paradoxically become an impediment to party work.

Pursuing the chimera of hyperactivism, the party had become consumed by itself. The endless petitions for reinstatement and the waves of denunciations stirred by “activism” swamped officials, even as arrests disorganized the ranks. On top of all this, the party was still unsure of its proper role. “We’re listing from side to side,” remarked V. Kotov, first secretary of the Ordzhonikidze raikom, at the June 1938 conference in Magnitogorsk. “If we take up political work, then we forget economic work, and vice versa.” The revival, in other words, landed the party back where it had begun: still uncertain of how to fulfill its role as an omnicompetent political and ideological guide.250

In the meantime, the party revival had served as the vehicle for the search for a nonexistent enemy within that, with the involvement of the NKVD, devoured hundreds of Magnitogorsk Communists, including much of the apparat. This self-immolation of the party was effected by the recasting of commonplace industrial ills as deliberate wrecking, combined with the assertion that party officials—responsible for maintaining political watchfulness—had failed to keep up their guard owing to their preoccupation with successes. Such a formulation involved an expansion though not a redefinition of the category “enemy” as laid down on the eve of the party purge that followed collectivization.

To the “double-dealers” and concealed “oppositionists” holding party cards were added “wreckers” and “spies” among industrial managers and engineers, along with “bureaucrats” and “toadies” in the party apparat who suppressed self-criticism, the all-important weapon for unmasking. Yet having multiplied, the enemy was still viewed as internal, and still working for the foreign bourgeoisie. Supposedly, however, the enemy’s tactics had changed. With the building of socialism achieved in its foundations, the enemy had reputedly united for a desperate, all-out final battle under the covenant of Trotskyism, the satanic incarnation of class-based, and therefore ideologically implacable, anti-Soviet counterrevolution begotten by the revolutionary movement itself, and nurtured by capitalist encirclement. The wise leader of the party had himself supplied this credible “analysis” of the confounding and dreadful events that cast a pall over the heroic socialist construction.

Although the search for presumed internal enemies was widely approved within party circles and employed methods, such as Bolshevik self-criticism, whose value was beyond question, it was strategically manipulated by Stalin. In that endeavor Stalin was assisted by several underlings at the top and a handful of zealous collaborators, aided by many more reluctant accomplices and unwitting pawns, in each locality around the country, including Magnitogorsk. In the name of carrying out their mission and ultimately of defending the revolution, party members participated in the destruction of each other, and often of themselves.


The terror grew out of the party’s self-understanding and rationale as a political or “spiritual” guide whose ideological level had to be raised if it were to fulfill its role and meet the political challenge of building socialism against the background of capitalist encirclement. But the party structure alone was insufficient to transform the prolonged verification of party members into the terror. The terror was the result of the appropriation of the party’s inquisition by the “secular arm,” or the NKVD. Any account of the terror as a process, therefore, must make some attempt to take the measure of this still largely obscure organization.251

The NKVD had undergone a chaotic expansion in size and influence with the collectivization and industrialization drives, and the terror brought still more growth as well as an organizational challenge. In July 1937, after it had begun to make widespread arrests, the NKVD issued an internal order to its branches extending the sentencing powers of its ad hoc boards, called troikas, which had been created in 1935 to expedite judgments in absentia for crimes involving “counterrevolution.” Thus bolstered, these extrajudicial bodies served—until they were abolished in November 1938—as the processing mechanisms for “mass operations” conducted by the Soviet state against its own people.252

From a purely bureaucratic point of view, the extent of these mass operations was impressive. Precise figures on the number of arrests for “political crimes” (article 58) in Magnitogorsk are not available, but scattered data convey the order of magnitude.253 As of 27 June 1937, City Procurator Sorokin reported that the Magnitogorsk remand prison, whose capacity was 400, held 675 people (265 of whom were still under investigation and therefore relatively recent arrests).254 In another communication dated 5 May 1938, Sorokin reported that the same prison held 1,900 people.255 It is unclear how many of these 1,900 inmates were “political” cases, or how many “politicals” had already been executed or turned over to Gulag for shipment to remote labor camps. Moreover, some people charged with crimes under article 58 were not taken to the overcrowded prison but, instead, were compelled to turn over their passports and to sign a document promising not to leave town.256 Still, it is likely that John Scott was roughly correct when he wrote that “thousands were arrested” and “no group, no organization was spared.”257

On such a scale, the execution of the terror was perforce sloppy. Documents from the Magnitogorsk procuracy (about its work and that of the NKVD) reveal that incompetence and confusion were rampant. A few individuals designated to be arrested or to be witnesses managed to skip town. Some remained in Magnitogorsk but still could not be located. And functionaries in the punitive apparatus could not explain to themselves why some people were hauled in and others were not.258 Yet disorganized as its assembly-line enactment turned out to be, the terror cannot be said to have been the result of a mysterious process that somehow spun out of control. Indirect evidence suggests that the Magnitogorsk branch of the NKVD, which was led by Captain Aleksandr Pridorogin and his deputy, Major Aleksei Pushkov, received broad directives from controlling bodies in Moscow, via Cheliabinsk, to maximize the quantity of arrests. In 1938, the Magnitogorsk NKVD even began “arresting” large numbers of convicts in the city’s labor colony (ITK).259

Procurator Sorokin wrote to Moscow of the discovery behind the ITK’s barbed wire of a counterrevolutionary organization “dedicated to the overthrow of Soviet power” and connected to the “Polish Military Organization” (Polskaia Organizatsiia Voiskova). Many of the members of the Magnitogorsk affiliate of this “Polish” organization were Georgians, while the local leader was said to be Izrail Zolotovskii, a Jew from the Ukraine who had been arrested in 1937 and was serving an eight-year sentence for Trotskyism.260 Such a preposterous nationality medley under the catchall category “Polish” was no more absurd than the absence of country designations in the cases of many convicts who were rearrested, both individually and in groups, as foreign spies.261 In another letter to Moscow, for example, Sorokin wrote that “the city branch of the NKVD had uncovered a counterrevolutionary insurgent, espionage-diversionary organization active in the city of Magnitogorsk on assignment from one of the foreign states.” Although he neglected to specify which one of the foreign states they served, Sorokin dutifully reported the NKVD’s arrest totals: “with my sanction on 1 and 2 April two hundred forty participants of this organization were detained.”262

Naturally, the existence of so many counterrevolutionary organizations within the ITK could not be considered “accidental.” Having invented these counterrevolutionaries, the NKVD then had to explain how it was that their existence could have gone undetected until the moment they were unmasked. The answer was provided on 29 April 1938, when Aleksandr Geineman, chief of the labor colony, was arrested. He was accused of being an agent of German intelligence—a “logical” charge, for he had a German-sounding name.263 Geineman’s “accomplices,” the heads of the labor colony administration’s various subdivisions, were also arrested. In such a way did the terror snowball.264

Arrests during the terror were often “arbitrary,” but even in dealing with convicts rearrested to pad totals there was a certain preoccupation with juridical procedure and the appearance of legality.265 An arrest by the NKVD required the sanction of the procurator (depending on the status of the accused, this could mean requested approval via telegraph from the USSR procurator general). Any materials confiscated during arrests were inventoried, and a receipt was given. Charges were brought under specific articles of the Criminal Code. For those in custody, pretrial detention was limited to three months, and an extension required the written permission of the procurator (a rule that generated a massive correspondence between the NKVD and procuracy). Alongside the use of torture, which under the euphemism “physical measures” was apparently permitted by secret internal directives, there were cases in which suspects were released owing to NKVD violations of proper investigation procedures.266

Although such rules and procedures were frequently circumvented or flouted, the very need to do so, amid great pressures for quantitative results, raises the question of why people were not just rounded up and shot or deported without the labor-intensive formalities, especially the endless rounds of interrogations and accompanying minutely detailed protocols of defendants’ confessions. Cases were decided in absentia, the content of confessions was invented, signatures on them could have been forged—if they were to be required at all. In short, the problem posed by the confessions is less why people who were tortured and blackmailed chose to make them than why the NKVD required confessions even from people whose arrests were not reported publicly and who would never be heard from again.

Certainly there was the convenience of receiving the names of others who could be arrested and added to the totals. Some scholars have also suggested that because the cases were manufactured, the only “evidence” for conviction was testimony (pokazaniia) by accessories and, above all, a confession by the accused. True enough, but this does not explain where the need for evidence came from. To understand that, we should keep in mind that the NKVD’s work was based on the righteousness of the cause and their duty to uphold it. Working according to ostensibly juridical criteria and securing apparent confessions underscored both the just cause and the NKVD’s “professionalism” to the rest of Soviet society, the outside world, and the NKVD operatives themselves. The NKVD as an institution, and the USSR as the champion of a superior civilization, recognized a need for the confessions.267 At a more basic level, however, the impulse to extract confessions derived from the nature of the crime the NKVD sought to expose and eradicate: counterrevolution.

Counterrevolution was a state of mind—as much as any particular action—deemed contrary to “the revolution.” As such, counterrevolution bore a striking resemblance to the religious heresy of the Middle Ages.268 Such a parallel, noted above, has been remarked on by a few scholars, usually in passing, and was also noted by contemporaries (especially those victimized by the terror). But the significance of the inquisitorial mind-set and techniques for the NKVD’s conduct of the terror, as well as the extent of the parallel with the Inquisition, remain to be clarified.

In the USSR, as in medieval Europe, “errors” in interpretation or the wholesale rejection of fundamental dogma was considered by the authorities to be not just morally wrong but dangerous, yet such “errors” need not be manifest. In fact, because of the penalties, most “potential” or “actual” counterrevolutionaries, like heretics, could scarcely be expected to admit their “heresy” flat out. So it was necessary to employ clever and forceful methods to probe suspected people’s consciences, thereby exposing a suspect’s true inner thoughts. From such propositions was the brutal work of the NKVD justified: they were doing the equivalent of “God’s work.”269

The NKVD “blue caps” were evidently taught to expect all manner of prevarication or other “tricks” from counterrevolutionaries, especially proclamations of innocence (in this regard, it would be interesting to compare the training manuals for the NKVD interrogators with those for the inquisitors). Just as in the battle against heresy, zealotry could seem an indispensable weapon for rooting out counterrevolutionary zealots. Little wonder that most NKVD interrogators, their expertise on the line no less than that of medieval inquisitors, spared nothing in the extraction (dobytie) of confessions, recording their “yields” in protocols signed by the accused.270

Yet although by encouraging “heretics” to build up cases against themselves the NKVD interrogator resembled the medieval inquisitor, in medieval times a genuine confession brought conversion, repentance, and forgiveness.271 A repentant heretic could be imprisoned for suspected insincerity but was never burnt at the stake. Only heretics who refused to abjure and return to the Church with due penance were turned over to the “secular authorities” and executed—a relatively rare occurrence, for this reduced the likelihood of the person dying in a state of grace, meaning a soul was lost to the devil. Private scores were settled, coveted property confiscated, and fines accruing to the authorities were levied, but for all its abuses, the Inquisition was directed at reclaiming souls.272

By contrast, counterrevolutionaries were “outlawed” even though they confessed; they were either banished to perform forced labor in remote regions or executed (privately shot in the back of the neck, rather than publicly burned at the stake). Many were shot almost immediately after having been arrested and confessing.273 “Acquittals” were rare, and when they occurred it was often because of whim or accident, not “repentance.” As for “conversions,” they could not have been induced because there was no alternative “church” for the Soviet population to convert from, Trotskyism notwithstanding. Thus, whereas most heretics who suffered did so because they refused to relinquish beliefs contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, “counterrevolutionaries” often confessed because of their abiding faith in the Communist party—and were executed all the same.

If the similarity of the terror to the Inquisition was limited to the nature of the crime, the resultant need to extract confessions, and the methods employed in doing so, the precondition for the terror remained, like the Inquisition, the existence of an organization imagining itself to be a universal “church” staunchly determined to enforce its self-proclaimed universality throughout “its” territory.274 Such a circumstance did not “compel” the terror any more than the existence of heresy “compelled” the Inquisition. But the Communist party’s church-like status offered a rationale for imagining how people who seemed not to have committed any criminal acts could nonetheless somehow be guilty. The inherent possibility, even likelihood, of the existence of counterrevolution reinforced the truth of the confessions, which in turn gave substance to the category of counterrevolution.

It should not be thought that the way of thinking that helped account for the institutional dynamics of “the secular arm” was abstract. Cases arose within the context of industrial breakdown at home and fascist aggression abroad. Both the internal and external aspects of this conjuncture drove the terror process, once it was underway. By no means did fascism necessitate the terror, but fascism did make concrete the endless talk about “enemies” and served as an inescapable frame of reference for guiding any particular person’s thoughts and actions, whether that person was asked to collaborate in a single instance or was one of those responsible for conducting the terror locally.

The role of specific individuals within the “secular arm” during the terror remains obscure, but documents from one case shed a degree of light on the actions of the city’s procurator, Ivan Sorokin. The case in question arose in the blooming mill. On 17 February 1937, after strong pressure from the obkom, a story appeared in the Magnitogorsk newspaper retrospectively declaring an incident in the mill “an act of conscious wrecking.” The act had occurred on 31 January—the steel mill’s fifth anniversary—and resulted in a six-day shutdown.275 Having been prodded, the city newspaper named senior blooming operator A. G. Terekhov, a Stakhanovite, as the main culprit.276

This announcement was then followed by a meeting of the Stalin raikom at which others were implicated, including the shop chief, Fedor Golubitskii, a party member since 1928 who lived in the elite section of town, Berezka. Unlike Shevchenko, his thirty-nine-year-old counterpart in the coke plant, the thirty-four-year-old Golubitskii was apparently popular.277 He also seems to have resisted the scapegoating of subordinates, as a result of which he evidently incurred the antipathy of Procurator Sorokin.278

As far as Sorokin was concerned, a convincing pretext for the inference of wrecking was provided by the lamentable circumstance, mostly a result of Stakhanovite adventurism, that “during 1936 and 1937 the blooming was systematically in a state of breakdown.” To “nail” the shop chief, whose arrest technically required the sanction of Vyshinskii, Sorokin and the NKVD had to obtain testimony from those below Golubitskii in the blooming mill to the effect that they had caused the state of disrepair on his orders. This was easy enough. Terekhov, along with another award-winning operator, V. P. Ogorodnikov, and a labor colony convict employed by the blooming mill were arrested and tortured. Their statements—complete with minute technical details—about the deplorable state of the mill rang true, except for the attribution of criminal design.279

More than a year into the investigation, on the early morning of 12 March 1938, after two more breakdowns had occurred that month, the NKVD arrested Golubitskii with Sorokin’s sanction, which the procurator gave without having secured the prior approval of Vyshinskii, in willful violation of regulations. Sorokin then wrote a long letter to Vyshinskii, dated 16 March 1938, to explain why he had sanctioned the arrest of a shop chief without prior approval from Moscow.280 (Factory Director Korobov issued an executive order removing Golubitskii as shop chief the day after his arrest, 13 March 1938, demonstrating that this was a matter for the police to decide.)281 Whether their superiors in Moscow had concurred beforehand or not, Sorokin and the Magnitogorsk NKVD had their case. Convicted on 29 July 1938, Golubitskii was shot that same day. Ogorodnikov, the labor colony convict, perhaps Terekhov, and no doubt others from the blooming mill were also executed.282

As the Golubitskii case demonstrates, the terror was propelled by the ambitions and grudges of the men of the NKVD and procuracy—including the competition and enmity between the two agencies. In this vein, Sorokin wrote to Vyshinskii in 1938 that “supervision of the UGB [Department of State Security in the NKVD] by the procuracy in charges brought under article 58, points 8, 9, 11 of the Criminal Code is unsatisfactory.” This was an indirect way of acknowledging that the NKVD in Magnitogorsk was beyond his control. Reminding Vyshinskii of the laws whereby only the procurator can sanction an arrest and, moreover, must verify that the arrest is well-founded, Sorokin complained that he had been asked to give his sanction sometimes knowing only general phrases about a case. He also protested being cut off from the interrogations and further development of a case once he had signed an arrest order. “The procurator should be active and full of initiative in the struggle with wreckers, diversionists, and other similar enemies,” he wrote.283 Angered at his estrangement from cases of counterrevolution beyond formally sanctioning arrests, Sorokin fought a continuing turf battle with the NKVD.284 Perhaps for this reason, on 25 July 1938 Sorokin himself was arrested “as a participant in a counterrevolutionary Trotskyite organization,” evidently on testimony provided by the Magnitogorsk NKVD.

Sorokin’s arrest followed an investigation into his work by the oblast procuracy.285 According to an internal report by the oblast representative sent to examine the Magnitogorsk procuracy files, “Sorokin, to conceal his hostile activity, used the method whereby work on a case was only just begun, and he began to make noise and shout about the work already done.” But “in actuality, the work begun was not consolidated, and collapsed.” The investigator claimed that “Sorokin himself admitted in testimony given to the organs of the NKVD that he conducted his wrecking work by the disorganization of the city procuracy apparat, hiding behind ‘pretense’—commotion.”286 Of course, the sacrifice of efficiency and proper procedure to zealotry was an integral aspect of the conduct of the terror, especially the pursuit of “high volume,” and in this the hyperactive Sorokin may well have been exemplary. But such actions were easily turned into evidence of wrecking.287

Sorokin’s arrest and subsequent expulsion from the party at a meeting of the Kirov raikom on 2 August 1938 appear to have introduced panic into the procuracy, where following the raikom gathering, a party meeting took place. “As you know,” the new acting procurator, I. M. Sokolov, told those assembled, “Sorokin has been imprisoned as an enemy of the people.” The implication for those remaining was plain. But Kirov raikom Secretary S. Z. Zhemerikin, whose jurisdiction included the procuracy, acknowledged the “confusion” in the party organization of the procuracy yet tried to impose calm. “For Sokolov immediately the question arose, ‘I worked with Sorokin, and so . . . , ’ ” remarked Zhemerikin, who advised, “Let’s not talk about this. You are members of the party; today, courteously fulfill and with confidence fulfill” the party’s directives. Whether such efforts at reassurance dispelled the sense of terror within this part of the terror apparatus is unclear.

The meeting in the procuracy indirectly attested to the reduction of the procuracy’s role to observer of the terror and supervisor of the local prison. Evidently meaning to cast aspersions on Sorokin, Sokolov spoke of several hunger strikes inside the Magnitogorsk lockup and one case of someone condemned to death (a party member without reprimands in his record) who was detained in the death cell but who wrote a petition to Vyshinskii, as a result of which his case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Sokolov also reported that there was tuberculosis in prison cells, but prisoners’ requests to see a doctor had been denied. One procuracy employee, Zhiltsov, claimed that people came to work at the procuracy when they felt like it, left when they wanted, and sometimes did not show at all. Another, Tiutionnikov, claimed that “very important criminals were convicted of inconsequential crimes or their cases were closed.” A third, Soldatikov, evidently meaning to cast aspersions on Sorokin, remarked that “many are held for absolutely nothing.”288

Sorokin was still in custody when the terror was abruptly halted in late 1938, around the time Stalin removed Nikolai Ezhov as People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs. After the fall of Ezhov in Moscow, the leadership of the Magnitogorsk NKVD was routed in early 1939. This turned out to be a stroke of good fortune for Sorokin, who was released from prison and reinstated in the party.289 His place in prison was taken by his former accusers, Captain Pridorogin and Major Pushkov, who were arrested on charges that “they had grossly violated socialist legality, conducted mass arrests of citizens without foundation, themselves used and gave their subordinates orders to use physical measures on those arrested, and falsified investigatory materials.” This of course had been their mandate.290

Arrests continued after Pridorogin and Pushkov were incarcerated, especially in the labor colony, but many more people seem to have been released.291 Even before the debacle of the Magnitogorsk NKVD, moreover, two central decrees were issued in late 1938 that reestablished the procurator’s control over the NKVD and eliminated the NKVD’s extrajudicial sentencing boards.292 With the scapegoating of the “secular arm,” the terror was ended.293


The ferocity of the terror can be attributed largely to the dictates imposed on the NKVD by Stalin and his inner circle, by the nature of the NKVD as an institution, and by the inquisitorial rationality that justified the NKVD’s work on behalf of the revolution. But the terror also had something of a “popular” dimension, linked to resentment. Without access to the NKVD reports on overheard conversations, the existence of such resentment can only be inferred from the strategy adopted by the official press to appeal to such feelings during the height of the terror, and from the circumstances of the revolution’s trajectory by the mid-1930s.

The October revolution, in the famous words of the “Internationale,” meant that those “who had been nothing would become everything.” In a speech outlining the need for the new constitution in 1936, Stalin explained that the class structure of Soviet society had indeed changed since 1917—only not precisely as foreseen. What were called “the exploiting classes”—landowners (pomeshchiki), capitalists in industry, kulaks in agriculture, merchants (kuptsy) and speculators in the sphere of trade—were said to have been “liquidated.” According to Stalin, there remained only two classes, workers and peasants, and a stratum (prosloika), the intelligentsia, each radically transformed owing to the elimination of exploitation. Stalin made no mention of a new class that was created, but behind the awkward formulation of the “stratum” lay just such a reality.294

Industrialization had brought forth a colossal number of managers, technicians, and white-collar employees who, in the performance of their duties, exercised a kind of de facto “ownership” of the country’s property. Thus arose the so-called “new class,” a term for a Communist system’s elite later popularized by the Yugoslav apostate, Milovan Djilas. Most commentators reject Djilas’s attempt to attribute the origins and every policy of the Communist system to the class-conscious actions of a ruling elite, but there can be no doubt about the creation under the Communist system of such a social group or the far-reaching consequences of this fact.295

Here was a fundamental contradiction of the Soviet system: a “proletarian” revolution had created a literal ruling class, and, moreover, one whose operational authority was extensive yet whose existence could not be admitted, and thus whose relationship with the rest of society could only be highly problematic.296 Communism had created its own class of “exploiters,” or “blood-suckers” (krovopiitsi) as they were colloquially known. These ranged from mid-level white-collar workers to the large number of upper-level engineering and managerial positions with comparatively high salaries and various perquisites.297

These “new men” were young and often inexperienced, yet their difficulties in coping with their colossal responsibilities were matched not by a sense of humility but of arrogance. When passing simple directives to subordinates those in positions of power did not hesitate to pound their fists and use threats, such as “I’ll have you fired,” “I’ll arrest you,” or “I’ll turn you over to the courts.”298 Factory chiefs set the tone, commanding with a decided heavy-handedness, and their underlings followed suit. But virtually the entire corpus of administrators, while treating the public purse with less than complete scrupulousness, frequently delivered oily speeches about their great sacrifices on the public’s behalf.

With this consideration in mind we can better understand the highly publicized demolition of the KBU chief, Lukashevich, who in April 1937 was expelled from the party and, in the newspaper’s almost gleeful words, “turned over to the investigative organs” (see chapter 6).299 Among the various components of the bureaucracy in Magnitogorsk, the KBU (responsible for living conditions) was no doubt the most unpopular, and the press campaign against Lukashevich was especially vicious.

“It is impossible to describe all the outrages perpetrated by Lukashevich in one article,” the newspaper wrote, adding that “many employees know about them, but they are silent before the ‘all-powerful’ Lukashevich.” That silence was, of course, broken by his arrest. One underling, Uss, the chief of the KBU’s department of workshops, was quoted as having remarked, “I am a toady [podkhalim]. It’s true, comrades. But consider: Why did I become a toady to Lukashevich? You want to achieve something the honest way, but it doesn’t work. So, you start toadying.” A codefendant, the bookkeeper Serman, was said to have organized “a two-day drinking bout” in November 1936 attended by Efimov (KBU party secretary), Lukashevich, and others, after which Serman allegedly exclaimed: “Now they won’t fire me from the KBU.”300 Following several months of such disclosures, a public trial of Lukashevich and several of his associates was finally held in November 1937. The charges were malfeasance, “collective coverup” (krugovaia poruka), and “mutual aid.”

It is highly probable that behind the credible accusations of bureaucratic tyranny and crass self-interest lay a palpable social anger directed at local representatives of “Soviet power” who resembled a new gentry more than selfless servants of the people. In the buildup to the trial and during the actual proceeding, the newspaper reported that members of what it called “the KBU gang” were said to have awarded themselves and their friends choice apartments, received special food supplies at state prices or gratis, rode around in chauffeur-driven automobiles on private business, built personal cottages at state expense, taken frequent “business trips” to the capital, and helped themselves to petty cash for pocket money. Their wives were said to have been showered with hard-to-obtain fashions and cosmetics. This damning portrait of the elite’s way of life was not included in the official indictment, but it was subtly accentuated and may have underlay the public reception of the charges of incompetence and malfeasance.301

In the public exposure of Lukashevich and “his cronies” we can see the resonance that the category “enemy of the people” (vrag naroda) could well have acquired.302 The probable social tensions generated by the appearance of a new elite, by that elite’s authoritarian method of rule (against a background of bureaucratic incompetence), and by the elite’s immodest, “non-Communist” lifestyle meant that when encouraged from above, radical populism could become a powerful force. And encouragement was indeed forthcoming, especially from the country’s premier “defender of the people.”

At a reception on 29 October 1937 for management personnel and Stakhanovites in the steel and coal industries also attended by party and government leaders, Stalin offered brief but telling remarks on the terror that was underway. Proposing several toasts to those gathered in the hall, the USSR’s supreme leader (vozhd) pointedly contrasted Soviet leaders (rukovoditeli) with economic managers and bosses in old times, who he said had been hated for being the “dog chains of capitalist masters.” Stalin pointed out that Soviet managers had a chance to earn high honors and the trust of the people, but he speculated that officials didn’t “always understand to what heights they have been raised by history in the conditions of the Soviet system.” “The people’s trust is a great matter, comrades,” he emphasized. “Leaders come and go, but the people remain. Only the people are eternal. The rest is transient.”303

In closing his speech, Stalin saluted Magnitogorsk’s Pavel Korobov, the son of a blast furnace operator who, after following in his father’s footsteps had risen to become the chief of the blast furnace shop in Magnitogorsk, then the director of the entire steel plant, and finally deputy commissar for ferrous metallurgy, in just a few years.304 The message was unmistakable: sitting bosses were expendable, given that there were capable replacements, sons of the proletariat, at the ready.305 With Stalin directing such pointed barbs at bosses and juxtaposing them against “the people,” the terror came to resemble a kind of “socialist” class war, even if such a direct formulation was precluded by the official ideology.306

All bosses, no matter how seemingly powerful, could be reduced to nothing by even bigger bosses above them. Among the big “pine cones” at the Magnitogorsk steel plant, no one remained immune from denunciation, not even the supremely powerful Avraamii Zaveniagin (although he was attacked only after he had been transferred to Moscow).307 By one incomplete official reckoning, in 1937–38 seventy “leading officials” in Magnitogorsk were executed and another fifty-seven were sent to labor camps.308 These were substantial numbers (a July 1936 list of the top factory management personnel (nachalstvo) carried only fifty-four names).309 To be sure, in the cases against bosses, lesser fry were usually caught up.310 But it was almost always the downfall of the top person, along with his immediate underlings, that occasioned the greatest interest and clamor. That bosses did in fact have much to answer for was yet another factor contributing to the rationality of the terror.


Alongside what appear to have been genuine social tensions, the terror, much like the Inquisition, revealed the evident insecurity of the aggrandizing authorities. In a way, the terror exposed not just their innermost fears but their worldview. On that score, the accusations leveled by the NKVD were most revealing.

In one typical case, Magnitogorsk’s Mikhail Ubiivolk was accused by his interrogator of having “conducted anti-Soviet terrorist, defeatist agitation.” He allegedly “spread malignant slanderous rumors about food difficulties in the country and blamed the party leadership and Soviet power.” Ubiivolk was apparently denounced by Galina Iakovlena, whom he supposedly told that “if there’s a war, he’ll be the first to line up to shoot Communists.” Similar charges were brought in many other cases, usually accompanied by allegations of conspiracies with highly militarized foreign adversaries to prepare plots against Stalin’s life.311

That a supposed desire to strike against the party-state, which was imputed to many thousands of people, was usually assumed to be accompanied by a desire to assassinate Stalin is less absurd than it might seem. To the extent that the invented charges were a kind of projection, the schemes to murder Stalin made sense, for he had been made the party-state’s personification. Similarly, the supposed ubiquity of plots could be seen as a mirror image of actual Soviet politics, which was after all a universe of intrigue and conspiracy. Widespread allegations of wrecking, meanwhile, could be read as confirmation of the feeling of vulnerability felt by a recently and far from fully industrialized peasant country, even as the propagandists loudly trumpeted the country’s advances.

To the extent that the terror revealed a sense of inferiority, as well as a corresponding proclivity to overcompensate, such feelings no doubt extended beyond ruling circles. In the charges advanced by the NKVD, the telling defensiveness that emerged was also tinged with a certain xenophobia. A “foreign-sounding” (non-Slavic) name was often taken as ipso facto incriminating. Such a prejudice was related to the apparently genuine popular fear of being encircled, which whatever its geopolitical dimension was also partly derived from the population’s ignorance of and inexperience with foreign cultures. In short, the NKVD interrogations inadvertently gave expression to deep-seated anxieties that were shared to an extent by the regime and the people. With such considerations in mind, the bizarre spy mania characteristic of the terror appears less preposterous.

It is important to remember that unlike the early period of the revolution, in 1937–38 the press did not speak of a campaign of terror but of “vigilance against spies and wreckers.” Such “lessons” of the extraordinary times in which the people of the USSR lived were inculcated persistently. Magnitogorsk’s 1937 theater season, for example, opened in October with The Confrontation (Ochnaia stavka), a drama “about espionage and the diversionary work of fascist intelligence agencies.” In the play, the USSR was depicted as locked in a life-and-death struggle with cleverly cloaked adversaries, such as the Gestapo agent Mark Walter, alias Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov, who was prepared to resort to any measures.312 According to John Scott, the action gripped the audience and powerfully communicated the play’s moral of the need for constant hypersuspicion in the face of great peril.313

To be sure, there were apparently limits to the population’s acceptance of the spy-mania. On 11 June 1937, Pravda reported that Deputy Defense Commissar, Marshal of the USSR, Mikhail Tukhachevskii and seven other army commanders had been arrested and executed for organizing a “military conspiracy.”314 The announcement that treason had been committed by the USSR’s best-known and most popular military leaders stunned the country. Nina Kondratkovskaia recalled during an interview in Magnitogorsk in May 1987 that “people worried that Stalin had been duped by Hitler into thinking these men were traitors, when of course such crystal clear people could not have been.” With war approaching, she added, this kind of “serious mistake” was “very dangerous.” In her refusal to accept that Tukhachevskii was guilty and to find an explanation for the accusation, however, Kondratkovskaia revealed a basic belief in the authenticity of other conspiracies and plots. Interviews with other people elicited similar presumptions.315

In the late 1930s, everything could be (and was) explained by recourse to conspiracy. The arrests of those in charge of the terror as enemies of the people pointed to the ultimate “conspiracy”: the deliberate fabrication of conspiracies by wreckers within the procuracy and NKVD. In fact, the entire terror was essentially one enormous, invisible conspiracy. Except for a handful of public trials and accompanying press accounts, almost all proceedings took place behind closed doors or otherwise out of sight. There were no public executions, let alone displays of severed heads or mutilated bodies. This was a terror of abductions, the symbol of which became the NKVD patrol wagons known as the “black marias” (voronki). The Black Marias combed Magnitogorsk and the surrounding district, the NKVD men got out, knocked on doors, and people disappeared. Some returned; most did not.316

Virtually all the arrests around the city were carried out at night, a practice that greatly magnified their fear-inducing effects. The secrecy and uncertainty fueled the tension still more.317 “People were arrested when they least expected it,” wrote John Scott, “and left alone for weeks when they expected every night to be taken”—a reflection of overwork and disorganization as much as intention, but terrifying all the same.318 Inside the prison, meanwhile, most interrogations were conducted at night. “Everything was much more horrifying than people write,” recalled the poet Mikhail Liugarin (who shared a cell with Komsomol Secretary Rudnitskii and was accused of conspiring to blow up the blast furnaces and murder Stalin).319 Only several weeks or months after an arrest did the family receive any information, and even this was usually in the form of terse instructions to bring clean underwear, warm clothes, sugar, onions, and garlic (to combat scurvy) to the prison at a specified time—a sign of imminent departure for the labor camps of the North, conveyed indirectly and without explanation.320

The Soviet terror was, in other words, deliberately obscure, yet even when transparent, terror becomes effective as much through popular narration as spectacle.321 There were those who sought refuge in denial, refusing to believe it could happen to them or accepting that those arrested were “probably” guilty. John Scott reported that among the Magnitogorsk population there was a laconic saying: “It’s good to be a telegraph pole.” But despite the apparent desire of some people to distance themselves psychologically from the terror, as well as the deliberate veil of secrecy drawn around the terror by the NKVD, the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk appear to have been more or less informed about specific events that were taking place.322 Above all, the city seems to have been caught up talking about the terror.323

An episode from the summer of 1936 recorded by John Scott provides eloquent testimony to the process of continual interpretation that evidently surrounded the terror. A. Selivanov, the editor of the Magnitogorsk newspaper, was arrested without announcement, but the whole city soon learned it had happened and the ostensible reason why: a photograph in the issue of 28 June 1936 in which the glass stars hovering above the Kremlin gate-towers bore a faint resemblance to Nazi swastikas. The issue in question was quickly ordered withdrawn, but not all copies could be easily tracked down: many people defiantly held onto them. And those without their own copies inquired among friends to discover if they could see the swastikas. Some people speculated that it was the work of the Gestapo; others that it was just an accident, or a plot by the NKVD to justify its existence.324 Such discussions of Selivanov’s arrest demonstrate the curiosity of the populace and the prevalence of rumors and oral networks.325

There were ample opportunities for collecting terrifying stories and retelling them. Information spread from arrests made in the presence of a neutral witness, who signed a copy of the arrest report and could become a source of information. Rooms and apartments of those arrested were sometimes sealed shut by wax, an unmistakable sign even for skeptical neighbors. And absence from work could not be missed. From these as well as other sources, indirect knowledge of events could be gleaned. Direct knowledge, too, was possible to come by. When necessary to obtain a confession from the accused, family members were permitted visits to the prison, from which knowledge was gathered and then spread. Even details of far-off camp life filtered back, as some convicts were recalled from Gulag to provide testimony against others.326 One prison guard, Fedor Budanov, was arrested and charged with mailing prisoners’ letters (and getting drunk with the money he received as payment).327

The role of family members in the collection and dissemination of information about the terror can scarcely be exaggerated. In Magnitogorsk as elsewhere around the country, the overwhelming majority of people rounded up were able-bodied men (much like what happens during an occupation by a foreign army), but many women were also arrested, usually as the “wives of enemies” accused of having failed to denounce their husbands.328 Before they, too, were incarcerated, wives, as well as sisters and mothers, gathered outside the NKVD headquarters or the city prison hoping to learn the fate and perhaps catch a glimpse of their loved ones. Besides sharing what they had managed to find out, these women supported each other and formed informal networks.

Such informal networks of enemies’ wives exemplified the process by which fear was elaborated through tales of all-night interrogations, torture, screams and gunshot noises, and deportation to frozen wastes. But they also showed the emergence of bonds of social solidarity on the basis of a common predicament. According to Vera Kozhevnikova, for example, her husband, Micheslav Seratskii, who worked in a local state farm, was first arrested in November 1936, then released in March 1937. When he was again summoned by the NKVD, she accompanied him. “There was a big crowd at the NKVD, mostly women. My husband said to me that if they take him up to the second floor, it means he’s arrested. When they led him upstairs, I began to scream. The women took me aside to quiet me.”329 Similar tales of a suddenly discovered social solidarity have been recounted by others.

In 1988, Iurii Pisarenko told the story of the arrest in 1937 of his father, G. A. Pisarenko, a noted surgeon, to a Magnitogorsk journalist. “The arrest of my father was preceded by months of tense waiting,” Pisarenko explained. “In the ITR-settlement (near Berezka) they continuously came to haul people in. Each sound of a motor in the night brought forth dread and expectation—where is it going to stop? And so the turn of my father came.” Because of fears that his mother would also be arrested, Iurii was taken in and cared for by a family friend, Ekaterina Almazova, the manager of the children’s bone-tuberculosis dispensary, until his father was unexpectedly released, apparently in 1939. He also noted that Valeriia Biriukova, a nurse and party member, submitted a written defense of G. A. Pisarenko after he had been arrested. The terror brought out both the basest and the noblest instincts of the population.330


Overall, the effects of the terror, as John Scott observed, were paradoxical. Industrial production declined dramatically, and literal chaos often ensued (in 1937, coke plant construction did not fulfill its plan for a single month, sinking to a low of 27 percent in December).331 But as Scott also noted, “officials and administrators who had formerly come to work at ten, gone home at four-thirty, and shrugged their shoulders at complaints, difficulties, and failures, began to stay at work from dawn till dark, to worry about the success or failure of their units, and to fight in a very real and earnest fashion for plan fulfillment, for economy, and for the well-being of their workers and employees, about whom they had previously not lost a wink of sleep.”332

For these reasons Stalin was long held in high esteem, the leader who knew how to deal with provincial bosses and bureaucrats, ruling with an iron fist and keeping them in check through fear. Herein lay no doubt one of the principal effects of the terror, an effect that was connected to the terror’s class aspect. But at the same time, many people appear to have been appalled at such methods and at the general leveling tendency that Stalin allowed free reign. This leveling tendency and its rueful consequences were apparent in the senseless disappearance of the Magnitogorsk’s well-known poets, Boris Ruchev and Mikhail Liugarin, as well as the secretary of the local writer’s union branch, Vasilii Makarov—the chief figures in the local “artistic intelligentsia.”333

The terror rent deep and lasting divisions within the society and shook Magnitogorsk to its foundations. But many—perhaps most—people tried to prevent it from undermining everything else that had taken place.334 Their country had been through a great deal and had achieved much, signs of which were there to see. Plebiscitary elections, complete with celebratory mass marches, continued to be held.335 And hundreds of workers and lower-level officials continued to receive medals and awards, from the Order of the Red Banner to the Order of Lenin, the state’s highest honor.336 Even more crucial in this regard was the irreplaceable experience of the decade-long socialist construction.

In February 1938 the city newspaper published the following commentary of a Magnitogorsk engineer, Burylev, the new deputy chief of open-hearth construction:

Soon it will be seven years that I’m working in Magnitogorsk. With my own eyes I’ve seen the pulsating, creative life of the builders of the Magnitogorsk giant. I myself have taken an active part in this construction with great enthusiasm. Our joy was great when we obtained the first Magnitogorsk steel from the wonderful open-hearth ovens. At the time there was no greater happiness for me than working in the open-hearth shop. Work in the open-hearth shop of the Magnitogorsk factory for me, a Soviet engineer, has been and is a new wonderful school. Here I enriched my theoretical knowledge and picked up practical habits, the Stakhanovite experience of work. Here as well I grew politically, acquired good experience in public-political work. I came to Magnitogorsk nonparty. The party organization of the open-hearth shop was able to give me access to an active public life, accepted me into a group of sympathizers. Not long ago I entered the ranks of the Leninist-Stalinist party. Year by year the work of our open-hearth shop improves. New cadres of Stakhanovites, engineering and technical personnel, grow and are forged. They bring the country newer and newer victories. I love my hometown Magnitka with all my heart. I consider my work at the Magnitogorsk factory to be a special honor and high trust shown to me, a Soviet engineer, by the country. And in practical work I try to justify that trust in deeds. I love, I’m proud of Magnitka, the industrial colossus of our beloved motherland.337

The publication of such attempts to boost morale and convince oneself, above all, bespoke both the crushing impact of the terror and a powerful desire to overcome it, faith intact.338 This was no mean feat.339

On 6 October 1939, the Magnitogorsk newspaper appeared with a startling photograph of Commissar of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov on the first page signing a “pact of friendship” with a group of men dressed in Nazi uniforms. There also appeared the text of a speech to the Reichstag by the USSR’s arch-enemy, Adolf Hitler, and an interview with Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. For those who read the newspaper regularly over the last several years, news of the Hitler-Stalin pact, or as it was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, must have come as a jolt. Many people recalled having interpreted the pact as a deliberate chess move, but others admitted having been puzzled.

In the end, perhaps the only certainty for the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk was the inevitability of war, whether with Germany in the West, Japan in the East, or both. Throughout 1938 and 1939 tens of thousands attended protest meetings held in the city center in response to border skirmishes with Japan. According to the oblast newspaper, one such meeting in 1938 reportedly drew more than twelve thousand people. Those gathered were said to have celebrated the building of socialism and the shining sun of the Soviet constitution, and expressed their readiness to increase industrial output and respond to “the enemy,” as the country had done during the intervention and Civil War.340 These were the same pledges that had been made on the eve of the terror, and meant no less now than they had then.


Magnitogorsk was built, owned, and managed by “the state,” which in principle meant the system of soviets but in practice meant the People’s Commissariat for Heavy Industry and, beginning in 1939, its successor, the People’s Commissariat for Ferrous Metallurgy. These commissariats exercised a kind of colonial domination over “their” provincial steel center. The democratic promise of the formula “Soviet power” was belied by one of the most rigidly corporatist administrative structures history has ever seen.

Magnitogorsk’s “administration” by the colonizing state apparatus was also enveloped in Communist party politics. The party maintained a very high profile, immoderately assigning itself all credit for everything. The size of the local party organization contradicted these improbable claims. Even before the convulsive and sharp contraction in membership between 1934 and 1938, the party in Magnitogorsk comprised no more than a small fraction of the population. Yet the party expressed a revolutionary purpose, and it was this purpose, rather than the number of its members, that constituted the party’s strength and, paradoxically, its undoing.

John Scott regarded the Communist party as a useful organizing force but disapproved of what he viewed as its “unnecessary intriguing and heresy-hunting.”341 In one sense, Scott was on the mark: for those who knew how to use the galvanizing effects of revolutionary aura and the organizing techniques of political mobilization, the party could move a mountain, as it did in Magnitogorsk. But in another sense, Scott missed the point: intriguing and heresy-hunting in the pursuit of political purity may have appeared unnecessary, but they were rooted in the party’s origins, nature, and identity. The party was not a booster club. It was a political conspiracy “shadowing” all organizations, including the state, that laid claim to the definition of acknowledged reality, a claim put forth as scientific truth embodied in and made functional by the cult of a Supreme Leader.

If the party’s principal function was to exercise political guidance, its ability to cope with such a task did not always inspire confidence. After the launching of the industrialization drive and the collectivization of the countryside, the party leadership understandably attempted to secure greater order and consistency in the vital organization charged with monitoring institutions and guaranteeing political loyalty. Such efforts logically took the form of a sustained scrutiny of the entire membership, carried out in the name of a reassertion of the party’s revolutionary mission, against the background of a threatening international context. That context deepened but did not create the ingrained sense of insecurity characteristic of this aspiring socialist great power.

The protracted search for internal enemies helped foster a mood of absolute intolerance and deep suspicion that gripped party circles. Inflammatory rhetoric, moreover, became an important component of the politics of violence when pandemonium broke out in 1937. But it required the displacement of the party by the NKVD as the principal agency for identifying and not just punishing internal enemies to transform the campaign to purify the party’s ranks—which had resulted in mass expulsions, much anxiety, yet limited arrests—into the terror. This displacement occurred between the November 1936 Novosibirsk trial, which proclaimed the pervasiveness of wreckers in industry, and the February-March 1937 Central Committee plenum, which connected the spread of industrial wrecking to complacency within the apparat, said to be giddily excited by economic successes and thus inexcusably distracted from maintaining “vigilance.”

Although consistent with the logic of the search for internal enemies and with the conspiratorial regime’s basic structure and operation, neither of these perverse formulations were “inevitable” or “necessary.” Impotently contested by local party officials, these centrally imposed determinations concerning wrecking and complacency could only have been instituted by an office that exercised control over the NKVD and procuracy, as well as the agenda for Central Committee plenums. Such an office was the party’s administrative apparat, or secretariat, controlled by General Secretary Stalin and run by a coterie of individuals loyal to him, including Nikolai Ezhov, who was moved from the party apparat to manage the NKVD on the eve of the Novosibirsk trial. It is indeed striking how much pressure Moscow exerted on Magnitogorsk affairs, despite a distance of 1,200 kilometers and comparatively primitive communications, as well as how quickly a return to “normalcy” was achieved.

After Ezhov was removed in late 1938, the terror acquired the epithet “Ezhovshchina,” a reflection of the success Stalin achieved in scapegoating Ezhov for the terror. Ezhov had done his part, to be sure, and in Magnitogorsk so did the newspaper correspondents and “activists” N. Kartashov [Rafael Shneiveis] and Aleksei Griaznov, the procurator Ivan Sorokin, and the NKVD officers Aleksandr Pridorogin and Aleksei Pushkov. The terror was realized through the misplaced zeal of these individuals (as well as the often reluctant complicity of many others). That a limited group of people could have propelled a massive firestorm testified to the multilayered nature of the terror.

But the execution of the terror required, and in the event received, wide participation. The reasons behind that participation, laid out in this chapter, included the political language and way of thinking characteristic of a party member’s worldview, both of which were part of the institutional dynamics of the party. Additionally, there was the specific nature of the NKVD as an organization, its mission, and its operatives’ way of thinking. Beyond the special characteristics of the party and the existence of an extensive police apparatus equipped to arrest and sentence in assembly-line fashion, the terror was also made possible by the adversarial nature of Soviet industrialization, which dictated the use of massive force and presupposed the creation of armies of enemies; by the existence of an extensive police apparatus equipped to arrest and sentence in assembly-line fashion; by the threatening international environment, assiduously exploited by the regime’s strict control of information and promotion of certain ways of thinking; by the endemic malfunctions in the socialist economy that cried out for explanation; by the general resentment of the lifestyle and behavior 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 by the widespread belief in a grand crusade, building socialism, in whose name the terror was conducted.

Stalin’s conspiracy within the party drove the entire process, but it arose out of the fact that the party was itself a conspiracy, a “movement” operating in secrecy and revealing only unanimity, which struggled to live up to its self-assigned role of ideological watchdog in what was a redundant, theocratic political structure. The presence of the Communist party, alongside the fully functional state administration, turned out to be something of a time bomb, planted in 1917, and detonated in the second half of the 1930s. As to why the bomb was set off, this remains mysterious, but one traditional explanation seems unfounded.

Many have speculated that the terror was aimed at compelling “orthodoxy.” Yet despite the insecurities that lay behind the vehemence with which the party asserted its monopoly, orthodoxy as such does not appear to have been in question. Although on the eve of the terror, before the mass arrests, various degrees of “doubt” may have been widespread, open defiance of the regime was rare. The shroud drawn around party affairs limited inside knowledge at any level of the hierarchy to a very narrow circle, an obvious disinvitation to challenges. Compliance with “the general line” was further obtained through party discipline, buttressed by the apparent righteousness of the cause and the threat of arrest by the NKVD, which cultivated a reputation for tireless execution of duty in the protection of “the revolution.”342 Anyone who attempted some form of even indirect questioning was caught and duly punished.343

For party members especially, disagreement was not just pointless; it was dangerous. And with Communists required to demonstrate repeatedly their conformity at party meetings and other occasions, having even private misgivings brought the risk of their public detection through one’s subtle expressions and mannerisms. But beyond the threat of coercion, the worthiness of the cause, as opposed to certain negative manifestations associated with it, was not in dispute. If anything, the terror seems to have provoked people into privately reexamining their commitment to the Soviet regime and the grand crusade. Confessing to crimes they did not commit, some people were broken mentally, while those not arrested struggled to hold onto their cherished beliefs.344 The clarity reimposed by the war against the Nazis came none too soon.

Magnetic Mountain

33. The factory administration building.

Magnetic Mountain

34. Headquarters of the city Communist party committee (tallest structure), with Socialist City in the background.

Magnetic Mountain

35. Magnitogorsk director Iakov Gugel (third from left) talking to officials, 1933. Chingiz Ildrym (second from left) is partially obscured.

Magnetic Mountain

36. Deputy Director Chingiz Ildrym (third from right) showing Industry Commissar Sergo Ordzhonikidze (white coat and mustache) the interior of a rolling mill, 1933.

Magnetic Mountain

37. Newspaper exhortation: “For Stalinist revolutionary norms.”

Magnetic Mountain

38. Stakhanovite Mikhail Zuev.

Magnetic Mountain

39. Blooming mill operators, featured in the newspaper. Left to right: Ogorodnikov, Chernysh, Bogatyrenko, and Tishchenko.

Magnetic Mountain

40. Newspaper illustration, captioned “My factory.”

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

41. Delegates to the city’s Sixth Party Conference, December 1936. (Above) In the hall listening to a speech. (Below) In the lobby admiring the cornucopia.

Magnetic Mountain

42. Party lessons, 1930s.

Magnetic Mountain

43. Advertisement for the 1936 film Party Card, directed by I. Pyrev.

Magnetic Mountain

44. Local Party Secretary Beso Lominadze: as a youth; with parents and brother (standing); while working in Magnitogorsk.

Magnetic Mountain

45. On the reviewing stand, hands raised in salute: Party Secretary Rafael Khitarov (left) and Factory Director Avraamii Zaveniagin, 1936.

Magnetic Mountain

46. The party active of the internal transport shop listening to a broadcast of a speech by Stalin, November 1936.

Magnetic Mountain

47. Discussion in the blooming mill of Stalin’s speech, 1936.

Magnetic Mountain

48. Newspaper caricature of shop bosses Golubitskii, Shevchenko, Zaitsev, and Kogan, depicting large quantities of unusable output, September 1936.

Magnetic Mountain

49. Newspaper illustration, August 1937: “General Franco has achieved new ‘heights.’”

Magnetic Mountain

50. Newspaper illustration, October 1936: “The base and superstructure of the ‘Third Reich,’” depicting freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, women’s right to work, freedom of belief, and the independence of the courts, all bound and gagged.

Magnetic Mountain

51. Newspaper illustration, “The defense of China is in ‘trusty’ hands,” in answer to a statement by the Japanese consulate in Moscow, 1937, that Japanese policy was aimed at “defending” China from Western aggression.

Magnetic Mountain

52. Newspaper illustration: “War: Japan and Germany in alliance.”

Magnetic Mountain

53. Marching in gas masks, 1937 or 1938.

Magnetic Mountain

54. Discussion in the blast furnace shop of the Moscow trial of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Bloc, 1938.

Magnetic Mountain

55. Voting in the open-hearth shop to approve the verdict of execution.

Magnetic Mountain

56. Newspaper illustration, August 1937, depicting a spy for Trotsky and Hitler, caught in the clutches of the NKVD, which was headed by Ezhov. Reprinted in Magnitogorskii rabochii, from Isvestiia.

Magnetic Mountain

57. Eyeless bureaucrat of the KBU, oblivious to the disrepair as fall begins to give way to winter.

Magnetic Mountain

58. Newspaper illustration depicting the queue to see KBU chief Tabunov.

Magnetic Mountain

59. Top secret internal letter to Moscow from Magnitogorsk procurator Ivan Sorokin informing central authorities that the Magnitogorsk prison, with a capacity of 400 inmates, was holding 1,900 people. Dated 5 May 1938.

Magnetic Mountain

60. The 1936 “Stalin” constitution.

Magnetic Mountain

Magnetic Mountain

61. Wise father of the revolution, 1936.

Magnetic Mountain

62. May Day in Magnitogorsk, 1938.

Magnetic Mountain

63. Pupils in front of their school, 1930s.

Magnetic Mountain

64. First graduating class of the Mining and Metallurgical Academy, November 1937.

Magnetic Mountain

65. “Lucky Soviet youth boldy and cheerfully march under the banner of the Stalin Constitution”: students of the pedagogical institute return after voting in the 1937 Soviet election.

Magnetic Mountain

66. Recently appointed factory director and soon-to-be People’s Commissar of Metallurgy, Pavel Korobov, facing camera, 1938.

Magnetic Mountain

67. The workers.

Afterword: Stalinism as a Civilization

Although the Communist revolution may start with the most idealistic concepts, calling for heroism and gigantic effort, it sows the greatest and most permanent illusions.

Milovan Djilas1

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 direct, ostensibly market-like, relations between firms, which remained state-owned? In factories designed and partly built by capitalist firms and containing capitalist-invented technology, were there socialist forms of labor? If so, what were these forms and how did they manifest the purported moral superiority of socialism? In terms of the municipal economy, if there was no private property, would there be no trade? If there was such a thing as socialist trade, how was it to be organized? And what of the law? Was there a specifically socialist justice, and how were socialist courts supposed to function?

What did a socialist city look like? Did a rejection of individualism and a commitment to collectivism mean that socialist housing should not be built to accommodate the family, or was the family compatible with socialism? What of socialist culture: did it signify workers writing poetry, or workers becoming “cultured” by reading Pushkin? Should socialism permit popular entertainments, and if so, what kind? Was jazz socialist, capitalist, or neither? If capitalist, could jazz nonetheless be permitted, provided there were enough other cultural activities that were unambiguously socialist, whatever those might be? And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, could a socialist revolution create a new elite, and if so, was this just?

Of course, the Soviet regime was a dictatorship and on these questions, unconditionally binding decisions backed by the threat of coercion were handed down from Moscow, without discussion beforehand and with little opportunity to give direct voice to reservations afterward. Yet, from the shop-floor production campaigns to nonprivate trade, from domestic living arrangements to organized recreation, the realization of socialism in practice involved the participation of people, affording ample opportunities for the circumvention of official strictures, spontaneous reinterpretations of the permissible cloaked by professions of ignorance, and myriad other forms of indirect challenges, as well as the discovery of unintended realms not envisioned by the decrees. No one except perhaps certain labor colony inmates with nothing to lose had a completely free hand to act as he or she saw fit, but even leaving aside calculated petty transgressions, living socialism according to the perceived rules made for its share of surprises.

Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of life in the Magnitogorsk of the 1930s were the constant efforts to name and characterize the many surprising, as well as mundane, phenomena encountered in daily life, and then explain their relation to socialism, from the machinations of the shadow economy to the endless search for political enemies. New categories of thinking suddenly appeared, old ones were modified; nothing stood still. This inescapable tangle of discussion and explanation—followed closely in this monograph—was made especially complex given the periodic shifts in policies and laws, sometimes of 180 degrees, such as the reversals on abortion and divorce in the mid-1930s.

Abrupt policy changes have usually been taken as evidence that, contrary to the regime’s claims, there was no single ideology, and that in general, ideology had less influence over the shape of events than other, “more practical” considerations. To argue thusly, however, is to overlook both the process of searching for socialism, rooted in an “ideological” rejection of capitalism, and the enormous commitment of resources by the regime to maintain a single ideology and relate all events to that ideology, a struggle that the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk had no choice but to take part in. Life in the USSR under Stalin was enveloped not merely in constrained experimentation but in perpetual explication where neither mistakes nor reversals could be admitted, and where socialism, understood as noncapitalism, served as a universal point of reference.

Further misunderstandings surround the shift on abortion and the family in the mid-1930s because it was accompanied by a conspicuous revival of the Great Russian past, hitherto anathema. These developments (in combination with the rehabilitation of the Orthodox Church during World War II) have been interpreted as constituting nothing less than a “great retreat” from the original goals of the revolution, if not a counterrevolution.2 But proponents of the great retreat interpretation of Stalinism fail to consider that there was no comparable “retreat” on private ownership of land and the means of production or on the hiring of wage labor, whose absence was seen as the defining characteristic of socialism. It was in this unwavering repudiation of “exploitation” that the USSR’s claims to have brought about a civilization distinct from capitalism were grounded, whatever the other vacillations.

At bottom, the notion of a great retreat has always been based on the assumption that “true” revolution and an imperial state are inherently incompatible, an historically indefensible tenet. From the beginning of the revolution, Great Russian domination coexisted uneasily with the striving for a multinational identity, a tension exacerbated by the circumstance that socialism was, in the language of the day, built in one country. By and large, however, the great retreat interpretation removes consideration of the fate of the revolution from that geopolitical context. Soviet socialism formed part of the same historical epoch as Nazism and fascism, against which it was locked in a deadly competition.

In that light, the strengthening of the family and the promotion of Great Russian nationalism are better appreciated as, on the one hand, part of the groping for an understanding of what constituted socialism and, on the other, as indicative of a strategic shift from the task of building socialism to that of defending socialism. This shift became noticeable with the anxious attention given to the civil war in Spain, where Hitler supported Franco’s “counterrevolution,” and to Mussolini’s imperialist war in Abyssinia. It was around this time, 1936, that socialism in the USSR was declared built in its foundations, and yet the external threat, rooted in what was called capitalist encirclement, appeared more menacing than ever.

This paradoxical combination of triumph and heightened vulnerability was used as one of the principal devices to stoke the terror of 1936–38, a bizarre episode that contemporaries struggled with little effect to comprehend and accept. Not even the enormously dysfunctional terror, however, proved capable of invalidating the USSR’s claim to being a socialist society and therefore the fulfillment of October. Such a claim continued to make sense and motivate people the world over until the very end in 1991—a circumstance that the historian may or may not find abhorrent but has no right to dismiss and every obligation to explain. One can argue that millions of people were ignorant or deceived. Or one can try to understand how so many people could have reasoned the way they did, holding apparently contradictory views, fearing terror yet believing that they had built, and lived under, socialism.

Magnetic Mountain

Inside Stalin’s USSR, the appeal of socialism had several layers, including the prospect of a quick leap, not simply into modernity but a superior form of modernity, the corresponding attainment of high international status, a broad conception of social welfare, and a sense of social justice that was built into property relations. Despite the long, vicious political struggle for power, rampant opportunism and careerism, and the violence and hatred that were unleashed, the USSR under Stalin meant something hopeful. It stood for a new world power, founded on laudatory ideals, and backed up by tangible programs and institutions: full employment, subsidized prices, paid vacations for workers, child care, health care, retirement pensions, education, and the promise of advancement for oneself and one’s children.

To be sure, life in Magnitogorsk and around the USSR was characterized by gradations of commitment—particularly in the willingness to suspend disbelief. Put another way, belief in Soviet socialism, as in all matters of faith, was never without ambivalence, confusion, and misgivings. Even the truest of true believers appears to have had regular bouts with private doubt. But few could imagine alternatives. Nor was anyone encouraged to do so. Sealed borders and censorship did their part—especially considering that Soviet censorship was not merely the suppression of information, but also the hyperactive, indefatigable dissemination of certain kinds of information, as well as the inculcation of specific ways of understanding that information.

That such activist censorship proved effective need not be seen as solely a matter of manipulation, however. To be effective, propaganda must offer a story that people are prepared at some level to accept; one that retains the capacity to capture their imagination, and one that they can learn to express in their own words. As we have seen, the process of articulating the sanctioned vocabulary and values of the new society in one’s own words was far from entirely voluntary, linked not merely to access to food and housing but to one’s safety and the safety of one’s relatives. But the presence of coercion, subtle and unsubtle, does not mean the absence of a high degree of voluntarism any more than the holding of genuine ideals precludes the energetic pursuit of self-interest.

Even when they found a niche in the new society, the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk did equivocate and evade, cry and curse—and with good reason. Constantly told that in material terms much of the promise of socialism remained in the future, they were compelled to endure enervating bureaucratic indifference and arbitrary repression. Only the most dogmatic refused to acknowledge the hardships, as well as the staggering waste, corruption, recourse to intimidation, and widespread fear. But no matter how suspect matters might come to seem, the contrast with the apparent progress made since the tsar and, above all, with the recognized evils of capitalism—unemployment, exploitation, endemic economic crises, and imperialism—was available to quell even the deepest of doubts.

It needs to be recalled, moreover, that in the 1930s a parade of authoritative foreigners willingly came to the USSR, making pilgrimages to shrines such as Magnitogorsk, denouncing capitalism and praising socialism. Volumes were spoken, too, by the trumpeted borrowings undertaken by socialism’s friends, and preemptive imitation by its foes, in Europe, the United States, Japan, and elsewhere. Whether within the framework of parliamentary democracy or under an alternate model of overt authoritarianism, the aim of achieving what the USSR had apparently achieved by way of national purpose, economic development, and overcoming class divisions preoccupied the world community in the interwar period. Socialism addressed real problems and seemed to offer real solutions. As long as capitalism was mired in crisis, socialism retained a powerful appeal.

Magnetic Mountain

Some sixty years after Magnitogorsk was founded, the writer Veniamin Kaverin recalled a visit he had made to the famous construction site as a youth in 1931. He recalled having been bowled over by the speed with which the factory and city were rising in the wide-open steppe. In retrospect, though, he also claimed to have been overwhelmed at the time by the sight of starving women, the wives and widows of the thousands of peasants deported to Magnitogorsk and forced to live in tents through the winter. “The cemetery grew faster than the steel works,” Kaverin now wrote, confessing that back then, having seen “the direct connection between the growth of the cemetery and the growth of the steel works, I tried not to see this connection—and, it came to pass, I walked the construction with closed eyes.”3

In 1931, Kaverin walked the construction not with closed eyes but with eyes eager to gather in the promised new world. And that new world, centered on the technologically advanced factory, was easy to see. Decades afterward, when he came to question his once firmly held beliefs, Kaverin did so by remembering what he had in fact seen with his own eyes. The same history in the making that filled him with hope and a powerful sense of progress—his progress, the country’s progress—subsequently filled him with shame for his country and himself. Kaverin expressed the dynamic whereby Soviet socialism unraveled: insight came, disillusionment set in, repentant confessions were made—not by everyone, to be sure, but by many, very many.4

The widely remarked disappointment in Soviet socialism reveals what had once been a powerful faith: to become disillusioned one had to have believed in the first place. And the greater the belief, the greater the disillusionment. Feelings of guilt were often so powerful that they became the basis for a fervent opposite reaction—no doubt in large part because socialism as a faith was also a source of identity. The story of socialism was nearly indistinguishable from the story of people’s lives, a merged personal and societal allegory of progress, social justice, and overcoming adversity—in short, a fable of a new person and a new civilization, distinct because it was not capitalist, distinct because it was better than capitalism. This was socialism’s original strength; it also turned out to be a crushing burden.

Soviet socialism collapsed from within, but it did so because it existed as an anti-world to capitalism. It was from capitalism that socialism derived its identity and against which it constantly measured itself. Over the long haul, however, socialism proved incapable of meeting the challenge that it had set of besting capitalism. At a certain point, the competition with capitalism—in military technology, in living standards, in ideas about politics and society—began working to the disadvantage of the USSR. This dynamic, which in a different form had helped precipitate the downfall of the tsarist regime and the onset of the revolutionary process, impelled the Soviet regime on a path that also culminated in that regime’s dramatic self-liquidation.

Veniamin Kaverin did not say what induced his re-remembering of incidents he once willingly suppressed, but a changed perspective on the outside world—capitalism—probably played a critical role. For many, it was this altered context that enabled, even demanded, a reassessment of socialism and their own association with it. That reevaluation naturally focused on the icons of the new world. Magnitogorsk, what many had reasoned would “be the best propaganda for socialism,”5 turned out to be effective propaganda against socialism—but effective propaganda all the same.

Under socialism there was little room for neutrality. It demanded spiritual commitment and constant affirmations of that commitment, even when people felt ambivalent, indifferent, or hostile, and even after socialism’s claims of surpassing capitalist civilization had become seriously strained. By adopting a confessional mode and using personal experiences to evaluate the legitimacy of their country’s political system, Kaverin and others were following the same procedures they had learned as youths, only with the exact opposite result: socialism as a matter of faith, but now the loss of faith; autobiography as politically meaningful, but now delegitimizing.

Magnetic Mountain

In the almost six decades between Kaverin’s visits to Magnitogorsk, evaluations of the baseline for measuring socialism—the outside world—changed; so did the ability to make such evaluations. Part of this could be attributed to the increased availability of information, part to a heavy-handed but nonetheless humanistic education that promoted both outright falsehoods and a real commitment to the truth; a vision of merciless class struggle and of universal good.

In the Magnitogorsk of the 1930s, more than forty thousand people were enrolled in full- or part-time education programs, ranging from beginning and middle schools, regular or technical high schools, and institutions of higher learning (such as the Mining and Metallurgical Institute and the Pedagogical Institute) to so-called workers’ academies (rabfaks). Another twelve thousand individuals were enrolled in literacy courses, part-time trade courses, or night school (with an additional several hundred students at a school for classical music).6 Virtually everyone in the city who could study was studying.

Magnitogorsk schools suffered from chronic problems with facilities.7 Only a handful of the almost forty elementary schools were located in what were designated as permanent buildings; the rest were housed in broken-down barracks that lacked not merely adequate classrooms or laboratories but heat and running water. Furniture, such as desks and chairs, was in critically short supply, as were books and paper.8 Owing to delays in planned construction and repairs, each September classes invariably started late—but they always managed to get underway.9 What ensured the onset of each school year despite the daunting obstacles was the devotion to education, one of the primary values associated with the new world that Magnitogorsk incarnated.

Curriculum combined the basics—reading, writing, and arithmetic—with a very strong emphasis on civics and politics. Students were trained in what was called the “spirit of socialism,” by which was meant the traditions and myths of a revolutionary legacy inherited and advanced by the USSR. This inculcation of the spirit of socialism was supposed to carry over even to technical subjects (on which great emphasis was placed). First-year students of the Mining Institute, for example, were accused of being culturally illiterate for not knowing the dates of the French revolution, or when fascism began. They were also taken to task for not reading the “classics” of Marxism.10 But these students had to know the same science that “capitalists” studied and used, not to mention the novels of Tolstoy and the music of Tchaikovsky.

In the processes of socialization the greatest attention and resources were bestowed upon Magnitogorsk’s youngest pupils, who in addition to class-time activities participated in a countrywide children’s organization known as the “Pioneers,” where civic training in the spirit of socialism was especially pronounced.11 Aspirations for this next generation were high. One concerned pamphleteer complained that in a Magnitogorsk kindergarten, the children did not know what a shock worker was, who Voro-shilov was, or what was meant by the term kulak.12 By the end of their education, however, every one of these pupils could be expected to have been taught all this—and much more, including the sometimes condemned but mostly admired values of European civilization and its “highest achievements,” as well as native values and forms of sociability that predated the revolutionary epoch.

Magnetic Mountain

It was taken for granted by the above pamphleteer that information about Magnitogorsk kindergartens should be broadcast, not only so that the situation there could be “corrected” but because the whole world should know. Such missionary zeal in the propagation of the minutest details of the city’s life recalled the example of Magnitogorsk’s famous American predecessor, Gary, Indiana. When Gary was founded during the first decade of the twentieth century, contemporaries engaged in shameless boost-erism, replete with poetry, and began immediately to collect documents on the city and its factory, in part to sell land, but also with the aim of rearing the present generation in the spirit of the values Gary supposedly represented, and passing these values on to the next generation.13

What Magnitogorsk and Gary shared was a sense that they constituted not merely a single city, however important, but an entire civilization, and that their civilization could rightfully lay claim to being the vanguard of progressive humanity. It was no accident that Gary became the model for Magnitogorsk, for after the revolution in the Russian empire there was an enormous amount of admiring discussion of the United States as the world’s most advanced civilization, and of a kind of “Soviet Americanism” as history’s next stage.14 This Soviet cult of America—a young, dynamic country that appeared to have made itself—took many forms, from the worship of industrial technology to a sense among large segments of the population that they had inherited from the Americans the mantle of civilization and enlightenment, even as their envy and imitation persisted.

Many of the large number of Americans who made pilgrimages to the USSR after the revolution, John Scott among them, enthusiastically confirmed this passing of the torch from the United States to the USSR. Their interest in Soviet socialism demonstrated yet again that socialism in the Soviet Union took shape as, and for a long time remained, a deeply felt aspiration, much like the so-called American dream—only ostensibly far better. But most of these foreign champions of Soviet socialism came to reject their admiration. Several became avid adversaries, tirelessly warning against the dangers of socialism’s allure while becoming strident about the superiority of American civilization and adamant in their refusals to acknowledge any positive influence of Soviet socialism on themselves or their country. Such repudiations from outside, much like the earlier affirmations, eventually found an eager audience among once true-believing Soviet citizens, including Veniamin Kaverin. The circle became complete, ironically concealing the full extent of interconnectedness and reciprocal influence.

Magnetic Mountain

In the world after 1991, Soviet socialism may seem little more than a bizarre nightmare best condemned and forgotten, or if remembered, then only as a cautionary tale about political despotism and dangerous ideas. But even though it was rooted in a rejection of capitalism, the story of the USSR needs to be recognized as an integral part of the course of European history.

At the very least, Europe and the United States are complicit in the Russian revolution. It was, after all, the senseless war among the Great Powers that provided the indispensable context for the all-important politicization of the tsarist army, the seizure of power by conspiratorial revolutionaries, and the legitimation of transcendental socialism as an alternative to death and destruction. Moreover, Lenin and other exiled members of the Bolshevik conspiracy had been provided refuge in various European capitals and were able to return to Russia from Switzerland only through the maliciously intentioned assistance of the German high command. Remember, too, that although the revolutionary authorities had been compelled to cede enormous territories to the Germans at the risk of internal collapse, the entrance of the United States into the war on the side of the allies turned the tide against the Germans, allowing the Soviet regime an opportunity to rebuild the Russian empire.

During the Civil War, ineffective military intervention in Soviet Russia by Britain, France, the United States, and Japan provided an important impetus for the establishment of Bolshevik hegemony over the revolutionary process. During the 1920s, the Germans provided critical technical assistance to the USSR, including to the Red Army. During the 1930s, a veritable “Who’s Who” of leading capitalist firms, the originators of the culture of Fordism, advised and aided Stalinist industrialization. Above all, what we call Stalinism was consolidated in the USSR against the background of, and as an answer to, the Great Depression that spread throughout the advanced capitalist countries, as well as the aggression that coincided with it.

In the end, though, the main reason that the USSR needs to be reincorporated into European history is that Stalinism constituted a quintessential Enlightenment utopia, an attempt, via the instrumentality of the state, to impose a rational ordering on society, while at the same time overcoming the wrenching class divisions brought about by nineteenth-century industrialization. That attempt, in turn, was rooted in a tradition of urban-modeled, socially oriented utopias that helped make the Enlightenment possible. Magnitogorsk had very deep roots.

Magnetic Mountain

In the early part of the seventeenth century, Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639), a Dominican friar from near Naples, composed what may perhaps be regarded as the quintessential urban-modeled, socially oriented utopia. It took the form of a dialogue between an inquisitive innkeeper and a garrulous Genovese sailor (one of Columbus’s crew), who has purportedly returned from a wondrous place known as “the City of the Sun.”15 At the time Magnitogorsk was being built three centuries later, this dialogue was mobilized as part of the efforts to situate the Russian revolution historically, a goal that in retrospect can be seen to have been perhaps even more successful than intended.

In a brief introduction to the Russian-language edition of Campanella’s text that was reissued in 1934 (the first had appeared in 1918), the scholar V. P. Volgin placed the monk within what he identified as the tradition of “communist utopias,” singling out especially “the absence of private property, the universal obligation of labor (which is considered a matter of honor), the social organization of production and distribution, and the training through labor of the inhabitants.” Volgin might also have underscored the importance in the City of the Sun of the development and proper use of science, the vigorous efforts to ensure the welfare of the population combined with equally vigorous defensive preparations for the inevitability of war, the fusion of spiritual and temporal power in a kind of theocracy, the frequency of individual confession or self-criticism, and the assumption that state power rests on the nature of everyday life—all core aspects, as we have seen, of the society in which Volgin himself was living.16

These were not the only remarkable parallels called to mind by Campanella’s text that Volgin overlooked. In the course of comparing Campanella’s work with Plato’s and that of the early Christian fathers, for example, Volgin delicately touched on the idea of the undemocratic “rule of the wise,” but he did so without invoking the “leading role of the Communist party.” Volgin also made no mention, not even indirectly, of the resemblance between Campanella’s portrait of the supreme ruler, Sun, and the emerging cult of Stalin. What Volgin did do, however, was to recognize a more than passing affinity between Soviet society and an avowedly utopian document in which social welfare was made the state’s foremost duty and the key to its international standing.

However circumscribed the circle of people in the USSR who were acquainted with Campanella’s work might have been, it was in effect the ideal of a City of the Sun—a city-based society engineered and regulated so as to ensure the utmost well-being, productivity, and hence state power—that served as the sublime vision from which the real-life Stalinist microcosm, Magnitogorsk, derived and into which it fed. Placing Magnitogorsk within the context of Campanella’s text helps explain why a single Soviet city, especially one built in near isolation at a previously almost uninhabited site, could serve as such a potent symbol for the self-proclaimed new civilization of socialism.

Magnitogorsk was conceived and built as a utopian experiment—a socialist earthly paradise—but this vision, as well as the actual construction, embodied a way of thinking and a set of practices that, notwithstanding the rejection of capitalism, shared a great deal with other industrial countries, all of which developed forms of social regulation and the welfare state. In the lands of the former USSR, the welfare state centered on large factories has outlasted the institutionally redundant Communist party, but it is in deep crisis. Rather than as a cause for comfort or self-congratulation, this crisis might better be seen as also our own.

Note on Sources

Pervyi blin—narkomom.

An untranslatable Soviet-era

variation on a Russian proverb

Stalinism could not stop speaking about itself. It produced an almost endless flow of words about what it was trying to do, why, how, and with what results. The advent of Stalinism brought one of the greatest proliferations of documents the world has ever seen. Of course, it was also true of Stalinism that not all of these documents have been, or are, available. But when I began this study, a very large number had long been accessible, and more and more became so each year.

Documents generated during the early Stalin years can be conveniently divided into those published and those that remain unpublished. It is perhaps best to take up the former first, for the quantity and variety of published materials is not well appreciated, given the regime’s notorious hypersecrecy. Secrecy there certainly was, but no less indicative of the worldview that drove Stalinism was the fact that many people worked tirelessly to issue volumes of information.

Published sources from the 1930s range from detailed statistical compilations, journals (both popular and scholarly), and official materials reprinted from archives to pamphlets and various enthusiastic first-person remembrances, as well as an array of broadsheet newspapers.1 Of the latter, Magnitogorsk had more than a dozen, led by the daily Magnitogorskii rabochii (Magnitogorsk Worker), whose circulation rose from 3,000 in 1930 to 20,000 by 1932 and 30,000 by 1934. Almost every extant issue of Magnitogorsk’s many newspapers from the 1930s, as well as those of the main provincial (oblast) newspaper, Cheliabinskii rabochii (Cheliabinsk Worker), were consulted for this book.2

Every Soviet newspaper had institutional (vedomstvennaia) status, that is, it was owned and run by a particular organization, whose concerns and condition it generally reported in detail, whether the organization in question was a labor colony or the local branch of the Communist Youth League. Magnitogorsk’s main daily was no exception: it was “the organ” of the Communist party city committee, or gorkom. For coverage of party affairs, the daily is therefore indispensable. In addition, because the party understood its mandate to include all spheres of city life, the gorkom newspaper’s coverage of local issues was unlimited. Like the party, it tended to poke its nose into everything.3

The Magnitogorsk daily also took up matters of national concern under such rubrics as “From Around the USSR” and “A Day of Our Motherland.” And it reprinted articles and official speeches from other Soviet newspapers, both central and provincial. More often than not, however, the city newspaper was packed full with news of life in Magnitogorsk. This was at least equally true of the rest of the local papers, even if they were published less frequently.

As these newspapers demonstrated time and again, Magnitogorsk officials were not very good at the critical task of waste disposal, but when it came to disseminating the official point of view they excelled. Indeed, everything published during the Stalin period was imbued with the most shameless forms of boosterism and subject to strict censorship—two characteristics which might seem to limit the usefulness of such “official sources.” Yet even when they understood themselves to be following proper guidelines in their loud proclamations and equally conspicuous silences, Soviet newspapers revealed a great deal, both directly and indirectly. The bad harvest of 1936, for example, was a taboo topic, but the hoarding and resale of bread throughout Magnitogorsk was publicly condemned in article after article.

Soviet censorship, moreover, was not merely an act of suppression; its chief goal was to inculcate values. This process was entirely open and readily visible, as for instance when the main daily chastized the mine’s paper, Gorniak (Miner), for using foreign words—depressiia, monopoliia, stabilizatsiia—in its attempt to explain a speech by Stalin to the Seventeenth Party Congress in early 1934.4 Such publications were the epitome of the much misunderstood phenomenon of agitprop (agitation and propaganda), which often meant detailed statements of goals and revealing examinations of the efforts undertaken to meet these goals, including enumerations of shortcomings and exhortations to overcome them. Agitprop was a revealing window onto the struggle to realize socialist ideals and “perfect” society.

Magnitogorsk newspapers made no pretense of merely reporting events. Instead, they intervened actively by sending warnings when something was thought to be amiss, chastized those deemed responsible, and goaded everyone, but especially the officials and agencies spotlighted, to do better. In the main daily there was a rubric entitled “Signals” and a f