Magnetic Mountain

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The celebrated “socialist city of steel,” Magnitogorsk was founded in 1929 and built around what would become the world’s largest steel plant. Both the city and the steelworks were patterned after Gary, Indiana and designed to outdo their American predecessor. The construction of the metallurgical plant was a key project of the First Five-Year Plan. In accordance with the general thrust of the Plan, targets were to be achieved ahead of schedule notwithstanding bottlenecks in supplies, the harshness of the elements, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of workers lacked basic industrial skills.

Much of the “pathos of construction” at Magnitogorsk was captured in Time Forward!, the novel by Valentin Kataev published in 1932. The theme of the novel was not only the overcoming of technical backwardness (as indicated in the last lines, “Never again shall we be Asia! Never! Never!Never!” and earlier references to Stalin’s speech of February 1931 about the USSR being a hundred years behind the advanced capitalist countries and making up that difference in ten) but also the re-making or transformation/re-building of individuals in the course of their building of the factory. This theme of transformation is well represented by the chapters devoted to a brigade of cement mixers engaged in socialist competition with other construction sites

Magnitogorsk’s population, which reached 250,000 by the autumn of 1932, consisted of workers “mobilized” by their trade unions, youthful Komsomol enthusiasts, peasant recruits, ex-kulak deportees, and substantial contingents of engineers– both Soviet and from abroad — state and party officials, and foreign workers. Housing for newly arrived construction workers was rudimentary at best — tents, mud huts, and hastily constructed dormitories where bedspace was often assigned in shifts. This part of the city, known popularly as “Shanghai,” was in marked contrast to the communal apartment blocks that would eventually dot the landscape, and even more so, to Berezka (Birch Tree), the secluded settlement where first the foreign engineers and then the local Soviet elite lived. By the late 1930s, the city boasted such architecturally imposing facilities as the Palace of Metallurgists, the Pushkin Drama Theater, the Magnit cinema, which accommodated an audience of several thousand, a circus, and, of course, the metallurgical complex itself consisting of blast and open-hearth furnaces, coking and chemical plants and smokestacks reaching into the sky and casting a pall over the entire city.

Magnitogorsk continued to be a major source of steel for the Soviet Union for several decades after its “heroic” period. However, as its significance as a symbol of revolutionary transformation declined, so too did capital investments and the efficiency of its mills. Officially closed to foreigners during the Second World War, Magnitogorsk was not opened again until the early 1980s by which time its steel plant had become badly outdated and its air badly polluted.

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