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Magnetic mountain : Stalinism as a civilization /
Stephen Kotkin.
Berkeley : University of California Press, c1995.
xxv, 639 p., [60] p. of plates : ill., maps.
0520069080 (alk. paper)
More Details
Berkeley : University of California Press, c1995.
0520069080 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

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 revolution(1)

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 emigres 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 Timasheff 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-a-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 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.

Copyright © 1995 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1995-10:
Kotkin's monumental work is a meticulously researched case study of the Ural "Magnetic Mountain City," Magnitogorsk, in the 1930s. The city is analyzed in the context--and as a particularly suitable representation--of Stalin's version of a socialist civilization. Kotkin's fundamental assumption of Stalinism as an entire civilization is legitimate and well presented by scrupulous and wide-ranging inquiry, which deals not only with the colossus of the Soviet state but also (and primarily) with the development of the new socialist society. According to Kotkin, a new world arose from the traditionally Russian setting, manifested "in property relations, social structure, the organization of the economy, political practice," language, psychology, and faith. A specific study of Magnitogorsk, rich in detail, thus emerges as a microcosm of a newly created (if largely artificial) civilization. The author's analytical approach and ability to generalize from the particular contribute to understanding Stalinism, even if a number of his central propositions--including a revisionist view of the "Soviet political system as a theocracy" and the discussion of "the euphoric sense of the revolution"--are bound to evoke scholarly controversy. All levels. A. Geifman; Boston University
This item was reviewed in:
Choice, October 1995
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Table of Contents
Illustrations and Tables
USSR Organizational Structure, 1930s
Note on Translation
Introduction: Understanding the Russian Revolutionp. 1
Building Socialism: The Grand Strategies of the Statep. 27
On the March for Metalp. 37
Peopling a Shock Construction Sitep. 72
The Idiocy of Urban Lifep. 106
Living Socialism: The Little Tactics of the Habitatp. 147
Living Space and the Stranger's Gazep. 157
Speaking Bolshevikp. 198
Bread and a Circusp. 238
Dizzy with Successp. 280
Afterword: Stalinism as a Civilizationp. 355
Note on Sourcesp. 367
Notesp. 375
Select Bibliographyp. 599
Photograph Creditsp. 609
Indexp. 611
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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