The Magnetic Mountain: Building Socialism in Magnitogorsk

28 April 2017

History

The famed Soviet city of Magnitogorsk (translated meaning city near the magnetic mountain) was founded in 1929 and built upon an expanse of iron rich land towards the southern edge of the Urals. The city, which was modeled after its American counterpart in Gary, Indiana, became the largest steel plant in the world. This documentary entitled The Russian Miracle Part II: Into the Future from c. 1961, which can be found in the first module of the recently released Socialism on Film, is a piece of propaganda celebrating the achievements and improvements that had taken place in the former USSR since the revolution. Magnitogorsk, the crown jewel of the Stalin’s First Five Year Plan, and one of the historic symbols for what came to be known as the ‘building of socialism’, is one of the achievements that this film profiles.

Most famously, Stephen Kotkin used the city of Magnitogorsk as a case study, weaving together the discourses of Stalinist subjectivity, neo-traditionalism and the welfare state to build a larger picture of Stalinism not merely as a political system, but as a civilisation, a way of life. Kotkin was the first American to be allowed into Magnitogorsk in 45 years, the city having been officially closed to foreign visitors since the start of the Second World War. 

Image © British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Magnitogorsk came to embody the guiding principles of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary experiment in Russia; namely through ideas pinched from the European Enlightenment and subsequent French Revolution of both a rational social order and the power of political mobilisation. The result of which was the realisation that science and politics could be used to landscape and engineer the perfect society, a socialist utopia. Magnitogorsk was built as a testament to these ideals as the first completely planned city. In Kotkin’s words, ‘Magnitogorsk was the October revolution itself, the socialist revolution, Stalin’s revolution.’

July 1st, 1930, workers celebrating the placing of the foundation stone in Magnitogorsk. Image © British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This backdrop, against which the Magnitogorsk project was conceived, tells us so much about what this new born city represented to both the state and to the people of the USSR. The creation of this city of steel was one of the flagship projects of the First Five Year Plan at the advent of the Great Break, in which the state looked to physically forge socialism through a programme of intense industrialisation and mechanisation. The Soviet state was going to war once again, yet this time its opponents were nature, the countryside and historic notions of Russian ‘backwardness’. The USSR was to become a ‘country of metal’. 

Image © British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Image © British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This was the revolution’s new frontier, in which settlers, labourers and their families migrated to be a part of the socialist vision of the future. The film heavily emphasises the voluntary nature of the project, showing footage of the ‘first builders’ labouring through both blistering heat and harsh winters, with temperatures known to drop to 30 below 0 and snowstorms a common fixture. The reality of voluntary participation was not quite so, as during the state’s Collectivisation and Dekulakisation programmes, many dispossessed peasants (Kulaks) were sentenced to hard labour in Magnitogorsk, as was the case in the penal colonies of Siberia. 

Footage also glosses over high mortality rates: harsh weather conditions, rampant disease, poor living conditions and industrial accidents made living in the burgeoning Magnitogorsk difficult to say the least (but we are talking about propaganda here).

Image © British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Image © British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Magnitogorsk, perhaps fittingly, began to decline as capital investments and the efficiency of its now outdated mills started to wane. Metallurgy is also not a clean business, and it has been reported that Magnitogorsk is now the third most polluted city in Russia; no mean feat. 
 

 

Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda is a collection of documentaries, newsreels and features that reveals the world as seen by Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, East European, British and Latin American film makers. This project makes available Stanley Forman's ETV/Plato Films archive which is held at the BFI National Film Archive.

Module I Wars & Revolutions is available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Becca Richards

Becca Richards

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2014, and I now work as an Assistant Development Editor. I have been able to put my degree in History to good use while working on a variety of different projects. My academic interests lie in Russian history from the late-imperial to mid-Soviet period, with a particular focus on the history of violence.