The archetypal Soviet Hell-town is drawn from places such as this: from Magnitogorsk and Norilsk, both pumped full of concrete during the reign of Stalin with the intent on expanding them into unrivalled metal production facilities. So it came to be, during the first 5-Year Plan that Magnitogorsk gained city status in 1931, followed by the hasty completion of the MMK iron and steel works one year later.
In what seems like an unlikely alliance today; the creation of the MMK works was overseen by a team from America; Arthur McKee & Co. (Cleveland, Ohio), with the plant itself influenced by similar facilities in Gary, Indiana and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A 1928 Soviet delegation had visited McKee to consult with their experts and draw up plans for the new facility that would dominate the burgeoning Soviet city and for better or worse: the lives of those within it.
Stalin was not a man to keep waiting, so such trivial matters as plant integrity were squeezed into the background in a bid to complete the MMK facilities according to his punishing schedule. This of of course provided much consternation for the American partners who also had to contend with material shortages, a brutal time-frame, and the fluid membership of the Russian team, any of whom could be replaced at any time due to concerns over their loyalty to the Soviet state! (a precursor to the great Purges to come). As a result the Russians were left to do most of the design and redesign, in order to meet their own truncated schedule.
The plant false-started in 1932; whilst still considered incomplete by the Americans. Nonetheless it generated it’s first run of molten pig iron, -much to the approval of the Soviet leaders, before having to suspend production a few days later so that (the inevitable) repairs to the already-damaged furnaces could be carried out. By the following year, however; the plant was fully operational and output continued as planned.
Another major issue to contend with was the workforce itself; largely mass-imported to keep the industrial monster alive and all needing to be housed and provided-for by the state. Foreign help was needed again and so German architect Ernst May and his team were drafted in, to graft-on some living space for the massing, imported crowds. The intended compromise was to allow a modicum of personal space whilst facilitating the daily, ant-like trickle in and out of MMK’s massive plant.
Uses and Abuses
Foreign expertise was also needed to help mould the workers into efficient shape. The masses entering MMK daily to forge the future were ex-famers, land-workers and “Kulaks”: often devoid of any relevant industrial experience. Not all were starry-eyed about building a future in steel for Stalin, far from it. In fact a great deal of coercion was involved, it had to be for the deadline to be met. We’ll discuss this in another article, but as the Guardian puts it:-
“It was the forced labour of …so-called “special resettlers” that made the record-quick construction of the plant possible.” The regime owed them a debt that was never repaid.
The term “Kulak” is worth examination some other time, but essentially; it means “fist” and was coined/used to politically deride and discriminate against an affluent middle-class of agricultural peasant. Such individuals had accrued some “excess” status, property and wealth for themselves, not what a society of supposed “equals” required. At any rate, it’s always preferable to bind your perceived enemies together under a convenient (and preferably catchy) tag, just ask any murderous dictator.
After the flow of imported expertise had imparted its knowledge and outlived its usefulness, it’s direction was summarily reversed. In 1937 Magnitogorsk was declared “closed” to foreigners, and all remaining were “asked” to leave. Where Stalin was concerned; what other choice did they have?
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