Behind Magnitogorsk’s exterior of grinding metal and rock lies a far softer heart fashioned from the souls and flesh of those who rebuilt the working city into a steel-producing powerhouse and an industrial landmark. Officially renowned as cultural heroes and poster icons, their roles were stylised into legend, broadcast as heroic endeavour via the news media and celebrated in film, song and poetry. The reality was invariably more dirty and dangerous than glorious picture painted by the state, however.
Army in disillusion
An army of dyed-in-the-wool devotees to the Soviet cause hurried to MMK’s (Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex) embryonic foundries to help forge a future utopia in steel, before finding a reality at odds with the triumphalist flag-waving rhetoric. The conditions were hard, cold, brutal, as was the work load itself. Teams were organised in competition to complete (often unsatisfactory) work under ultra-tight deadlines. Fires plagues the concrete landscape, dragging construction efforts into entropy whilst Stalin’s clock ticked away the scheduled build time.
A living city, originally planned to receive the incoming workforce- was still being constructed around it as it worked, and redesigned ad-hoc in the process. Disillusioned and harried workers upped and fled; tens of thousands downing tools and disappearing, to leave a widening hole in the labour force that threatened the production of the new steel empire further. There was however a grim solution of sorts at hand; enter the euphemistically-titled “Special Resettlers”.
Gulag by any other name
We touched upon this in part one: the disintegration of the so-called “Kulak” class and the sudden “availability” of a mobile, though industrially unskilled workforce. From 1930 onwards, 40,000 were removed from their farms and relocated to reside in makeshift accommodation in the Chelyabinsk region as whole and Magnitogorsk in particular. Joining them were roughly half that number of “non-political” convicts. A fabulous combination, envisioned by those who did not have to live in its midst. This was only the first volley, the city would grow to 200,000 by 1939, a-and still without its own permanent hospital complex, but I digress.
The conscripted workforce was shipped-in by freight-carrying boxcars (a chilling foreshadowing of mid 20th Century Europe) to find crowded camps of hasty barracks and tents, thrown up in barbed-wire enclaves: a Gulag by any other name. The weather raked the inhabitants with dust storms and blizzards (as the seasons changed) whilst the cold, unsanitary conditions and the lack of food, water, and medical care laid out a banquet for disease, which duly took hold in (repeatedly) epidemic proportions. Between micro and macro scales of hazard: lice, rats, bed-bugs, and (malarial) mosquitoes exploited whatever niche of opportunity was left. In a vision of truly medieval horror, carts to collect the newly dead, like so much discarded trash, trundled the dirty avenues. Meanwhile, party officials enjoyed the comforts of accommodation originally built for their American guest-advisors. A living demonstration of reality in an “equal” society.
Eventually, the city started to resemble a place where humans could live and work, -and with the arrival of the Krushev era; gained ranks of those ubiquitous K-7 apartment blocks across its expanse. The infrastructure started to improve with the addition of facilities for health, transport and recreation although the black-oozing smoke-stacks never fully went away. Today Magnitogorsk is the third most polluted city in Russi with its scorched, tainted air floating a cloud of carcinogens through the daily lives of its inhabitants at high multiples of their “safe” exposure levels. The Ural river oozes with industrial pollutants as it seeps by, the cancer rates explode and only 1% children are born in full health.
“I soon became aware of an unfamiliar, acrid sensation at the back of my throat, accompanied shortly afterwards by a dull but persistent headache. …The hospitals are bursting with cases of bronchial diseases and lung cancer.” Arthur House : The Calvert Journal / The Junket
Progress? At what cost?
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