Soviet Industrialization and Learning to Speak Bolshevik: a Review of Magnetic Mountain by Stephen Kotkin
In Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, Stephen Kotkin argues that historians must go beyond totalitarianism and address all aspects of how Stalinism and Bolshevism operated. According to Kotkin, while Stalin is correctly labeled a tyrannical despot, we must not overlook the fact that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a unique civilization where socialism was defined as the opposite of capitalism. This civilization was built around industrialization and the upward mobility of former peasants as they created a socialist society in the context of capitalist crisis and emerging fascism. The author succeeds in providing a core sample of life and experiences at all levels of Stalinism while showing the great paradox of a socialist society that was aided by capitalism from the beginning, but was defined as “anti-capitalistic.”
Kotkin uses the building of the Magnitogorsk steel mill and Socialist city to highlight this new society. This society was an internal colony based on capitalist industrial models (namely Fordist production) and promoted ideals of social welfare and progress, a new urban geography, a new social identity defined by labor, a shadow market economy, a “Bolshevik” language, and a state religion with values that were tested and reinforced by the terror.
The chronology of the city and factory construction structure the narrative and archival evidence underlines how the civilization’s elements can be observed throughout the different stages of Magnitogorsk. Starting with barren land, the Magnitogorsk steel mill is built through a combination of Western technical assistance and Stalin’s radical will to build a global industrial power. As the center of the book, the steel mill provides examples of Soviet “gigantism, immoderation, and refusal of realism,” all while the successes of the mill become a powerful symbol for Soviet propaganda both at home and abroad.
The “socialist city” built around the steel mill worked in tandem to construct the new Soviet identities of the workers and their families. Everyone was part of a master planned internal colony where society was centered on the embracing of socialism and industrialization through learning to “speak” Bolshevik. While Kotkin agrees that “there were sources of identity other than the Bolshevik crusade,” to survive in the Soviet system people began to police themselves so that “the ways of speaking about oneself became refracted through the lens of Bolshevism.” Many people believed in the socialist project, but even those who didn’t learned the state language so that they could interact with Soviet society. Kotkin shows how this “Bolshevik” language, values, and beliefs were radically imposed from the top-down on society in a continuation of the October Revolution that began with war on the peasantry.
While some reviewers have claimed the work to be apologetic for the excesses of Stalinism, Kotkin’s impressive display of Stalinism in action is constantly contrasted with the ironies and hypocrisies of a system that eventually collapsed. The primary resources describe the terrible conditions and absurd situations that underline the regime’s “monopoly on power and inefficiency.” Another point the author makes is how the largest social organization in Magnitogorsk was actually the market of illegal trade and most people in the new society had “petty-bourgeois” traits. The violence of the “self-immolation of the party” during the terror helps the reader understand how the society continued to function even as many of its own are being sacrificed.
Kotkin’s work provides a crucial examination of Stalinism that reminds us of the importance of coercion in the system while allowing us to fully understand all facets of the Soviet socialist experiment. Furthermore, the creation of the civilization is put into the context of capitalist industrialization and European enlightenment ideas that made an attempt at a state-built socialist utopia possible. Stalinism and its reality, from state terror to social mobility, now have a fitting volume.
Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Further Reading on Soviet Industrialization:
Ellman, Michael, “Soviet Industrialization: A Remarkable Success?” Slavic Review, Vol. 63. No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 841-859
Fitzpatrick, Sheila, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930’s (Oxford University Press, 1999).
Rosenberg, William G. and Siegelbaum, Lewis H. eds., Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).
Scott, John, Behind the Ural: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1942). A firsthand account by an American of Magnitagorsk.
An Article on Culture that Questions Kotkin’s Notion of Speaking Bolshevik:
Malte Rolf, “A Hall of Mirrors: Sovietizing Culture under Stalinism, Slavic Review, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Fall, 2009), pp. 602-630.
Primary Sources and Commentary Online:
Industrialization Debate at
 Kotkin, 220-221.