Behind the Urals was published in the United States in 1942. The author was John Scott, an American who spent about ten years working and studying in the Soviet Union. Scott says that when he left college in 1931, he was pessimistic about his opportunities in America and interested in socialism. He seems to have liked what he found in the USSR, but it was not propaganda work, which he was offered when his Russian was up to speed, or membership in the Communist Party. It was building. Scott arrived in Moscow equipped with a certificate in basic welding; ten days later he was on a train to the new city of Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, on the western edge of Siberia.
Magnitogorsk was named for a geological anomaly: a mountain of iron ore so concentrated that it attracted the compass needles of early prospectors. It had been worked before, but Scott arrived at the same time as an unprecedented push to exploit the region’s resources. He was put to work in subzero temperatures welding structural iron and piping for one of four enormous new blast furnaces. At the same time, in addition to blast furnaces to extract iron from ore, the Magnitogorsk combinat was developing coking facilities to feed the furnaces, open hearths to convert iron into steel, and rolling mills to shape it. With the assistance of German and American engineers, the Soviets intended to build a copy of the giant steel mills of Gary, Indiana. The only things lacking were coal and anything above the barest means to feed and support the thousands of workers.
When Scott began, he shared a room in a barracks with his supervisor. They burned stolen railroad ties to keep warm and their meals were rationed. Scott saw a rigger fall off the scaffolding and helped to take him to the unheated hospital. He saw another worker frozen to death, and mentions many burns and cases of frostbite. He himself was burned severely enough to require two weeks of convalescence. Scott emphasizes that one of the reasons that people worked so hard despite atrocious conditions and frightening politics was that certain things really were getting better. Scott, at least, had a choice as to whether to stay or leave. From the very beginning, he attended school at night, along with most of his fellow workers. His first course of study covered Russian, mathematics, and a lot of history and dialectical materialism. They were serious about political indoctrination. Later he was able to enroll in a metallurgy program.
Scott married a woman he met at school. Masha was one of fourteen children born to an illiterate peasant couple back west. A passage concerning the couple’s trip to see her parents and the warm welcome Scott received despite his broken Russian and strange life choices is, to use a cliche, humanizing. In Magnitogorsk, Masha was working as a secretary and studying math; eventually she became a high school teacher. Phrases like “expanded opportunities” don’t seem to do it justice. In an astonishing passage, Scott describes meeting the operator of a blooming mill: “She sat in a white cabin with large double glass windows directly over the rolls of the mill, and operated a score of control buttons and a dozen foot pedals. One set in motion the rolls which brought the ingots to the mill; another regulated their speed; several more controlled the large mechanical fingers which turned the ingot over…” She was another peasant, who took the course in operation because she was sick. Her nervous concentration is jealously guarded by the other workers, who are hoping to set a record by rolling out one of the eight ton ingots in under a minute.
By the time his child is born Scott has gone from practically camping in the freezing construction site to living in his own apartment in a city with street cars, theaters, and stores that are almost passable. He and Masha even have a maid. In the summer of 1933, Scott took a trip around the Urals. The Soviets were scrupulous about things like vacation and overtime pay. (Scott connects the purge of the late thirties with administration in a general sense, suggesting that they were too advanced in it for their own good.) On his way, he witnessed the aftermath of a train wreck in which the rails were rerouted around the fallen engine, which was too heavy to move. In Sverdlovsk, he saw the basement where the Romanovs were killed, and in Chelyabinsk he saw the giant tractor works that was presumably a major customer of Magnitogorsk steel.
In a short time the tractor factory would be redubbed “Tankograd”. Heavy industry is never so romantic as when it stands as the great bastion of a battered empire, as it did by 1942. By then the Nazis had taken Kiev and Kharkov, they were within sight of the Kremlin in Moscow, and Leningrad was heavily besieged. That the Soviets were able to keep fighting must be partly down to the efforts of Scott and his comrades, and the country’s ability to relocate workers, machines, and whole industries to the railroad and power grids behind the Urals.
Scott published his book at a time when attitudes towards the Soviet Union had not yet hardened in this country, because of our alliance against fascism and our own struggle with the Great Depression. Now, for equally obvious reasons, they have hardened, though I don’t know if this is a good thing. I doubt most Americans keep in mind the scale of the fighting that the Soviets endured in what we think of as our good war, not to mention the catastrophe of WWI and the ignorance under the Tsardom that left some of Scott’s coworkers studying their letters and numbers into their forties.
It’s a bad problem and this book is a one sided look at it. Scott knew about the starvation of millions in Ukraine, but doesn’t ask whether the food that supported him and his comrades in the Urals in the winter of 1932 and 1933 might actually have been stolen from those starving millions. He instead refers to them as casualties in some vague kind of economic warfare. Similarly, it’s a shock to find out that by some accounts, thousands of American workers just like Scott were unable to escape the great purge of 1938.
Scott was actually able to take a vacation in the United States around 1937, and he writes compellingly of the disorientation of returning to an economy suffering from a surplus of production and the comparatively trivial concerns of well off people facing unemployment. When he returned to Magnitogorsk he found he was out of a job, but he continued to live there for some time, before moving to Moscow to work in translation and journalism. He was separated from his wife and children for some time, but all of them got to the United States before the war. He seems to attribute this and the marked deterioration in conditions for Magnitogorsk workers entirely to the exigencies of war. Background information on Scott is spotty, but I have to wonder if he got out only because he was a spy (not that I’d venture to guess for which side), and accordingly, how much of this gripping story is just made up.
To follow: Where I found Behind the Urals, and how do we know what we are reading?