Magnitogorsk, or the Romance of Soviet Industry

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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. 

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The Ural River basin, by SaphronovAB (?) and Materialscientist, CC attribution share alike, via Wikimedia Commons

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. 

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T-34s roll off the assembly line, image from RIA Novosti, CC attribution share alike via Wikimedia Commons

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?

Human Smoke: A Strong Case for Pacifism

I’m forever getting reacquainted with the big, unreadable books on my shelves; last night it was The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  I was trying once again to figure out structuralism and post-structuralism.  Somehow I found myself back at Pyrrhonian skepticism and from there, Diogenes Laertius.  One sentence in the short notice drew my attention: “He had a taste for anecdote and paradox, but no talent for philosophical exposition.”  The same has been said of Nicholson Baker, and in much the same narrow minded spirit.

I finally read Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.  For a long time I was put off by the way  it’s put together: Human Smoke is strung together out of snippets from newspapers, diaries and a variety of other contemporary reports.  There’s little commentary and few signs of a thesis.  I ended up being won over, however.  Before I say more, let me admit that Baker’s interview on Amazon explains much better than I could what he was about.  A friend also wrote a note on her blog that I think is pretty much right on.

We generally appreciate that the bombing campaigns of World War II were pretty horrific. What is less appreciated is that the campaigns’ military effectiveness is still debated.  Alongside of evidence of bombing’s colossal waste and the futile, sick fantasy that punishing civilians would lead to compromise, Baker steadily focuses on the many thwarted efforts to actually help the people, the Jews and other refugees, that we sometimes think this good war was fought for.  By ending his book with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Baker ensures that phases like the phony war, that might be skipped over to get to the “good stuff”, are given due weight.  It’s remarkable that nothing about the war feels inevitable in this treatment.  I’m not quite to the point of agreeing with Baker that the pacifists were right, as he says in the end, but I’m thinking about it.

On Monday I bought Baker’s recent collection of essays, The Way the World Works.    The title seems like a bit much, but I was won over by a piece on video games.  I’m glad he shares my high opinion of the adventure/shooter Uncharted 2.  There’s also an essay called “Why I am a Pacifist” I’m very curious about.

Some serious reading, and some not so serious…

Catalonia (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been agonizing over posts on the last couple of books I read, because I don’t think I can do them justice.  I finished Shirer’s excellent Berlin Diary, which I blogged about earlier.  Shirer was able to tour the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of France immediately after the invasion, before leaving Germany at the end of 1940, his work increasingly obstructed by Nazi censors.  Reading about events from such an immediate perspective raises important questions with an urgency that I don’t think I’ve gotten from regular histories.  Perhaps the most important: How are the Germans and the French (to take just one example) able to live next to each other, not only in peace, but with apparent openness and cooperation?

In a similar vein I picked up George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  I couldn’t figure out what to be most astonished at: the story Orwell had to tell, the utterly straightforward way he told it, or the fact that I hadn’t gotten to this great work sooner.  Orwell spent parts of 1936 and 1937 in the trenches fighting against Franco only to be turned on by his own cause.  It was a fascinating mess that played out right before World War II and I’m glad to have learned just a little bit about it.

I’ve been on a bit of a World War II thing in recent years, having also read E. B. Sledge’s account of his fighting in the Pacific and also the novels Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.  They were all interesting in various ways.  Next I think I may finally read Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s controversial take on the war; I’ve seen Baker speak and if anyone makes pacifism interesting, it’s him.

At the moment I’m reading Sister Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language.  She takes a very old school liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric and logic) approach to the details of Shakespeare’s language, explaining many, many figures of speech with quotations from the plays.  It’s mainly those quotations that make it fun, especially what she calls vices of language.  I overheard someone affectedly quoting from another language today and immediately thought, “Ah! Soraismus!”

Berlin Diary

Last year I read William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  Eleven hundred pages and not one blog post!  But what could I really say?  I haven’t read widely enough on WWII to evaluate Shirer’s work, his accuracy, his objectivity, and so forth.  I guess I can say that I was glad to have put the time in with such a book, if only for the sake of putting some sustained thought into the matter.  Just how did such a disaster happen?  Shirer doesn’t try to provide an easy answer.

Now I’m reading Shirer’s Berlin Diary.  This work claims to be the diary that he kept, beginning 1934 when he was again taking up his work as a foreign correspondent after a year’s sabbatical.  It’s hard to put down.  Shirer was in the middle of everything:  He covered Nazi rallies and got close enough to Hitler that he reflected on how easy it would have been to assassinate him.  He was in Vienna at the time of the annexation and in Prague just before the Munich conference, wondering how he might come by a gas mask.

It was the right place to be for someone in his line of work, though.  After getting downsized by his wire service (there seem to have been quite a few then) he happened to fall in with Edward R. Murrow and CBS, seemingly just as regular trans-Atlantic news broadcasts were beginning.  There’s an amazing description of them being given a couple of hours to try to pull together a roundup from all over Europe.  Shirer had to place phone calls to his journalist friends in Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and at the same time to engineers to figure out who had access to short wave transmitters.  Then his bosses in New York told him when to start each piece, and he told them what wavelength to listen on.

Of course this invites comparison between the news in Shirer’s day and in our own, when by all accounts this kind of journalism is disappearing.  I don’t know.  At one point, Shirer questions whether his reporting is making any difference at all.  It must have been particularly disheartening to find that, after moving the heavens to bring the news to England and America, visitors from abroad to Germany never seemed to want to see what Shirer saw.  His work issues a tremendous challenge never to be complacent about the information at our disposal.