Stalinism as a Civilization

I have never quite agreed with Tolstoy’s famous quote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The quote seems to indicate to me that goodness is static, while evil has “interesting” variety.  I see it the other way round.  The great saints of the Church demonstrate great variety, whereas all the bad guys of history have little to differentiate them.  What, after all, makes Pol Pot that much different from Mao, or Nero from Cambyses, or Hitler from Stalin?  On the contrary, St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas, to take two contemporary medieval examples, could not be more different.

Of course I could also be misinterpreting the quote badly.

Reading Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization I thought of Tolstoy’s quote again and rethought it a bit.  

Kotkin’s goal for the book intrigued me.  Ok, he states, of course Stalin was a bad guy and Stalinism proved enormously destructive in many ways.  But no regime can last for as long as Stalin’s did without him doing something right, or at least, appealing to large numbers of the population with his ideas and “results.” In other words, not everyone got oppressed, and some must have benefitted from what Stalin did.  More than that, enough must have truly believed in what Stalin sought to accomplish not to just obey his directives, but to revere him as well.  Kotkin seeks to uncover exactly how Stalinism “worked” in every day life and get us beyond our cardboard cutout of Stalin as “bad dictator” without leaving it entirely. Looking at the city of Magnitogorsk gives him ample opportunity to do so, for it was a city built from nothing almost overnight according to at least what Soviets planned as purely “socialist” or “Stalinist” designs.

Is it possible that, “All evil dictators are alike, but each of them does their “good” things in different ways?

The book begins by discussing briefly the context of the rise of the “Stalinist city.”  Part of the appeal of communism in the 1920’s lie in the seeming collapse of the west.  In retrospect World War I seems to be the death knell of Europe, and many at the time felt the same.  Capitalism had, obviously, exhausted itself and brought about the grisly destruction of the war.  What else could one expect on a system rooted fundamentally in economic and class exploitation.  Socialism was so obviously the way of the future, only a stubborn fool would cling to it still.

Or so the argument went.

Given that for many ca. 1925 socialism represented the way of the future, socialism needed to be on the cutting edge of technology. Socialism had rational roots, and this rationalism would inevitably flee tradition and embrace the hopeful future.

To that end, the Soviets faced a few problems.

The first is that Russia was far, far behind the west in terms of technology and industrialization.  They needed to catch up in a big hurry, and not just for reasons of security, but also for ideology.  Socialism must show itself superior to capitalism in all respects if their revolution would spread.

The second is that Russia never quite experienced the Enlightenment and may have been the most traditional of European societies.   These traditions had their roots in the daily rhythms of peasant village life and in the multitude of small villages scattered throughout the country — the kind of places adored by Tolstoy.  These villagers invariably looked down on “cities” as enemies to their way of life and their faith, often with good reason.

To build the new humanity sought by socialists nearly everything had to change within the Soviet Union.

The “Magnetic Mountain” served as a perfect template for all of Stalin’s most important plans. Everyone knew that the mountains nearby contained enormous quantities of iron ore deposits, some of the largest in the known world.  And because the area stood as merely a barren wasteland in the steppes, they could build on a blank slate.  The new steel plant would be the largest in the world, and the people who came to work could be drafted from the villages, forging a new kind of humanity in the process (the use of the term “forging” was deliberate, tying the plant and economic changes to the social and political changes they sought).

Kotkin uncovers some fascinating, but perhaps obvious details about the design of the city.  Not just the village, but the family itself presented a barrier to socialist reform.  The original design of the living spaces were apartments.  Apartments had the advantage of economic efficiency.  They also helped “forge the new humanity, breaking down the village and then family unit in one go.  The first apartments had no kitchens or common space within individual quarters.  They located the kitchen’s and common areas in more central locations — no one should be excluded, and no one could exclude themselves (later buildings allowed for more family space).  The design of the buildings discouraged families from creating distinct identities for themselves apart from the people as a whole.

Equality formed the bedrock value, so each apartment should have equal access to the sun. Unfortunately, this meant that, with no courtyard, each apartment had equal exposure to the brutally cold winds that roared across the steppe 6-7 months a year.  Finally, as socialists defined value through labor, all apartments got built on a line equidistant from the plant itself. The prominence of the massive plant in the geography and psychology of the city made it not unlike the role of churches in medieval towns.  Mankind will be defined by what he worships, whether that be God or labor.

One of the most dreary aspects of this period was the politicization of all aspects of life.  The Soviets faced the embarrassment of needing capitalist firms to design most of the major parts of the plant.  But . . . socialists could show their superiority by getting more out of the machines than believed by the capitalists.  So if part ‘x’ was predicted to operate at ‘y’ speed and efficiency, we could do better.  We will operate at ‘y + ?’ efficiency, thereby showing the superiority of socialist labor.  Of course, this resulted in a host of mechanical problems.

This forced them into an uncomfortable choice.  Either socialist labor was not superior, or . . . “wreckers” existed within the plant — counter-revolutionaries and capitalists.  So, now those that worked the machines too hard might be subject to “unmasking” by true patriots and devotees of the revolution.  Of course, if workers were to be true participants in the revolution they had to have the power to “unmask” — and be expected to.

As you might expect, many got unmasked. Limiting production turned into treason, for it was “counter-revolutionary.”  Under the principle of equality, many party members got unmasked as well (though many got reinstated on the back end — the party had to cover for itself).

But Kotkin shows that despite the madness of the method, it won many converts.  The Soviet Union did get transformed into an industrial colossus, and had enough social unity to withstand the withering Nazi onslought in W.W. II.  By most any rational calculus, Stalin and the Soviets should have closed up shop in 1941.  How did they avoid this fate?

We have recourse to the standard answers, which include

  • The Russian Winter
  • The deep reservoirs of Russian nationalism the Nazi’s unleashed that mobilized an entire population
  • The brutal tactics of the S.S. turning local populations against the Nazi’s
  • The over-extension of the Nazi forces and the sound interior lines of Soviet defenses.
  • And again, the industrialization Stalin began allowed them to churn out tank after tank after tank.

All of these factors played a role.

However, we cannot overlook the fact that Stalin also had converts.  His program worked in the sense that it gave people a a new purpose, a new sense of belonging, a new sense of destiny and their own place within History and the cosmos. Many remained ambivalent, some opposed him — mostly in secret.  But many others no doubt believed.

This should give us pause.  No man is an island.  We would like to think that we would not fall prey to the design of the buildings, the alluring glow of the plant and the comradeship of the work.  None of these, we think, would have any impact on us.  We would not believe, we would not be changed.

Hopefully, we would be right.  But one lesson of Stalin’s Magnetic Mountain is that people are inextricably influenced by their surroundings, sometimes even against their inclinations.