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The Mountain's Magnetism: Kotkin's "Magnetic Mountain" Review

I have a deep love of history and linguistics that I explored in college and have since. I am terrified of the future.

Read on to learn about Stephen Kotkin's analysis of early Soviet rule in Ukraine.

Read on to learn about Stephen Kotkin's analysis of early Soviet rule in Ukraine.

Stalinism as a Micro-Civilization

A microhistory is a work of historical research that narrows its focus, finer than the wide scope of the Longue Duree school, more intimate than the distant masses working for the great man. Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain sights a few twenty years, during which the planned city, Magnitogorsk rises from the rough Ukrainian steppe. This microcosm of Stalin's reign reveals both the failures and success of early Soviet rule, the give and pull between the party and people, and the difficulty of planning a future.

Kotkin is skeptical. Where he gives Stalinism any credit, it comes dearly and with caveats dragging at its ankles. He finds executions where he can verify none and idealizes each primary document, questioning its providence in the hope of ferreting out another aspect of Stalinist control.

History Bending

1995, the year of Magnetic Mountain's publication, marked only a few years since Soviet archives had been opened to western scholars. Kotkin's writing represents some of the earliest western work in those libraries. As with the Stazi records in eastern Germany, whose legendary files have never fully been cataloged, these represent truly insurmountable waves of data, well beyond the capabilities of any single person.

No one is without their biases, and in history, rhetoric often creeps in to fill the gap. History is, after all, rhetorical; it is about the understanding that new phrasing and viewpoints, and arguments can enliven old, staid, and limited collections. Further, historical exercise occurs politically. Who is permitted access, who can publish, what narratives predominate—these questions are not answered in the void.

Which is a long way of qualifying my own uncertainty with Kotkin. On the one hand, microhistories are definitely my thing. On the other, I am bent more toward idealism when talking about the Soviets, though one that I hope is always tempered by reality. Kotkin has a different reaction.

Soviet Reality

As in the subtitle of the book, Stalinism as Civilization, Kotkin's primary interest is in the daily life of the people of Magnitogorsk. He looks deeply first into the founding of the city on the Ukrainian steppe in the '20s, the American firm that aided in the building, and the serious issues of housing, feeding, and purposing the people being sent to Magnitogorsk.

Largely this involves compromises on the part of various aspects of the city government. When higher Soviet authorities wanted to prohibit the popular "french wrestling" as a public display, they ultimately caved to the people's demands. Similarly, the gorkom fights constantly to build enough housing, maintain housing, and finally, wrench housing power from the kinds of personal relationships that ultimately drive society. These are my favorite of Kotkin's observations, jagged edges between the ideal and reality.

To whatever degree his skepticism aids the narrative, it does its best work here. The entire chapter 6, "Bread and a Circus" follows the circus as the center of a display of public power and its antithesis, the shadow economy, a space the state struggled to control and ultimately dealt with by building an open-air market. Where the world moves, the Soviets begrudgingly follow.

A Little Ideology as a Treat

It is the seventh chapter and the afterword where Kotkin's leanings become most apparent. There he discusses party purges, executions, and ultimately the end of the terror in Magnitogorsk. The "invisible conspiracy" of the book's seventh chapter, the party apparatus that shadowed the normal government, does fascinate as a glimpse into a solidifying class structure that would ultimately overthrow the Soviet Union. But Kotkin does not delve into this analysis. Rather, he spends time suggesting an image of the party as a colonial parasite, but more significantly as inquisitors, grabbing at ideas to label and understand the system.

The theory of terror as inquisition feels jarring and even forced. Even worse, it leads to his understanding of socialism as primarily a religious experience, even while noting the small and flawed material benefits of the people of Magnitogorsk. While chronicling the monstrosity of executions, Kotkin intimates more where he has no evidence (338). This continues into the afterword, where Kotkin lays bare his problem: he believes that this violence is a necessary result of communism.

As Kotkin briefly notes in the above-cited op-ed, there have been many deaths in the name of ideology through the twentieth century. Without submitting to whataboutism of any sort, we can recognize that many deaths came as the result of Soviet governance. We can also recognize the deaths in the name of anticommunism, the horrors of that enterprise as it was prosecuted in Asia and Latin America, and of capitalism, from its colonial beginnings to modernity.

As those killed in the name of anti-communism are discussed less frequently, I myself did not know about Indonesia; I cannot over-recommend The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins. While Bevins draws a much wider spatial scope than Kotkin, it is worth reckoning with what has been wrought internationally in the name of the United States and its ideology.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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