Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Magnetic Mountain (1998)

Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization (University of California Press, 1995)
Written By: Andrew Hemingway
Date: October 1998
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 4: Autumn 1998 

Stephen Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization (University of California Press, 1995) is a case study of Soviet society in the 1930s from the bottom up, which centres around the gigantic steel plant and industrial city at Magnitogorsk just south of the Urals.

The book is not only packed with fascinating details about everyday life based on Soviet archives, it also offers a challenging new account that takes seriously the idea that the Soviet elite was trying to build a genuinely socialist society - however perverse its vision of socialism was, and however misguided its methods. Our discussion will focus on Kotkin's key claim that 'the socialist city... was not simply a place where an urban population was located but a device for inculcating a new set of attitudes as well as new kinds of human behaviour in its urbanized inhabitants - in a word an instrument for creating socialist people.' (p.34)

Kotkin's approach is largely inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, and he takes issue with recent authoritative interpretations of Stalinism by Moshe Lewin and Sheila Fitzpatrick in some respects. There is much to disagree with here (perhaps), but also much that bears serious consideration. Although the book looks dauntingly thick (640pp), a full 230pp of it is made up of notes, most of which can be skipped. This is a book every socialist should have views on!

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