Magnitogorsk: A Mine Field of “Opportunity”

Stalin’s Five Year Plan, introduced in 1928, was essentially Russia playing a game of catch-up with the Western world.  It was designed to strengthen Russia’s economy and to encourage the nation’s self-sufficiency.  Rather than let nature take its’ own course, Stalin wanted to speed up the process.  This rapid transition is reflected in the development of Magnitogorsk.

Magnitogorsk was a planned city; it’s city and steelworks center was designed after Gary, Indiana.  A Soviet delegate traveled to Indiana in 1928 to meet with an American consultant.  The contract for Gary, IN was increased by 4 times.  Stalin and his regime meant business when it came to industrialization.  They were going to not only catch up to the industry and technology of the Western world, but they were going to out do it.

How does Magnitogorsk show the dynamics of the Five Year Plan?

It demonstrates 3 important aspects of Stalin’s plan.

  1. Stress on the importance of industrialization above all else
  2. Rapid transition into a new phase of society
  3. Population shift

The stress on industrialization is demonstrated in the development of Magnitogorsk as a city and as a steel working center.  The facilities were 4 times larger than the greatest ones in America, had the capability of producing 4 million tons annually, and gave Russia an opportunity to be industrially self-sufficient.  Stalin idealized industry and paid less favor to agriculture as he was in search of catching up with the rest of the world in technology.  What he didn’t realize (or care about) was the fact that BOTH areas of work are vital to a society that it trying to be self sufficient.  Not everyone can be a farmer, and not everyone can be an industrial worker.  The Soviet’s stress on industry left agriculture to struggle to feed the nation and themselves.  Often times, the food they did produce went to the cities, leaving the rural areas to experience widespread famine.  This alone shows the glorification and emphasis on industry with the Five Year Plan.

workersWorkers in Magnitogorsk

Secondly, Magnitogorsk is a perfect example of the rapid changes in the Soviet Union during this time.  As stated earlier, the nation was playing a huge game of catch up with the rest of the world.  Magnitogorsk was only planned in 1928 and was granted township in 1931.  Construction of the factories and housing had begun before city planner, Ernst May, had even finished planning for the city.  In order to accomplish the Five Year Plan (which according to Stalin’s regime should ACTUALLY be accomplished in four years) there was no time to waste.  Construction and production needed to happen as soon as possible.  This immediate rush to construct a city resulted in many problems for Magnitogorsk as it developed.  Workers and eventually families lives in tents, mud huts, and poorly put together dormitories where sleeping happened in shifts.  The feel of Magnitogorsk was very much a feeling of competition with other industrial sites.  Whether those other sites knew they were engaged in a competition can be debated, but the attitude of the Soviets in building Magnitogorsk and during the Five Year Plan in general was definitely a competitive spirit.  This spirit was captured in Time Forward!, a book published in 1932 about the technical backwardness of the regime.  To read more about the novel, click here.

Lastly, the rapid development of Magnitogorsk was partly a result of the population shift.  Due to the problems with collective farming and widespread famine among rural populations, many peasants fled to the cities for their livelihood.  As stated by Freeze in the text, the city went from 25 inhabitants in March 1929 to 250,000 by the fall of 1932.  That is an incredible increase in population and demonstrates how ‘ruralization’ took place.  ‘Ruralization’, as coined by Moshe Lewin in the Freeze text, meaning “the squeezing of the village into the city and the subjection of urban spaces to rural ways”.  Public places became temporary shelters and bazaars because of the influx of so many peasants.  Life in the industrial world was not luxurious, so the rapid growth of the city goes to show how bad collectivization was and the effect it had on peasants.


Magnitogorsk is such an interesting city, between it’s rapid growth and it’s overly ambitious expectations.  It was known as Russia’s model city at the time as it demonstrated so many points of the Five Year Plan in its very being.  However, the last passage about the city in the Seventeen Moments in Soviet History blog speaks a lot about its symbolic alignment with the Soviet Union.

11. Magnitogorsk_340Magnitogorsk today

“…its significance as a symbol of revolutionary transformation declined, so too did capital investments and the efficiency of its mills. Officially closed to foreigners during the Second World War, Magnitogorsk was not opened again until the early 1980s by which time its steel plant had become badly outdated and its air badly polluted.”
***Magnitogorsk ‘thrived’ and had ambitious goals of becoming the best there ever was in the world, but it quickly fell and vanished as a symbol of greatness because it was rushed and was not built on stable plans.  We watch this same rapid growth with Russia, as well as the catastrophic repercussions that come from snap judgements, unrealistic expectations, and poor planning on the part of Soviet leadership.

Read more about Stalin’s model town:Seventeen Moments in Soviet History: Magnetic Mountain
Magnitogorsk: Once Stalin’s Model Town, Now a Polluted Hell-Hole
Magnitogorsk: Wikipedia
Freeze, Gregory L. “Building Stalinism.” Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Pictures found here:


October 6, 2013 · 5:04 PM

2 Responses to Magnitogorsk: A Mine Field of “Opportunity”

  1. Ben Midas

    This is a great post, very well done. I think your comparison of the decline of Magnitogorsk to the problems that confronted Russia is very insightful. Something else to think about is how Magnitogorsk reflected the priorities of the Soviet government in terms of production. When thinking about this, think about what Magnitogorsk and other places like it produced and what they did not produce and what this meant for the Soviet Union later on.

  2. Charting the development of Magnitogorsk against the unfolding of Soviet history works really well in this post — and the title is awesome (another punny one for the books)! There’s a film I wish we could have watched (at least part of) in class called Magnitogorsk, Forging the New Man ( It’s a documentary in a documentary, which juxtaposes the heroism and trauma of the 30s against the decay and flux of the 80s. There is a video in the library if you want to experiment with some 20thc technology!

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