They are big interesting places with entire communities that grow up around them outside of larger cities of course. I worked in one for a few summers as a teen and never forgot the experiences - although I also never sought to repeat it either. Stephen Kotkin is a history professor at Princeton and the author of an outstanding two volume biography of Stalin. This book began with his doctoral dissertation and is a history of the enormous Soviet steel facility at Magnitogorsk that was built from scratch on the steppe as an essential part of the first five year plan and the push towards collectivization and forced industrialization.
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The book returns ideology and geopolitics, or the outside world, to the study of the Soviet socialism. He argues that Stalinism offered itself as a utopia, a new civilization based on the elimination of capitalism. He depicts a whole range of life: from the blast furnace workers who operated the enormous coking coal and steel plants and the families who struggled inventively with shortages of every kind to the political bosses who despite their loyalty were arrested, confessed to crimes they did not commit, and were executed.
Magnetic Mountain signals the beginning of a new stage in the writing of Soviet political history. Rich in documentary research, compelling in its narrative, and stimulating in its interpretations, Magnetic Mountain offers as nuanced and well-reasoned an analysis of Stalinism as I have ever read.
His reconstructions of center-periphery politics and the terror constitute the most satisfying local studies of these phenomena in print. It is sure to become a classic. Learning to speak and think and be Bolshevik is what constitutes Stalinist "civilization. He has a feel for reading the social text, for interpreting the sources, and for finding policy agendas and judging their consequences at various layers of the new urban society of Magnitogorsk.
After Kotkin it is no longer possible to offer the evil Stalin or other monodimensional explanations internal bureaucratic wars, center-periphery conflicts as sufficient explanation for the purges, or for that matter much else in Soviet history.
Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization