Steeltown, USSR: Soviet Society in the Gorbachev Era

Steeltown, USSR: Soviet Society in the Gorbachev Era

University of California|1991|$32
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No one, not even Mikhail Gorbachev, anticipated what was in store when the Soviet Union embarked in the 1980s on a radical course of long-overdue structural reform. The consequences of that momentous decision, which set in motion a transformation eventually affecting the entire world order, are here chronicled from inside a previously forbidden Soviet city, Magnitogorsk. Built under Stalin and championed by him as a showcase of socialism, the city long remained closed to Western scrutiny.  Kotkin made his first visit to Magnitogorsk in 1987 and returned in 1989. On both occasions, steelworkers and schoolteachers, bus drivers and housewives, intellectuals and former victims of oppression—all willingly stepped forward to voice long-suppressed grievances and aspirations. Their words animate this moving narrative, the first to examine the impact and contradictions of perestroika in a single community.  From the formation of "informal" political groups to the start-up of fledgling businesses in the new cooperative sector, from the no-holds-barred investigative reporting of a former Communist party mouthpiece to a freewheeling multicandidate election campaign, the author conveys the texture of contemporary Soviet society in the throes of an upheaval not seen since the 1930s.  Like no other Soviet city, Magnitogorsk provides a window onto the desperate struggle to overcome the heavy burden of Stalin’s legacy.

 

“an enterprising and keenly observant American scholar gives a graphic picture of the city and its people in the era of perestroika, when the huge steel plant has become an industrial dinosaur, a symbol of the decomposition of the system that created it.  Kotkin. . . finds sources of information everywhere: the daily press (especially letters to the editor), the theater, a hotly contested election campaign and in hundreds of conversations with ordinary and extraordinary Russians.  The result is a rare and striking picture of how (badly) perestroika is working in one provincial city with a special place in Soviet history.”

– John Campbell, Foreign Affairs

 

“As a sort of latter-day Sukhanov, Kotkin attended whatever meetings he could, probed friends for details of those he could not get to, interviewed all sides of every debate in town and filled the gaps by reading issues of Magnitogorsk Worker from 1985 to 1989. The result is that the people of the city come to life in all their relationships. The awakening of professional pride of the newspaper editor and his reporters in their attempts to give meaning to glasnost'; the primitive political bluster of the steel mill's director, interviewed after his election (on the Communist Party's quota) to the Congress of People's Deputies; the pain and insult of Magnitogorsk's women run through the ‘abortion mill’ of the decaying city hospital; the muttered despair of a worker faced with the hypocritical corruption of his bosses; the anxiety of the city's Jews ‘sleeping on suitcases’ lest, after the Stalinists and the bureaucrats, ‘those with horns’ be targeted as scapegoats for the city's ills. . . In the fraying fabric of Magnitogorsk society one can see clearly on a human level the strains and contradictions that are explained in sociological and political terms in the summary essay.”

– Theodore Friedgut, Slavic Review