Story of cities #20: the secret history of Magnitogorsk, Russia’s steel city

Designed for Stalin as the world’s first completely planned city, Magnitogorsk has yet to confront its controversial past – from the forced labour that helped build it in record time, to the severe pollution that has plagued its residents
The Russian city of Magnitogorsk ‘was the October revolution itself, the socialist revolution, Stalin’s revolution’.
In July 1931, Ibragim Akhmetzyanov arrived in Magnitogorsk in a wooden boxcar with his wife and eight children. The sight that greeted them was bleak.
In the middle of the frigid, windswept steppe, a cluster of tents and ramshackle barracks stood at the foot of the ominous “Magnetic Mountain”, a landform so full of iron ore that compasses could not function near it and birds avoided flying over it.
Between the mountain and the shallow Ural River, workers were erecting the crown jewel of the Soviet leader’s first Five-Year Plan, the Stalin Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex – one of the largest steel plants in the world.
The “first builders” of Magnitogorsk have been lauded in poetry, film and song; Soviet propaganda stressed the contribution of young communist volunteers and members of the Komsomol, a national youth movement that started largely in Magnitogorsk.
But Akhmetzyanov was not a volunteer. He was a dispossessed peasant who had been kicked off his farm in Tatarstan by the communist authorities and sent to Magnitogorsk, where he and his family were forced to work and live in a settlement surrounded by guards and barbed wire. It was the forced labour of these so-called “special resettlers” that made the record-quick construction of the plant possible.

Selling cabbages from a motorcycle in Magnitogorsk, 1993.

Selling cabbages from a motorcycle in Magnitogorsk, 1993. Photograph: Shepard Sherbell/Corbis Saba
They lived in tents for the autumn, then an earth-floored barrack through the harsh winter and hot summer, without basic amenities or medical care. According to Akhmetzyanov’s grandson Salavat, a historian who recently wrote a book about these special resettlers, 10,000 people died of hunger, cold and disease in the first five years of construction, including a son and daughter born to Ibragim and his wife.
“The story of thousands of resettlers has been forgotten,” Akhmetzyanov says. “When it comes to the war we don’t hide our losses and retreats, but here, on the topic of the 1930s, they’ve been tiptoed around.”
“If the regime had been interested in the people, the city would have built on less aggressive deadlines, and without the colossal amount of human casualties,” says Gennady Vasilyev, a local history teacher who compiles “books of memory” with the names of Magnitogorsk residents who suffered from Soviet repressions. “We have a saying that the victors aren’t judged, but this we do need to judge.”

Gennady Vasilyev compiles ‘books of memory’.

Gennady Vasilyev compiles ‘books of memory’. Photograph: Alec Luhn
Celebrated as the “steel heart of the motherland”, Magnitogorsk is a city that has yet to face down its past – and not just the history of the forced labour during its construction. Decades of heavy industry have polluted the air and water, but few questions are asked of the now privately owned Magnitogorsk Iron and Steelworks (MMK). More than 30,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents still work at MMK, and with official unemployment at only 1.44%, the city hasn’t suffered the urban blight of other run-down factory towns.
Magnitogorsk lies near the northern edge of the steppe: the tawny, featureless grasslands that extend west toward the Volga River and east into nearby Kazakhstan. Many people commute from Europe to Asia for work each day, travelling from the residential western side of the Ural River to the steel mill on the eastern side. A small Cossack fort was founded here in 1743, but the area remained mostly untouched by the outside world until the “year of the great break” in 1929, when the Bolsheviks made it the focal point of their first five-year plan to pull the still largely agrarian Soviet Union into the industrial age.
Iron and steel became the watchwords of the era. “We are becoming a country of metal,” Stalin declared, and this metal was to be forged in Magnitogorsk. It became the very embodiment of the push to create an industrialised, socialist society.
“Magnitogorsk was no mere business for generating profits; it was a device for transforming the country: its geography, its industry, and above all its people,” historian Stephen Kotkin writes in his book Magnetic Mountain. “Magnitogorsk was the October revolution itself, the socialist revolution, Stalin’s revolution.”
Ironically, to make this socialist revolution, the Soviet Union had to call on its capitalist rival, hiring the American firm Arthur McKee & Co in 1930 to design the steel plant and train Soviet engineers to build it. Magnitogorsk was reportedly inspired by the US Steel plant in Gary, Indiana, then the largest in the world. The first years of construction, however, were chaos, as the impossibly short deadlines set by Moscow collided with the total lack of infrastructure, chronic fires and a shortage of skilled workers and equipment.

Magnitogorsk department store, 1959.

Magnitogorsk department store, 1959: ‘The city was an urban planning catastrophe with the chaotic outlaw atmosphere of a frontier town.’ Photograph: vk.com/magnitogorskoldfoto
Magnitogorsk’s builders staged “socialist competitions” to complete tasks on unbelievably tight deadlines. The results were rarely of top quality: a competition between teams on the left and right banks of the river in 1930 produced a dam that wasn’t deep enough, and was eventually submerged by a larger one. But the main thing was that another victory could be chalked up to the Bolshevik project, and workers were filled with “labour enthusiasm”, as Kotkin reports.
All the labour enthusiasm in the world couldn’t keep workers amid the harsh conditions, however, and tens of thousands fled. The state solved this labour shortage through a campaign to dispossess allegedly wealthy “kulak” peasants of their land, which began in 1930 and expanded in 1931.
The first boxcars of “special resettlers” arrived in Magnitogorsk in May 1931. According to Vasilyev, 40,000 families of dispossessed peasants were sent to the Chelyabinsk region, many of them Turkish-speaking Tatars and mostly to Magnitogorsk. Their “special” settlements, encircled in barbed wire, were Magnitogorsk’s own small islands in the vast “Gulag archipelago” of labour camps described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In addition, more than 26,000 non-political convicts had been sent to Magnitogorsk by the end of 1933.
The overcrowded, mostly dirt-floored tents and ramshackle barracks in which early residents lived were buffeted by blizzards in the winter and dust storms in the summer. Rats, bed bugs and lice tormented their occupants. Other newcomers reverted to rural ways, building mud huts dug deep into the ground.
Crowded, cold, filthy conditions, combined with the lack of clean water and scarcity of food and medical care, resulted in epidemics of typhus, malaria and scarlet fever. Meanwhile, party officials enjoyed a comparatively luxurious life in the wooded “American town” that was originally built for specialists from the United States in 1930.
“Special carts went around the barracks and asked, ‘Do you have any dead today?’ And everyday they took bodies,” Akhmetzyanov says of the winter of 1931. “Children died first of all, and the elderly.”

A monument commemorating Magnitogorsk’s contribution to victory in the second world war.

A monument commemorating Magnitogorsk’s contribution to victory in the second world war. Photograph: Alec Luhn for the Guardian
While the existence of the special resettlers isn’t denied, it’s not readily discussed either, and a recent drive to put up a monument to them has yet to bear fruit. The administration of one district barred Vasilyev from speaking with descendants there, and he can’t find a sponsor to publish his books on a larger scale. Even today, the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steelworks website makes no mention of this forced labour on its history page.
“We need to immerse children in this topic; they are the ancestors, they should know who they are,” Vasilyev says. “The subtitle of each of my books is, ‘This should never happen again.’”
“People say, ‘Why dig this up, even if it’s true?’” Akhmetzyanov explains. “The problem is that no one is giving money; all the study of these topics is done on [researchers’] own funds.”
The ‘socialist city’
The factory was erected in record time thanks to the first builders’ labour. On 31 January 1932, in temperatures below -20 degrees, blast furnace number one was blown in; the following year, it had to be shut down again and completely rebuilt.
Although officials were reluctant to allocate labour or resources away from the factory, a city still had to be built around it. According to a 1930 Magnitostroi propaganda pamphlet, the city would be the centre of a “deep inculcation of the new socialist way of life”. To this end, it was to be the world’s first completely planned city.
In 1930, Moscow enlisted the help of German architect Ernst May, who had won acclaim building egalitarian housing settlements in Frankfurt with standardised, prefabricated materials. May drafted a plan for a linear city, with a green belt between bands of residential and industrial areas. But when he arrived on site in October 1930, May found that not only was the designated site unsuitable for his plan, but that local officials had already begun construction.

Inside the MMK iron and steel works; more than 30,000 of Magnitogorsk’s 400,000 residents still work here.

Inside the MMK iron and steel works; more than 30,000 of Magnitogorsk’s 400,000 residents still work here. Photograph: Gerd Ludwig/Corbis
The supposedly highly planned building process turned out to be highly erratic. Constrained by the existing construction and the factory facilities, May built what has become known as the Sotsgorod, or “socialist city”; a superblock of rectangular three- and four-storey flat buildings, south of the factory.
The large open areas in between the buildings – designed on May’s principle that every resident should have the maximum amount of light – are not well-adapted to the local climate, exposing all who come and go to the bitterly cold winds of the Ural steppe. Although the buildings are run-down, flats here are still in demand today, since they are constructed of brick rather than concrete panels like many later flat blocks. The site has now been proposed for Unesco World Heritage status.
At the time, May’s standardised, unembellished buildings were criticised as too plain. When commissar of industry Sergo Ordzhonikidze visited the site in 1933, he was disgusted by May’s superblock, which due to the lack of plumbing was surrounded by smelly outhouses, declaring, “You have named some manure a socialist city.” He ordered residential construction to be moved to the west bank of the river, but amid the vagaries of the Soviet leadership – not even the smallest decisions could be made without Moscow’s approval – a masterplan for this second attempt at a socialist city was slow to emerge.

Photo project by local newspaper Magnitogorsk Metal.

Meanwhile, settlements of rickety barracks kept springing up next to each new enterprise that was built on the east bank, earning names such as “Fertiliser Settlement,” “Ore-Enriching Station” and “Lattice-Wood Town”, and stretching the city out more than 12 miles from north to south. The start of the first streetcar in 1935, bearing a portrait of Stalin – Magnitogorsk would eventually have the largest streetcar network in the country after Leningrad – was not enough to make up for the lack of paved roads and vehicles. By 1939 Magnitogorsk, already a city of 200,000, still had only one temporary hospital, and robberies were common. Far from a well-designed socialist city, this was an urban planning catastrophe with the chaotic outlaw atmosphere of a frontier town.
On the other hand, the housing and social services, while always too scarce, began to establish a more collectivised way of life, with public baths, laundries, cafeterias and nurseries. Along with the landmark Magnit cinema, a dozen workers’ clubs with libraries, games, movie projectors and study circles were built to try to broaden the cultural horizons of the poorly educated masses, while also teaching them the Soviet creed.
This Soviet urban ideal was eventually realised on the west bank of the river, with its wide prospects, squares and promenades, and abundance of five-storey “Khrushchev” flat blocks, laid out on a grid and connected to the factory side by streetcars and four major bridges. Today, property prices on the east side, which is where the wind blows the bulk of the factory’s emissions, are lower, and flat blocks there are generally in worse condition.
But the bulk of the west bank construction had to wait until after the second world war. Of 56,000 men in Magnitogorsk, more than 30,000 were sent to the front, with women taking their places in the factory.
“They worked at the factory as if they were on the front. My grandmother said sometimes they slept at the factory and didn’t go home,” remembers local activist Vyacheslav Gutnikov, whose grandmother worked in the coke-chemical section of the steel mill – known as the “hell division” because of the harmful gases.
Magnitogorsk’s role in the war is commemorated by the town’s main monument overlooking the river, “Homefront to the Front”: a 50-foot bronze sculpture of a worker handing a giant sword to a Soviet soldier. Locals are still fond of bragging that every second tank and every third shell during the conflict was built with Magnitogorsk steel.

Ernst May’s Sotsgorod (‘socialist city’), the oldest residential area of Magnitogorsk.

Ernst May’s Sotsgorod (‘socialist city’), the oldest residential area of Magnitogorsk. Photograph: Alec Luhn for the Guardian
It would be hard to overestimate the role that steelmaking plays in the life of the city, where members of nearly every family have worked at the plant. The beloved ice hockey team, which has won the national championship five times and for which local boys dream of playing, is called Metallurg.
On the eastern bank, the sheer size of MMK, which includes every step of the steelmaking process, is astounding. One workshop is more than a mile long, all under one roof. The plant produces 400 different types of steel and turned out 13 million tonnes of crude steel in 2014 and 12.2 tonnes of commercial steel products.
But metallurgy is a dirty business. In February, Leonardo DiCaprio reposted a National Geographic Instagram photograph of ice fishermen in front of dozens of smokestacks at MMK and a caption about pollution. DiCaprio’s repost caused a furore in Magnitogorsk. Chelyabinsk region governor Boris Dubrovsky, himself a former director of MMK, wrote a post on his own Instagram that the photo had been taken 22 years ago and that many of the smokestacks have since been removed, inviting DiCaprio to visit.
Yet any new arrival to the city is likely to notice an industrial tinge to the air, like the whiff of a charcoal brazier and an acrid dryness at the back of the throat. Russia’s state statistics service ranked Magnitogorsk the third most polluted city in Russia in 2015, finding that the level of benzopyrene, a carcinogen that has been linked to lung cancer, in the air was 23 times the allowed amount. In addition, millions of cubic metres of industrial waste water is pumped into the Ural River each year, according to environmentalists, polluting it with heavy particles, nitrites and other chemicals.

Magnitogorsk residents meet at sunset, with the MMK plant in the background.

Magnitogorsk residents meet at sunset, with the MMK plant in the background. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Information on the health effects of this pollution is extremely difficult to find, but according to Anna Rozhkova, head of the environmental group EcoMagnitka, only one in 20 children born in the city is completely free of health problems and allergies. The head of Magnitogorsk’s oncological hospital said in a 2012interview that “people around the world are susceptible [to cancer], but we unfortunately outpace all others.”
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Alexander Morozov, chairman of the city council, tells the Guardian these claims of widespread health problems are greatly exaggerated, arguing that the environmental conditions had greatly improved. An MMK spokesperson says the company spent 2.5 billion roubles in 2013-15 on systems to reduce its environmental impact, and would invest more than 10.5 billion roubles (£110 million) in 2016-18.
When asked about the environment, locals tend to answer that at least it’s better than it used to be, remembering how the factory emissions used to turn the snow rust-coloured or black.
“Earlier, cucumbers and cabbage wouldn’t even grow,” recalls Nina Ivanovna, a cashier at a bakery on the east bank of the river. “They yellowed and wilted right away.”
But a fisherman selling minnows by the kilogram near MMK suggests the river is still polluted. “Yesterday they pumped out some filth, and there were lots of dead fish, a whole layer of them,” says the man, who would give his name only as Igor.
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According to Pavel Verstov, editor of the local independent news site Verstov.info, the city administration should make MMK take more aggressive measures to solve these and other problems, but it is “under the factory’s thumb”.
Despite the city’s near-total dependence on the steel plant, diversifying the economy is not an issue that worries many. Asked what will happen to the city if the plant ever shuts down, city council chairman Morozov is blunt: “Detroit … But we don’t think this will happen. We don’t think the factory could have such a crisis that it would stop.”
MMK has remained profitable, unlike many Soviet industrial plants. But the company suffered losses in Q4 of 2015, hit by Russia’s economic recession and record lows in global steel prices, and the situation is unlikely to improve this year. Many fear a return to the cuts of the financial crisis of 2008, when the company laid off 3,000 workers.
Yet locals remain fiercely patriotic and hopeful for their city. “There are things to criticise [Magnitogorsk] for, but I criticise it with love, so that it will get better,” says Oleg Frolov, editor of the MMK-sponsored local newspaper Magnitogorsk Metal. “It produces the GDP, the might of the country. It’s not for nothing that they call us the steel heart of the motherland.”
Does your city have a little-known story that made a major impact on its development? Please share it in the comments below or on Twitter using #storyofcities

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