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How did Stalin build cities?


Bolsheviks seized power after the October revolution and formed the Soviet Union with the dream of constructing the first socialist country in the world. As Stalin took power following the death of Lenin, there was a national plan to build cities, which could realize socialist ideas and utopian dreams. During the early 1930s, a number of cities across the country were built from scratch. Two books, Khrushchev: The Man and his Era by Taubman and Magnetic Mountain by Kotkin describe vividly how the cities were constructed through the eyes of people and their lived experiences.

Although the two stories are set in different cities – Moscow and Magnetagorsk – there are many features that they hold in common. Not only were the cities built in a chaotic and inefficient manner under weak leadership, but the city planning was also aimed towards satisfying and fulfilling the state’s purpose, not the people’s needs.

In the early 1930s, Khrushchev was in charge of supervising the construction of a new metro in Moscow. Kruschev recalls, “When we started building, we had only the vaguest idea of what the job would entail. We were unsophisticated. We thought of a subway as something almost supernatural” (Taubman, p 94). In many cases, not only was there not a single professional staff member, but one department was responsible for supervising hundreds of institutes. Magnitogorsk was not an exception. Staff were often ordered to build barracks just a couple of days before the arrival of approximately 40,000 people. (Kotkin, p 81) Additionally, in Magnitogorsk every amendment to the city design, no matter how ostensibly trivial, ultimately required approval from Moscow, which made city building inefficient and slow.

In addition to the weaknesses of the leadership hierarchy and system, the fact that city planning was aimed towards satisfying the state’s purpose, rather than the people’s needs, was noticeable in both of the two cities. Taubman describes that the metro, which was to be the most expensive construction in Moscow at that time, was not built because the people of Moscow needed it, but because it served larger state purposes. (p 94) Since the metro’s deep tunnels and stations could be used as bomb shelters in wartime, Stalin was excited to show the country’s advancements to the world. On the other hand, constructions, such as housing and sewage services, which were indeed needed for people, were neglected and they lagged badly behind.

московское метро 80 лет назад      Moscow, platform of the Dzerzhinski Square subway station (ca. 1935)

Moscovskaya metro station in 1935


The state’s purpose is the most important factor when it comes to city building in Magnitogorsk as well. However, here, the state’s purpose is more specific and more ideologically-oriented. Turning peasantry and ordinary workers into the new ‘Soviet man’ and initiating collectivization was one of the most important state aims in Stalin’s era during the 1930s. Stalin believed that it could be achieved through massive collective construction projects, such as building dams. According to Stalin, the “Magnitogorsk Dam” was a school where hundreds of youths could become loyal partisans and truly recognize the miracle of Bolshevism through labor. Therefore, “heroes” among workers were decorated, busts of Lenin and Stalin were made, and speeches were given after the dam was completed. The state’s purpose in assimilating the peasantry under the banner of socialism is well reflected in its city planning in Magnitogorsk.

dam       statue

Concrete dam in Magnitogorsk              a statue in Magnitogorsk

However, again, other constructions, such as housing, sewage, heating, electricity, and other essentials for the population were neglected (p 129). For example, the majority of Magnitogorsk’s inhabitants took up residence in tents and waited their turn to move into one of the hundreds of barracks being built. However, the planned temporary barracks became the predominant form of shelter.

Палатки первостроителей Магнитогорска.

People sleep in tents in Magnitogorsk

Reading Khrushchev: The Man and his Era and Magnetic Mountain reminded me of the piece by Anna Litveiko, who described the Bolshevik revolution as a wonderful holiday and she felt completely free for the first time. (p 50) Litveiko was happy imagining a beautiful life under communism where workers would build a good proletariat life and there would be enormous public buildings, including huge cafeterias, laundromats, day care centers, and kindergartens. However, it seems like the new city planning in Stalin’s era was different from what she had expected.

If Litveiko was one of the people who was excited to move to the new “modern” city of Magnitogorsk (as it was advertised in press), where she was introduced to tent-life and the hard labor conditions. I am wondering how she could have responded. Would she still be happy to do all those things, while still dreaming of a better future? Or would she be disappointed with the new city, turning away from the state’s orders, and earn the label of class enemy? Or… since she was already one of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolutionary movement in the end of her piece, she might work as one of the weak bosses or one of those busy thinking  about how to transform the peasantry into better soviets in order to advance the socialist crusade. Though I have no exact answer for this, one thing I can say is that city building across the country in Stalin’s era was conducted in a chaotic way under weak management, while workers’ basic needs were neglected.



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Life in the barracks, more of the same in Magnitogorsk

For my blog post this week, I am interested in comparing the communal living space in Kotkin’s ‘Magnetic Mountain’ to Zelnik’s translated edition of “A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia’ in several different ways. How did the cramped living spaces compare in Tsarist Russia in the Stalinist city in the shadow of the Magnetic Mountain? How is the idea of personal space in the city presented in these two works? What can the different changes tell us about Stalinist society?


Coming into this week, I most enjoyed reading the piece about the young radical worker in Tsarist Russia. This firsthand account takes the reader directly into the noisy and grimy world of Moscow in the 1890s. Some of the passages really had a lasting impression on me, especially with sensory details like a courtyard that had the “acrid stench of carbolic acid” as well as “dirty puddles and discarded vegetables”. The young radical worker is overwhelmed at the scale and pace of the big city. For him, living in cramped, filthy, and depressing shared space is a very disorienting environment. Although the author decries his living conditions, it can at least be said that he still had a job and seemed to have enough to eat. Coming from an insular village life, he suffered a very shocking adjustment, much like newly arrived visitors to Magnitogorsk in the early 1930s.


In the city planning of Magnitogorsk, housing all of the laborers that came from all over the Soviet Union proved to be a difficult task.  After the planning fiasco with Ernst May and the construction delays, most laborers in Magnitogorsk lived in ‘temporary’ structures, the living spaces do not sound too far removed from the young radical worker from 40 years previous. The living spaces were incredibly diverse across the city, however in my blog for this week I want to predominantly focus on the barracks. Similar to the radical worker’s account, those living in Magnitogorsk had problems with hygiene, public drunkenness, as well as “mud and ceaseless noise” in the barracks. Kotkin cites a few different sources, his account is much more expansive than Zelnik’s, as Kotkin utilizes many primary and secondary sources. Kotkin provides the reader with a great deal of insight into the barracks in Magnitogorsk. Despite all of the plans for Magnitogorsk, it is interesting to note the rejection of some communal living situations as people instead crafted “mud huts” and turned back to village practices, dropping the new ideas for the city-to-be. All of the utopian plans and Stalinist rhetoric saw the city grow in fits and starts, however for the everyday laborers in the barracks, the city planning rhetoric did not line up with sleeping on wooden planks in the cold.


In Magnitogorsk, Soviet planners wanted to “mold” simple villagers into proletarians and model citizens, this is illustrated well with the photographic piece on Victor Kalmikov. However, sometimes things don’t always go according to plans, and this is nearly always the case when it comes to Magnitogorsk. The “red corners” were established to replace traditional Russian Orthodox icons, the portraits of Stalin and Lenin were omnipresent in the barracks. From most of the testimonies and evidence presented by Kotkin, the “temporary” structures housed people in cramped conditions for years at a time, and the insufficient housing may have played a role in the revolving door mentality in Magnitogorsk. For the workers to band together and build the city up from nowhere, personal comfort and security was never a high priority. Cramped factory workers in Tsarist Russia shared many of the same complaints as those in Magnitogorsk. Although a great many plans were drawn out for the large scale city, in some ways the communal living arrangements were stuck in the past, far from the futuristic, sweeping plans of the new model city. In my opinion, by focusing on other housing for elites as well as the planning and maintenance of blast furnaces and other industrial centers, the city planning left people, quite literally, out in the cold.





I have included an image taken by Johan Niegeman, a Dutch architect that travelled to Magnitogorsk in the early 1930s. It is worth noting these are foreign architects as well as other workers. People are smiling; we can see someone playing music as well. There is also a man at work in the background, with shovel in hand! This is a very different picture than the people who actually lived in the cramped and squalid barracks, I think this shows a mixture of work and leisure to be projected to the outside world.


Netherlands Architecture Institute. “Niegeman in Magniotogorsk.” Web. Accessed September 19, 2016.


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Cities provide a creative space in the modern world, but also serve as sites of sometimes intense conflict.  In this seminar we will be looking at cities that arose or were shaped in part by socialism.  We will examine some of the ways that ideas and practices that arose under socialism in the Former Soviet Union and its empire affected people’s living conditions,  public spaces, and  public and private lives.

We will also study what has happened in once socialist cities as political and economic change writ large arrived in the late 1980s-early 1990s.  Transformation follows transformation, layers of memories are peeled away and supplanted.  We will read about utopias and nostalgia, revolutionary destruction, creative destruction, obsolescence and re-imagining.  We will end by considering cities of the future.

This is your WordPress blog, hosted on Georgetown Commons.  It will be a space for writing (and illustrating) and sharing your reflections about socialist cities.  You can make comparisons between places or readings, expand our knowledge, or dig into the details.

To get started, click on the “Login” link in the Site Tools section of the sidebar. Once you’ve logged in with your NetID and password, click on “Write a new post” .  If you have any questions about how to use your WordPress blog, please contact CNDLS at

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