Book review entries
January 12, 2008
Stephen Kotkin’s intricate and provocative Magnetic Mountain provides a hugely informative contribution to our understanding of 1930s Stalinist history. Amidst the ferociously fought battle between upholders of the ‘totalitarian model’ and the self-proclaimed revisionist school spearheaded by Sheila Fitzpatrick, Kotkin takes a relatively dispassionate approach to his dissection of Stalinist society. Instead of characterising this era as one chiefly driven by state control or coercion, or conversely, by a ‘revolution from below’, Kotkin argues that values, ideals, and aspirations for a socialist utopia shared by all members of society account for the idiosyncratic nature of the Soviet Union under Stalin in the 1930s.
Kotkin approaches the subject of Stalinism from a microhistorical level, choosing the industrial city of Magnitogorsk as his case study. Constructed around a group of iron ore rich hills near the southern tip of the Ural Mountains, the city was the emblem of the Soviet Union’s industrialisation drive, the core being a steelworks modelled on that of Gary, Indiana, which it intended to outstrip in output. Not only does the choice of Magnitogorsk as subject offer us a detailed portrait of the planned economy in operation during the country’s frenzied industrialisation drive. More interestingly, it gives us insight into the collective Soviet perception of what the model socialist city should be. Built from nothing in the 1930s Magnitogorsk was heralded as the city of the future and a concrete step towards progress. In great detail, Kotkin assesses the everyday history of the people of Magnitogorsk, and analyses how its population, imbued with a sense of historic purpose, overcame great obstacles and suffered enormous hardship in the collective effort to build the utopian city.
The book is divided into two main sections. The first, ‘Building Socialism’, describes the drawn-out process of constructing Magnitogorsk, built from nothing in the 1930s. Reflective of the First Five Year Plan in general, mismanagement, poor communication, and an ultimate lack of solidarity between the various state factions resulted in persistent delays in constructing the complex and surrounding city, and unfulfilled targets in iron and steel output industrial once production began. Moreover, a predilection towards heavy industry above all else meant resources intended for housing and city maintenance were often reallocated to the factories. However, although Kotkin outlines that the communists fell far short of meeting their aims, their feat was nonetheless hugely impressive, and necessitated an incredible collective effort from the city’s population.
The relationship between the population of Magnitogorsk and their surroundings forms the basis of the second, and larger section of the book; ‘Living Socialism’, which describes and analyses the new society that was formed as a result of the grand strategies of the state described in part 1. Largely dispelling the ‘totalitarian model’ as inadequate in justifying the continued existence of Stalin’s brutal regime, Kotkin outlines how the average citizen tolerated, and in many cases actively embraced communist rule. Whereas the first section deals with the efforts to engineer the model socialist city, the second section focuses on how the new socialist city engineered the human soul. Using a plethora of source material, Kotkin outlines a multiplicity of methods by which the Communist Party encouraged, persuaded and cajoled the people of Magnitogorsk into fully supporting the regime, from housing incentives, to wage differentials based on performance at work. He consulted an array of documents in writing this monograph, including almost every extant issue of Magnitogorsk’s many newspapers from the 1930s as well as unpublished memoirs and interviews from the people.
The idea of universal participation and effective subjugation of individuals under the aegis of the state derives itself from the writings of Michel Foucault, who Kotkin acknowledges as having greatly influenced this social history. Kotkin, following Foucault’s example, undercuts the perception of ‘totalitarian model’ historians that power is localised in the central state apparatus by identifying mechanisms of power, such as mutual surveillance self-identification, at a micro-level. Far from being a regime where policies were implemented without consideration and input for the ordinary population, ‘the state understood that its power rested on the characteristics and behaviour of the people’ (p. 23).
Following on from this, Kotkin argues that the most abhorrent and controversial aspect of Stalin’s era, the Great Purge, resulted as much from the active involvement of ordinary people, and the natural development of Marxist-Leninist theory, as from the paranoid caprice of Stalin and his cohorts.
Kotkin portrays the state as theocratic in essence in explaining the participation of ordinary people in the Great Terror. In place of religious institutions which were outlawed in the Soviet Union, the population was imbued with a belief in the scientific insuperability of Marxist-Leninist theory, and that the ultimate outcome of human evolution would be a socialist utopia. Thus, when the state decried somebody as counter revolutionary, Kotkin judges the unanimous condemnation of the accused to be a natural reflex, for the population was united with a desire to protect socialism from sabotage.
Ultimately, perhaps the most pertinent aspect of this complex and detailed microhistorical study of life under Stalin is that state decision making processes, policies and, most importantly, the ways they were carried out were anything but static. Magnitogorsk was representative of a new, unknown era in history and was, as such, the apotheosis of Stalinist experimentation. As Kotkin makes clear, the intentions, desires and policies of the state were constantly compromised by the mercurial and unpredictable behaviour of a population introduced to an alien state. On the other hand, though there were often conflicts of interest within the new society, there was a sense of historical purpose which bound the people of Magnitogorsk together to perform amazing feats. Whether or not the communists truly fulfilled their intentions for the model socialist state, the monumentally rapid and frequently ad hoc construction of Magnitogorsk was a unique event in history.
However, there are limitations to the usefulness of choosing Magnitogorsk as a case study in writing a microhistory of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and the degree to which it can be said to be indicative of the general social dynamics that defined the Stalinist State. The workers in this society were self-consciously participating in an event of great historical importance with the construction of a socialist city from scratch. Moreover, Kotkin defines the people in general as ‘outsiders’; socialist zealots, criminals, and uprooted and unwanted workers eager for a new start in a new city. Such an exceptional population was clearly not representative of ordinary Russia.
All in all, while Magnetic Mountain is a detailed and illuminating regional case study, an investigation into the nature of Stalinism in major cities such as Moscow or Leningrad would doubtlessly reveal significantly different results. Kotkin set the new benchmark for historical research on 1930s Russia with his intricately woven, challenging and all-encompassing dissection of Soviet life in Magnetic Mountain. What remains is thus, where possible, to write histories of 1930s Soviet cities using the same methodology used by Stephen Kotkin, in order to get a more comprehensive and accurate view of how Stalinism functioned on a national level.
October 20, 2007
As the years go by, certain annual events seem to confirm the feeling I have that time is speeding up. Big Brother, a seemingly permanent fixture of idle summer television, comes sooner every year, and every new crop of imbecilic hopefuls becomes more and more indistinguishable from the last; a perennial army of buffoons lavishing in their own lunacy. As we approach Halloween, it is hard to believe a year has gone by since ghoulish gimmicks last bedecked the shops; it seems like only yesterday that I last sported my bloodstained vampire cape. It also seems like yesterday that Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ won last year’s Man Booker Prize 2006; a relative newcomer who the bookies had placed as fifth out of six in the shortlist.
This year’s competition was just as unpredictable. Ian McEwan, who won the prize in 1995 with ‘Amsterdam’, paradoxically regarded as one of his weaker novels, threatened to pull off a similar feat this year with his novella ‘On Chesil Beach’, a taut and carefully crafted piece, albeit one which ultimately pales alongside ‘Enduring Love’ and ‘Atonement’, generally viewed as his masterpieces. Few would have predicted that Irishwoman Anne Enright’s fourth novel, ‘The Gathering’, would be the book to deny McEwan a second glory. Dismissed by leading critics for its purportedly unredeemable negativism, and listed a rank outsider alongside ‘On Chesil Beach’, Nicola Barker’s epic ‘Darkmans’ and Lloyd Jones’ majestic ‘Mister Pip’, just what could have induced the esteemed Booker panel to award Enright’s bleak family saga the literary world’s most coveted prize?
In an age obsessed by the internet, globalisation and religious fundamentalism, ‘The Gathering’ is refreshing for its timeless plot; a family bereavement prompts a middle-aged nouveau-riche housewife into a stifling, existential panic. As nine siblings converge in Dublin at the funeral of their brother Liam, Veronica, the sister closest to the dead man, feverishly traces the origins of the Hagarty Clan, trying to pinpoint the moment the sorry fate of her family was sealed. The tone is clear from the book’s front cover; a half-burnt, distorted photo of an apparently content three-generation family squinting into a camera against a bucolic backdrop. Correspondingly, the narrative of Veronica is an embittered and emotionally warped interpretation of how her family was not, underneath the surface, the happy unit observers viewed it to be. Behind this façade of familial solidarity was a sordid history of child abuse, neglect, and the inability of a mother to remember the names of all her children.
Veronica’s narrative stings with its unflinchingly pessimistic outlook. Chance did not determine her family history, it was merely sex. It was the fact that Lamb Nugent failed to win the heart of Veronica’s grandmother Ada that induced him to molest her grandson Liam for consolation, ultimately resulting in Liam’s alcohol induced suicide. Veronica was conceived, like her nine living siblings and her mother’s numerous miscarriages, merely because her parents, being Catholics, refused to use contraception. And, as she consistently ponders to herself through her book, to what avail do they all exist? “I look at my hands on the railings, and they are old, and my child-battered body, that I was proud of, in a way, for the new people that came out if, just feeding the grave, just feeding the grave! I want to shout it at these strangers. I want to call for an end to procreation with a sandwich board and a megaphone.”
Amidst all Veronica’s furious, acerbic narrative, it is paradoxically surprising how much ‘The Gathering’ often comes across like a sober, mature ‘Generation X’. Underpinning this ill-fated and impassioned family portrait is a voice of grimly rational intelligence, which, as in Douglas Coupland’s groundbreaking 1991 novel, questions our role in the modern world. Are the daily rituals we seem to drift towards in middle age; the corporate handshakes, the bad sex, the obsessive concern with the behaviour of our children, of any importance other than the fact that they distract us from being the people we want to be? A key line in the second album by Indie misfits ‘Mansun’ appositely sums up Veronica’s despair: “Life is a compromise anyway.”
Importantly, this existential fear does not come across as a diatribe. Veronica’s narrative skips seamlessly from generation to generation, from her imaginings of the courtship of her grandparents, to her present day marital problems, where her description of sex recalling Sylvia Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’ with its detached disgust: “I love my husband, but I lay there with one leg on either side of his dancing, country-boy hips and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered.” There is a strange, lulling rationality to the ordering of these nightmarishly pungent fragments of memory which makes the reading of ‘The Gathering’ an almost hallucinatory affair, jolting us with each new familial revelation and leaving us entranced throughout.
Despondent and brooding as its content clearly is, the text is imbued with a promise of redemption and escape from the miserable family cycle which excites our curiosity to the last page. If it were merely a fatalistic tragedy, the book would not succeed like it does. Vernonica’s caterwauling, often histrionic narrative results from a mid-life crisis brought about by the unceremonious suicide of her brother, which, whilst being the summit of the family’s misfortune, also, by implication, will bring about a reversal of fortune, signified by new life to replace the old.
In some ways ‘On Chesil Beach’ drew upon very similar themes to ‘The Gathering’. It details the wedding night of a history student and musician, and how their different attitudes towards sex scupper their future happiness, just as sex, at the wrong time, with the wrong person, is often viewed as the enemy in ‘The Gathering’. However, whereas ‘On Chesil Beach’ is essentially a moralising book, ‘The Gathering’ has a delicious ambiguity which makes it one of the most refreshing Booker prize winners for years.