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Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia's City of Steel Paperback – August 22, 1989
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"Students reading Scott have come away with a real appreciation of the hardships under which these workers built Magnitogorsk and of the nearly incredible enthusiasm with which many of them worked." - Ronald Grigor Suny "A genuine grassroots account of Soviet life- a type of book of which there have been far too few." - William Henry Chamberlin, New York Times, 1943 " ... a rich portrait of daily life under Stalin." - New York Times Book Review
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With raw courage and physical stamina, Scott worked alongside and shared hardships with Russian workers, welding blast furnaces and watching an immense industrial complex take shape. In his spare time he wrote daily notes of his observations, recording freezing cold, rickety ice-covered wooden scaffolding eighty feet above the ground, many accidents, and inadequate food and shelter.
He also noted the elan that gripped the workers, who compared their current state with the misery of the peasant villages in which they had grown up. Most were enrolled in night school courses and attending local cultural events, convinced that their lives were daily getting better and better.
Stalinist purges from time to time removed local Communist Party members, and Scott himself lost his job in 1938. He was nevertheless able to remain in Russia until 1941, when he was accused of being an American spy. On June 22, he left Vladivostok with his Russian wife and two daughters--on the very day that Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Ukraine.
Back in America, using nine years of field notes, Scott wrote Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia's City of Steel, which was published in 1942. An anthropologist would call his book a superb ethnography--a description of the day-to-day life and culture of a community of people. Scott, whose subsequent career was with Time magazine, became a journalist. In any case, his descriptions of the horrible working and living conditions, the grim political climate and purges, and the tremendous enthusiasm and hope of the workers amidst the chaos of forced-march industrialization are clear-eyed and objective. His book remains the best description of daily life in the USSR under Stalin.
One key question is how reliable a witness is Scott? It is clear that he is trying to present a generally upbeat picture, but he is also willing to depict enormously harsh conditions at Magnitogorsk, especially in the early years. He paints a mood of simultaneous suffering and Gung Ho spirit, where living conditions were appalling, working conditions wildly unsafe, muddle and waste abounded, but where all this was seen as a temporary and necessary transition to a better future.
This was written in 1942, after Scott returned to the US. Scott praises the great foresight of Stalin in building an immense industrial complex in the Urals ("Stalin's Urals Stronghold") beyond the reach of invading German armies. He emphasizes both the enormous sacrifices in building Magnitogorsk and other Urals plants and the vast industrial power of these new factories. Given the dark context of 1942, this was probably a very welcome message in both the USSR and the USA.
I was surprised by the liveliness that Scott describes in plant meetings. Criticism of the system itself, or of the high leadership, seems to have been entirely taboo. However, vigorous grassroots criticism of local plant management, or production methods, or specific social problems (such as the workers canteens) appears to have been common and even seems to have been encouraged, perhaps partly as a safety valve or as a way to spur on mid-level leaders.
Another surprise was the importance of financial incentives. Higher work grades earned significantly higher pay, so workers studied industriously to qualify for the higher grades. (Improved education was a key goal of the regime, so the incentives here were clearly deliberate.) But income was also tied to production. If the group targets were exceeded, pay could be boosted (even doubled). But if the targets were missed, pay could drop. At a higher level, the overall plant income and expenditures were tracked assiduously, although at the very top, Moscow seemed more interested in total raw production than "profit".
In the originally published text, Scott often comes across as well intentioned but distinctly naïve. However, this enlarged edition also includes some private notes that Scott provided to the US Moscow Embassy in 1938. These show a considerably more skeptical and insightful side, for example in analyzing the different groups at Magnitogorsk and explaining how some groups, such as the former kulaks, were permanently embittered against the regime. He is also explicit in describing the impact of what we now call the Great Terror. "Life is cruel in the Soviet Union and the regime knows no pity."
Scott, like other foreign workers, was eventually forced to leave Magnitogorsk as the Soviet authorities became increasingly fearful of foreigners in the later 1930s.
Overall, I found this a fascinating study. When reading this, I think we have to be watchful that Scott, even when skeptical, still tends to see events through somewhat rose-tinted glasses. When he describes horrific conditions, or even major purges, he will often quickly assert that these were necessary steps to a greater end. (And perhaps, in the dark context of 1942, that view is understandable.) Similarly, as a former Soviet resident, he often unthinkingly accepts the regime's official positions, for example in believing that the secret NKVD trials are "fair", without himself having any evidence of them. But, if we keep those rose glasses in mind, this is still a fascinating source of raw primary data for life in a heroic but almost impossibly harsh age.
Because the author was lucky enough to live during rather benign times this book is not quite the same as one might expect for a history of this period. There are no gulag horror stories but there is an insight into a bureaucracy getting out of control and lacking in concern for mere workers as it pursued its grand schemes.