Book Review: John Scott – Behind the Urals

Scott, JohnBehind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (1941)
Category: history, Soviet Union, Stalin; Rating: 5/5

Fear and Fervor under Stalinist Industrialization

The Great Depression of the 1930’s, with its iconic images of well-dressed bourgeoisie in soup lines and gaunt figures with hopeless eyes from the Dust Bowl, challenged the prior American consensus that their system of liberal democracy and free markets was the pinnacle of social and economic organization. Upon graduating from a radical educational program at the University of Wisconsin, John Scott had few permanent job prospects. Coupled with the legacy of his family’s freethinking, non-conformist background, youthful wanderlust and socialist sympathies, he obtained a welder’s certificate at a General Electric plant at Schenectady and set out to discover Soviet civilization – Steffens’ wave of the future, Sloan’s ‘country with a plan’ and in his own pseudonym’s words, ‘the place where there is work to be done is now among the workers themselves’.

The book is a fascinating compendium of observations of Soviet proletarian life in the 1930’s from the point of view of an idealistic but objective American fellow traveler living and working in the model city of Magnitogorsk. He successfully bridged the polar Western views of the USSR of the times, which ranged from the Scylla of the right who claimed it produced nothing but ‘chaos, suffering and disorder’ to the Charybdis of the Communists who held it up as a panacea. His thoughts on this are well worth quoting in full, especially because of their resonance today:

In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren’t we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.

In this book review article, I’ll expound on some his observations and ideas, and prior assumptions and elisions, about industrialization, daily life and politics under Stalinism.

Following the economic and humanitarian disaster of ‘war communism’ during the early Civil War, the New Economic Policy was pursued in the mid 1920’s in which the state controlled the commanding heights of the economy while allowing private initiative in agriculture, light manufacturing and services below. Towards the end of the decade, however, Stalin assumed more power and used it to push the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ – the suppression of consumerism in favor of massive investments into heavy industry. Russia was ‘fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries’, and could either make good this gap in ten years or get crushed, as the ‘backward are always beaten’. Opponents were purged and Stalin embarked on state-backed defensive modernization (in the footsteps of Ivan IV, Peter the Great and late Tsarism); Magnitogorsk, where the iron ore deposits are so rich they distort the Earth’s magnetic field, was to be a poster child of a broader movement to build up a strategically invulnerable military-industrial complex powered by indigenous resources.

Collectivization and the lure of higher wages drew the labor power needed to build the foundations of the industrial base, while primary exports (grains, oil, lumber, etc) paid for the capital and foreign specialists. The workforce was further augmented by the economic emancipation of women (e.g. as crane operators, where dexterity had a premium over physical strength), engagement of ethnic groups (bringing Central Asians into the modern world and even attracting immigrants from Pilsudski’s Poland) and tight controls over energetic and technically skilled, but potentially politically unreliable elements like the ex-Tsarist “prisoner-specialists” and kulaks. Despite the hunger – in the early 1930’s food was rationed due to the collectivization famines, and was for the most part nutritionally and in caloric terms inadequate), persistent cold (up to -40 degrees Celsius in winter), sub-par accommodation and the poor skills of peasants suddenly turned workers (which meant that machines were used inefficiently and in ways that depreciated them rapidly), the impressive industrial plans were mostly achieved.

This was done at a high human cost – safety measures were minimal and bred a fatalist attitude, while at a more general level society suffered from consumer scarcity amidst (relative) producer plenty. The above considerations, as well as the recovery of agriculture in the wake of mechanization and electrification, eliminated shortages of basics (e.g. food stopped being rationed by the mid 1930’s) and labor rights were more honored. If anything, however, the cult of meeting and exceeding the plan metastasized, as illustrated by the emergence of the Stakhanovite movement. With technology diffusion complete and the arrival of full-scale totalitarianism by 1937, foreign specialists left and production suffered as much of the top management was purged (ironically, the NKVD turned out to be some of the best wreckers). The hysteria subsided after 1938, as the country entered a phase of further industrial development and structural militarization in response to the emergent Nazi threat.

From the Dickensian smokestacks of early industrial Britain to the smog-clogged Chinese metropolises of today, heavy industrialization was rarely benevolent to its founders. Although the sheer pace at which the Soviet Union industrialized was up till then unprecedented (e.g. pig-iron output trebled during the first two 5 Year Plans) and imposed heavy human costs, it was somewhat mitigated by the similarly unprecedented attention the regime paid to social matters. A trinity of basic sanitation, obstetrics and vaccination vastly reduced infant and epidemiological mortality in the USSR, the two prior leading causes of death (e.g. typhus was eliminated). Apartments began sprouting amidst the mud huts and wooden houses in Magnitogorsk by the mid 1930’s. Efforts were made to bring bourgeois culture like theater and ballet to the proletariatt. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that the immediate impact on salubrity should not be overestimated – even in the late 1930’s the infant mortality rate remained close to 200 / 1000 (for comparison, the equivalent rate for the US at the time was 60 / 1000), while even by Scott’s own estimates some 75% of Magnitogorsk’s population still lived in primitive izbas or zemlyankas.

Education was subsidized and highly encouraged, focused on Marxist-Leninist ideology (to promote political orthodoxy) and on the hard sciences (to build a strong, technically advanced state). Dogma was more prevalent in the simpler technical schools, where ‘every question had a perfectly defined answer’, since that is what it said in ‘the book’, foreshadowing Milan Kundera’s observation in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that totalitarian kitsch ‘gives all answers in advance’ and pre-empts any questions. Not surprisingly, the older dogmas of religion were ridiculed (but not actively persecuted, according to Scott). Nonetheless, these efforts paid off handsomely, giving the USSR a trained workforce to operate the new machines and armaments (even today, Russia has the OECD’s highest level of tertiary educational attainment for 55-64 year olds). However, as Scott mentions, many of the most capable elements of the ancien régime emigrated and were lost to the Soviet Union, while he fully ignores – as did the Soviet authorities – some impressive achievements in literacy and school enrolment during late Tsarism, including a literacy rate of 41% by 1913 and near universal primary enrollment.

The darkest aspect of life was the activities of the NKVD, the secret police. From 1937, denunciations (made out of spite or to cover one’s mistakes) began to be acted upon for increasingly trivial reasons, which were conflated to sabotage or anti-revolutionary activities – before, these minor offences had typically resulted in fines or demotions. There were very few acquittals and only a simulation of the rule of law, but few executions, so the wisest choice was confession. Scott attributes the purges to 1) concern about sabotage on the part of embittered elements of Tsarism, e.g. kulaks and White army officers, 2) spy-mania brought forth by suspicion of the fascist and overpopulated states of Germany, Italy and Japan, which had banded together in the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, 3) bad memories of Allied intervention during the Civil War, 4) the Bolshevik tradition of not tolerating dissent after a decision was reached and 5) Russia’s long secret police tradition (stretching to the Tsarist Okhrana and even Ivan the Terrible’s oprichniki). Although he does not whitewash Soviet crimes, he does seek to rationalize collective punishment – perhaps somewhat implausible, as a means of helping technicians and workers ‘appreciate and correctly evaluate human life’.

Although Stalinist industrialization was marred by fecklessness – although with time the workers did get more proficient, and from 1937 a pall of fear hung over Magnitogorsk’s managers, prisoner-specialists and politicians, there was a genuine collective spirit both in industry and on the farms. The USSR allowed a limited workers’ democracy in the factories, whose members could suggest productivity improvements and demand better labor conditions – although direct criticism of  the Party or its paramount leaders remained anathema. Even many prisoner-specialists supported the Soviet power out of patriotic pride for what they were doing to modernize Russia, even if they should suffer for it personally. The system was meritocratic, with subsidized education, higher pay for educated workers and bonuses and social status for Stakhanovites. Stalin himself was regarded as a kind of beneficent Tsar, father of the nation, and a competent ‘captain of state’ like the propaganda posters portrayed him.

Scott is firmly pro-Soviet and swallows whole the Bolshevik propaganda about Tsarist Russia as a land of, in Trotsky’s phrase, ‘icons and cockroaches’ – an incomplete judgment which ignores that by 1913 Russia had the vast majority of children acquiring some primary education and Europe’s fastest industrial growth. Although glossing over the nastier aspects of Soviet power, to his credit Scott is unwilling to deny them altogether (unlike, say, Ilya Ehrenburg). And Westerners too frequently forget that the regime enjoyed genuine popular support and that Stalinist industrialization was fuelled not only by fear, but by immense enthusiasm and fervor too.

Despite his experiences and occasional doubts, Scott remained a true believer in the Soviet project, saying that he shared a belief with its people that “it was worthwhile to shed blood, sweat, and tears” to lay “the foundations for a new society farther along the road of human progress than anything in the West; a society which would guarantee its people not only personal freedom but absolute economic security.”

Finally, the decision to build a military-industrial colossus in the Urals was a strategic masterstroke – “The Russian people shed blood, sweat, and tears to create something else, a modern industrial base outside the reach of an invader – Stalin’s Ural Stronghold – and a modern mechanized army”. Not only did its arms’ factories play a vital role in the Great Patriotic War, the physical infrastructure built up there enabled the smooth redeployment of evacuated factories from the west. Stalin’s Ural stronghold ensured that in most key weapons system, the Soviet Union would outproduce Germany by several factors and crush its blood-thirsty millennial dreams. To this day, Victory in that most total and terrible of wars remains Stalin’s primary legacy in the eyes of most Russians, that despotic Messiah who led and ruled them like the God of the Old Testament.

As a cynical former Economist journalist, Gideon Lichfeld, put it: “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them”. Now I don’t usually agree with Economist journos on Russia, but here I’ll make a big divergence. Though John Scott’s Behind the Urals undeniably suffers from a certain, pro-socialist bias, and sometimes engages in a near-absurd defense of Stalin’s purges, I nonetheless highly recommend it as a primary source on Stalinist Russia. The USSR in the 1930’s may not have been a utopia or anything remotely close, but neither was it the unadulterated Hell of deportations, famines and gulags painted by today’s Cold Warriors and their fellow travelers.


  1. Пять баллов! Молодец, Анатолий!

    Your ‘golden’ key phrase is the last one:
    “The USSR in the 1930’s may not have been a utopia or anything remotely close, but neither was it the unadulterated Hell of deportations, famines and gulags painted by today’s Cold Warriors and their fellow travelers.”

    A propos: How can one get access to The 100% Unofficial Blog of the Russian President?


  2. The 5 reasons behind NKVD purges are a great summary of the arguments present. I always explained them by saying that the Soviet system was inherently brutal to its declared enemies. It wanted to build a new class less society and therefore those who enjoyed past privileges or deviated from the party line had to be removed. Somehow I have dismissed the idea of outside intervention in this way, although it definitely aggravated the paranoia on the part of the Bolsheviks.

  3. The subject of Western enthusiasts who moved to the USSR is an interesting one, and there’s an increasing amount of literature on it, both firsthand and scholarly. Recently, a book came out about the fate of Americans in Russia in the 1930s; it got good reviews, but I haven’t read it (and can’t even remember its title now…)

  4. I have often wondered how things might have turned out if Trotsky had overcome Stalin. OTOH he believed in spreading world revolution and using expertise from outside to drag Russia up, as did Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and others had done, yet on first glance it seems almost fanciful that this could have worked as well as Stalin’s mass industrialization drive in the short time up to the Nazi invasion.

    OTOH, Trotsky the pragmatist, who organized the Bolsheviks in arms, used rail and showed general mastery of logistics that made the success of the revolution and victory in the civil war possible in the first place. Maybe his pragmatism would have been as effective as Stalin’s. As for the ‘master stroke’ of creating the industrial base on the other side of the Urals, was this really Stalin’s idea, rather than and idea that he championed? If anything I would imagine it was an idea that had been around a while.