Author John Scott was 20-years old when he went to Russia to work in 1932. He was young, brash, idealistic, and naive when he went to Russia, and he was much different when he returned to America five years later. He was certainly biased when he left on his Russian adventure, and he freely admits that in the early pages of his book. He opens his book with the statement, "I left the University of Wisconsin in 1931 to find myself in an America sadly dislocated, an America offering few opportunities for young energy and enthusiasm" (Scott 3). He felt the social system in the Soviet Union was fairer and more adequate than in America, and so, he traveled to Moscow, got the various permits, and went to work in a town called Magnitogorsk, located on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains. He continues, "I was very happy. There was no unemployment in the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks planned their economy and gave opportunities to young men and women" (Scott 4). Scott wrote the book in 1942, after he returned from his experience and had given it time to settle, and after America had entered World War II. It is still considered a classic because it is such an intimate look inside Russia as it was building up its strength for World War II and the Cold War beyond.
The workers at Magnitogorsk were blue-collar Communists with a variety of skills. Many had immigrated to Russia from other countries or areas, such as Poland, because they heard there was work and food at the site. There were also Mongols, Jews, Russians, and many other nationalities. They were laborers -- some of them were educated, some where not. They all worked hard, and they all had worries about family, hunger, poverty, and simply surviving in such a harsh environment. Some did not, as the young riveter who froze to death (Scott 14) shows. Many were peasants who the Communists sent to school to learn a trade, and had never even seen electricity or even staircases before they began working on the furnaces. Many had been industrial workers for a long time, and many were uneducated, simply brute labor. They speak of little schooling and difficult living conditions -- to Americans, most of them would be considered illiterate -- even many of the bosses and foremen.
The GPU/NKVD was in charge of prisoners and "ex-kulaks" (prisoners) who worked on the site to reduce their prison sentences. Their living conditions were even worse than the other workers; they simply lived in tents in temperatures that could get down to 40 below zero or more. They did not get as much to eat, and they were treated as "special" or different than the other workers, so they had a stigma attached to them -- they were isolated and were always under armed guard.
There were numerous challenges for the workers and in building these blast furnaces and the complex around them. The location was isolated, freezing, and difficult to work in because there was never enough heat. The materials were often substandard, such as the slippery scaffolding and burned out machinery. There were also difficulties with workers not showing up and understanding their jobs, and the organization was bad, too. It took only 20 minutes for the workers to eat, but an hour and half to get the food and get back to work ....so they lost valuable working time because of poor organization. The Russians did have some American and foreign consultants to help but the biggest problem was lack of materials to complete the work and a total lack of understanding of the conditions by the Communist regime, who simply wanted work completed early no matter the difficulties. There were workers, even if they were continually getting injured or even killed, and they were in short supply, but the missing parts and materials were the hardest thing to overcome.
The materials for production came from near the area. There were many building materials near the iron ore deposits that would become steel in the blast furnaces, and there was water in the Ural River about five miles away. There were also two artificial lakes closer to the project. The materials and foreign consultants were paid by gold allocations that were earmarked for the construction, and by the Industrial and State Banks. Everything else had to come to the site on one lone railroad line, and there were continual shortages of food, supplies, materials, and just about everything necessary for construction. The workers also had to fabricate many of their own tools with what they had on hand.
Some of the bosses were good leaders and good with the men, such as Kolya and others. Men Like Shevchenko were more interested in furthering their careers and sucking up to the Party, and so they were not as good leaders -- they simply did not care, they only wanted to make themselves look good at the expense of others. Some of the bosses really cared about their work and tried to get things done, even under impossible conditions.
The Five-Year Plan was difficult to work under because it was not realistic. The country had severe shortages, there were economic problems, and the Five-Year Plan did not address these issues. There were shortages of materials, food, and just about everything needed for work and construction, and so, the Five-Year Plan could not be met. Scott was a welder, but he also worked on tractors, and he moved up to foreman at the steel mill furnaces. Then he went to work operating benzol stills.
The Communist Party really ruled over everything that happened in the Soviet Union. It was their rules that said who could attend school and who could not, who was an enemy of the state and who was not, and just about every other facet of life. They controlled the food, the work, and everything.
The trade unions were no longer important to the workers because they did not hold any power. The Party held all the power and the trade unions were simply shells of their former selves, and really served little purpose, which is why the workers generally did not attend meetings or show interest in the unions. Also, the official Trade Unions were simply mouthpieces for the Community Party agenda.
The living conditions were terrible in 1932. The workers lived in barracks that were little more than shanties, insulated with newspaper, and without any coal for heat. Bubonic plague broke out because of the unsanitary conditions. There were bugs, little food, and dirt everywhere. They did improve by the time he left, and when he returned to places such as the farm, where machinery was new and working and production was up five years later. However, five years also saw changes and more regulations, like barbed wire around all the airports, so there was less freedom, too. Magnitogorsk grew, became cleaner, and supplies were more prevalent, so life did get better. By the time he left, the town had turned into a modern city with real buildings, schools, hospitals, a newspaper, and much more.
There were some social benefits for the workers at Magnitogorsk. There were schools they could attend (unless they were enemies of the state, or came from families who had been enemies), there were sometimes films, and there was a clubroom with reading materials,
There were different schools because so many of the workers had little or no formal education. The author writes, "At this time Magnitogorsk boasted very few full-time adult schools. Most of the workers, like Kolya and myself, studied in the evenings. There was too much work to be done, the pressure was too great, to release several million young workers from Soviet industry and send them to school" (Scott 47). There were also more advanced schools for some of the foreman and such, to teach more advanced skills like engineering and such. They were useful to the workers because the workers needed an education, even rudimentary, and they were useful for the state because they created a better educated workforce, and a workforce that knew the Community Party line and its history. The author attended a school that taught Russian history and the Communist Party line.
There were a few women at the work site, perhaps 30 working with thousands of men. They held jobs like waitresses, nurses, janitors, teachers, secretaries, and even a dentist. For the most part, they worked at more menial jobs, while the men did most of the real heavy labor. Later, there were more women and they worked at a bigger variety of technical jobs, such as mill operators and such.
Masha was a "new Soviet woman" for many reasons. She was educated; she had a decent job, and had moved up from a peasant's life to a better life. She also represented what the Soviet Union wanted for all its' people -- more…