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Richard Overy


Tankograd - The Formation of a Soviet Company Town: Cheliabinsk, 1900s-1950s
By Lennart Samuelson (Palgrave Macmillan 351pp 65)
The IS-3 tank as a monument in Cheliabinsk

The city of Cheliabinsk, deep in the Russian Urals, was one of the closed cities of the Soviet Union to which all foreigners were denied entry. In the 1930s it housed a giant tractor factory, the heart of the modernisation of the backward Russian countryside; during the Second World War the factory was turned over to the mass production of Soviet medium and heavy tanks (which earned it the sobriquet 'Tankograd'); after the war nearby townships hosted some of the vital new installations for the Soviet atomic programme. In a country notable for its fear of enemies, such a city was understandably out of bounds.

Lennart Samuelson is perhaps the world's foremost expert on the Soviet military-industrial complex in the age of Stalin, but even he could not get into Cheliabinsk until it was finally opened up in 1992. He has used the opportunity of sudden and unexpected access to the city archives to construct a richly informed account of the transformation of a small town of 59,000 in 1932 to a sprawling industrial giant with almost 750,000 inhabitants during the Second World War. This urban explosion was common among Soviet towns, and it is perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the Stalin age - the conjuring of an industrial revolution out of the ground, overnight.

Samuelson has used Cheliabinsk as a prism through which to explore the long history of the Soviet Union. Its chequered past reflects very precisely the stages of the march from revolution, through Stalinism, war and terror, to the Soviet Union's postwar aspiration to overtake the capitalist West in a generation. The large number of fascinating photographs reproduced in the book conveys a good sense of the widening contrast between ambitious socialist construction plans in the 1930s - with the utopian promise of wonderful new cities filled with workers' apartment blocks, libraries, popular theatres and schools - and the harsh reality for tens of thousands of workers forced to live for decades in shanty towns, poorly heated shacks or dugouts in the ground. Food supply was always inadequate, and during the war irregular; labour turnover was remarkably high in a country where formally leaving a vital job could bring tough penalties; and Russians as young as twelve worked long hours with few holidays in conditions where industrial accidents and illnesses were epidemic.

The vast exodus of workers and machinery in 1941 from the areas invaded by Axis armies is used by Samuelson to support his argument that the Soviet Union, despite or perhaps because of these hardships, was much more prepared for a successful large-scale mobilisation for war than had once been thought. However, conditions in Cheliabinsk province for the more than 400,000 who arrived there were such as to almost defy belief that it could have been possible within months to establish large-scale tank production, in view of the enforced and exhausting twelve-hour shifts, no Sundays or holidays off, poor food and indifferent medical attention. Yet that is what happened. Although Samuelson does not make the claim himself, life in wartime Tankograd closely resembled conditions in the forced-labour camp outside the city, where hungry, poorly clad prisoners were forced to carve out the new industrial landscape in sub-zero temperatures. The evidence produced here shows that the gap between free and forced labour was narrow indeed. During the war the whole of Soviet society resembled a vast concentration camp.

Somehow ordinary Soviet citizens survived an ordeal that was matched by no other major state involved in the war. This may perhaps be accounted for by the long experience through the 1930s of hardships and arbitrary repression. The Stalinist terror hit Cheliabinsk as hard as anywhere. Samuelson's accounts of how ordinary workers were arrested in 1937 and 1938, and tortured and interrogated to confess to wild schemes of counter-revolutionary plots and spying for Japan, beggar belief. The baselessness of the accusations in the city was confirmed when those accused and shot were posthumously rehabilitated in the 1950s following Stalin's death. Samuelson argues that after all the theories about the necessity for camp labour or the ambition to forcibly modernise the 'proletarian' community have been taken into account, the answer to why the terror happened may be the one that Stalin and his cronies gave at the time - paranoid fear of a vast fifth column that would undermine any future Soviet war effort. For Westerns scholars, brought up on the idea that there must be a rational explanation for apparently irrational events, this will be hard to swallow. Nor does it sit entirely convincingly with what we know about the cynical aspects of the terror - the quotas of victims, the accusation in 1938 of overzealousness on the part of the NKVD bosses, the convenient elimination of that cohort of security chiefs and policemen who had been co-opted to carry out the violence in the first place.

It is more difficult to explain just how the Soviet people put up with such conditions for so long. Samuelson cites a visiting official in the 1930s who was so appalled by what he saw of working and living conditions in Cheliabinsk that he asked: 'Why do the workers not revolt?' Disappointingly, Samuelson does not try to answer the question how the society he has studied coped with the vast chasm between propaganda and reality. How could a workforce with high turnover, endemic hunger and a rate of medical absenteeism permanently at 10 or 20 per cent have outproduced the German economy in almost every class of weapon? He quotes from numerous personal accounts of young girls of fifteen or sixteen made to work for twelve hours at machines with little protection, eating an exiguous and unhealthy diet, many of them without shoes for months on end. No amount of idealism or patriotic fervour can explain this phenomenon. However poorly eastern workers were exploited when they were shipped to work in German factories, it seems mild in comparison to the reality back home.

After the war, the situation improved little. Prisoners of war - the only foreigners allowed to see Cheliabinsk, some of whom lived to tell the tale - and Gulag labour joined in the reconstruction and suffered conditions even worse. But gradually an effort was made to redeem some of the twenty-year-old promise with better housing, extensive education and the ubiquitous Soviet cultural production. In this atmosphere of rising expectations, small youth groups in the city began to organise discussions of a central issue: 'a revolutionary leap is necessary for the working class to take back power'. Reports of their police interrogations concluded, without apparent irony, that the students were inspired by the teaching of Marx and Lenin! They were arrested and the leaders sent to the camps.

Lennart Samuelson's account of one city's experience of the Soviet experiment under Stalin is as fine a window onto an extraordinary age as we could hope for. There are great statues of tanks in the city, memorials to a past that can still seem glorious in Soviet terms for all the terrible social costs in its achievement. This profound paradox will be better understood after reading the hectic life story of Tankograd.

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Richard Overy is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars and 1939: Countdown to War were both published in 2009.