Designed for Stalin as the worlds first entirely planned city, Magnitogorsk has yet to confronted its controversial past from the forced labour that helped construct it in record time, to the severe pollution that has plagued its residents

In July 1931, Ibragim Akhmetzyanov arrived in Magnitogorsk in a wooden boxcar with his wife and eight children. The sight that greeted them was bleak.

In the middle of the frigid, windswept steppe, a cluster of tents and ramshackle barracks stood at the foot of the ominous Magnetic Mountain, a landform so full of iron ore that compasses could not function near it and birds avoided flying over it.

Between the mountain and the shallow Ural River, employees were erecting the crown jewel of the Soviet leaders first Five-Year Plan, the Stalin Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex one of the largest steel plants in the world.

The first builders of Magnitogorsk have been lauded in verse, movie and song; Soviet propaganda stressed the contribution of young communist volunteers and members of the Komsomol, a national youth movement that started largely in Magnitogorsk.

But Akhmetzyanov was not a volunteer. He was a dispossessed peasant who had been kicked off his farm in Tatarstan by the communist authorities and sent to Magnitogorsk, where he and his family were forced to work and live in a settlement surrounded by guards and barbed wire. It was the forced labour of these so-called special resettlers that built the record-quick building of the plant possible.

Selling cabbages from a motorcycle in Magnitogorsk, 1993. Photo: Shepard Sherbell/ Corbis Saba

They lived in tents for the autumn, then an earth-floored barrack through the harsh wintertime and hot summer, without basic amenities or medical care. According to Akhmetzyanovs grandson Salavat, a historian who lately wrote a volume about these special resettlers, 10,000 people succumbed of hunger, cold and cancer in the first five years of building, including a son and daughter born to Ibragim and his wife.

The story of thousands of resettlers has been forgotten, Akhmetzyanov tells. When it comes to the war we dont hide our losses and retreats, but here, on the topic of the 1930 s, theyve been tiptoed around.

If the regime had been interested in the people, the city would have built on less aggressive deadlines, and without the colossal quantity of human casualties, tells Gennady Vasilyev, a local history teacher who compiles books of memory with the names of Magnitogorsk residents who suffered from Soviet repressions. We have a went on to say that the conquerors arent judged, but this we do need to judge.

Gennady Vasilyev compiles books of memory. Photo: Alec Luhn

Celebrated as the steel heart of the motherland, Magnitogorsk is a city that has yet to face down its past and not only the history of the forced labour during its construction. Decades of heavy industry have polluted the air and water, but few questions are asked of the now privately owned Magnitogorsk Iron and Steelworks( MMK ). More than 30,000 of the citys 400,000 residents still work at MMK, and with official unemployment at only 1.44%, the city hasnt suffered the urban blight of other run-down factory towns.

Magnitogorsk lies near the northern edge of the steppe: the tawny, featureless grasslands that extend west toward the Volga River and east into nearby Kazakhstan. Many people commute from Europe to Asia for work each day, travelling from the residential western side of the Ural River to the steel mill on the eastern side. A small Cossack fort was founded here in 1743, but the region remained largely untouched by the outside world until the year of the great break in 1929, when the Bolsheviks built it the focal point of their first five-year plan to pull the still largely agrarian Soviet Union into the industrial age.

Iron and steel became the watchwords of the era. We are becoming a country of metal, Stalin declared, and this metal was to be forged in Magnitogorsk. It became the very embodiment of the push to create an industrialised, socialist society.

Magnitogorsk was no mere business for generating gains; it was a device for transforming the country: its geography, its industry, and above all its people, historian Stephen Kotkin writes in his volume Magnetic Mountain. Magnitogorsk was the October revolution itself, the socialist revolution, Stalins revolution.

Ironically, to make this socialist revolution, the Soviet Union had to call on its capitalist challenger, hiring the American firm Arthur McKee& Co in 1930 to design the steel plant and develop Soviet engineers to construct it. Magnitogorsk was reportedly inspired by the US Steel plant in Gary, Indiana, then the largest in the world. The first years of building, however, were chaos, as the impossibly short deadlines set by Moscow collided with the total lack of infrastructure, chronic flames and a shortage of skilled workers and equipment.

Magnitogorsk department store, 1959: The city was an urban planning cataclysm with the chaotic proscribe atmosphere of a frontier township. Photo: magnitogorskoldfoto

Magnitogorsks builders staged socialist rivalries to complete undertakings on unbelievably tight deadlines. The results were rarely of top quality: a competition between teams on the left and right banks of the river in 1930 rendered a dam that wasnt deep enough, and was eventually submerged by a larger one. But the main thing was that another victory could be chalked up to the Bolshevik project, and workers were filled with labour exuberance, as Kotkin reports.

All the labour enthusiasm in the world couldnt keep employees amid the harsh conditions, however, and tens of thousands fled. The state solved this labour shortage through a campaign to dispossess allegedly wealthy kulak peasants of their land, which began in 1930 and expanded in 1931.

The first boxcars of special resettlers arrived in Magnitogorsk in May 1931. According to Vasilyev, 40,000 families of dispossessed peasants were sent to the Chelyabinsk region, many of them Turkish-speaking Tatars and largely to Magnitogorsk. Their special settlements, encircled in barbed wire, were Magnitogorsks own small islands in the vast Gulag archipelago of labour camps described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In addition, more than 26,000 non-political convicts had been sent to Magnitogorsk by the end of 1933.

The overcrowded, largely dirt-floored tents and ramshackle barracks in which early residents lived were buffeted by blizzards in the winter and dust storm in the summer. Rats, bed bugs and lice tormented their occupants. Other newcomers reverted to rural routes, building mud shacks dug deep into the ground.

Crowded, cold, filthy conditions, be included with the lack of clean water and dearth of food and medical care, resulted in outbreaks of typhus, malaria and scarlet fever. Meanwhile, party officials enjoyed a comparatively luxurious life in the wooded American town that was originally built for an expert from the United States in 1930.

Special carts went around the barracks and asked, Do you have any dead today? And everyday they took bodies, Akhmetzyanov tells of the winter of 1931. Children succumbed first of all, and the elderly.

A monument celebrating Magnitogorsks contribution to victory in the second world war. Photo: Alec Luhn for the Guardian

While the existence of the special resettlers isnt denied, its not readily discussed either, and a recent drive to put up a monument to them has yet to bear fruit. The administration of one district barred Vasilyev from speaking with descendants there, and he cant discover a sponsor to publish his books on a wider scale. Even today, the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steelworks website induces no mention of this forced labour on its history page.

We need to immerse children in this topic; they are the ancestors, they should know who they are, Vasilyev tells. The subtitle of each of my books is, This should never happen again.

People tell, Why dig this up, even if its true? Akhmetzyanov explains. The problem is that no one is giving fund; all the study of these topics is done on[ researchers] own funds.

The socialist city

The factory was erected in record time thanks to the first builders labour. On 31 January 1932, in temperatures below -2 0 degrees, blast furnace number 1 was blown in; the following year, it had to be shut down again and entirely rebuilt.

Although officials were reluctant to allocate labour or resources away from the factory, a city still had to be built around it. According to a 1930 Magnitostroi propaganda pamphlet, the city would be the centre of a deep inculcation of the new socialist way of life. To this end, it was to be the worlds first entirely planned city.

In 1930, Moscow enlisted the help of German designer Ernst May, who had won acclaim build egalitarian housing settlements in Frankfurt with standardised, prefabricated materials. May drafted a plan for a linear city, with a green belt between bands of residential and industrial areas. But when he arrived on site in October 1930, May found that not only was the designated site unsuitable for his scheme, but that local officials had already begun construction.

Inside the MMK iron and steel works; more than 30,000 of Magnitogorsks 400,000 residents still work here. Photo: Gerd Ludwig/ Corbis

The supposedly highly planned build process turned out to be highly erratic. Constrained by the existing building and the factory facilities, May constructed what has become known as the Sotsgorod , or socialist city; a superblock of rectangular three- and four-storey flat houses, south of the factory.

The large open areas in between the buildings designed on Mays principle that every resident should have the maximum quantity of light are not well-adapted to the local climate, uncovering all who come and go to the bitterly cold winds of the Ural steppe. Although the buildings are run-down, flats here are still in demand today, since they are constructed of brick rather than concrete panels like many subsequently flat blocks. The site has now been proposed for Unesco World Heritage status.

At the time, Mays standardised, unembellished houses were criticised as too plain. When commissar of industry Sergo Ordzhonikidze visited the site in 1933, he was disgusted by Mays superblock, which due to the lack of plumbing was surrounded by smelly outhouses, proclaiming, You have named some manure a socialist city. He ordered residential construction to be moved to the west bank of the river, but amid the vagaries of the Soviet leadership not even the smallest decisions could be made without Moscows approval a masterplan for this second try at a socialist city was slacken to emerge.

Photo project by local newspaper Magnitogorsk Metal. Photo: Alec Luhn

Meanwhile, settlements of rickety barracks maintained springing up next to each new enterprise that was built on the east bank, earning names such as Fertiliser Settlement, Ore-Enriching Station and Lattice-Wood Town, and stretching the city out more than 12 miles from northern to south. The start of the first streetcar in 1935, bearing a portrait of Stalin Magnitogorsk would eventually have the largest streetcar network in the country after Leningrad was not enough to make up for the lack of paved roads and vehicles. By 1939 Magnitogorsk, already a city of 200, 000, still had only one temporary hospital, and robberies were common. Far from a well-designed socialist city, this was an urban planning cataclysm with the chaotic proscribe atmosphere of a frontier town.

On the other hand, the housing and social services, while always too scarce, began to establish a more collectivised way of life, with public baths, laundries, cafeterias and nurseries. Along with the landmark Magnit cinema, a dozen employees clubs with libraries, games, movie projectors and analyse circles were built to try to broaden the cultural horizons of the poorly educated masses, while also teaching them the Soviet creed.

This Soviet urban ideal was eventually realised on the west bank of the river, with its wide prospects, squares and promenades, and abundance of five-storey Khrushchev flat blocks, laid out on a grid and connected to the factory side by streetcars and four major bridges. Today, property prices on the east side, which is where the wind blows the bulk of the factorys emissions, are lower, and flat blocks there are generally in worse condition.

But the bulk of the west bank building had to wait until after the second world war. Of 56,000 humen in Magnitogorsk, more than 30,000 were sent to the front, with women taking their places in the factory.

They ran at the factory as if they were on the front. My grandmother said sometimes they slept at the factory and didnt go home, remembers local activist Vyacheslav Gutnikov, whose grandmother ran in the coke-chemical section of the steel mill known as the hell division because of the harmful gases.

Magnitogorsks role in the war is commemorated by the towns main monument overlooking the river, Homefront to the Front: a 50 -foot bronze sculpture of a worker handing a giant sword to a Soviet soldier. Locals are still fond of bragging that every second tank and every third shell during the conflict was built with Magnitogorsk steel.

Ernst Mays Sotsgorod( socialist city ), the oldest residential area of Magnitogorsk. Photo: Alec Luhn for the Guardian

It would be hard to overrate the role that steelmaking plays in the life of the city, where each member of nearly every family have worked at the plant. The beloved ice hockey team, which has won the national championship five times and for which local boys dream of playing, is called Metallurg.

On the eastern bank, the sheer sizing of MMK, which includes every step of the steelmaking process, is astounding. One workshop is more than a mile long, all under one roof. The plant creates 400 different types of steel and turned out 13 million tonnes of crude steel in 2014 and 12.2 tonnes of commercial steel products.

But metallurgy is a dirty business. In February, Leonardo DiCaprio reposted a National Geographic Instagram photograph of ice anglers in front of dozens of smokestacks at MMK and a caption about pollution. DiCaprios repost caused a furore in Magnitogorsk. Chelyabinsk region governor Boris Dubrovsky, himself a former director of MMK, wrote a post on his own Instagram that the photo had been taken 22 years ago and that many of the smokestacks have since been removed, inviting DiCaprio to visit.

Yet any new arrival to the city is likely to notice an industrial tinge to the air, like the whiff of a charcoal brazier and an acrid dryness at the back of the throat. Russias state statistics service ranked Magnitogorsk the third most polluted city in Russia in 2015, observing that the level of benzopyrene, a carcinogen that has been linked to lung cancer, in the air was 23 times the allowed quantity. In addition, millions of cubic metres of industrial waste water is pumped into the Ural River per year, according to environmentalists, polluting it with heavy particles, nitrites and other chemicals.

Magnitogorsk residents gratify at sundown, with the MMK plant in the background. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin/ Reuters

Information on the health effects of this pollution is extremely difficult to find, but according to Anna Rozhkova, head of the environmental group EcoMagnitka, only one in 20 children born in the city is completely free of health problems and allergies. The head of Magnitogorsks oncological hospital said in a 2012 interview that people around the world are susceptible[ to cancer ], but we unfortunately outpace all others.

Alexander Morozov, chairman of the city council, tells the Guardian these claims of widespread health problems are greatly exaggerated, arguing that the environmental conditions had greatly improved. An MMK spokesperson tells the company spent 2.5 billion roubles in 2013 -1 5 on systems to reduce its environmental impact, and would invest more than 10.5 billion roubles( 110 million) in 2016 -1 8.

When asked about the environment, locals tend to answer that at least its better than it used to be, recollecting how the factory emissions used to turn the snowfall rust-coloured or black.

Earlier, cucumbers and cabbage wouldnt even grow, recalls Nina Ivanovna, a cashier at a bakery on the east bank of the river. They yellowed and wilted right away.

But a fisherman selling minnows by the kilogram near MMK suggests the river is still polluted. Yesterday they pumped out some filth, and there were lots of dead fish, a whole layer of them, tells the man, who would give his name only as Igor.

According to Pavel Verstov, editor of the local independent news site, the city administration should attain MMK take more aggressive measures to solve these and other problems, but it is under the factorys thumb.

Despite the citys near-total dependence on the steel plant, diversifying the economy is not an issue that frets many. Asked what will happen to the city if the plant ever shuts down, city council chairman Morozov is blunt: Detroit … But we dont think this will happen. We dont believe the factory could have such a crisis that it would stop.

MMK has remained profitable, unlike many Soviet industrial plants. But the company suffered losses in Q4 of 2015, hit by Russias economic recession and record lows in global steel prices, and the situation is unlikely to improve this year. Many dread a return to the cuts of the financial crisis of 2008, when the company laid off 3, 000 employees.

Yet locals remain ferociously patriotic and hopeful for their city. There are things to criticise[ Magnitogorsk] for, but I criticise it with love, so that it will get better, tells Oleg Frolov, editor of the MMK-sponsored local newspaper Magnitogorsk Metal. It creates the GDP, the might of the country. Its not for nothing that they call us the steel heart of the motherland.

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