Magnitogorsk: Once Stalin’s Model Town, Now a Polluted Hell-Hole
Stalin’s Five-Year-Plan: A Postcard Project
Image: John Scott
Haste makes waste. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Magnitogorsk, “city near the magnetic mountain” on the Siberian side of the Ural Mountains. Rushing to build Russia’s model steel town according to Stalin’s Five-Year-Plans of the 1930s, the steel plant there started operations before emission controls and plant security were even considered. Sufficient housing and town development also went for a toss – literally downwind from the plant, subjecting the town’s residents and workers unnecessarily to air pollution. Bronchitis, asthma and lung cancers followed, as well as an entry into the Dirty Thirty – the world’s most polluted cities.
Ice fishers pulling their catch out of the polluted river:
Image: Gerd Ludwig
Exact location of Magnitogorsk:
Image via payer
Magnitogorsk means “city by the magnetic mountain” and refers to the Magnitnaya mountain – a geological anomaly that once consisting almost completely of iron. According to legend, the hoofs of Mongol leader Batu Khan’s horses are said to have gotten stuck when he tried to conquer the area in the 13th century.
Young workers in 1932:
When urban planning started in 1929, everything seemed to be going right: Magnitogorsk was to be modeled after two of the most advanced steel producing cities in the US at that time: Gary, IN and Pittsburgh, PA. Hundreds of foreign experts arrived to implement and direct the work as well as German architect Ernst May who had successfully built worker housing in Frankfurt.
Ernst May housing complex of the 1920s in Frankfurt Bornheim:
Image: Dirk Ingo Franke
A linear city design was planned with the steel works on one side and housing blocks for the workers on the other, separated by a greenbelt that was supposed to absorb noise and pollution. A good plan but May didn’t know that some parts of the steel works and some housing complexes had already been completed.
The steel works in 1929:
Image: German Federal Archive
This forced May to abandon his original plan and come up with patchwork solutions. After a considerable delay, construction finally started in 1932, when 100,000 workers were already living in makeshift accommodation.
Things got worse when building materials meant for housing were used for the steel mill – the project that always came first. Disgusted, May left in 1933 after being blamed by the Soviet government for all that went wrong with city planning.
Only in the ‘60s and ‘70s did housing construction finally catch up with demand when huge, pre-fabricated apartment blocks popular during the Soviet era were built. Until then, the workers and their families had lived in the old barracks and impromptu housing close to the plant or in newer structures on the west bank of the Ural River.
Clearly form followed function here – example of Soviet pre-fab style:
Image: Ricardo Liberato
Both were quite makeshift and shoddily executed, leaving their inhabitants without running water, plumbing and central heating yet with drafty windows, not to forget large amounts of soot, ash and sulfuric fumes that swept across the old worker settlements and turned the snow black and grey in winter. Even today, housing supply for Magnitogorsk’s 410,000 inhabitants is insufficient, forcing many children to live with their parents long after marriage.
“Victory of the Workers” monument to remind visitors of the city’s role in WWII:
Image via virtualtourist
Having said that, wages are still higher than the national average and a job in the steel plant usually comes with a housing allotment. Magnitogorsk also boasts three universities, a theatre, museums, other cultural institutions and of course the Magnitogorsk Steelers, the city’s internationally known ice hockey team.
But all the entertainment options cannot cover up the population’s health issues as decades of air pollution have left their mark – cases of bronchitis, asthma and lung cancers are rampant and the Blacksmith Institute has identified Magnitogorsk as one of the Dirty Thirty, the world’s most polluted cities.
Magnitogorsk as seen from Space:
Children are the worst affected – local hospitals estimate that only 1% of all children are in good health and birthing a healthy baby is considered an anomaly. Only 28% of infants born in 1992 were considered healthy and only 27% had healthy mothers. It doesn’t help that city hospitals are usually crowded and in poor condition. A 1994 study by the Chelyabinsk Provincial Institute for Public Health and Environment was such an eye opener that the Ministry of the Environment classified Magnitogorsk as an “ecological disaster zone.”
Joseph Stalin, the “Man of Steel”:
However, little is going to change as Magnitogorsk’s legacy of steel manufacturing is placed before the lives of those producing it. In 1996, the Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works (MMK) produced 7.5 million tons of steel – about the entire steel output of Great Britain or Canada – despite the fact that all natural resources of Magnetic Mountain have long been depleted and all raw materials must be hauled in by rail from all over Russia.
According to the Blacksmith Institute’s 2007 report, clean-up activities have been undertaken – at least “plant managers have asserted that much of their equipment has been upgraded in recent years,” supposedly with investments of US $15 million annually. Though emissions per ton of production have been reduced by about 60%, production levels have increased by 39%. Many residents find that pollution is worse than ever, with black smoke plumes hanging over the city and the threat of pollution-related disease on the rise.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits MMK in July:
Image via premier
Telling is that MMK’s sophisticated website does not waste one word on environmental issues – let alone dedicate a whole section to the clean-up efforts, indicating that economic concerns still dominate everything else. Sadly, until environmental preservation makes economic sense, little will change and, as aptly put in P. Green’s 1992 U.S. News and World Report, Magnitogorsk’s children will continue “breathing sulfur and eating lead.”