Magnitogorsk: Russia’s Steel Heart

Jul 20, 2017 2 comments

At the extreme southern extent of the Ural Mountains in Russia, about 140 km west of the border with Kazakhstan, there are some hills that are composed largely of iron ore. So rich is their iron content that magnetic compasses cannot function near it and birds avoid flying over it. The Russians call the mountain “Magnitnaya” or the Magnetic Mountain. It is at the foot of the Magnitnaya Mountain, on the eastern slope of the Ural mountain, lies Magnitogorsk, the second largest city in Russia that is not the administrative center of any federal subject or district. It is home to “Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works”, the largest steel plant in the country and one of the largest in the world.


Photo credit: Philipp Hilgenberg/Flickr

Magnitogorsk was built in the 1930s to fulfill Stalin’s plan to transform the predominantly agrarian nation into a “country of metal”. Stalin was impressed by the great progress the Americans had made in heavy industries. Indeed, Magnitogorsk was modeled after two of the most advanced steel producing cities in the United States at that time — Gary, in Indiana, and Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania.

Magnitogorsk was supposed to be a completely planned city. The original layout drafted by the German architect Ernst May—who had successfully built egalitarian housing settlements for workers in Frankfurt— was that of a linear city with rows of similar superblock neighborhoods running parallel to the factory, with a strip of greenery, separating them. But when May arrived on site in October 1930, he found that the local officials had already begun construction. The sprawling factory and enormous cleansing lakes had left little room available for development, and May had to redesign his settlement to fit the modified site.

During the first phase of construction as many as 250,000 skilled and unskilled workers were put to work. Most of these were forced labor recruited from the gulag or dispossessed peasants who were kicked off their farms during Stalin’s dekulakization and collectivization movements. Surrounded by guards and barbed wire, the workers lived in overcrowded, mostly dirt-floored tents and ramshackle barracks through the harsh winter and hot summer, without basic amenities or medical care. Some 10,000 people died of hunger, cold and disease in the first five years of construction.


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Even at these extreme living conditions, construction progressed at unbelievable speeds, thanks to unrealistic deadlines set by Moscow. But the lack of infrastructure and shortage of skilled workers and equipment often resulted in poor quality job.

The site selected to build Magnitogorsk was also far from ideal. Located in the remote Ural mountain, Magnitogorsk was, during its initial years, at the mercy of long range rail lines, which, just like much of the rest of the country's infrastructure, was built in haste while neglecting some of the critical features of safety and reliability. The poorly built railroad could not withstand the forces of trains moving at high speed, which proved to be much cumbersome as the nearest source of fuel was 2,000 kilometers away in Siberia.

Despite all of the struggle, the first batches of steel were smelted in 1932 and things progressed rapidly from that point on. Magnitogorsk proved its worth during the Second World War when it supplied nearly half of all steel the Soviet Union used to make tanks and a third of all steel used to make ammunition shells during the years of the war. To commemorate this heroic effort the city erected a tremendous status, in typical Soviet style, depicting the laborer of the city handing a newly forged sword to a soldier. By the mid-1970’s Magnitogorsk was producing 15 million tons of crude steel and 12 million tons of rolled products. In 2005, it smelted its 500-millionth ton of pig iron.


A monument commemorating Magnitogorsk’s contribution to the second world war. Photo credit:

Magnitogorsk’s astounding steel producing capacity can be smelled right in its air. The tinge of burned charcoal hangs ominously in the air while an acrid dryness burns the back of the throat. Like most industrial cities in Russia, Magnitogorsk is one of the most polluted. According to an environmental group called EcoMagnitka, only one in 20 children born in the city is completely free of health problems and allergies.

Although still beating, Magnitogorsk is no longer the mighty steel heart it was during the days of communism. Today, the steel factory operates at less than a third of its regular capacity, and the quality of steel is also lower. In recent years, a lot of modernization has been done with a moderate amount of success.

Related: The Depressing Industrial City of Norilsk


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A typical apartment block in Magnitogorsk. Most of the population live in such housing. Photo credit: Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr


A typical apartment block in Magnitogorsk. Most of the population live in such housing. Photo credit: Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr


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A monument symbolizing the tents where in 1930s, the first builders of the city lived. Photo credit: Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr


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Sources: The Guardian / Wikipedia /


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