AP08/17Glasnost' Reaches an Industrial City
By Celestine Bohlen
Washington Post Foreign Service
MAGNITOGORSK, U.S.S.R. - Openness, or glasnost, one of the
watchwords of Soviet reform, took on a new meaning for residents of this
steel-producing city last month when the local newspaper published a three-
part series called "Magnitka Through American Eyes."
The author, Steve Kotkin, a 28-year-old scholar of Soviet economic
history who had spent six weeks here on an academic exchange, pulled few
punches. He described his view of life here on the eastern slopes of the
Ural Mountains, its pluses - and its minuses.
"Services are on the whole horrible, worse than any criticism.
Moreover, the city is poorly supplied with goods. Very rarely does one sees
such products as meat, cheese or porridge," he said.
In an analysis that also spoke about problems of crime and poverty
in America, Kotkin said he was amazed to meet families here who had waited
15 years to get an apartment. He had high words of praise for the warmth of
the average Magnitogorets, as the locals are called, but chided the
"dogmatic, even rude, manners" of certain leading citizens, and spoke his
mind about excessive controls on information and the average Soviet
citizen's poor knowledge of his own history.
Two years ago, such an outspoken article anywhere in the Soviet
Union would have been unthinkable. A year ago, it might have appeared in the
fashionably progressive Moscow News, a weekly that circulates abroad in five
languages, and even then it would have caused a stir. The fact that it was
printed here - in the heart of the Soviet Union, in the city Joseph Stalin
built at the height of industrialization - is a sign that the official
policy of glasnost has made some impact outside Moscow.
The loosening of controls on the press is one of the most tangible
changes to have taken place in the Soviet Union over the last two years.
National newspapers and magazines - with Moscow News, Ogonyok and a few
others in the lead - were the first to follow the calls for openness,
probing into once taboo subjects like prostitution and the Stalin era, drug
addiction and misdeeds of high party officials.
Now, gradually, the trend is spreading to the provinces, although
not without opposition. In the Amur region in the Soviet Far East, the
regional Communist Party committee publicly censured a district party
official last month for trying to keep the local newspaper from publishing a
critical article on personnel policies. Cases have been reported of local
authorities fabricating "hooliganism" charges against pestering reporters,
of editors spiking stories and firing reporters under pressure from above.
The new openness can in no way be confused with independence. Soviet
newspapers are official organs, with each publication tied to an official
organization. On the local level, the main newspapers are the mouthpieces of
the local Communist Party, and their front pages are given over to the same
diet of announcements and speeches as the national party newspaper Pravda
Information remains tightly controlled and, despite complaints from
a few prominent journalists, certain areas of government - defense, foreign
affairs and the KGB state security police - are out of bounds for
journalistic criticism. Because of this continuing sensitivity, major front-
page news in the West - the landing of a West German plane on Red Square, or
the early announcements of the Chernobyl accident - remain a back-page item
Far From Moscow
In Moscow, religious and political dissidents have begun probing the
outer limits of glasnost with unofficial bulletins and journals, dealing
with issues of emigration, the KGB and prisoners of conscience. So far, the
authorities have refrained from any interference, but the situation has
clearly frustrated them: This month an attack against the editors of one
journal, called Glasnost, appeared in an official newspaper, widely
interpreted as an oblique warning to dissident journalists.
But what is playing - however tentatively - in Moscow is still a
distant hope in most provincial cities. There, according to articles in the
central press, enterprising reporters still feel the weight of authority for
even mildly critical stories.
The same discrepancy between Moscow and the provinces is true for
other aspects of glasnost, which has come to mean a broadening of public
debate at the workplace, even on the street. One week this summer, while
members of the Hare Krishna sect were freely dancing and singing on a street
in central Moscow, a fellow believers in Chernigov in the Ukraine was
arrested for doing the same thing.
From the start, glasnost has been presented as a key agent of
Gorbachev's reforms, a way to expose the resistance, mismanagement and
corruption of midlevel bureaucrats reluctant to part with the privileges of
power. A turning point in the campaign came last January when, at a meeting
of the party's Central Committee, Gorbachev issued a call for greater
"democratization" of society.
But editors differ in their intrepretation of openness. In
Stavropol, where Gorbachev served as party first secretary for eight years,
local editors said criticism of mismanagement was encouraged long before
glasnost became a national password. Yet in their view, Moscow News goes too
"It is flirting with issues," said Boris Kuchmayev, editor of the
Stavropol Pravda. "I think it is really for foreigners."
Still, the power and prestige of the central newspapers has
increased dramatically, according to Moscow-based journalists who describe
the near panic they witness when they arrive in distant places on a business
The "democratizing" role of newspapers and public opinion is still
highly circumscribed, and changes in the party leadership are still made by
a small group of people, often acting on orders from above. The removal last
December of a Kazakh as Kazakhstan's party first secretary, and his
replacement by a Russian - the cause of a two-day riot in Alma Ata, the
Kazakh republic's capital - was an example not of "democratization" but of
the long reach of Moscow's arm.
Nonetheless, with newspapers chiming in against widespread
"shortcomings," personnel changes are continuing across the country as the
older generation of leaders, groomed in the style of former party leader
Leonid Brezhnev, is moved out to make way for younger ones. A new,
Gorbachev-style "meet the people" approach is now expected. When local
leaders are unavailable, readers write to their newspapers to complain, and
editors print the letters.
This year in Magnitogorsk, after a loosening of nomination
procedures, more than 50 percent of members of the city council were changed
during local elections.
only eight months. "It is not like the period of stagnation when people
figured they were there for life."
Yet, as many Soviet citizens complain, the new frankness and
criticism, the new demands put on officials have produced few results. It
turns out that airing a problem in public does not necessarily bring about
"It seems to me, in the struggle to rectify shortcomings, we are
talking more than we are doing. The newspaper is writing `hot' material. And
yet so far, changes are few," wrote S. Chugunov in a letter to the
Magnitogorsk Worker published July 4.
Paper Gets More Letters
Valery Kucher, editor of the Magnitogorsk Worker and the man who
made the decision to run Kotkin's pieces, can recall the days when writing
about the problems of water supply in the city was "not acceptable." He said
no one told him not to, he just didn't. Now his paper is ahead of even the
Moscow press in answering questions on readers' minds.
And the number of questions is growing: Two years ago, the paper,
with a circulation of 119,000, got 6,000 to 7,000 letters a year. Now the
number is 12,000, Kucher said.
"Formerly the letters were mostly complaints. Now people are raising
topics for discussion, getting into a conversation with us," he said.
When the Magnitogorsk Worker ran Kotkin's series, the editors were
uncertain how the articles would be greeted, especially by the veteran
steelworkers who practically built "Magnitka" (the city's nickname) with
their bare hands in the early 1930s in freezing temperatures and harshly
primitive conditions. The founders' pride in their city is fierce, and
criticism does not always go down well, especially from an American.
The first reaction to the articles would have touched the hearts of
editors everywhere. According to Elena Karelina, one of the paper's
journalists, on the three days the articles came out, people riding public
transport in Magnitogorsk had their papers turned to Page 3 and their eyes
glued to Kotkin's articles.
Some outraged letters did come in, but, to the editors' surprise,
the response was mostly favorable. Sitting in their offices off a quiet
courtyard a week later, the editors passed around the day's mail.
"Here's one," said Evgeni Vernikov, managing editor. "It's not very
grammatical. But it says here: `Reading the articles, I now have new respect
for the newspaper.' Or another: `In the last two years, your newspaper has
become interesting to read.' "
A few people on Magnitogorsk's streets agreed. "There is sharper
material about things that affect our lives," said one middle-aged woman.
Through glasnost, the editors at the newspaper have also learned
more about the reactions in the society around them, and about the response
to Gorbachev's campaign for perestroika, or "restructuring."
"We have no outright opponents of perestroika here," said Kucher,
"but the resistance I would divide into four groups. First is the worker who
honestly doesn't understand what it is he is supposed to do, given the same
problems with materials and supplies in his workshop. Then there are people
who are skeptical, who have been disappointed before, who say, `Why should I
try harder when nothing will change?'
"There's another group who don't want to take any initiative, who
are simply waiting for a command from above. And then there are those who
are demagogues, dilettantes who use the freedom to criticize others to
These days, when virtually every Soviet citizen, from worker to
official, publicly swears unfailing support for the reform process, Kucher
sees the need to protect the idea from the campaign around it.
"In this paper, we use the word perestroika as rarely as the word
There are two memorable landmarks in this city of 450,000 people.
The first is the giant steel mill whose plumes of black and pink pollution
are visible for miles around. The second is the Ural River, which marks an
unofficial border between Europe and Asia.
The city is a living symbol of Soviet industrialization and its
location a reminder of the country's two-continent sweep. Virtually
uninhabited until the 1920s, the site for this "Soviet Pittsburgh" was
chosen beause of a nearby hill, rising 800 feet above the Ural River,
containing a rich deposit of iron ore.
In 1929, the Soviet government, poised on the verge of a massive
industrialization program, decided to go ahead with plans for a steel plant
that would produce 2.5 million tons of pig iron a year. A contract was
signed with the McKee Co. of Cleveland for technical supervision of its
construction. But the labor was supplied by thousands of Russian peasants,
some who came enthusiastically, many because of hunger created by brutal
collectivization in the countryside, and some because they were serving
terms for political crimes.
Magnitogorsk was to be one of the Soviet Union's "heroic" projects,
built at breakneck speed under conditions that would make industrial safety
experts turn gray. In the early years, people lived first in tents, then in
barracks. According to John Scott, who came here from an America deep in
the throes of the Depression, the building site was constantly short of
lumber because workers took the wood home to keep warm in minus-40-degree
Describing Magnitogorsk in 1933 in his book "Behind the Urals,"
Scott wrote: "A quarter of a million souls - communists, kulaks
(expropriated peasants), foreigners, Tatars, convicted saboteurs and a mass
of blue-eyed Russian peasants - making the biggest steel combinat in Europe
in the middle of the barren Ural steppe. Money was spent like water, men
froze, hungered and suffered but the construction went on with a disregard
for individuals and a mass heroism seldom paralleled in history."
In that year, the steel plant began to produce its first steel. When
the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Magnitogorsk's steel was
available for weapons, safely produced thousands of miles from the front.
Judging from the architecture, Magnitogorsk's heyday was in the
1950s, when the city forged ahead with a building program that produced
solidly built houses with elegant roofs on the Ural River's right, or
"European," bank. Today, they are a pleasant contrast to the rows of
shoddy, project-type housing sprouting up in the new districts.
On the left, or "Asian," bank where the steel mill is located, the
last of the barracks were removed more than a decade ago. Other improvements
have been made over the years: People now swim and fish in the Ural River
and the days when snow came down black are over.
But in other, astonishing ways, the city's lot has improved little.
Today, meat and butter are rationed in Magnitogorsk: 2.2 pounds of meat, 14
ounces of butter per person per month. According to Scott, in 1932 each
worker at the plant in theory was alloted 6.6 pounds of meat and 17.6 ounces
of butter a month. In fact, in the winter of 1932-33 there was none of
either, except in small portions at the plant canteen.
According to city officials, the average waiting time for new
apartments in the city is now 10 years. There is also a line for telephones,
and this summer, when temperatures reached 95 Fahrenheit, there were
widespread water shortages.
Although river water has been cleaned, air pollution still exceeds
state norms and a gigantic mound of slag, measuring 529 cubic feet, still
looms over the eastern shore of the river.
"Restructuring" - which nationally has shifted money and emphasis
toward for every family by 2000. New water supplies are being dug and local
manufacturers are shifting priorities to pay greater heed to consumer
demands: Not long ago, the local alcohol factory, its production cut back
by an antidrinking campaign, began making mayonnaise, ending the city's
But the gap between promises and reality is still apparent, as the
American Kotkin pointed out in his series. "What is surprising is that you
know the problems perfectly well, you have many capable and knowledgeable
people who are dealing with them, and yet it seems, even so, getting them
solved is an extremely slow process."