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Population Politics, Power and the Problem of Modernity in Stephen Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain


Did population policy under Stalin differ, in any fundamental respect, from those of inter-war France or other Western countries? In a radical rethinking of the Soviet experience, Stephen Kotkin said no. Magnetic Mountain moved the field of Soviet history past an increasingly sterile cold war standoff between the so-called new social history and the totalitarian school. With the social history generation, Kotkin insisted on seeing the Soviet project from the perspective of ordinary people, subject to the same kind of forces that applied throughout Europe. He had no truck with ideas like oriental despotism or Russian exceptionalism, but, with the totalitarian school, he took ideology seriously, presenting everyday life and high politics within a single analytical frame. To do so, he drew eclectically on a range of theoretical perspectives, above all on the work of the late Michel Foucault. Foucault often implied that Auschwitz and the Gulag were the logical outcome of the Enlightenment project, but his primary goal was to illuminate the corrosive, coercive nature of liberal reform efforts in Western Europe, to puncture their claims to universality. The vast bulk of his corpus avoided the twentieth century. Kotkin, by contrast, used Foucault's perspective directly on the Soviet system itself.

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1 Kotkin Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994). Future references will be cited in parenthesis in the text.

2 Rosenberg Clifford, Policing Paris: The Origins of Modern Immigration Controls Between the Wars (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

3 Foucault Michel, ‘La “gouvernementalité”’ (lecture at the Collège de France, 1 Feb. 1978), Dits et écrits (hereafter DE), Vol. 2: 1976–1988, ed. Daniel Defert and François Ewald (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), document (hereafter doc.) 239, 2:635–57.

4 For critiques of abstract, teleological concepts of modernity, Cooper Frederick, ‘Modernity’, in his Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), ch. 5; and Mazower Mark, ‘Foucault, Agamben: Theory and the Nazis’, boundary 2, 35, 1 (2008): 2332.

5 Noiriel Gérard, ‘Les Pratiques policières d’identification des migrants et leurs enjeux pour l’histoire des relations de pouvoir: Contribution à une réflexion en “longue durée”’, in Blanc-Chaléard Marie-Claude, Douki Caroline, Dyonet Nicole and Milliot Vincent, eds, Police et migrants, France 1667–1939 (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2001), 115–32.

6 See the exchange between Gary Gerstle and the migration scholar Donna Gabaccia in The Journal of American History, 84, 2 (1997), esp. 574–5, and 580. For the landmark overview of work on the US, Bodnar John, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987); for Europe, see Hoerder Dirk and Moch Leslie Page, eds, European Migrants: Global and Local Perspectives (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996).

7 Piore Michael, Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979). See also McKeown Adam, ‘Global Migration, 1846–1970’, Journal of World History, 15, 2 (June 2004): 155–89; and, more broadly, Hoerder Dirk, Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), parts 3–4.

8 Halfin Igal and Hellbeck Jochen, ‘Rethinking the Stalinist Subject: Stephen Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain and the State of Soviet Historical Studies’, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 44, 3 (1996): 456–63.

9 On this point, Moine Natalie, ‘Le Système des passeports à l’époque stalinienne: De la purge des grandes villes au morcellement du territoire, 1932–1953’, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 50, 1 (Jan.–Mar. 2003): 152.

10 Buckley Cynthia, ‘The Myth of Managed Migration: Migration Control and Market in the Soviet Period’, Slavic Review, 54, 1 (1995): 896916.

11 Moine gives some indication in ‘Le Système des passeports’, 152–4. For police efforts elsewhere, Becker Peter, Verderbnis und Entartung: Eine Geschichte der Kriminologie des 19. Jahrhunderts als Diskurs und Praxis (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2002); Becker , ‘Vom “Haltlosen” zur “Bestie”: Das polizeiliche Bild des “Verbrechers” im 19. Jahrhundert’, in ‘Sicherheit’ und ‘Wohlfahrt’: Polizei, Gesellschaft und Herrschaft im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Lüdke Alf (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1992), 97131, esp. 126–31; and Ilsen About, ‘Naissance d’une science policière de l’identification en Italie (1902–1922)’, in the special issue, ‘Police et identification: Enjeux, pratiques, techniques’, ed. Pierre Piazza, Les cahiers de la sécurité, no. 56 (2005), 167–200.

12 Gutmann Myron P. and van de Walle Étienne, ‘New Sources For Social and Demographic History: The Belgian Population Registers’, Social Science History, 2, 2 (1978): 121–43; Kalvenmark Ann-Sophie, ‘The Country That Kept Track of Its Population’, in Time, Space, and Man: Essays in Microdemography, ed. Sundin Jan and Söderlund E. (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1979), 221–38; Torpey John, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and the work of Fahrmeir Andreas, especially his ‘Paßwesen und Staatsbildung im Deutschland des 19. Jahrhunderts’, Historische Zeitschrift, 271 (2000): 68–9.

13 Fosdick Raymond, European Police Systems (New York: Century, 1915), 353.

14 Rosenberg, Policing Paris, chs 6–7.

15 Mazower Mark, ed., The Policing of Politics in the Twentieth Century: Historical Perspectives (Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1997).

16 Cf. Moine Natalie, ‘Comment peut-on être pauvre sans être prolétaire? La privation de droits civiques à Moscou au tournant des années 1920–1930’, Mouvement social,196 (2001): 89114.

17 Denis Vincent, Une histoire de l’identité: France, 1715–1815 (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2008), ch. 12. For an earlier period, Groebner Valentin, Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe, tr. Kyburz Mark and Peck John (New York: Zone Books, 2007).

18 Calavita Kitty, ‘The Paradoxes of Race, Class, Identity, and “Passing”: Enforcing the Chinese Exclusion Acts, 1882–1910’, Law and Social Inquiry, 25, 1 (2000): 15; McKeown Adam, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); and Jean-Pierre Masse, ‘L’Exception indochinoise: Le Dispositif d’accueil des réfugiés politiques en France, 1973–1991’, PhD thesis, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris, 1996.

19 Ticktin Miriam, Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

20 Holquist Peter, ‘State Violence as Technique: The Logic of Violence in Soviet Totalitarianism’, in Weiner Amir, ed., Landscaping the Human Garden: Twentieth-Century Population Management in Comparative Perspective (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 34.

21 Werth Nicolas, ‘Un état contre son peuple: Violences, répressions, terreurs en Union soviétique’, in Le Livre noire du communisme: Crimes, terreur et répression, ed. Courtois Stéphane (Paris: R. Laffond, 1997), 41295.

22 Gellately Robert, The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933–1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). See also Johnson Eric, Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

23 Halfin Igal, Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); Hellbeck Jochen, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); and Fulbrook Mary, The People's State: East German Society From Hitler to Honecker (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005). See also Stargardt Nicholas, ‘Beyond “Consent” or “Terror”: Wartime Crises in Nazi Germany’, History Workshop Journal, 72, 1 (2011): 190204; Föllmer Moritz, ‘Was Nazism Collectivistic? Redefining the Individual in Berlin, 1930–1945’, Journal of Modern History, 82, 1 (2010): 61100; and Föllmer , Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society From Weimar to the Wall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); which explore the complex interplay of individuality, terror and consent.

24 Shearer David R., Policing Stalin's Socialism: Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), chs 6–8.

25 Figures from Shearer, Policing Stalin's Socialism, 14–15. See also Hagenloh Paul M., Stalin's Police: Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926–1941 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

26 Scott James C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

27 See, e.g. Kotsonis Yanni and Hoffmann David L., eds, Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000); Holquist Peter, ‘“Information is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work”: Bolshevik Surveillance in its Pan-European Perspective’, Journal of Modern History, 69, 3 (1997): 415–50; Hirsch Francine, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Weiner Amir, Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); and Martin Terry, ‘The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing’, Journal of Modern History, 70, 4 (1998): 813–61.

28 Cooper, ‘Modernity’; and Mazower Mark, ‘Violence and the State in the Twentieth Century’, American Historical Review, 107, 4 (2002): 1158–78, here at 1159–60.

29 On the exceptional nature of political violence in the USSR, ibid. 1167–70.

30 Mazower , ‘Foucault, Agamben’, 25 n. 4, quotes Michel Foucault, Power, ed. Faubion James D., tr. Hurley Robert (New York: New Press, 2000), 293. I have provided a fuller version of Foucault's quote and altered the Hurley translation. The original, from a 1978 interview (published in 1980), appears in Michel Foucault, DE, doc. 281, 2:910.

31 Foucault, ‘Pouvoirs et stratégies’, a 1977 interview with Jacques Rancière, in DE, doc. 218, 2:418, 420.

32 Mazower, ‘Foucault, Agamben’, 24; Miller James, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 3840; and the interviews quoted above, Foucault, DE, esp. 2:422 and 2:867–70.

33 See, e.g. Foucault, ‘Le Sujet et le pouvoir’ (1982), in DE, doc. 306, 2:1043: ‘One of the many reasons they are so troubling is that despite their historical singularity, they are not altogether original. Fascism and Stalinism used and extended mechanisms already present in most other societies. Not only that, but, despite their internal madness, they relied to a considerable degree on the ideas and procedures of our political rationality.’ See also Foucault, ‘La Philosophie analytique de la politique’, lecture delivered in Tokyo, 27 April 1978, in DE, doc. 232, 2:534–51, esp. at 2:535–36.

The author would like to thank Jeffrey Blustein, Gregory Downs, Emily Greble, Holger Nehring, Nicholas Pappas and Judith Stein for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

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