Places / Russia

Love Is In The Air: “As Long As You Can Smell The Steel Production We Are Happy”

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An overflow of all kind of obligations, like exhibition invitations and other activities, led me to once again escape from Moscow. In search of inspiration and new places – places fascinating enough to attract artists and curators to work for new approaches to art – I visited the steel city MagnitogorskFor sure, there are many industrial cities in the world, but I think none of them has this unique combination of Soviet approach, communist dream, a location between two continents, and recent history. When I arrived in the city I immediately noticed a yellowish tint in the air – it was the omnipresent MMK…

Steel giant MMK (Magnitogorsk Metallurgic Kombinat) provides work and supports the main cultural sites as well as the universities, a lady tells me: “As long as you can smell the steel production we are happy. Because then MMK is doing well and the city is doing well too.” I myself am a heavy smoker. It’s the first time I really don’t need to smoke, it’s all included here in the travel package. MMK gives you the basis for living and kills you at the same time, it makes you happy and ill – that is not poetic, that feels pretty real here. No MMK – No City, or: No City – No MMK? Who was first? Who is more? I don’t know. My inner voice, however, tells me that humans and culture must come first and not the machines.

In the 1930s Joseph Stalin decided to make the former village of Magnitogorsk into the largest site of steel production in the whole Soviet empire. It was a Soviet flagship project of progress and industrialization, accompanied by the necessary propaganda: One still hears the old legends when visiting the city, like the first heroic idealists arriving with simple tools and simple tents in Magnitogorsk to help build up MMK.

One of the most important manifestations of the Soviet industrial idea has meanwhile become a private company – again an aspect that makes me think a lot. What power and responsibility are assigned to private people.

The industrial site is located alongside a river that forms the geographic border between Europe and Asia; on the other side, there is the city of Magnitogorsk. I had the luck to see both the production site and, let’s say, the heart of the city – and in fact it looks like a beating heart, a huge one, its blood is melted steel – with its students, its wonderful opera, its theatres and libraries. Life is tough here, people are nice and very curious. In my first hour I met a nice lady who wrote her thesis about construction and deconstruction of myths in the work of Elfriede Jelinek, I met a rector who told me that he prefers cultural life over his university activities. And the city’s openness to cultural influences  – what great people live here, I think, and what a place! What a place for creative work!

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