RUSSIA: Against the backdrop of gigantic rusty smokestacks, the day-to-day lives of Magnitogorsk seem pre-determined by one of the largest iron and steel factories in Russia.
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 13, 2020

At a family gathering in Magnitogorsk, a steelworks city in Russia’s South Urals, talk turns to one of the frequent workplace accidents at the plant, by which a welder had fallen to an untimely death while repairing a rotten roof. «Let’s change the subject, and toast to the children!» they all agree, reluctant to bring down the mood — even though the future of their offspring is just as fraught with danger as daily labour around the complex’s smokestacks and furnaces. Swiss director Gabriel Tejedor’s subtle and observational documentary Kombinat, which had its world premiere in Nyon’s Visions du Reel, a festival forced online by the coronavirus pandemic, is full of such moments. Rather than spelling out a thesis or spending a lot of time on explaining historical context, through a tapestry of poignantly observed moments, it conveys the challenges and resilience demanded of life in a place envisaged as a Soviet model of utopian productivity and industrial might, but now one of the most polluted cities in the world, the safety of its workers seemingly of low priority in the minds of the state’s economic power-brokers far away in Moscow. Most of the children there are in poor health, due to the lead, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants pumped into the atmosphere and water.

Oppressive realities

«We want to grow old but it’s impossible here, because of the environment,» Guenia and his wife reason to his brother and other extended family members around the dinner table one evening. They have a daughter with learning difficulties (a psychologist says Magnitogorsk’s «ecological problem» has surely been a cause) and are considering moving to Novisibirsk, a place where they hope to access more support for her. «There’s a factory for her big brother» there too, they add, showing how entrenched this line of work is in Magnitogorsk’s families as the only option (nearly half of its working-age population are employed in the facilities of MMK, the iron and steel works.) What’s more, Novosibirsk is much less polluted, which is an especially attractive prospect, given the breathing difficulties they have been enduring. It’s a solid case they make — but upping and leaving is not such a societal commonplace in these parts, where moving away from one’s grandparents is fraught with heartbreak, and webs of family connections have long functioned as a net in a harsh environment. Surely, Guenia would regret it, his brother Sasha insists, though we detect the hold of emotion has determined his response as much as any reckoning with oppressive realities.

Sasha, for his part, is an avid salsa dancer, evening practice sessions offering an outlet of creative release and ambition from tiring shifts at the plant, as the group work to perfect a routine together. The performance is one of many entertainments that give their flourish to Steelworker Day, a professional holiday and celebration. We see just how central the industry is here even to the shape of recreational life — and how the tone of Soviet propaganda, extolling the heroism of workers and their labour, has persisted into privatised times, even as their health suffers. «A good mood for a good day!» beams one of the countless MMK billboards that stand in prominent positions around the city, relentlessly portraying steel working as a source of joyous optimism. A nuclear-powered Arctic icebreaker, its steel manufactured in MMK, is featured on the television news, the role of the plant in Russia’s global capabilities framed as a source of pride by the state, and conferring a sense of duty onto its workers along with it.

Kombinat-documentary-post1(2)_MTR
Kombinat, a film by Gabriel Tejedor

Cracks

But personal sacrifice for some collective promise of progress is an ideal in which cracks are certainly showing since the influx of idealistic Soviet workers to Magnitogorsk all those decades ago. The Victory Day parade, that glorified remembrance of the Soviet vanquishng of Nazi Germany in the Second World War (assisted by steel production), which still plays such a significant role in the national psyche, occasions disagreement among salsa teacher Lena and her family. Is the display of historical might really such a good thing to honour, even if it reinforces a bond with one’s grandparents? And isn’t pinning so much hope on a perceived strongman such as Putin simply a way to avoid taking control of one’s own destiny? The younger parents voice their more taboo views, while their older relatives lament what a tough time Putin has these days in resolving society’s divides. He ordered filters to be added to MMK chimneys, after all, they point out, to reduce emissions, even if standards tests have a way of getting around faulty, unrepaired systems.

the role of the plant in Russia’s global capabilities framed as a source of pride by the state, and conferring a sense of duty onto its workers along with it.

Generational attitudes may be shifting, and indeed, Guenia says now that moving away from Magnitogorsk is becoming more of an accepted trend, more of his work colleagues have come out in control of his decision. But, amid sad resignation, he reveals that their plan to move has failed, obstructed by practicalities and their inability to secure their daughter a coveted place in a specialised school. The will to risk change and tackle one’s future welfare with a personal initiative not entrusted to hollowly promised state beneficence may be there today — but has a faceless capitalism catering to the few provided any greater means?