From the water, our first view of the town is a magenta haze on the northern shore. The color is thousands of blurred stems of Chamaenerion angustifolium, or fireweed. Ivan-chai, Alex calls it, in Russian: Ivan’s tea, meaning everyman’s tea. Alex’s father turns our boat—an eighty-horsepower Yamaha, small closed cabin—out of the main channel of the Anadyr Estuary, choppy from wind, into the calm semicircle of Melkaya Bay. In a slow arc we come around to face the town again, now a line of concrete turrets and charred wooden sheds breaking through the pink. In a thin gray August rain it’s maybe 50 degrees, and the Arctic Circle is a hundred miles to the north as we tie our boat to a crumbling pier.
Walking up the hill, the fireweed is waist-high, the plants glowing among the collapsed outbuildings and machinery, and just as lush further up the slope, where rectangular apartment blocks rise four stories into the air. Two are finished; a third is half built, the eastern wing just empty pilings sunk into the tundra. Iron rebar has rusted down their sides, turning the gridded plan of future homes into bleeding uncrossed graves. Behind them, where a road curls down from low hills, is the town’s sign: Shakhtyorsky, in block-red Cyrillic on tin.
Two hundred and fifty million years ago, the ground beneath our feet was a warm and swampy forest. Trees and ferns as large as trees absorbed sunlight and made new tissue from it, unfurling fronds and leaves each season. And they died, sinking the carbon fixed in their cells into the bog below. These entropic beds grew deep, over tens of thousands of years, as the plants decomposed into dense peat. Periodic floods covered the seeping mash—still rotting, slowly—in mud and sand, over which more peat formed. An eon of time pressed this layered bog from above. The earth’s core heated it from below. Sand and mud hardened to stone. Gas and water steamed off the peat. What remained was coal: decay hardened into an essence, into carbon so pure it burns. The hills to the west, in the direction we are walking, are rich with ancient death.
Shortly after its release in 1965, Time, Forward! played at the Shakhtyorsky cinema. The film is a drama of Soviet being. Like the novel of the same name, it follows a day in the life of Magnitogorsk, an industrial city where in the Thirties a brigade of workers tried to surpass the national record for pouring concrete. They overcome torrential rain, lack of raw materials, bureaucrats with no vision, the terrain of the Urals. One man leaves work briefly to visit his wife in the hospital, laboring to birth their child, and then returns to the worksite. After all, he too is making a new life—not a biological one, but a social existence where “separate broken parts,” as a character says in the novel, are “lapped, soldered, riveted.”
Construction—welding steel into factories and people into a collective—promises to make the barren earth around Magnitogorsk productive and useful. Doing so will push human history forward. The whole Soviet promise is in the film’s title: accelerating time by producing more than ever before, the characters bending unreliable nature to their will, speeding toward the wholesome, socialist utopia of the future.