Russia: 20th anniversary of Soviet miners’ strike

A lost opportunity to establish genuine democratic socialism

July marks the 20th anniversary of the first national miners’ strike in the former Soviet Union, which, spreading like wildfire through the Siberian Kuzbass and Artic Vorkuta, Ukrainian Donbass and Karaganda in Kazakhstan, marked the beginning of the end of the bureaucratic soviet regime led by Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Soviet Union, established by the greatest event in history, the October 1917 revolution, led by Lenin and Trotsky, was based on state ownership and a planned economy. The young Soviet state achieved tremendous economic growth whilst the capitalist world suffered the torture of the great depression.

But in denial of the internationalism and democratic principles of the Bolsheviks, a parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy completed a political counter-revolution, which not only deprived the workers of political power in their own state, but eventually destroyed the planned economy itself.

A Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) delegation led by the late Terry Fields MP from Britain, visited the Siberian miners in early 1990.

Going down into the pit was like a trip into hell. Down a lift, then sitting in metal trucks which hurtled through tunnels like a scene from an Indiana Jones film was only the prelude.

The last part was down rickety ladders fastened to the walls in which at every step, it was felt the rung would break. And then the miners were expected to work a further six hours, ignoring any safety precautions before returning to the surface where for the best part of the year arctic weather was the norm.

Many of the mines were dug and worked by prisoners in Stalin’s gulag. But by the 1970s it was no longer possible to use prison labour. Instead, Soviet workers were offered high wages and early pensions to work in the far north and Siberia. The miners considered themselves pioneers, often living in barrack type accommodation, prepared to make sacrifices for the Soviet state, with the promise of an easy retirement somewhere in the warm south.

But the Soviet economy, strangled by the greedy bureaucracy who mismanaged the plan and wasted huge resources on arms expenditure rather than socially useful production, was in crisis. Not a crisis of ’overproduction’ as in capitalism, but one in which waste and mismanagement led to huge shortages.

The ruling elite around Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev understood, that if nothing changed, discontent from below would grow with potentially revolutionary consequences. The words ’perestroika’ (reconstruction) and ’glasnost’ (openness) entered the international vocabulary as Gorbachev attempted reform from above, a policy that only resulted in the release of forces that would eventually destroy the Soviet Union.

Strike wave

One of the key elements of perestroika was to make factories and mines "self accounting", responsible for their own incomes and expenditure, although still responsible for fulfilling the state plan. As the cost of coal production was significantly higher than the price for coal paid by the state, this left many mines without enough money to cover wages. In March 1989 this led to the first strikes in Vorkuta.

The 9th brigade of the pit "Severnaya" declared a strike demanding that wages were paid at a decent rate, the production norms should be lowered, declaring no confidence in the management and demanding a cut of 40% in the pit’s administration. This last demand echoed the populist call made at national level by the supporters of perestroika.

Concessions were quickly made but this small strike opened the floodgates. By July the whole country was gripped by a huge strike wave as up to half a million miners participated in protests.

In Vorkuta, Novokuznetsk, Prokopievsk and Mezhdurezhensk strike committees effectively took over the running of the towns. The sale of spirits was banned and organisations set up to maintain public order. In some cities, the police chiefs had to account to mass meetings on public order. Even six months later our delegation saw this at first hand when the miners met us at the airport and simply ordered a police car to drive us to our hotel!

The policy of perestroika was collapsing in crisis. It did little to reduce the suffocating role of the bureaucracy but lifted the lid off the huge discontent boiling under the surface.

In 1986, major riots shook Alma-Ata after Gorbachev sacked the republican party boss. National tensions escalated in the following years, particularly in the Baltic states and Caucasus. Armed conflict broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Kabarakh in 1988.

Role of ’Communists’

Just as with the national conflicts, sections of the ruling elite attempted to use the strike wave in their own interests. Regional chiefs saw the strikes as a means of pressurising the central bureaucracy. Mine directors in many cases openly supported the strikes.

In Vorkuta, the Communist Party committee at the Komsomolskaya mine actively supported the spreading of the Kuzbass strikes to the arctic field. They saw in this a chance to gain more money from the central coffers to bail them out from their self-accounting difficulties.

Mezhdurezhensk was the centre of the Kuzbas strike wave. The miners’ first demands were mainly concerned with their discontent over work and social conditions, including bad transport and housing, low wages, poor food and the lack of soap in the pit head showers.

From the beginning, the mass meetings and strike committee insisted that their strike was ’non-political’, by which they intended to prevent unwanted political forces from outside coming in to take over their movement.

But because the miners had no political programme of their own, it was inevitable that other forces would use their movement.

In Mezhdurezhensk, for example, the mine directors "supported" the strike, complaining only that some of the demands were unachievable, as long as the mines were centrally controlled. The demand for mines to be given full economic independence with the right to sell coal on the free market was soon added to the list of miners’ demands.

Some rank and file communist party members, of course, genuinely supported the strikes. But even at the start of the strikes, the miners ran into conflict with representatives of the party and management involved in the strike committees. Boris Popovkin, one of the leaders of the March "Severnaya" strike, who later joined the CWI, believed that the City strike committee was too prepared to compromise.

When, on 23 July, it proposed to end the strike, Boris called it "opportunist, and as is well known, opportunism never leads to success. Proof is the results of the March strike at our pit. We allowed ourselves to be ’talked around’, and ended the strike before our demands were implemented. We should not repeat our mistake. We should continue until our demands are met".

Instead of relying on their own forces, the miners allowed ’experts’ from Moscow, many linked to the communist apparatus, to draw up their demands. In this way, the pro-market demands that were later to become widespread throughout the miners’ movement were crystallised. Within a year or so, the miners become a key part of the coalition backing Yeltsin’s rise to power.

When the first strikes broke out in Siberia, the Militant-supporting British MPs – Terry Fields, Dave Nellist and Pat Wall – sent a number of telegrams of solidarity to the striking miners in which they expressed their support for Lenin’s programme for democratic control by workers in a socialist state.

Two strike committees and an independent trade union replied in agreement. As a result, Terry Fields was invited to the first miners’ conference in Novokuznetsk in May 1990.

There we found that the miners did not want a return to capitalism, but, because of the crimes of Stalinism and the failure of perestroika to resolve the economic crisis, they had no faith that socialism was possible. All they knew was, that "we can no longer live like this".

The tragedy was that the miners did not have their own organisation and lacked a programme for overthrowing the bureaucracy whilst maintaining state ownership and the planned economy, but on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management.

As a consequence, this tremendous strike, which could have sounded the death knell for the Soviet bureaucracy and opened the door to genuine socialism instead, added impetus to the process of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union, the consequences of which are still being felt today.

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July 2009