Dear Comrades! – heroic Novocherkassk workers’ uprising depicted on film

Russian film-maker, Andrei Konchalovsky (Photo: Elena Ringo/Wikimedia Commons)

The film ‘Dear Comrades’, produced by the Russian film-maker, Andrei Konchalevsky, came out last year and won the Special Jury Prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.

The film brings home in dramatic detail the heroic workers’ uprising in 1962 in the North Caucasian city of Novocherkassk, news of which was totally suppressed at the time and which needs a clear explanation for the new generation coming onto the streets to fight the Putin dictatorship of today.

It is filmed in black and white throughout, giving the impression of being made at the time of the events in 1962. The dialogue is in Russian with English subtitles.

The uprising started with a strike at the electric locomotive plant and ended with the mowing down of demonstrators in the city’s central square by Red Army soldiers and KGB snipers.

The drama follows the personal tragedy of Lyudmila, a single mother living in a cramped flat, working loyally for the ruling ‘Communist’ Party administration. She tries to restrain her 18-year-old daughter from joining the mass demonstrations in support of workers who are striking against wage cuts and higher prices, protests officially characterised as being ‘anti-communist’.

It takes place in the era of Khrushchev who had denounced the crimes of Stalin at the party congress in 1956. Lyudmila cries out in anguish that Stalin would not have allowed things to deteriorate like this. She has to make a speech against the workers’ action beginning with the words “Dear comrades!”

As discontent mounts over shortages and rising prices, she hankers after the certainties of life under Stalin. Along with the party bureaucrats around her, she has to sign a letter not to divulge anything of the events which will remain “state secrets”. Like them, she equates the workers’ uprising with what they call the “counter-revolutionary”, “fascist”, “CIA-backed” uprising in Hungary in 1956 – where workers braved the tanks of the ‘Soviet’ army to try and carry through a political revolution against totalitarian rule.

There is little doubt that the film faithfully relates the background to the strike and the bravery and determination of the workers who risked their jobs and their lives participating in it. The strikers stopped building trains and toured neighbouring factories appealing for workers to join in their fight. Their anger and courage are palpable. Their heroism is brutally snuffed out by tanks and army divisions and a total blackout on news of the events. A new layer of asphalt is rolled out over the blood-drenched square.

Stalinist bureaucracy

In what was by 1962 a Stalinist dictatorship without Stalin, a vast bureaucracy leeched off the backs of the working class – consuming a share of the pie that far exceeded that of the workers who produced it. The film shows privileged bureaucrats at the head of the regional party committee sweeping through the town in their Zil limousines and feasting on “cognac and Hungarian sausage” while workers’ families go hungry.

At a time when a new layer of youth in Russia is on the streets demanding an end to the regime of Putin and the oligarchs, this contribution to a new understanding of what happened in the past is timely. History must be cleansed of the lies and cover-ups of post-war Russia, but also of what happened during and after the Russian revolution of 1917.

In 1962, the state-owned planned economy had been growing and providing the basics of free education and housing, full employment, and food on the table for all. But the seven-year plan for 1959-65 had run into trouble. Between 1956 and 1960 there was a 6.5% growth rate but by 1961-65 it had slowed to under 5% (still better than in most capitalist countries – then or, especially, now).

Without workers’ representatives controlling production and distribution, wastage due to bureaucratic mismanagement could be as high as 50% of what was produced. Without control from below, the economy would zig-zag between decentralisation and recentralisation. The bureaucrats could not overcome even the most straightforward problems that workers themselves if involved in planning, would have found solutions for.

News of the bloody events of Novocherkassk, where official figures gave 26 as the number of dead, was suppressed. It leaked out and got some publicity in the western media, but was only fully acknowledged more than three decades later, after the failed state coup of 1991 and the subsequent collapse of Stalinism.

The true number of dead and wounded in the Novocherkassk uprising may never be known. Some estimates put deaths at more than 80. One of the most moving of scenes in Konchalovsky’s film is the visit of Lyudmila to a cemetery in search of her daughter, only made possible with the assistance of a friend in the KGB who was able to get through the massive roadblocks that surrounded the city. Old graves had been opened and victims of the massacre thrown into them.

Workers’ uprisings

The truth of events in Novocherkassk and other uprisings against the Stalinist dictatorship lay buried for decades. Even now their true significance remains a closed book to those who have been told that the whole history of the USSR is of totalitarianism. They are told about the futility of workers trying to take control over their own industries and of trying to have a say in the way the country is run.

The ideas and analysis of Leon Trotsky, the heroic revolutionary leader finally murdered by Stalin in 1940, are also hidden from today’s youth in Russia. No regime in power before or after the collapse of Stalinism and the Soviet Union’ has rehabilitated this heroic figure in the country’s history. Thousands who shared his ideas and fought for a political revolution against Stalin went to their deaths in Stalin’s prison camps in the 1920s and 1930s.

These days the crimes of Stalin and his successors are rehearsed to discredit the very idea of a socialist alternative to capitalism. The events of Novocherkassk in 1962 were followed by a workers’ uprising and massacre a few weeks later in the mining city of Krasnodar (also in south-western Russia). It was also a workers’ revolt against food shortages and local corruption. These heroic struggles, as well as important illegal mass strikes in factories and shipyards elsewhere, serve to show that workers were more than capable of fighting for an alternative way of running the state-owned enterprises and the planned economy.

The massive economy of the USSR still went forward during the 1970s. But by the 1980s, the state-owned, bureaucratically planned economy was failing to provide even the most basic of needs for working people. As in the era of Novocherkassk and Krasnodar, shortages and corruption drove workers like the miners in the Kuzbass and Donbas to engage in widespread strike action against the bloated ‘Communist’ Party bureaucracy, seeking an alternative.

The Committee for a Workers’ International drew inspiration from the examples of Novocherkassk and Krasnodar, where workers fought for control in a state-owned economy and society. We warned during the turmoil at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, that a transition to the capitalist market would not bring an era of prosperity and real democracy, but Latin American-style capitalism with hyperinflation, mass unemployment, and dictatorship. And tragically, this is what came about with the criminal raiding of state assets by those who now constitute the horribly rich oligarchy around Vladimir Putin.

All this is yet another page of history waiting to be told truthfully to a new generation of workers and young people in the former Soviet Union. Many more films like “Dear Comrades” are waiting to be made. There is so much more to be related when, at last, history can be cleansed of all the lies and distortions propagated by Stalinists and capitalists alike.

Dear Comrades! can be viewed online at Curzon Home Cinema


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February 2021