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Does the Kremlin fear repeats of 1962 Novocherkassk events – and would it react equally brutally?

Image: Denis Vyshinsky,
Does the Kremlin fear repeats of 1962 Novocherkassk events – and would it react equally brutally?
Edited by: A. N.

Reports that Russian police are training to suppress working class risings appear especially ominous given that they come precisely when many Russians are remembering Khrushchev’s brutal suppression of worker protests in Novocherkassk 54 years ago this week.

Working class protests against Soviet power occurred frequently in the early days of the Bolshevik regime – the most famous was the revolt of the Izhevsk and Votkinsk arms factory workers in 1918 – but the communist government did everything it could to cover up, distort or at least minimize such things given its notion that it was the representative of the working class.

Consequently, for many Russians, the archetypical working class protest against Soviet power was what happened in Novocherkassk, a city in Rostov oblast, on June 1-2, 1962, in which workers protested price hikes and the KGB backed by the Soviet army moved quickly and brutally against the workers.

On this anniversary, Russian nationalist commentator Petr Romanov describes what prompted the workers of a Novocherkassk factory to protest 54 years ago and how the Soviet security agencies implicitly drawing parallels between the situation then and the one now.

As Romanov notes, in the early 1960s, the economic situation in the USSR was anything but good. There were shortages of meat and bread, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was forced to take the humiliating step of purchasing grain from abroad. The population, especially workers and those outside of Moscow, suffered horribly.

At the end of May 1962, the Soviet leadership boosted prices for meat and meat products by 30 percent, even as it changed pay rules so that workers in many factories were paid less. That double whammy meant that many workers could not feed their families even at the subsistence levels they had been.

Throughout the spring of that year, there had been protests in Novocherkassk, but most had been focused on pay cuts and relatively small. But when the price rises, supposedly introduced the Communist Party said “at the rest of all the toilers,” went into effect on June 1, workers at a major plant there walked out and were quickly joined by others.

At 10:00 am on June 1, 200 workers had struck, but by 11:00, the number of strikers had swollen to 1,000 and appeared likely to continue to grow and engulf the whole city. The workers said they had only one question for the bosses: “what are we supposed to live on” if pay is cut and prices go up.

The director of the factory, B.N. Kurochkin, made things worse with a Marie Antoinette-like remark: He told the strikers that instead of eating bread and meat, which they now could not afford, they should make do with liver. Not surprisingly, his words outraged the strikers, the director had to flee, and the workers took over the entire factory.

By the evening of June 1, 5,000 workers were on strike, and they moved to block rail connections between Moscow and south Russia and began to march on key institutions, including the bank and local Communist party headquarters.

Khrushchev reportedly was told about this strike already at 10:00 am. He ordered the ministers of defense and interior and the KGB to take all necessary measures to suppress the strike and force the workers back to their jobs. The commander of the North Caucasus Military District gave the order to send in tanks to do the job.

Fortunately, as Romanov notes, Lt.Gen. M.K. Shaposhnikov refused to obey that order. He told his bosses that “I do not see before me an opponent who should be attacked by our tanks.” He was removed and expelled from the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union – Ed.]. Later, when he was asked what he thought would have happened had tanks been used, he said that “thousands would have died.”

The workers continued to stream into the center of the city, something the authorities sought to block with troops on the bridges; but the workers simply waded across, showing that they weren’t going to be intimidated by just a show of force.

Moscow had already dispatched senior party officials, including Frol Kozlov and Anastas Mikoyan, but when they heard that columns of workers were marching in their direction, they fled to protected military centers, something that apparently the workers discovered and that may have given them courage to continue.

Soviet troops then fired twice into the air and then they fired directly into the columns of workers. Some ten to fifteen workers were killed in this initial action, according to official reports, but the real number was almost certainly higher, especially since it appears that the uniformed personnel fired from rooftops and used automatic weapons against the strikers.

Some of the workers fled, but others sought to break into militia posts in order to seize weapons and free those of their comrades who had already been taken into custody. Again, according to official reports, “more than 30” had been detained. By the end of the second day, 24 workers were dead, and the authorities buried them in places where other workers couldn’t find them and make pilgrimages to these martyrs.

Despite the deaths and arrests, most of the workers continued their strike, apparently terrifying the party command. It introduced martial law, and then Kozlov began to make promises that price rises would be rescinded or at least limited and that wage rules would go back to what they had been.

These promises led some workers to end their strike but others called for killing, in Romanov’s words “not only the leaders [of the factory and city] but also all communists and all those ‘wearing glasses,’” a reminder of the powerful anarcho-syndicalist tradition in Russia denounced by the CPSU as “Makhaevism.”

But despite Kozlov’s promises, the Soviet authorities moved to arrest more people, at least 240 by the end of June 4. And then they began to mete out punishment: seven of the leaders of the strike were shot, 105 others were sentenced to ten to fifteen years in strict regime camps. Only later in Brezhnev’s time were those rehabilitated.

Initially, the Soviet government did everything it could to prevent anyone from finding out about the Novocherkassk rising and the Soviet suppression of it. Reports did make their way into samizdat and to foreign radio stations, but only at the end of the 1980s, under glasnost, did reports appear in the domestic Russian press. Even then, however, these were incomplete.

Even to this day, Romanov says, “many documents from the KGB archives devoted to the Novocherkassk rising remain classified” and beyond the reach of investigators.


Edited by: A. N.
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