Raya Dunayevskaya 1955

The Revolt In The Slave Labor Camps In Vorkuta

Source: News & Letters, July 8, 1955. This piece appeared as Dunayevskaya’s unsigned column, “Two Worlds: Notes From a Diary”;
Transcribed: by Kevin Michaels.

Today marks the second anniversary of the most unprecedented strike in the world-the revolt in Russian slave labor camps in Vorkuta. The outstanding part of the strike is that it ever took place at all. No one on [the] inside or outside of the Kremlin, the seat of Russian Government in Moscow-nor even the prisoners themselves who were to organize this strike-thought such a thing possible in their wildest dreams. Yet, a few short weeks after the East German revolt on June 17, 1953, these same prisoners were inspired to strike out on their own.

Myth Of Invincibility Destroyed

Nothing so shows the uncertainty and insecurity of these totalitarian rulers, armed to the teeth and with all the power and terror in their hands, as the caution with which the Government at first dealt with the strike. They sent a commission, headed by General Derevianko, to fly down to the camp. When he tried to harangue the prisoners and failed, the commission returned to Moscow with the demands of the prisoners for a review of all their cases and the removal of the barbed wires. In the end, the Kremlin did what the Tsar had done back in 1912: they opened fire on the unarmed strikers and killed some 200. But they could not put up what the strikers had destroyed: the myth of invincibility.

These prisoners without any rights had dared to strike. They held out for weeks, shaking the Kremlin to its very foundations. Despite total censorship, the workers in Leningrad knew at once of the strike. A few months after, students from the Leningrad Mining Institute, working in the pits in Vorkuta, told the prisoners how everyone had talked of the strike in Leningrad: “We soon got to know you were on strike. The drop in coal was noticeable at once. We don’t have any reserves. There’s just the plan, that’s all. And everyone knows how vulnerable plans are. It destroyed the myth that the system was unassailable.”

The Silence of “The West”

A meeting “at the summit” is being ballyhooed now and a meeting, of the Big Four Ministers, took place then. The upshot of it was, that they achieved as total a silence on the question of the revolt during that conference in West Berlin as in Moscow. Dr. Joseph Scholmer tells us that story in a most remarkable book called Vorkuta. [1]

Dr. Scholmer was one of thousands of slave laborers released during the Big Four Ministers Conference in 1953. He has this to say of the Western “experts” on Russia.

“When I first mentioned the word, ‘civil war’ to these people they were appalled. The possibility of a rising lay outside their realm of comprehension. They had no idea that there were resistance groups in the camps...

“I talked to all sorts of people in the first few weeks after my return from the Soviet Union. It seemed to me that the man in the street had the best idea of what was going on. The ‘experts’ seemed to understand nothing.”

On Both Sides Of The Iron Curtain

It was not for lack of understanding that the Western rulers acted as they did. Quite the contrary. I remember that when Stalin died, one worker in Flint said: “What is the use of all this talk against Russia when Eisenhower send the Russian leaders his sympathy?”

Over at the other end of the world from Flint, in the Russian slave labor camps, the same disgust with Western leaders swept the Russian resistance movements. For years there have been underground resistance groups, mainly Ukranian. Prior to June 17th, all the preparations for resistance to the totalitarian rulers were based on the eventuality of war and looked to the Western rulers. When Stalin died in March, 1953, hope spread through the camps. But all that came from the Eisenhowers and Churchills were condolences to the Russian leaders who continued the Stalin regime. Gloom spread throughout the slave labor camps until the June 17th revolt in East Germany showed that liberation can be achieved only by the workers themselves. The Russian political prisoners followed up with their revolt.

The strike in July, 1953, could not have occurred without the previous underground formation of resistance groups within the camps. But the strike as it occurred was entirely different from the action planned when they looked to “the West.” June 17th had changed all that.

The sabotage and treachery of the West seemed to astound some. But one of the Russian resistance leaders put it in a nutshell:

“Those radio stations are controlled by the various governments, aren’t they? Well, on June 17 they had to ask the government officials what they were to do. And the government officials have a profound dislike of popular uprisings, wherever they take place.”

1. Vorkuta (Holt, 1955) [Transcriber’s note]