Vera Zasulich 1897

The Russian Strikers

Source: “The Russian Strikers” Justice, 30th January, 1897, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford for 2003.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.

On January 2 o.s. (14th n.s.) a strike broke out at the two factories of Mr. Maxwell in St. Petersburg, in which 5,000 men are already involved, but which it may be expected will soon spread over all other factories which took part in the strike of last summer. The chief demand is for a shorter working day. Our English comrades may remember the former gigantic strike, which began in the middle of June and gradually died out by the middle of July. During all the time the strike was going on we have been left almost without information from our comrades — a fact which will be intelligible enough to anyone acquainted with the conditions of strikes in Russia. The position of the leaders at that time is very dangerous, inasmuch as every moment they may be arrested and imprisoned, the least written line on the strike found with them being in the eyes of the police an incontrovertible proof of their guilt. The very dispatch of such lines is a highly risky affair. Besides, during this time all the thoughts are absorbed in finding means and ways of how to get funds for the next day’s distribution; and, though the help and sympathy of the foreign brethren is highly appreciated and important, still as this help and sympathy cannot arrive immediately the care of them necessarily steps into the background in these hours of anguish and struggle and danger. Since, however, the end of this strike we received the full particulars of the whole affair, and some of them may throw a flood of light on this new strike.

At the very beginning of the last summer’s strike the Chief of the St. Petersburg Police, Major-General Cleggels, an officer of very great importance, called together the employees from various factories, and, not listening properly to their demand, said that he is fully aware of the cruel exploitation they have to undergo at the hands of their masters, and expostulated with them to return to their work, promising to investigate and satisfy their grievances. In the very heat of the strike, on June 10 (o.s.) the same Cleggels issued a proclamation to the workers stating that as soon as they returned to work all their demands which can be satisfied without invoking the legislature should be so satisfied immediately, and the rest should be referred to the higher powers. Lastly, on June 15, when hunger made itself felt very keenly, the Russian Prime Minister, the Minister of Finances; M. Witte, issued on his part a proclamation written in a quasi-popular style and posted on the walls and given away amongst the strikers. In this proclamation the great magician who contrives to make the Budget show big surpluses instead of deficits, announces to the men that “during the strike no demand, not even if just, could be satisfied,” whilst, if work is required, their demand “will be fully gone into and settled amicably.” And, indeed, after the strike was over, some abuses which were already prohibited by the factory inspector long ago — such as monthly payments instead of bi-monthly, cleaning of machinery in the hours of rest, and others — were gradually abolished.

The most fervid demand, however, of all the workers on strike was for a shorter day, from 7 till 7 instead of one from 8 till 8, with 11/2 hours interval for dinner, instead of 1 hour, so that the working day should be one of 101/2 hours instead or 13 hours as formerly, or even 14 and 16 reckoning the time of cleaning machinery.

This is the only demand of the strikers at Maxwell’s; this alone is mentioned in the announcement of the strike seat by the “League for the Emancipation of the Working Classes” to the Vorwärts and the Russian comrades living abroad.

The noble nature of this demand can be seen from the following incident, described by one of our comrades. The factory inspector trying to persuade a great meeting of strikers to resume work, one of the latter — a young man — began to argue for the necessity of shortening the hours “in order that they may live as befits human beings. You build schools, but we have no time to use them” finished his speech, greeted with tremendous applause amongst universal congratulations. [The speaker was arrested but afterwards released] (In the former strike, too, it was these same employees of Maxwell who insisted with much force on a shorter working day) “hunger will all the same compel you to give in” says the factory inspector. “We'll rather die in the streets than resume work on the former conditions” cried some voices in the crowd. Hunger on the one hand (some days the strikers were literally without a piece of bread, the funds being soon exhausted, and help being distributed as they came in — often not more than one halfpenny per head) and flattering promises on the other put an end to the strike.

But, in spite of the hunger and arrests — the latter continued the whole autumn, 1,600 men being involved — the strike had a most healthy influence on the working masses. They have become conscious of their strength, and an interest in the common cause and the position of their brethren abroad was created in such places where no one heretofore would have listened to the words of the more intelligent workers, the Social-Democrats. Immediately after the strike, it was firmly resolved to renew the struggle in case the principal demand be left unsatisfied. It was the general opinion that a ten and a-half hours day would be introduced by the new year, and this hope not being fulfilled the men struck work again.

It was hard to starve, during the summer but what will it be during the severe frost? What expectations have these intrepid fighters for the right to have between the time of work and sleep three hours of leisure “as befits human beings"? What suffering have they to undergo! How quick, how great must be the help which the League for the Emancipation of the Working Class is asking through its friends living abroad, of their brethren, the European proletariat!

Vera Sazzpoulitch