Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990
Susan Weissman interviews Boris Kagarlitsky
Susan Weissman: Welcome to “Portraits of the USSR.” Today my guest by telephone is Boris Kagarlitsky. He is the author of The Thinking Reed: Soviet Intellectuals from 1917 to the Present, published in English by Verso Press, for which he received the 1988 Isaac Deutscher Prize, and of The Dialectic of Hope yet to be published. He is a leading activist in the Moscow Narodni Front or the People’s Front. Welcome to “Portraits of the USSR,” Boris. I understand that you’ve come back from the Kuzbas region where you were able to witness the miners’ strike.
Boris Kagarlitsky: Yes, I was two days in Kuzbas and Karaganda. I spent only a few hours in Kuzbas and then went to Karaganda where they had another miners’ strike so I had a chance to compare those two strikes.
SW: What were the demands being raised by the strikers? BK Well it’s interesting that while the strikers had almost no contact with each other the demands were strikingly similar. Of course that was the result of the similarity of their situations and also there were some rumors about the demands that had been put forward in the neighboring regions.
But at the same time there was absolutely no information circulating between the strike committees. For example, in Karaganda, paradoxically, one of the demands was that the official media had to publish the demands of the Kuzbas strikers, which could then be supported by the Karaganda strikers. That was one of the reasons why they went on strike.
The demands mostly were purely economic: people wanted fair pay, they wanted to be treated better, they wanted to have better organization of labor and more social guarantees. There were demands for pensions—more and better pensions for the retiring miners—and better conditions of work and life for the miners and for their wives, especially for the women who are still working in the pits.
At the same time there were some demands that had political implications like the demand to produce as soon as possible the law which would regulate and legalize strikes, or demands for the recognition of the strike committees as legitimate representatives of the workers, and guarantees for those who took part in the strikes and so on.
Of course, you must understand that though a lot of people, especially on the strike committees, were always stressing that their struggle was purely economic, there was always a lot of political background. Among the ordinary miners there was a lot of politicized feeling, interest in politics and a lot of political protest.
SW: What was the nature of this political protest or of the politicized demands as you said?
BK: The demands were not politicized but, I’ll try to explain it another way. You must understand the difference between a strike in the Soviet Union and, for example, in the United States. In the United States you have some kind of conflict, then first you formulate some kinds of demands and then go on strike.
In the Soviet Union it was quite the opposite. After the officials criticized the miners, they first went on strike and only then formulated the demands. But that was logical from the workers’ point of view because they first went on strike just to express their opinion about what was happening in the country and in the coal industry, just to express a protest. Only after going on strike did they sit down and begin formulating some concrete demands.
So that is the political background. And then, of course, the miners began to formulate the economic demands. In some sense the literature of the strike committees was much more moderate than the strikers themselves, especially because there were a lot of local functionaries who understood that the strike could be used to serve their own interests. And they sometimes participated in the strike committees—without the right to vote but nevertheless they participated.
These functionaries proposed some very specific demands. For example, when I was in Karaganda witnessing the functioning of the strike committee, suddenly a guy appeared saying that he was from the local city Soviet and had a very good proposal: let’s ask for higher prices on coal.
After some discussion I said that it was an inflationist and irresponsible proposal because it’s one thing to demand higher wages for the workers—probably the state and the ministry could try to get this money without raising the price of coal. But raising the price makes life easier for the functionaries. They will simply force the consumers to pay for the price of the strike.
Moreover, it will produce a very bad feeling about the strikers who are then seen to be producing inflation. Also it will produce some kind of backlash because then the price of steel will be rising and so and so on.
The proposal was rejected, but I think that is a very revealing example of how the local authorities and the functionaries tried to use the strike for their own interests and sometimes succeeded.
Autonomy or Privatization?
SW: The U.S. press reported that the strikers were asking for more autonomy and essentially for private enterprise, to be able to divide up the profits among themselves.
BK: Well autonomy yes, but no private enterprise. The strikers’ initial demands insisted that first the coal pits must be autonomous in using their profits—that is really essential because the workers want to have a say in the distribution of their product On the other hand, they were thinking about using state and cooperative property in the mining Sector.
Only after the negotiations with the ministry the formulation was suddenly changed, and the ministry proposed another formulation which was using state, cooperative and joint stock property. It was the proposal of the management and the ministry to transform some of the mining enterprises into joint stock companies of the capitalist type; that was not proposed by the workers. At the same time the workers didn’t resist it.
When I asked the strike committee in Karaganda their opinion of that proposal, they said that people were simply not aware of it They didn’t understand the meaning of that proposal; it was not the result of negotiation but simply some kind of separate unilateral decision of the ministry.
I think it will not be fulfilled because if they really try to transform the pits into some kind of private enterprise or some kind of joint stock company, they will meet a lot of resistance from the strike committees. That decision would immediately undermine the newly formed strength of the strike committees or the workers’ committees and then there will be more struggles.
SW: Are the workers committees now constituted going to become permanent bodies?
BK: Yes, they are.
SW: You mentioned that first they went on strike and then they began to formulate their demands. Did they raise any demands about conditions of work not so much in terms of pay and housing but about being spied upon in work and that sort of thing? In other words were there any demands raised about the role of the secret police?
BK: Well of course, I can give you some very interesting examples. First, in Karaganda there was a pit called Karagandinskaya where the strike committee was led by a Kazakh. In most other pits the management somehow cooperated with the committee but here it refused to cooperate, saying if you won’t go back to work you’ll destroy the mine.
Then the workers’ committee, the strike committee simply took over the mine, saying we’ll manage it ourselves without you. And when the strike was ended they said, we don’t need you any more, go away. It’s now a self-managing enterprise. That was a very impressive example, I think.
And in some sense there is real dual power in Prokopyevsk, to some extent in Kemerova and some other places—but not in Karaganda by the way. Their strike committees or workers’ committees are becoming a kind of real center for alternative power and they are really solving people’s problems.
And also it seems that there are more political demands in Vorkuta where people are demanding, for example, the abolition of Clause Six of the Soviet constitution, which formulates the role of the party in Soviet society. They are calling for the creation of a new trade union—a demand that is now becoming popular among the other strike committees.
But I must stress one thing: the real working conditions and the living conditions of the miners are very poor, extremely poor. There is a real need to ameliorate those conditions, but that is not necessarily expressed in monetarized terms. There is, for example, the very elementary problem of soap; the miners need to wash themselves after leaving their workplace. They can’t do it because there is no soap in the whole country, you see. So this problem has to be solved and the owner—this time the state—must solve it.
SW: What other kind of demands were raised?
BK: Well I’ve told you, there were demands about more and better payment—fair payment—demands to change the regulation of working time, to change the rules for women working in the mines, to change the rules on pensions, allowing people to retire earlier with full pension, and so on.
A First Step for Workers
SW: What is the outcome of the strike? Now that they’ve gone back what has happened?
BK The outcome is not yet clear. First of all, the district strike committees had no right to sign any agreement with the authorities without consulting the workers. Nevertheless, in Prokopyevsk for example, they did it, and there was a big quarrel between the strike committee and the workers. It was very dramatic and people were crying that they had been betrayed. Finally the strike committee persevered and almost forced the miners to go back into the pits. After that the strike was finished in many other places.
Nevertheless the strike was not finished but rather suspended and the workers said that the strike would begin once again any time if the government didn’t fulfill all the promises. And now, for example, in Vorkuta, the strike is beginning once again. Yesterday morning they went on strike once again because they said that the government was cheating them.
So you see there is a kind of unstable compromise that will not last for long and we’ll have some new explosions, perhaps in the mining communities or maybe not—perhaps they will be produced by some other branches of industry. [This interview was conducted before the outbreak of new strikes in the fall—ed.]
SW: How many concessions were actually granted to them? What was the actual outcome of the strike? What did they win?
BK: Well, they won everything and nothing because on the one hand the government agreed to everything. It said, “No political demands please, but any other kind of demands you propose will be fulfilled,” and the government really accepted everything they said.
But then after signing the agreement the government functionaries said, “Sorry, but there are no resources for the practical fulfillment of your demands so we agree in principle. We will try to find the resources. We will do our best to find the resources but there are no resources nonetheless so we can’t in fact do what we promised.” And that is the impasse to the whole story.
SW: So it was a hollow victory except that it signified the first time in perestroika that the workers have come onto the stage politically?
BK: Yes, that I think is the greatest outcome. It is more important than anything. For example, in Karaganda I was speaking to the strikers and they said, “Two days before the strike if somebody said to us that we would go for this kind of strike action we would not have believed the guy.”
There was some kind of real revolution in the hearts and brains of the people. They became free citizens of their country and they became real members of the working class. There has been a transformation from an uncultured mass of people into some real form of a labor movement. Although it’s probably the initial stage, nonetheless it was real.
SW: Have there been any reprisals against strikers?
BK: No, I must say that on one hand the government was very liberal and there was no repression. I have a lot of information about the strikes not only from the regions I visited, but also from other parts of the country, and there is no mention yet of any repression against the strikers, and that is itself a very important sign. On the other hand, it seemed that the government simply didn’t expect any outbreak of labor protest on this scale; they simply didn’t know how to react.
From the beginning it was clear that repression could not help. Either they had to use some kind of mass repression as in Stalin’s time or like that of China. But this case was different because the strike was not against the government It was not directed against the system or against Gorbachev himself so there was no reason to be so cruel. On the other hand, with limited repression one could not achieve anything and could even damage the government’s case as happened in Poland, when the repression against the strikers politicized them.
SW: You said that the strike was not really against the government, but wasn’t it opposed to the cooperative movement and to private enterprise?
BK: Well some demands were about dosing cooperatives. It’s important because most of the cooperatives are not cooperatives but simply a Soviet form of private enterprise. The strikers were against them probably not because it was private enterprise, but because they were always raising prices.
When one speaks to the miners they’re always very critical of Gorbachev, of the government, and of perestroika itself. I didn’t see a single person who had a positive word to say about Gorbachev during all that period when I was with the miners, but at the same time there were no direct attacks on him.
SW: But were the miners in favor of perestroika?
BK: Well in fact perestroika means nothing for them.
SW: Were there any attacks on privilege?
BK: Yes, of course, a lot of attacks. There were calls for the resignation of particular managers and functionaries whom the miners consider to be corrupt Also, they said that the managers’ privileges must be abolished but there, often, it was not concrete. There was a very strong feeling of us and them. We are staying here, they are sitting there, you see, and there was a real feeling of something like a traditional class conflict.
Of course people were attacking the privileges of the functionaries and some people were attacking the party itself during the raffles of the strikers. But at the same time there was a kind of respect for the party functionaries—the people who have real power and who for that reason have some kind of real authority among the strikers. They were respected as bosses are respected sometimes.
You know that your interests are different but you still respect the people who have real power. You dislike privileges, but at the same time you understand that those with power are strong enough to have privilege and that is logical, and you can’t Just say abolish the privileges and they will automatically be abolished.
There was a lot of hatred against low-ranking party functionaries by the middle-ranking party functionaries who were sometimes treated even as advisors. There was even some feeling that though there are a lot of differences, at the same time there was some kind of common cause—for them to get more food for the region for example. Also sometimes the first local party boss was hated but at the same time some of his aides are treated better because they’re considered to be competent people and so on, and so it was very mixed.
Dynamics of Struggle
SW: One of the things that was very interesting to see was the way that the strike spread from Siberia to the Ukraine. What kinds of communications were there? Was it mainly through the press or did the strike committees communicate with each other?
BK: No, they didn’t even try, they didn’t even think about that. When we came to Karaganda with a file of Kuzbas newspapers, people were astonished. They didn’t think that those newspapers even existed, and they didn’t think about newspapers publishing materials from the strike committee.
They didn’t even try to send somebody to Kuzbas for example, and the same thing happened in Donets. Only when the strike committee from Donets sent a delegation to Moscow, did they meet the delegation from Kuzbas—in Moscow! So there were no communications except through the press and that’s why the demands were sometimes strikingly similar.
But at the same time, the particular formulations were different because each time they were beginning from the beginning. They knew something about the demands of the others, but they were trying to reformulate, to produce the same demands in their own language. That was, I think, the weakest point.
There were two weak points in the strike movement. The lack of coordination on one hand, and the tendency of the strike committees locally to come under the influence of the authorities, to become corrupted by the authorities. How? The authorities immediately began to propose to move strike committee leaders to senior positions in their official hierarchy. Some of leaders of the strike committees were spoiled by that. SW: Do you think that would be an effective way to co-opt this movement—putting the leaders into the official trade unions, replacing that leadership?
BK: The official trade unions are so badly functioning, so corrupt and so unpopular that they have no chance to succeed in doing that. But the official hierarchy in general, the official bureaucracy on the local level and on the central level, will try to use different ways to corrupt the leadership, and sometimes it succeeds.
At the same time I don’t think it will be one hundred percent successful. There was a lot of pressure on the strike committees to become more radical. So P think that the logical outcome will be either that the strike committees will continue to stay where they are without moving to the left or to the right, just to balance different kinds of pressures, or there will be some kind of radicalization.
SW: You mentioned that there was an “us” and “them” attitude and that the conflict took on a traditional sort of class conflict as we are accustomed to in the West. Do the workers themselves have much of this class consciousness and has it spread throughout the industry as a coal miner’s class consciousness or is it broader than that?
BK: It’s difficult to say, because of course it is growing and spreading. On the other hand, you mustn’t exaggerate the level of class consciousness even in the mining communities. It is there and there are even a lot of people who supported the proposals and the formation of the new Socialist Party, for example. At the same time there were people saying that we have only economic demands, but they were already in the minority and that’s very important.
The majority is becoming more and more class conscious. If you go to the other branches of industry you can see that the situation is different in each enterprise and still there is some very specific feeling among the workers. A lot of people are saying, “We will probably soon go on strike because there is no reason to go on working, because our work is so inefficient, it’s so badly organized, the economic situation is so terrible that there is not much difference whether you are striking or working, so in this case it’s best to go on strike.”
We must follow the situation, but the tendency [toward class consciousness] is evident. We must also follow another important development that can in some sense show us the level of class consciousness. That is the attempt to create a new trade union, which is called the Socialist Trade Union. It was registered in Moscow as an all-union federation about a week ago. There was a long struggle for its registration because the initiative group wanted from the very beginning to organize it as an all-union federation. For about two or three months they had a bureaucratic struggle with the authorities, who had no formal reason not to register them, and finally they were registered. I think under the influence of the strike wave the authorities have become more prepared to deal with initiatives like that, but whether the strikers would accept the banner of the Socialist Trade Union or not remains to be seen.
SW: When you traveled to the strike region in the Kuzbas, did you encounter any hindrances or any intimidations because you are a fairly well-known political person in the Soviet Union? And when you introduced yourself as a member of the Moscow People’s Front, how did people react to that?
BK: I had no problems, absolutely no problems. It was curious that next to me in the hotel in Karaganda where I was staying there were KGB men who were sent to Karaganda during the strike. They were living in the same hotel right next to my room. I had no problems.
And most of the strikers reacted very favorably that people from the Moscow Popular Front came to them, that they were not alone. They were glad to see that solidarity. The strike committee was very cautious—the result of the contradictory position between the strikers and the authorities—but the ordinary strikers was very enthusiastic.
For example, I was speaking at the rally with another member of the Moscow Popular Front and with one of the leaders of the committee for the new Socialist Party, and we had a very good response in the audience. We were treated as best friends.
SW: Did they express any interest in organizing politically or was it simply on a trade-union basis? BK: Some of them did.
SW: How would you evaluate this strike now that the working class has shown itself to be a political actor in perestroika?
BK: The working class has shown itself as a real force. You cannot now have any real political solution without the participation of the working class. It’s also very important that the working-class movement somehow is counterbalancing the nationalist tendencies in the society because the working-class movement was and is internationalist In Karaganda, which is in Kazakhstan, I’ve seen Kazakhs, Russians, Germans, Tatars, Caucasians, everybody together in the same strike movement without any national problems among them.
So while on the one hand the tendency of growing nationalism is in some sense destroying not only the state but also the society, on the other hand, the working-class movement can become an integrating factor for the society; and at the same time a factor for change, which I think is essential.
© 2020 Against the Current
January-February 1990, ATC 24