When Soviet workers rose up and troops opened fire: a history Russian authorities try to conceal
A search for the facts behind the 1962 Novocherkassk workers’ strike leads to locked doors, empty walls and tearful memories
Minibus driver Andrei Vilisov spends five days a week driving back and forth the 12 kilometers from Novocherkassk city center. His journey takes him past scrub land and open skies, across the wide bridge over the Tuzlov River to what, in many respects, is the true heart of this industrial city, the Soviet Union’s largest electric locomotive factory. For decades, the plant has been the economic life-force of the town, the place that forged its soul — and the place where its secrets are buried.
During the twenty-minute commute, workers going to the plant never discuss how, in 1962, the Kremlin ordered T-55 tanks to block the bridge to cut the plant off from the city. Nor the orders given to the commander of the mechanized infantry unit, a decorated World War II veteran, to open fire on the plant. Or the names of the nearly 30 people killed by gunshot wounds. At the ornate gates to the expansive factory grounds there is no sign describing events from 55 years ago.
Vilisov found out about this tragedy purely by accident when he was in high school. His grandfather Peter Grub, who used to work at the plant, mentioned that he had once almost been killed by machine-gun fire. Then, he told him the story of how Soviet security forces, who were supposed to protect the workers of the world from callous and predatory capitalists, instead opened fire on the Novocherkassk proletariat after they went on a general strike. The workers were protesting their poverty-level wages and managers’ demands for higher production.
“I had a happy Soviet childhood, like everyone else. For many years I did not know anything about the strike,” Vilisov said, as he pulled his bus up to the plant’s front gates. “Then I realized that we were not told everything in our Soviet schools. Not the terrible, shameful secrets, which this was.”
As recently as ten years ago, Russian officials acknowledged the tragedy, which was documented in a 1991 Soviet prosecutor’s report showing that Soviet troops opened fire on protesters in the city, killing 22 people and injuring 39 others. In a 2008 visit to Novocherkassk, President Vladimir Putin even laid a wreath for the victims. But that was then. Now, the only plaque at the plant commemorating the events has disappeared. It’s unclear who removed it, or when. But it’s a vivid illustration of how historic amnesia infects Russia today, compounded by the perfidy of local officials.
The dramatic events took place over two days long ago, in the wake of a nationwide hike in meat and milk prices. That, coupled with a new order to increase production at the factory, prompted the workers in Novocherkassk to put down their tools and strike. Soon, thousands of angry citizens, fed up with substandard living conditions, were in open revolt from the factory to the city’s main square. In a series of emergency meetings that included premier Nikita Krushschev, the Communist Party Politburo ordered internal security troops, local police and KGB officers to Rostov to restore order by any means necessary.
Local survivors claim that many of those killed during the strike were buried in secret, with the circumstances covered up, so a full accounting of the death toll was impossible. Unofficial statistics show at least 26 people were killed and 87 others injured. After the protest was quashed, the KGB cracked down. Hundreds were arrested and dozens were convicted and sent to the Gulag. A terrible fear gripped the city.
Built in 1936, the plant was the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s electric trains, the locus of the young country’s massive industrialization plans. Novocherkassk locomotives traversed tens of thousands of miles across the vast Soviet territory, bringing raw metal to smelters, wheat to silos and prisoners to the Gulags.
Today, the Novocherkassk factory continues to churn out trains, but its managers have sanitized certain aspects of history displayed on the ground floor of the plant’s renovated and gleaming House of Culture. Inside, heavy maroon banners hang under glass next to copies of the Order of Lenin and the iconostasis of the Heroes of the Soviet Union. Yellowed newspaper articles bear the profile of Stalin on the front page.
But among these paeans to the past, there is no mention about the strike.
“We don’t talk about that,” explained the head of the museum, Galina Zakharova, to an inquiring visitor.
“It happened,” shrugged Zakharova. “But it is not customary for us to talk about revolts. We talk more about the glory of our laborers. This is what you need to raise this generation.”
On a stroll through the museum, only someone already versed in the plant’s violent past can pick out minor clues about those events.
One is a photo of the plant director Boris Kurochkin, who uttered the phrase which is commonly believed to have worsened the situation. In the tense days leading up to the demonstrations, the factory’s beleaguered workers got news that their wages would be cut, and their hours increased. For those who couldn’t afford basic foods already, this was the spark that finally set them off. They set down their tools and launched their strike at the factory’s main gate.
In a quintessentially Russified version of Marie Antoinette’s famous phrase, Kurochkin further incensed strikers by telling them that they should eat liver piroshkis, pies filled with the cheapest cut of meat, instead of demanding higher-quality food.
However, the museum’s display about Kurochkin conveniently leaves this notorious anecdote unmentioned.
The second photo shows Sergei Yolkin, the plant’s former chief engineer, who many survivors of the strike say tried to talk the workers back on the job. In his photo, Yolkin is wearing a fashionable Bologna jacket and a dark beret on his gray head, a style of clothing typical of Soviet scientific and technical elite — and something that immediately set them apart from the factory’s manual laborers, who favored much more informal clothes.
In the allegedly classless Soviet society, these distinctions were great. So when thousands of workers joined the strike wearing dirty undershirts, factory managers like Yolkin got scared. Elena Perova, Yolkin’s daughter, was seven years old at the time of the strike. Such shirts, she said, confirmed to the managers that the strikers were thugs and troublemakers. “Only hardened alcoholics in a drunken stupor would wear such clothing in public,” she said.
Elena says that beyond her father’s picture, the factory museum has nothing that depicts his or her mother’s role during those tense days.
Her mother, who was the economist at the factory, was frightened enough to take her children to their grandmother’s house on the opposite side of the city from the plant. The journey itself was terrifying. Elena, her mother and her brother crowded into a packed tram filled with panicked people also trying to get out of town. Her overwhelming memory is a frightening sense of being crushed by all the bodies. “I began to gasp in pain,” she said. “I still remember how scared I was.”
After dropping the children at their grandmother’s home, Elena’s mother went back to work. But children being children, Elena and her brother soon got bored. Together, they decided to run away. They walked all the way back to the city. The scenes remain etched on Elena’s memory: Huge crowds of workers in gray undershirts that matched their heavy mood and faces. A dead cat hung from a pole, beside a strike poster describing the factory: “Under Lenin she lived. Under Stalin, she withered. Under Khrushchev, she died.”
KGB officers, dressed in civilian clothing, monitored the crowds and secretly photographed the chief instigators of the rebellion, in order to build a criminal case against them.
According to Elena, the violence started because of a specific group of people: prisoners assigned to the factory to help decouple railway cars. They began to smash factory property, she said. Then, students from a vocational school next to the plant joined the vandalism. “They were to blame,” she said. “People say that father tried to persuade the workers to stand down and get back to work. Father tried to calm them down. He climbed onto a steam engine to address them, but then they pulled him out of there, tearing his shirt. Other workers started beating him.”
Yolkin’s role in the strike remained an unspoken, terrifying secret for his family. “He never said anything and ordered us not to say anything. My mother warned us ‘People in gray might come. So keep quiet.’ We lived all our lives in fear that my father would be taken away,” Elena said
The vividness and violence of the memory still brings Elena to tears. In her fear for her husband’s safety, Elena’s mother forced Yolkin to take sick leave in the immediate days after the strike, hoping that his absence from work would save him from reprisals. She remembers her mother sewing her father’s shirt that was torn in the melee.
Elena’s mother’s ruse worked. A few weeks later, Yolkin returned to his job and remained chief engineer until his retirement in 1984. He later spent several years teaching at an institute before he died from complications brought on by a stroke. He never talked about the strike, Elena says.
Piotr Siuda, a factory worker, wasn’t as lucky as Yolkin. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in the uprising. He served four years and was released early. In the 1990s Siuda championed the cause of the factory workers who had been shot during the strike. In the heady days of Glasnost, he started demanding an investigation into the incident. Then, a strange thing occurred. Siuda died after being attacked by robbers. His murder remains unsolved.
Around Novocherkassk, facts about the strike are nearly as opaque as the circumstances of Siuda’s death. Much of that is by design.
In Primary School No 31, which is located next to the factory, teachers are forbidden to tell children about the history that occurred down the street. The state curriculum ignores the history of the strike, and thus, so do the teachers.
Marina Rybalkina, the deputy director of the school grew up near the factory and both of her parents worked there. Her father participated in the strike of 1962 but ran away from the bullets and escaped injury. The family, however, didn’t escape the fear of retribution.
“Many were arrested and everyone was scared that they would be next,” she recalls of the days immediately after the crackdown.
She says she understood from her parents that many workers killed in the uprising were buried secretly and without an inquest. Families who had wounded relatives in the hospital also begged administrators to document the cause of the injuries as something unrelated to the strike.
It was a time of mixed emotions, the jumble of fear mixed with the euphoria of freedom from the experience of standing up to authorities. “The feelings during the uprising have long haunted me,” she said.
When Marina left Novocherkassk to study at the teaching institute in Kuban, she remembers a teacher rebuking her for being headstrong and rowdy. She thought it sounded like a curse. “The teacher told me: ‘You are from a rebellious city. Shut up!’ That silenced me at the time, and I am still silent now,” she said.
She takes pride in small acts of defiance that she sees in the younger generation, especially their ability to speak out about the past. She recalls a favored student who gave her a detailed recitation about a question she posed to her class about the most memorable historical events in Novocherkassk. The student told the others of the anecdote about liver pies, about the shooting of the workers and the violence. “I was impressed by how well the children know the history of their city,” she recalls. But even this pride is tinged with the miasma of fear. “But, still. I felt I needed to caution him. I said to this student that he should be careful about such stories. Shooting and blood are not topics that are good for a young child’s mind,” Marina said.
For those willing to take on the authorities, more about the strike can be learned in a locked, forgotten room on the ground floor of the city’s Museum of the History of the Don Cossacks. A small exhibit about the events of 1962 is housed there — but it doesn’t appear on the official museum catalog or map.
Museum director Natalya Sedinko has an unwritten order to the museum staff: keep it locked and keep it off limits. The only person who disobeyed the order, Valentina Vodyanitskaya, was dismissed as a museum guide three years ago.
“It was too popular,” Vodyanitskaya said of the exhibition about the strike. “Nobody really cared to look at information about ancient kings. Instead, they came to listen to this story.”
On a recent day at the museum, one visitor’s persistent pleas finally wore down a reticent guide, and she eventually unlocked the door to the exhibit.
At first glance, there was little to see, as the room was full of dozens of recently blown-up balloons.
“We are preparing for Victory Day,” the guide explained as she started inflating another batch. One balloon suddenly popped, causing a red pedestal to spin around and reveal a display of people killed and wounded in the strike — Alexandra Moskalchenko, 23 years old, whose foot was amputated; Valentina Kobeleva, 15 years old, injured in the leg. Vitya Savchenko, 12 years old, who also sustained leg injuries.
In another corner, death certificates showed some of the people shot in the square but whose official cause of death was changed in favor of something less provocative. Another wall displayed photos of strikers who were sent to prison, including Valentina Vodyanitskaya.
Suddenly, the illicit tour stopped as quickly as it had started when a second tour guide burst into the room.
“You will spoil our decorations for Victory Day,” she screamed. She locked the exhibit and pushed the visitor out of the museum, back to the main square, the same place where the town’s workers were gunned down 57 years ago.
Outside, all was peaceful. Children played ball games and mothers walked by with strollers. Like those inside the museum, they all appeared inured to the ghosts of their past, unaware of the solitary monument left in Novocherkassk: a dense gray stone in the center of the square etched with a cross and the year 1962.