LESSONS OF NOVOCHERKASSK
The crisis of the stalinist pseudo-socialist empire and of the stalinist pseudo-socialist ideology, which has been breaking down before our eyes, has passed through three stages. The first one was manifested by the death of the Leader and Master himself and reached its peak in 1956. This stage was expressed by the XX Congress [at which Khrushchev delivered his famous "secret speech" on the crimes of Stalin], by the Polish and Hungarian crises, and by the prisoner revolts in the camps.
The second one began with the "cultural revolution" in China, and reached its peak in 1968 with the Polish events, the "Prague spring" and the Red May in Paris.
The third and, as in the case of syphilis, the final stage, the invasion of Afghanistan and the formation of "Solidarnosc" in Poland. This stage led to the breakdown of the Soviet block and to the August bourgeois revolution.
In the history of this crisis, especially of its first stage, Novocherkassk occupies a special place. Of course that city was not the only place where the workers rose in revolt against the CPSU regime. Besides Novocherkassk there were Karaganda, Temirtau, Alexandrov, Murom, and other cities. The events in Novocherkassk cannot be compared with the heroic armed insurrection of the Poznan workers in June, 1956, or the Hungarian political strike of November 3-10, 1956. But, on the other hand, the Novocherkassk revolt was a mass uprising of workers who were officially considered to be part of the bulwark of the regime. It did not take place in the border regions of the stalinist empire, but in the center itself - in the USSR and, moreover, in Russia. Nor were these revolts of prisoners, who were afraid of nothing because they had nothing to lose, like in Vorkuta, Norilsk and Kengir. Nor were these just spontaneous outbursts of the people's indignation at the militia's petty tyranny, like in Murom or Alexandrov. Nor were these troubles deliberately provoked by the authorities, like in Temirtau. Novocherkassk was the first experience in post-war Russia of mass action by a conscious section of the working class to protect their economic and political rights. The extreme and extraordinarily tough reaction by the authorities to the Novocherkassk revolts indicates how seriously the highest officials in the Soviet regime look these events and how frightened they were by them.
Novocherkassk was also significant because the workers' actions took place not in some frontier region (like Karaganda and Temirtau), where the bulk of the population consisted of migrants, young people who had arrived by special recruitment, and former prisoners, but in an old industrial region, where people had roots, where they had lived for centuries and acquired connections, families, property - where they had a lot to lose. Besides, Novocherkassk, as well as the whole Don, had suffered the mass repressions at the time of the destruction of the cossacks, and the hunger of 1932-1933, which could not but leave a heavy load of fear on the mass consciousness of the local people. P.P. Siuda directly characterized Novocherkassk as "the slough" (P. Siuda's letter to the author, 14.08.88). All the more amazing is the enormous number of participants in the Novocherkassk events and the absolute support given to the strikers and the demonstrators by the citizens, the organized character of the actions, and the absence of hooliganism or looting, etc.
Of course the Novocherkassk outburst was spontaneous. The participants in the events presented limited demands and were naive in their belief in the "good tsar" (in the person of N.S. Khrushchev). But at that time it could not be otherwise. No opposition movements with developed programmes existed in the country. Almost all the people were sure that the social order established by Stalin was really socialism. Khrushchev's reforms, the "thaw", had inspired great expectations in the people. It was bound to take the Novocherkassk tragedy, the overthrow of Khrushchev, the strangling of the socialist dreams of the "Prague spring", and the shooting of the workers' demonstration at the Baltic seaside of Poland, for the scales of the stalinist dogmas to fall from the eyes of the politically active minorities in the countries of the Soviet block, so that they stopped believing the tall tale about their living in "socialist" states which "represented the interests of the working class", and so that they began, following the example of previous generations of revolutionaries, to create opposition organizations and movements.
But events of Novocherkassk were a lesson for the ruling regime as well. No doubt that Novocherkassk had become a trump in the hands of the stalinist "hawks" against Khrushchev: Look, they said, these are the results of playing with reforms! Novocherkassk had undoubtedly also weakened the reform wing because the bloody reprisal united the influential ally of Khrushchev, A.I. Mikoyan with the "hawks". It would not be an exaggeration to say that Novocherkassk was the first toll of the bell for Khrushchev's regime (the second one was the Cuban missile crisis).
We might also ask: could the Novocherkassian workers have won? Strictly speaking, they certainly could not have, i.e. they could not have changed the stalinist pseudo-socialist order or even simply the existing regime. But with a different relationship of forces within the CPSU at the political summit of the USSR, they could undoubtedly have achieved a certain liberalization of the regime, as the Poznan workers had managed to do in 1956 when they brought to power W. Gomulka with all his reforms. To say nothing of the fact that in a different ideological climate and correlation of political forces the particular demands of the Novocherkassians, i.e. lowering prices, increasing the wages, improving the provision of food, were very likely to be satisfied. (The story which also took place during Khrushchev's rule, about the strike of Odessa dockers who refused to load the food products lacking in Odessa on the ships bound for Cuba is quite well known. The authorities met the demands of the strikers and sent the food to the city stores.) But no one is capable of changing the past, and Novocherkassk will continue to be remembered both as an heroic event, and as a tragic one.
August 4, 1992