Miners Strike to Bring Down Gorbachev

By Justin Burke, | The Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 1991 | Go to article overview

Miners Strike to Bring Down Gorbachev


Justin Burke,, The Christian Science Monitor


FROM a small room on the second floor of a nondescript building in this bleak Siberian city, a group of coal miners have transformed an underground strike into a mass movement that threatens to topple the Soviet system.

The room is the headquarters of the Novokuznetsk Workers' and Strike committees - forces that have idled 88 of the 101 coal-related mines and industries since early March in the key Kuzbass coal field, the nation's largest.

Unlike their counterparts in the Donbas coal region of the Ukraine, the Kuzbass miners have no economic demands. They are waging a purely political strike, demanding that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resign.

"We have come to the conclusion it will be impossible to solve the economic crisis under the current government structures," says Ravil Vakhitov, chairman of the Worker's Committee. "We just don't want to change governments, we want to change the system."

Despite such militant rhetoric, strike organizers aren't trying to achieve goals overnight. Restraint, education, and preparation are the operative words at the Novokuznetsk headquarters. Drawing on experience from a 1989 walkout, the strike leaders are learning from their mistakes, as well as training miners to serve as organizers and agitators.

"The Workers' Committee has been a school," says Mr. Vakhitov. "There are guys who are now leaders who a few years ago couldn't speak in front of a crowd. But after they worked at the committee, they became used to talking to people and were exposed to organizational methods."

Indeed, the Novokuznetsk strikers have evolved into militant missionaries of the proletarian class - spreading across the country, seeking converts.

"The workers in Leningrad wanted to form their own committees, so they asked us for help, because we have experience in organizational methods," said Mikhail Gonturov, a Worker's Committee member of the Bolshevik Mine outside Novokuznetsk. He spoke the day before departing to serve as an adviser at the massive Kirov munitions factory in the old imperial capital.

"It's funny that we have to reteach them what they knew so well in 1917," Mr. Gonturov said, referring to the Bolshevik Revolution in which Leningrad factory workers played a vital role. Movement begins to grow

The miners' movement has spread rapidly, threatening to collapse Soviet industry. Factories nationwide have announced their support for the miners' goals and are striking, or threatening to strike, pressuring the government from all sides. Even in the normally docile Communist stronghold of the republic of Byelorussia, workers are following the miners' example. Workers in Minsk, the Byelorussian capital, virtually shut down the city last Thursday, protesting steep price increases introduced by the government last week.

The price hikes, together with the miners' leadership, have so fanned the flames of worker discontent that conservative Communists are trying to disassociate themselves from Mr. Gorbachev in an attempt to avoid being dragged down with him.

"To say the party defends Gorbachev is nonsense," says Mikhail Yelovikov, the conservative Novokuznetsk party boss. "If Gorbachev continues acting this way and cannot contain the situation, it may cause the party to demand his resignation."

The government has tried desperately to isolate the miners' movement, but its efforts have met with little success. …

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