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Capitalist restoration and the struggles of the Russian workers
Boris Popovkine is a worker activist in the independent miners' union from Vorkuta, Russia, and a member of the Committee for a Workers' International. He is currently speaking to workers' meetings in Europe. While in Britain he spoke to The Socialist about the current struggles of the Russian working class.
"AT ABOUT the same time as the USSR broke up the regime passed laws on 'co-operation' and 'privatisation' opening the doors to the criminalisation and capitalist restoration of Russia.
The new capitalist class developed very quickly on the back of these events. And also very quickly it produced a clash of interests between the working class and the new capitalists. They consciously tried to mould the new trade union movement.
The government put a lot of money into helping the new 'independent' miners union. Of course many of us who participated in this trade union, the rank and file, didn't realise what was going on. We thought the development of new independent unions would provide the opportunity to struggle.
I was one of the founding members of this trade union in my town in Vorkuta. I was elected to the pit committee. And the very first strikes were co-ordinated by those activists who were part of this union.
THE PRESIDENT of our trade union, Sergeyev, was appointed as a member of President Yeltsin's council of advisors. At first most of us thought that as he was nearer to the powers that be it would give him more opportunity to stick up for our interests.
However, he turned out to be just as big a bureaucrat as the bureaucrats from the other trade unions. He used the protests organised by our trade union to further his own interests.
For example during the famous 'railway war' in 1998 - when the railway lines were cut between Siberia and south Russia - most of the miners thought they were fighting for their own economic and political interests. But, actually it turned out that the action was organised 'from above' in order to protest against the increase in prices on railway freight as the new factory directors and owners of the pits were losing big money. Sergeyev organised this railway war simply to help rescind these rail price increases.
The next and most rotten betrayal of the miners is what happened in the summer of 1998. The trade union took the initiative to organise a picket of the White House - the government building in Moscow.
During the course of this picket, which lasted four months (camped on the road), other groups of workers joined in - teachers, metalworkers defence workers, etc. The main demand of this picket was that Yeltsin should resign. But while we were camping out the union president was walking round the corridors of power trying to undermine our action.
On 7 October there was due to be a mass day of action organised by the federation of independent trade unions, which are the former official state trade unions. Before this took place Sergeyev had already reached agreement with the powers that be. He persuaded one of the ruling committees of the trade union, two days before the national day of protest was due to take place, to lift the picket.
Such was the dissatisfaction of the union ranks, Sergeyev was forced to resign as president at the next congress.
New workers' party
Many Russian miners are now beginning to understand that the current trade unions that exist aren't capable of solving our problems. Quite a few miners are now beginning to talk about forming a new workers' party because all the parties in Russia, even the ones that you could call 'communist', in reality are pro-capitalist parties.
For example the main Communist Party of the Russian Federation has now got a major part of its programme calling for a mixed economy and the recognition of private ownership of production.
TODAY THE economic situation in Russia is dire. Factories are shutting or only operating at low levels, agriculture has been devastated, the transport system has broken up. Any government attempts to resurrect the economy fails.
One of the sharpest examples is what happened to the reconstruction of the coal industry where the government asked for credit from the IMF [International Monetary Fund].
The IMF gave the credit but on condition that 70% of Russia's coal mines should be shut. The credit was supposed to assist unemployed miners move to other cities to get somewhere to live, to get retrained, to get a job. But the bulk of this money was robbed either by the state apparatus or by the leaders of the trade union. In one case unemployed miners were deported from their town about 120 kilometres north of Vorkuta.
Early one evening the miners families that were left in the town were all visited by the police. The police gave them two hours to pack up their belongings. They were told the train was waiting at the station and they were forcibly deported.
Even today there are still 200 of these families living in Vorkuta either with relatives or friends - they have no money to get away.
For these reasons I joined the CWI, because I read the programme and other material which seemed to show the best way forward."
In The Socialist 5 May 2000: