Taboos Abound

In 1985, women in the Soviet Union saw their chance to finally get the liberation from the ignorance towards women and their bodies that was rampant in Russian society. With Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, women began using their bodies as the tool to wage this war. Von Geldern says that this revolution, so-to-speak, occurred in waves, the first being the subject of prostitution. Now, prostitution is a universal societal taboo, but the Russian press had only recently made any note of its existence.

The article on Nina of Minsk provides an interesting commentary on foreign-currency prostitution. This was “doubly taboo” in this era because of the sexually immoral nature of the act, but also the profit that could be made when foreign currencies were exchanged for rubles. The article, written in 1986, says that this ” certain category of women” (interesting that he doesn’t rightly call them prostitutes, a sign that Russians weren’t ready to discuss prostitution in the media) had no desire to cover up what they did for a living, “They ceremoniously exchange greetings with doormen and hail policemen in a familiar and friendly way. In the hotel, bar and restaurant they know everyone and everyone knows them too. For these damsels, there is no such thing as public opinion.” To which Mysiakov goes on to explain that these prostitutes believe their jobs are better than most, that there is a sense of security because of the constant demand for their services. He paints them as women who believe that they are above the law, skirting around formalities in the least-strenuous way possible, with some women even making a business out of it. This is where “Nina” comes in.

Intergirl (1985) Poster for the movie about a foreign-currency prostitute. Source: Electronic Museum of Russian Posters. 2004.
Intergirl (1985)
Poster for the movie about a foreign-currency prostitute.
Source: Electronic Museum of Russian Posters. 2004.

She owned a flat that was near the town center, which she used for her clients and her girls. She was prosecuted for running a “house of ill-repute” and completing illegal foreign-currency transactions. While her employees got off with a small charge, she received the brunt of the punishment. However, Mysiakov makes an interesting statement, saying that these women were “bringing greater discredit to our morality than to themselves,” meaning that their presence in Minsk (and other Russian cities) was giving Russian society as a whole a bad image, rather than ruining their own reputation. He also states that Minsk was relatively lucky, that Moscow and other large cities had it much worse, something that Freeze notes in his text as well, “the explosion of prostitution (with 4,000 brothels in Moscow alone) raised sexually transmitted diseases to epidemic proportions (the syphilis rate, […] increased seventyfold in the 1990s…”

So, yes, the issue of prostitution had clearly gotten out of control, but it makes one wonder about the timing of addressing these issues. If it hadn’t been such a taboo subject, would the “revolution” be just as effective? The avoidance of discussing prostitution for decades likely gave the title more power, because it wasn’t discussing in the press–giving the Russian citizens an excuse to be slightly igorant. If women’s sexuality would have been embraced earlier in its history, what change could it have had on Russian society? As always, Russia was a latecomer to tackling these issues, which had a profound impact on the way that this problem spread throughout the cities.


Freeze, Gregory, Russia: A History, p. 483

Saving Baikal

As we’ve discovered in this course, Russia is a treasure trove of natural resources. Spanning nine time-zones and two continents, much of Russia’s wilderness was relatively untouched until the 20th century. Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake was surprisingly subject to decades of abuse, starting with the First Five Year Plan in 1928 and industrialization under Stalin. Russia struggled to catch up with the industrial revolution and Siberia with its’ wealth of natural resources was the starting point. However, “oil and mineral exploration, large-scale lumbering, military and prison populations all put the Siberian environment under stress. The assumption that a space so vast could absorb unlimited pollution eventually proved false.”

Ever Since They Built the Chemical Factory Here, All the Fish Have Been Giving Black Caviar
Source: I. P. Abramskii: Vragi i druz’ia v zerkale Krokodila, 1922-1972. Moscow: Pravda. 1972.

This large-scale destruction of Lake Baikal and the surrounding areas allowed environmentalists to protest the government’s actions directly without fear of persecution. The protection of the environment was not seen as a political issue by the government and was thus allowed to occur, “Local scientists, writers, fishermen, and ordinary citizens banded together to fight the Baikal plant, and ignited an environmental movement throughout the country. Environmentalism provided a forum for ideas that were otherwise unacceptable in Soviet discourse.” An article from 1977 shows how the relationship between the Russian State and Lake Baikal is a delicate one. Using the natural resources the lake can provide can easily turn into exploitation, which could have permanently damaged the environment and eventually the Russian economy.

Baikal Shoreline (1980)

“The protection of this cup of crystal-pure, amazingly transparent water, the deepest lake on the planet, is worth any expense. And the state is sparing none. V. Kalinichev, USSR Deputy Minister of Railroads and Chief of the BAM Board of Directors, cites an impressive fact. It had been planned to lay the rails of the Baikal-Amur Main Line right next to the lake shore. ‘Close proximity to the railroad will be dangerous for the lake,’ scientists warned. They were heeded. The route now passes through the mountains, far from the shore. The main line will be lengthened by dozens of kilometers, and four additional headland tunnels will have to be dug. Otherwise, the “glorious sea” will be in danger …”

After all of the years that Stalin destroyed the wilderness in the name of industrialization, scientists and environmentalists alike seemed to convince the government that the disappearance of Lake Baikal would be detrimental to the country as a whole. Russia depended on the natural resources that Siberia, and Lake Baikal in turn, had to offer. Luckily, the quick thinking of environmentalists made their voices heard and saved Baikal and the surrounding areas before too much permanent damage was done. This period in time was one of learning, one where the government had to balance the new practice of industrial planning and the traditional ways of living that Russians developed over hundreds of years.

Sources: –> Source: Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXX, No. 40 (1977), pp. 7-8; Vol. XXXII, No. 36, pp. 9-10.

Moral Code of the Builder of Communism

In class on Thursday, I was part of a group that was assigned an article written in 1966 by a G. Mirsky. Though it was a tough read at first, my group was able to pick out some really important facets that the author only skimmed over. One of the most interesting things we extracted from the article was that socialism is not a system that can be used in Russia, it can be universally relevant. When we were prompted to look on the Seventeen Moments modules, I was drawn immediately to the module titled “Moral Code of the Builder of Communism.” This simple document had 12 items that outlined all the principles that the government leaders believed would lead to a better society, “Communist morality was supposed to replace coercion as a means of ensuring political and social stability and economic growth; it required political loyalty, hard work, and the proper conduct of private life.” The first tenet reinforced their cause to spread socialism throughout the world, which was most widely received in growing African countries.

The text was presented at the 22nd Party Congress in 1961; here are the 12 tenets:

  • Devotion to the communist cause, love toward the socialist Motherland and to socialist countries
  • Conscientious labor for the good of society: he who does not work shall not eat
  • Concern of all for the preservation and growth of public property
  • High consciousness of public duty, intolerance towards the violation of public interests
  • Collectivism and comradely mutual aid; one for all and all for one
  • Humane relations and mutual respect among people; man is to man a friend, comrade, and brother
  • Honesty and truthfulness, moral purity, simplicity and modesty in social and personal life
  • Mutual respect in the family, concern for the upbringing of children.
  • Intolerance towards injustices, parasitism, dishonesty, careerism and money-grubbing.
  • Friendship and brotherhood of the peoples of the USSSR, intolerance towards national and racial hatred
  • Intolerance towards the enemies of communism, peace, and freedom of nations
  • Fraternal solidarity with the working people of all countries and with all peoples

From the Mirsky article, it seemed that there may have been a degree of hesitation to adapt to this system, but the creation of this code wanted to cement the fact that socialism under Khrushchev (or anyone else) was not Stalinism. Stalinism was an unfortunate period that really gave socialism a bad reputation on the international scene. However, socialist Russia wanted to reinforce that as the “socialist Motherland,” they would look out for all the younger countries that were testing the waters. The weight of Stalinism was slowly wearing off and the 22nd PC was the beginning of a new era, “it signalled a new and open offensive against Stalinsm.” The reconfiguration of this code had a huge impact on the way policies were conducted from then on.

Lack of private space in cramped apartments forced young people into public spaces to exchange their expressions of affection. Illustration from Aleksandr Vampilov’s “The Park Bench.”

However, the introduction goes on to mention that these new morals were sometimes only practiced in part or just disregarded completely. As always, the Soviet population rebelled in whatever way possible, twisting the words of the code to gain advantages as an individual rather than promoting the cause of the collective. The introduction of the code led to citizens gaining more privacy, something that was unheard of under Stalin. Some members of society saw this as a new chance and life and didn’t agree with this new code,

“Eager to shed the Stalinist doctrine of collectivism, we realized that each of us has a right to privacy.

That was the time of our awakening.

We had no leaders and no teachers. All we could do was learn from each other. To us, the thaw was the time to search for an alternative system of beliefs. Our new beliefs would be truly ours; having gone through Stalinism once, we could not stand for another “progressive” doctrine being imposed on us from above.”

It would prove difficult for the government to move away from such a structured system, especially when it had been in place for a number of decades. The code seemed to be a good starting point for Khrushchev and the party members.


Freeze, p. 426

To The (Literary) Limit

The years after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress not only opened up a literary void that needed to be filled, but also showed how the government was still defrosting from Stalin’s death just three years prior. While Khrushchev denounced all of the actions Stalin had taken in his years as a leader, writers began to see more opportunities to push the limits previously put in place under Stalin. This was a changing society and Boris Pasternak, a Soviet poet and novelist, took advantage of it and crafted one of his most famous (and infamous) works, Doctor Zhivago, that would make him known around the world. One important thing to take away from this post is that the Russian government still wasn’t entirely ready to let go of the rigid policies that Stalin enforced. These years after Stalin’s death were known as The Thaw, a (slow) reversal of Stalinism.

As Seventeen Moments notes, both before and after Stalin, Pasternak was forced to translate other great literary works in order to make a living, his genius consistently suppressed by  Stalinism. Pasternak’s novel was extremely controversial, one that he had been writing in secret for years, waiting only for the right moment to have it published.  The novel denounced many of the things that Stalin put in place during his reign, much like Khrushchev said in his Secret Speech. Doctor Zhivago was surprisingly rejected by the Novyi mir, a Russian Literary magazine. In order to get the novel published, Pasternak knew he would have to go outside of the Soviet Union. An Italian publisher agreed to do the job, despite Russian demands that the novel could be returned. The government wished to avoid any kind of scandal, but the publication of the novel in 1957 crushed any hopes of a peaceful resolution.

Unknown Source; Portrait of Poet Boris Pasternak by Iurii Annenkov, 1921

It seems that it was easy for the Russian population to hear a single speech denounce Stalin and his actions, but Khrushchev also made the speech knowing that these changes would not happen overnight: “… [he] made clear that the ‘thaw’ did not mean artistic freedom.” (Freeze, 429) Therefore, Pasternak was forced into seclusion, not wanting to alienate the Russian government any further, despite already being accused of treason. The anger reached such a fever pitch that he was forced to reject the Nobel Prize he rightly won in 1958. A telegram from 1959 discusses what Pasternak should do with money from the Norwegian publication of Doctor Zhivago: A D. Polikarpov says, “I think that Pasternak should refuse receipt of money from the Norwegian bank. I am asking for permission to express this point of view.” It’s later noted that Pasternak refused the money, which he originally intended to donate a portion to a fund that assists elderly writers. Pasternak could have be extremely influential in the cultivation of a new literary movement in Russia, but it seemed that a majority of government officials desperately clung to the rules they had known for decades. It’s a shame that Pasternak’s genius could not be celebrated during his life and that he had to reject one of the highest honors a poet can receive just because his country’s government wasn’t ready to see eye-to-eye.

His poem, Nobel Prizeis particularly moving. It shows how distressed and saddened he was to be caught up in these persecutions long after Stalin’s reign ended.

Like a beast in a pen, I’m cut off
From my friends, freedom, the sun,
But the hunters are gaining ground.
I’ve nowhere else to run.

Dark wood and the bank of a pond,
Trunk of a fallen tree.
There’s no way forward, no way back.
It’s all up with me.

Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.

Even so, one step from my grave,
I believe that cruelty, spite,
The powers of darkness will in time
Be crushed by the spirit of light.

The beaters in a ring close in
With the wrong prey in view,
I’ve nobody at my right hand,
Nobody faithful and true.

And with such a noose on my throat
I should like for one second
My tears to be wiped away
By someone at my right hand.

Boris Pasternak



Telegram: <>

Freeze, Gregory, Russia: A History, p. 429


Literary Life at a Crossroads, 1956:


Katyn Forest Massacre

In 1943, a mass grave of Polish officers was discovered in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in Russia. The radio announcement was made by a German radio station; the alleged massacre was apparently carried out by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Soviet History notes that “the claim was denounced by Stalin as a ‘monstrous invention by the German-fascist scoundrels’ designed to sow discord among the war-time allies.” The Soviets continually denied having any involvement in the massacre, blaming the German forces who also invaded Poland at the time. Upset at the number of bodies, the Polish government begged the Red Cross to begin an investigation of the massacre, not fully believing that the Germans had any involvement. Thus began the lengthy trials at Nuremberg to discover what really happened at Katyn.

Nazi Propaganda poster

The beginning of this story starts with the invasion of Poland by both Nazi and Soviet forces in 1939; this set both Germany and Russia as suspects in the massacre. The Russians legitimized their invasion by claiming “it was liberating Ukrainian and Belorussian toilers from their oppressive Polish rulers.” Once the Soviets had access to the Poles, they were “placed in “special” (concentration) camps, where, from October to February, they were subjected to lengthy interrogations and constant political agitation.” The CIA article notes that Stalin was simultaneously dealing with logistics to transport the Poles and the “disastrous 105-day war against Finland. The Finns inflicted 200,000 casualties on the Red Army and destroyed tons of material–and much of Russia’s military reputation.” Anxious to move forward, Stalin signed the warrant for the deaths of more than 20,000 people on March 5, 1940.

Mass grave exhumation at the Katyn Forest in Smolensk

“To Comrade Stalin

A large number of former officers of the Polish Army, employees of the Polish Police and intelligence services, members of Polish nationalist, counter-revolutionary parties, members of exposed counter-revolutionary resistance groups, escapees and others, all of them sworn enemies of Soviet authority full of hatred for the Soviet system, are currently being held in prisoner-of-war camps of the USSR NKVD and in prisons in the western provinces of Ukraine and Belarus. […] In view of the fact that all are hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority, the USSR NKVD considers it necessary: […]together with the cases of 11,000 members of various counter-revolutionary organizations of spies and saboteurs, former land owners, factory owners, former Polish officers, government officials, and escapees who have been arrested and are being held in the western provinces of the Ukraine and Belarus and apply to them the supreme penalty: shooting.”

The above text is taken directly from the order that was signed by Stalin; this order was carried out from April to May 1940. Katyn was the site with the largest number of bodies, which were discovered by German forces in 1943. Despite overwhelming evidence that Russia was responsible, they continued to deny their involvement until 1990 when Gorbachev presented documents that undoubtedly linked Stalin to these massacres. However, the CIA article also notes that Gorbachev did not give full disclosure in the interest of preserving Communist Party’s less-than-stellar reputation. These actions really show how far Stalin was willing to take punishment of people who were innocent. He truly into some hot water in the years before WWII and it backfired horribly, turning into one of the most infamous massacres of World War II, leaving a guilt on the Russian state that still lingers to this day.


Image #1:

Image #2: “Zbrodnia katyńska w świetle dokumentów / z przedm. Władysława Andersa” from Wikipedia article, “Katyn Massacre”

The ‘Zations– Collectivization and Dekulakization

The city of Magnitogorsk, “the celebrated socialist ‘planned’ city” was founded on a model that’s main goal was to out-do the extremely successful steel mills of Gary, Indiana . The construction of a huge steel mill was an integral part of the First Five-Year Plan and the city soon became a symbol of revolutionary transformation. The city grew rapidly, “from 25 inhabitants in March 1929 to 250,000 by the autumn of 1932.” However, the rapid development of this city meant that the residents were thrust into a new world that was extremely industrialized with very little amounts of training. Through the Seventeen Moments site, I learned that some of the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk were victims of Dekulakization, a movement started by Stalin that desired to rid Soviet Russia of wealthier peasants. The label “kulak” could be given to anyone who opposed collectivization. Freeze gives us the three options for all people labeled “kulak,” “They were to be expropriated–‘liquidated as a class’– and subjected to one of three fates: (1) resettled on inferior land outside the kolkhoz; (2) deported and resettled in other districts; or (3) arrested and sent to prisons or labour camps in remote parts of the country.”

The process of Dekulakization was implemented at the same time as collectivization, a crucial part of the First Five-Year Plan, that wanted to turn agriculture into a large-scale process. Naturally, the peasants in the countryside opposed this implementation, which led Stalin to almost immediately begin persecuting them. It was Stalin’s belief that their opposition was the reason that collectivization wasn’t as successful as it could have been, leading to this horrendous persecution. Freeze notes that the party propagandists called the growing peasant opposition “rural October”–a reference to the October Revolution, though this movement was significantly more costly in human lives than any revolution beforehand. The excerpt from John Scott’s book, Behind the Urals, (featured on Seventeen Moments in Soviet History) mentions a young man named Shabkov, an ex-kulak. He grimly recounts the day that the GPU came to take him and his brother away. His brother was given a rifle, which he used against the officers and was subsequently killed. Sadly, this was a common occurrence and the body-count only continued to rise.

Stalin’s declaration is frighteningly sadistic, his words carry a lot of weight, but his suggestion seems scarily unnatural, “Now, the kulaks are being expropriated by the masses of poor and middle peasants themselves, by the masses who are putting solid collectivization into practice. Now, the expropriation of the kulaks in the regions of solid collectivization is no longer just an administrative measure. Now, the expropriation of the kulaks is an integral part of the formation and development of the collective farms. Consequently it is now ridiculous and foolish to discourse on the expropriation of the kulaks. You do not lament the loss of the hair of one who has been beheaded.”

Dekulakization ended badly for the peasants; almost 14.5 million people are believed to have died as a result of the many policies that Stalin implemented in the Five-Year plans, including Dekulakization and Collectivization. I think this policy just makes Stalin an even scarier historical figure, originally coming into this assignment thinking that I was writing about Magnitogorsk. What’s interesting is that we have one of the crowning achievements of collectivization, Magnitogorsk, playing home to an ex-kulak whose life was upturned by one of the most horrific things of the First Five-Year Plan. History works in mysterious ways.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 349, 352. Print

“John Scott. A Day in Magnitogorsk. 1942.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. N.p.. Web. 6 Oct 2013. <>.

“Iosif Stalin, Problems of Agrarian Policy in the USSR. December 27, 1929 .” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. N.p.. Web. 6 Oct 2013. <>.

Food Supply in 1917

This is an appeal of the cities to the peasants of the Ukraine and the “Volga in 1918. Now it is this Volga region that is stricken with drought—the worst since 1873. These peasants in turn are appealing for bread.”

1917 was a difficult year for Russians of all social standings. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a huge turning point for the Russian Empire and there were many factors that contributed to the overthrow of the Tsar. My focus of this blog post will be about the food riots and pogroms that occurred in the weeks leading up to the October Revolution, but these riots were not uncommon in the beginning of the year either. Module 3 of the Digital History Reader notes that food shortages was one of this biggest causes for unrest in early 1917 and contributed to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the largest of these being the strike in St. Petersburg on February 23 (International Women’s Day), when female workers protested the high prices of bread and food shortages. The next day saw multiple (underground) groups protesting and essentially shutting down all of the city (some people even reached the center of the city). Only once troops were ordered to begin shooting at the demonstrators were the crowds dispersed. This strike was so hugely important that it started the February Revolution. Sadly, the riots only continued throughout the year and soon escalated into pogroms, a persecution and subsequent massacre of a particular ethnic group. The Petrograd Telegraph Agency has several extracts of telegrams that were sent during September and October 1917 that report about these riots/pogroms that are occurring all over Russia.

What shocks me most about these telegrams is how violent the protestors would get, which says a lot about how upset they were with the horrendous conditions they dealt with on a daily basis: “Rostov-on-Don, October 10. In Azov, as a result of the dissatisfaction of the population with the rise in the price of bread and flour, disorder broke out. A crowd of residents marched to the city hall, broke into the food department, and attacked the government employees, who fled. When a member of the municipal government, Makarovskii, attempted to quiet the crowd, be was thrown down the stairs from the second floor, […]”

Two telegrams from Kharkov, in the Ukraine, describe the riots that have erupted: “Kharkov, September 24. […] On the evening of September 22 a wine storehouse was broken into and a large amount of liquor seized. The drunken crowds who took part in the destruction of the wine storehouse started to march through the streets singing and creating a disturbance. The population of the city is alarmed. The Jews have left the city. All stores are closed and the residents do not venture on the streets. Soldiers from the local garrison took part in the disturbance. A detachment of troops was sent from Kharkov to establish order and cadets were summoned from Chuguev …”

“Kharkov, October 11. During the past few days pillaging has been going on in the city. […]. Brigands plunder the goods and handle the proprietors roughly. It is in this way that … an innocent artisan, the Jew, Morein, was killed. During the night, the agitation for a pogrom has become stronger and the uprising has assumed a threatening character, being concentrated in the center of the city, on Pavlovskii Square. […] on the fences are hung proclamations using monarchist slogans and calling for a pogrom and for a massacre of the Jews; a dry goods shop has been wrecked; many of the pogrom-makers wear soldiers’ uniforms …”

These shortages allowed the Bolsheviks to take advantage of the situation, using the “deceptively simple platform of ‘bread, land, and peace'” to come to power in October 1917. However, the drawn-out process of restoring the food shortages back to normal wouldn’t be solved immediately, as this was a revolution that involved all aspects of social, economical, international and political life in Russia. To restore order, the Bolsheviks and Lenin would have to work endlessly, “Lenin’s fledgling regime began to rule in the midst of a disastrous war and a disintegrating economy, while struggling to consolidate and defend its hold on political authority. Overcoming such challenges would require the acceptance of a punitive peace with Germany, followed by swift mobilization for a brutal civil war.” DHR, Context)

I think it’s easy to forget that this revolution was a drawn-out process for all parties involved, a majority of 1917 was spent trying to find a good balance, “the year… was a complex story of ‘dual power’, the Provisional Government representing ‘Society,’ the soviet representing workers, peasants and soldiers.” (Freeze, 275) At the top of this post is a government advertisement from 1918 appeals to the peasants to aid the people of Northern Russia who are suffering under the worst drought in the Volga since 1873; the article asks them to help defend them against their enemies, both the German bourgeoisie and also the peasants/workers who are striking and hindering all transportation. The collective struggle across Russia really seemed to disable the country, something that eventually resulted in a crippling civil war between the Red and Whites. All of the events that happened in 1917 really just reinforce the fact that this tumultuous year was only the beginning of the struggles that Russia had to deal with in the early 20th century.


<a href=””>DHR, Context</a>

<a href=”″>Food Riots and Pogroms, 1917</a>

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 275. Print

Image, taken from <a href=””>Food Supply Images</a>

Original Source: Albert Rhys Williams: Through the Russian Revolution. New York: Boni and Liveright. 1921.


The Lena Goldfields and Russian Mining in the Early-20th Century

My previous post explored some of the questions that arose about the workers of the Bakaly mines in Western Russia. The picture that inspired these questions, Work at the Bakalskii Mine Pit, by Sergeii Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii gave me few answers. Dr. Nelson prompted me to learn more about the goldfields located on the Lena River in south-eastern Siberia. The Lena originates in the Baikal mountains and flows for almost 2800 miles before emptying into the Arctic Ocean, it is the 11th largest river in the world and, like the mines of Western Russia, rich with natural resources.

In the late-19th century, massive deposits of gold were found on the banks of the river, which led to a massive influx of workers and businessmen who wished to cash-in on the riches that lay in wait. As I mentioned in my previous post, I wondered why the peasants working the Bakalskii mine pit chose to stay in an industrial profession, were they forced to stay to fulfill some obligation to the owner of the mine? This isn’t so with the Lena goldfields. The people came running to become a part of the madness and become rich. However, there were industrialists and nobility who had the upper hand, establishing a company that allowed them to earn the money, essentially elbowing everyone else out of the way. Stingy as they were, the workers were subject to harsh working conditions, and it’d safe to assume that the conditions the miners worked in were similar in mines all across Russia.

Picture taken immediately after the Massacre

The Lena Gold Mining Joint Stock Company, also known as the Lenzoloto, took over operations of a majority of the goldfields, eventually making profits upwards of 7,000,000 rubles a year.¹ Company shareholders (which included British industrialists, Russian nobility and even our friend, Sergei Witte) lived comfortably, but the workers of the goldfields weren’t so fortunate: 16 hour work days, appallingly low pay (workers were often paid with food stamps, which could be exchanged for food that was often inedible) and a frighteningly high number of “traumatic” accidents–700 incidents reported for every 1,000 workers.¹ Much of the workers’ pay that wasn’t coupons was taken away to punish them for “poor work” and fines. Barely able to keep their families fed, the workers began to strike on February 29, 1912 (hundreds of workers walked off of the Andreyevsky field after being issued rancid meat at the company store, reportedly made from horse penises.)¹ Soon, thousands of workers joined them and the Lenzoloto had to scramble to appease them and get production moving again. Willing to put up a fight, the newly organized strike committee set these demands–a 30%wage increase, elimination of fines, the 8-hour day, and an improvement of food issued at the stores.¹ After almost a month on strike, the government was alerted to the crisis and sent troops in from Kirensk (about 400 miles away) to quell the discontent and hopefully avoid meeting the demands. On April 17th, the troops promptly arrested the strike committee, which led to 2,500 workers marching on the prosecutor’s office, demanding their release. Instead of a peaceful resolution, the troops fired on the workers, wounding 250 and killing 270 people.² Little did the government know, this would set off a string of strikes across the country. It seems that the workers at the Lena goldfields weren’t the only people being oppressed by harsh working conditions and horrendous pay, and the strike and subsequent massacre at the Lena goldfields saw the return of militancy among workers in Russian industry: “the revitalized unrest continued to intensify right up to the outbreak of war in 1914…”³

Mining was an extremely important part of 20th century Russia. As I mentioned above, gold mining was a huge source of income for the economy, so a strike (on any level) was devastating. The final outcome of the Lena goldfield strike resulted in all the families abandoning the area by the end of August 1912; this abandonment was a huge blow to the Lenzoloto. Despite all the work put into the reforms in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Russian government still hadn’t fully given the peasants/workers all the credit they were due. Greed seemed to run rampant during these years before the 1917 Revolution and it was the workers (by and far the most important part of industrial production) who suffered. It seems evident by the rising number of strikes among workers that there was some sort of disconnect in the government. Treating the workers well would have ultimately saved industry, but I think it’s difficult for people who worked for the government to understand what really needed to happen. Instead, they lived in a fantasy-world where they believed that simply freeing the serfs and calming unrest would save Russia. If anything, it made working conditions worse even quicker. The workers and peasants were treated like an invisible workforce that shouldn’t be allowed basic human rights, a fact that made them retaliate even more fiercely. The massacre that occurred at the Lena goldfields was bound to happen under the conditions, but I very much doubt the government thought that it would be the spark that lit the flame that would change Russia’s history forever.

*Fun Fact: Vladimir Lenin (born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) is said to have adopted his new name from the River Lena and he published What Is To Be Done? under this pseudonym. However, this isn’t confirmed, but perhaps his exile in Siberia from 1895-1900 inspired his new name, one that would be remembered for many, many years afterwards.


¹ “1912: The Lena massacre.” N.p., 15 Sep 2007. Web. 8 Sep 2013. <>.

² Aksenov, Iu. S. “Lena Massacre.” The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. 1979. < massacre>.

³ Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 263. Print

The Bakalskii Mine Pit


The Ural Mountains are located in western Russia and are known for having large resources of iron, minerals and even semi-precious gemstones. This mountain range has been mined since the 1500s, and this image by Sergei Michailovich Prokudin-Gorskii depicts a small, family-run mine in the Bakaly hills outside of Yekaterinburg. It was one of the first major cities to be industrialized, with Tsar Peter the Great taking full advantage of the proximity of the iron deposits and ores in the hills outside the city. He took note that these natural resources would be a critical component of, “the rapid industrial development necessary to bolster Russia’s military power.”* The location of the city was crucial to international affairs, as it served as a major cultural/industrial center between Russia and Europe, as well as the capital and administrative center of Sverdlovsk Oblast (essentially a Russian state).

Now, onto the picture. I find it so fascinating, mostly because mining labor isn’t the first job that comes to mind when one mentions Russian serfdom. The Freeze text mentions an innumerable amount of reforms that concern the emancipation of the serfs, but many of them deal with agriculture as opposed to industry. Granted, these reforms weren’t concerned with the industrial revolution, they focused on emancipating the serfs from their obligations on farms as well as the revolts that arose from the changes. That leads me to wonder what, if any, reforms were directed toward the mining of the Ural Mountains. This may be a line of inquiry that I can explore in future blog posts!

Freeze notes that Russian industry was painfully slow to develop; machinery had to be imported, as well as a large portion of its iron and steel to facilitate industrialization, but industrialization could not be spread without a railroad to transport these goods. Laboring workers, serfs or otherwise, were equally hard to come by.† Granted, this was occurring in the late 19th century, a good 25 years before the Prokudin-Gorskii picture was taken. While reading the text, it seems that Russian people can be divided into quite a few classifications. I know very little from looking at this picture, but from what I’ve deduced from Freeze’s descriptions, I would say these people fall between the workers, meschane (“rank and file ‘burghers'” [221])†, and peasants. The worker class being made up of citizens who had roots in the “metallurgical and textile plants of the eighteenth century.” [222]. The meschane was comprised of pretty much everyone who wasn’t nobility, clergy or professionals: “ranging from petty merchants and skilled artisans to the unemployed, unskilled and unwanted.” [222]†. Regarding the peasants, Freeze explains that the family unit began to change from the “gradual breakup of the patriarchal, extended family,” to the “formation of smaller, independent family units.” [221]†.

So where did families such as this one stand in Russian society? What kind of mine was this family operating? Were these people former serfs who were finishing up their obligations to land-owners? There is frustratingly little information on these peasant miners, but the Russian government was busy quieting the discontent on the agricultural front, pushing the industry to the side for the time-being. Unfortunately, this picture has really brought up more questions than answers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. The beauty of Prokudin-Gorskii’s images is that they can tell a story if you just take the time to do a little digging after the first glance; they implore the viewer to learn as much as possible about this tiny slice of Russian history and culture on the eve of an immensely important revolution.

This image is titled: Work at the Bakalskii Mine Pit
Created by: Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich, 1863-1944Permanent Record:

*United States. Consulate General of the United States, Yekaterinburg, Russia. Yekaterinburg & Sverdlovsk Oblast: History, Politics and Economics. Print. <>.

† Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 216, 221-222. Print.