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.

between_lena
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.

Citations

¹ “1912: The Lena massacre.” libcom.org. N.p., 15 Sep 2007. Web. 8 Sep 2013. <http://libcom.org/history/1912-lena-massacre>.

² Aksenov, Iu. S. “Lena Massacre.” The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. 1979. <http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Lena massacre>.

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

37 Responses

  1. This is a fantastic post, very well researched. How does the Lena strike compare to the labor unrest in St. Petersburg as discussed in another post? How does the organization of the miners fit into Lenin’s idea’s about labor organization and agitation?

  2. Thanks for giving us such a nuanced account of the Lena Goldfields massacre! Your analysis points us toward one of the key questions often raised about this incident, namely, was the uptick in popular unrest after the massacre indicative of a society on the brink of another revolutionary upheaval (like 1905)? And did the outbreak of World War I just postpone the inevitable?

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