Socialism Today                     The monthly journal of the Socialist Party

Issue 46

About Us

Back Issues



Contact Us



Issue 46, April 2000

Russian workers after Stalinism

Russian workers: the anatomy of patience
By Sarah Ashwin, Manchester University Press, 1999, £40hbk.
Reviewed by
Pete Dickenson

THIS BOOK is a record and analysis of Russian workers and their organisations based on visits by the author to a mining community in Western Siberia in the period 1994-98. It starkly reveals the horror and misery of everyday life in the new capitalist Russia and presents a fairly pessimistic perspective. It is well worth reading though because the reality of industrial life is graphically described.

The first chapter reviews the history of trade unions in the Soviet Union and some theories of the nature of the Soviet state and the role of the unions in it. The point is made that the unions were part of the state apparatus and were not independent, although they did occasionally represent individual workers' interests to managers. The main job of the union leaders was to administer social welfare provision, including housing, child-care, and sick pay, and organising holidays and the distribution of food. At the enterprise level there was a paternalistic culture, where workers to an extent perceived themselves and the union as having common interests with the management. This was due to the social role of the unions, the operation of the plan, and the way bonus systems worked within it. The author refutes the idea that workplace paternalism was not laced with compulsion as well. Managers exercised a tyranny over individual workers by controlling favours, which could make an enormous difference to everyday life, and demanding bribes. The legacy of this feature of work organisation, which is called in the book alienated collectivism, is seen as having a crucial influence on the behaviour of workers in the transition to capitalism.


The Taldym mine on which the book is based is in the Kuzbass region of Siberia and had 2,600 workers at the time of writing. It dominates the small town in which it is situated and was one of the first to be privatised in 1991. It was unusual in that the shareholders were restricted to the workers at the pit, theoretically making it a form of workers' co-operative, and unlike most other enterprises the management have not acquired the shares subsequently. The Taldym miners were in the forefront of the 1989 strike in the Kuzbass and were militant and active, a reason why they have managed to hang on to the ownership of the shares. They have subsequently become bitterly disillusioned, however, with the operation of the shareholders' committee and have little effective say in the running of the organisation, calling what has happened 'ocherednoi obman', the usual deception.

The trade union at the pit is part of Rosugleprof, the national miners union that is the successor to the official Soviet body. The local union's role has not changed fundamentally since the collapse of the USSR, despite the claim of its president that it is now modelled on workers' organisations in the West. The main priority as seen by the union president is to present a united front with the management to the regional and national authorities, to try to ensure survival. Where independent action from below has taken place, for instance over the preservation of the existing shift system, the union leaders have, however, backed the workers. They also do try to secure improvements in conditions, but without attempting to mobilise their members (but still moaning about their passivity), resulting in a reliance on the goodwill of the boss.


Although the miners are generally cynical about the union, reflected in a 'them and us' attitude characteristic of the Stalinist era, they are tied to it as supplicants because it provides essential social services like sick pay. Another disincentive to breaking away is the lack of an alternative, since the so-called independent unions formed ten years ago have largely degenerated and virtually disappeared in many areas. Ashwin postulates that not until the role of the union fundamentally changes due to the ditching of a paternalist management approach, will the situation change. In the meantime, if rank and file action does break out it will by-pass the existing structures.

At the level of the individual employee in the mine there is a pecking order of privilege with ordinary workers in the worst position. This is a continuation of the situation in the Soviet era where having blat (influence and connections) was crucial and is manifested today in unequal access to social provisions and to wages (wages are an issue because they are paid six to nine months late and who gets paid first is a vital question). These factors are used by the management as a tactic to divide and rule where employees are forced to deal with the bosses on an individual rather than collective basis. So, despite the superficial appearance of a strong collectivist culture in the mine, the reality is an effective atomisation of the workers.

A question that is considered is how far is the case study of the mine, and its pessimistic tone, typical of other Russian enterprises? Ashwin cites research to show that the situation at Taldym is not untypical of other firms and industries despite the special features of the mine, particularly the 'closed' form of share ownership. This conclusion needs to be treated with caution however, since the fieldwork for these investigations was mostly done in the mid-1990s. There is evidence that due to the desperate economic position, firms have been abandoning paternalism in recent years and are using Western management methods. This adoption of 'traditional' and ruthless capitalist techniques will however mean that the working class will be forced to build independent and fighting unions so returning to their best traditions of struggle. There is some evidence that this is beginning to happen, although a major step forward will probably depend on an upturn in the economic situation.


Home | Issue 46 | About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page