In the wave of social activism that has washed over the Soviet Union in recent years, the strike by some 400,000 coal miners in the summer of 1989 may be the most poorly understood of events.footnote Inter-ethnic conflict in the Caucasus, the movements toward independence in the Baltic, competing currents among the Russian intelligentsia and within the Communist Party, are all complex phenomena. Nonetheless, in each case, even as these developments continue to unfold new content, we have some idea of what the objectives are and of what is at stake. This has been much less the case with respect to the miners. Why they went on strike, or, perhaps more intriguingly, against whom or what they struck, was not clarified in the accounts of Soviet or Western reporters. Why the strike committees did not dissolve after the strike but in effect remain in existence to this day is still unclear; it is also a fact little known. And yet the miners’ strike may prove to be among the most significant influences on the course of perestroika, redefining both its direction and its limits. If, before the strike, perestroika was largely a state initiative that meant ‘openness for intellectuals and discipline for workers’, in the period since the strike, both the state and intellectuals have had to tread more warily for fear of exciting other workers to follow the example of the miners.footnote1 Indeed, how workers fit into the scheme of perestroika, and how perestroika is perceived by them, are questions that remain largely unclear. But the fact that such questions are now being raised in many different circles in Soviet society, and that Soviet workers can no longer be considered as merely the passive objects of reformist models concocted in research institutes, are among the consequences of the miners’ strike.

Our awareness of these problems was sharpened by a three-week visit to Donetsk in the immediate aftermath of the strike. There we observed the strike committees in session, held in-depth interviews with numerous strike activists, and met on several occasions rank-and-file miners and steel workers and other locals of Donetsk. In addition we studied the local press and a number of documents dealing with the strike and its aftermath. The following account, then, draws on these experiences as well as on our reading of the national and non-Soviet press, and on our backgrounds as students of Soviet politics and history. The depth and immediacy of our experience in Donetsk led us to focus our analysis there, drawing reinforcement and comparison from press accounts of the Kuzbass and other striking coalfields.

Over one million people are employed in the coal mining industry in the Soviet Union—considerably more than in any other country. Despite the growing importance in recent decades of nuclear power, natural gas, and other sources of energy, coal remains a major component in the Soviet fuel balance.footnote2 The Chernobyl disaster and the resulting backlash against nuclear power have only increased the importance of coal. The main coalfields in the ussr are the Donbass in the eastern Ukraine and the Kuzbass in western Siberia. These are supplemented by various smaller coalfields scattered throughout the Soviet Union. Of the 720 million tons of coal produced in the ussr in 1986, the Donbass accounted for 259 million tons or 36 per cent. The Kuzbass produced slightly over 160 million tons or 22 per cent. Of the two, the Donbass is considerably older, and its deposits, first discovered early in the eighteenth century, have been worked intensively for over a hundred years. Development of the Kuzbass mines began in the industrialization of the 1920s, but extensive operations date from World War II and the reconstruction period of the 1950s. Whereas deep underground mining is practised in the Donbass, open-cast production predominates in the Kuzbass. This difference is of some importance in the economics of mining in the two regions, with Kuzbass coal being produced much more cheaply than that of the Donetsk Basin.

The Soviet coal industry is administered by a vast bureaucratic network at the centre of which is the ussr Ministry of the Coal Industry, situated in Moscow. Below this ministry are large regional production associations (ob´edineniya) such as Donetskugol´, Kemerovougol´, and so forth.footnote3 The ministry had been, until the strike, the juridical owner of the mines, setting annual and quarterly production quotas, allocating investment funds and wage funds, and controlling the disposal of the mines’ production in conjunction with Gosplan and other central agencies, on the basis of their estimates of the demand for coal and the capacity of the various mines. Plans and resource allocations are disaggregated as they move down from Moscow through the territorial production associations to the mines in a complex negotiation process. Working conditions are also centrally determined by government committees, in conjunction with the Moscow-based Central Committee of the Union of Coal Miners.

There is one additional important fact: the output of the coal-mining industry has stagnated since the mid 1970s. In the course of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (1981–1985), the shortfall in coal production amounted to 145 million tons. Table 1 shows the decline in the rate of growth of coal mining.

Among the many causes of this situation, two stand out. The first is geological. The century of intensive coal production in the Donbass has meant that miners have had to go ever deeper into the earth. The average depth of underground mines in the ussr is 410 metres, but in the Donbass 79 of the 156 mines are more than 700 metres below the surface, and 15 are more than a kilometre deep.footnote4 The deeper the mine, the higher the temperature and the greater the complexity and expense of pumping out water, ventilation (particularly to prevent accumulations of explosive methane gas), putting miners down to the coalface, and raising the coal. The second problem is linked. Investment in modern equipment and in mine development has lagged badly in recent years, as oil, gas and nuclear power have been given greater priority. As one miner told the Twenty-seventh cpsu Congress in February 1986: ‘My fellow cutters and I are using the same jack hammers as fifty years ago. This state of affairs has to be corrected immediately.’footnote5

The July strike could not have been a surprise to the Soviet authorities, central or local. It had been preceded in March by two brief strikes at the Lidievka and Kirov mines in Donetsk. At the plenum of the Donetsk City Party Committee (gorkom) on 24 June 1989 the miners’ extreme discontent was expressed in a demand that the Minister of the Coal Industry, Shchadov, should resign. Telegrams to this effect were sent to the Supreme Soviet in an attempt to prevent his confirmation as minister in the new Soviet government formed after the Spring 1989 elections. Gorbachev himself, while visiting Donetsk in June, had been informed of the ferment and its background.footnote6 The problem, then, was not a lack of warning but rather a lack of attention from the authorities. In the Kuzbass, workers at the Shevyakovo mine had formulated demands without any interruption of production, and had sent them to the Central Committee of the Soviet trade-union organization on 28 December 1988. That body forwarded the demands to the regional trade-union executive, which passed them down to the industrial association to which the mine belongs, from whence they were returned, without comment or recommendation, to the mine director.footnote7 Judging from the subsequent recriminations and breast-beating by all the Party and trade-union authorities after the strike, this would appear to have been the general pattern throughout the country. Each level of administration passed complaints, demands, or recommendations on to a higher or lower level, without any action ever having been taken, thus allowing each party to blame others for inaction.