By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — In the main street of Novosibirsk in western Siberia, the protest march was a kilometre in length. Thousands of members of the city's labour collectives were demanding the restoration of affordable prices for foodstuffs and other basic consumer goods.
In Ivanovo, near Moscow, demonstrators blocked the main street on January 24 in protest at the failure of the local authorities to provide sugar even to cover the December ration coupons. In Stavropol in the north Caucasus, pensioners and war veterans held unauthorised demonstrations, demanding price cuts and threatening to block railway stations and tear up roads if further shipments of meat and milk were sent to Moscow.
Meanwhile, medical staff were threatening strikes in almost 70 regions of the Russian Republic. Their demands included wage rises to protect their buying power against inflation, and proper funding for health services.
From numerous parts of the former Soviet Union, reports have come in during the past weeks of strikes, pickets and demonstrations protesting against the devastation of living standards. These actions have been in addition to the widely reported revolt on January 16 by students in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Demonstrations in the "student city" in Tashkent were violently suppressed by the local authorities at the cost of two students dead and at least 10 hospitalised.
Adding a note of desperation has been the widespread failure of enterprises and state bodies to pay wages, pensions and scholarships due to a chronic shortage of banknotes. In Russia alone at least 15 million people have suffered from delays in payment of at least a week and, in some cases, of more than a month.
Often, the protests have been quite spontaneous. In other cases, poorly organised labour unions and professional associations with no history of struggle have been forced by rank and file pressure to threaten strike action and often to lead stoppages.
The social and geographical spread of the protest actions has been remarkable. A major focus of struggle has been the coal mining and metallurgical centre of Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan. Following strikes in practically all of the pits in the region, the Karaganda miners won important concessions from the Kazakh government on January 18.
In Sverdlovsk province in the northern Urals region, teachers began a determined strike for wage rises on January 20. In Volgograd, air pilots held a 12-hour warning strike on January 27. Even staff at the space flight control centre near Moscow have been staging warning actions, demanding pay rises of as much as 600%.
The plight of workers in the former USSR has been underlined during the past few weeks by the appearance of a series of studies of ovements.
An estimate prepared for the business weekly Kommersant put the overall level of inflation in 1991 at 790%. On January 16 the liberal daily published a detailed study of the purchasing power of wages at various crucial points since 1913; this study concluded that by the end of 1991 real wages in Russia had fallen by almost 80% from the mean levels of 1990. Even before the price liberalisation of January 2, the study noted, average real purchasing power had collapsed to the levels of 1946, a year when most Russians were living in semi-starvation.
The weeks since the new year have brought further drastic declines. According to preliminary estimates by Kommersant, consumer prices more than quintupled during January. While the minimum wage and basic pension rate stood at 342 roubles, the Moscow City Committee on Statistics in mid-January put the cost of a minimum consumer basket at 1944 roubles.
According to the trade union newspaper Trud, average wages in Russia on January 1 were in the range of 350-400 roubles in the non-productive sphere, and 750-800 roubles in industry. There have been no automatic increases to compensate for the price explosion since then. Wage indexation legislation is not due to come into effect until April and, even then, will provide only partial protection.
As their hoarded food supplies run out, large numbers of Russians face not just malnutrition, but actual hunger. A study released in mid-January by the former State Committee on Statistics of the USSR showed that even before price liberalisation, consumption of bread products, potatoes and sugar in the former USSR was covering less than 60% of the normal calorie requirements of the population.
Significant numbers of Russian workers are now realising that if they are not to starve to death under the "savage capitalism" of Yeltsin and his advisers, they have no choice but to join together and fight.
The growth of working-class militancy faces major handicaps in the lack of existing traditions of struggle and in the profound ideological confusion of most Russians. So far, the public protests have generally been small, and only in a handful of cases have they been effectively coordinated on a city-wide level.
But hunger is a powerful spur, and the local cells of resistance are already numerous. As the promises of economic stabilisation and recovery prove worthless, the opposition to Yeltsin's policies will spread and become increasingly combative.