During World War II, the industrial city of Chelyabinsk in the southern Urals was dubbed "Tankograd" (Tank City), as its huge tractor factory was switched to producing the tanks crucial to Soviet victory. Today Chelyabinsk and its people are facing another struggle as large parts of the city's industry are threatened with closure. VLADIMIR RESNITS, a worker and member of the Chelyabinsk "social-political union" Rabochy, describes to POUL FUNDER LARSEN the situation in Chelyabinsk and the possibilities of building an opposition among workers.
How did you come to be active in the Rabochy group?
For more than 20 years I worked as a lathe operator. Then about two years ago I became a full-time activist. For a long time I didn't get any money for this, so I started distributing workers' newspapers to earn some money. Now they've started paying me. I'm a member of the leadership of the Rabochy group, which is not a large organisation.
Chelyabinsk is dominated by military production. What's the state of the enterprises in this sector?
In this region 94% of the enterprises used to be linked to military production, though some of them were only doing things like making spoons for the army. Now that military production is being reduced, and in some cases even totally halted, many workers, including skilled ones, are finding themselves out of a job.
Unfortunately, there are no signs that new jobs are being created for these people, and the prospects for converting military enterprises to civilian production don't look good. So large groups of people are simply being sacked. The cooperatives which have been organised aren't able to employ such a mass of people. I worked at the tractor factory in 1988, and at that time there were 68,000 people there. Today only around 47,000 are left, and recently at a conference the general director announced that by the end of this year another 20,000 jobs would go.
People have lost even the modest savings they used to have. Most of them
can't buy much now apart from food, so privatisation is only for those who managed to accumulate something in the old days or who've made a fortune recently. The millions are in the pockets of a few people and among our party mafia.
Has the shift of power from Gorbachev to Yeltsin had any repercussions in Chelyabinsk? Have there been any changes in the power structures that control the city and the province?
The administrative chief of Chelyabinsk province is Solovyev, the former secretary of the City Committee of the Communist Party. The head of the provincial executive committee is Sulin, who was in the same structures, and around these people you can find many other former Communists. They haven't even shed their skins like snakes — they remain the same.
Behind these people there are evidently others, because Solovyev, for example, was supported for his post only by a small group of deputies. They wrote a letter to Yeltsin, who endorsed Solovyev's appointment. Someone had pushed his candidacy, or perhaps Yeltsin knew him personally, since Yeltsin himself was secretary of the regional party committee in neighbouring Sverdlovsk province. This is how it works — the old ties remain.
During the "democratic phase" of perestroika there was an active Popular Front in Chelyabinsk. What's happened to this organisation and to its activists?
The Popular Front included all the new organisations that were formed here, with a few exceptions. I think instructions from above may have played a role here, because most of the members of the Popular Front, and of its leadership, were also members of the party. However, there were also workers in the leadership.
On the basis of the Popular Front, various societies were set up — for example, a temperance society. The Popular Front also provided the basis for the local branches of various new parties — the Social Democrats, the Democratic Party and so on. Eventually the Popular Front disintegrated into a series of parties, and the people who had founded it became the leading figures in various new structures. So instead of the front you now have 10 or 12 parties, which are still more or less controlled from above.
Are there any serious political forces operating in the factories?
So far the main attitude has been silent indignation — there haven't been any big demonstrations. In some places there have been strikes, but only on the level of the shop or department, not of the factory. Now the Communists have begun to revive; there are already several parties. When they call demonstrations, more and more people attend. But they don't have much support among workers in the production sphere — usually it's engineers, supervisors, office workers and pensioners.
Could you comment on the line pursued by the official trade unions in this region? Do you think they can somehow be reformed?
Maybe they can be reformed at the lowest level, in certain shops or enterprises. But the structures higher up can't be reformed. Since price controls were lifted, the trade unions have manoeuvred at the top level, making noises, but I haven't seen them protect their members in practice.
The so-called free trade unions have been trying to establish themselves, but they're weak. I get the impression that the trade unions which arose outside the official structures have practically ceased to exist over the last two years, because they haven't been able to do anything.
How was the Rabochy group formed in Chelyabinsk?
In 1989 the Popular Front here organised a workers' group, which was basically a discussion club. I participated in this from the very beginning, when there were around 60 people and there was a certain level of activity. But when people saw it was all discussions that didn't lead anywhere, they started to leave. Eventually we left the Popular Front, and after some time there was a split. The former leaders set up a Union of Workers on a program taken from the democrats, while around me I grouped some people who didn't reject the idea of socialism.
Then the United Front of Workers was set up here as an initiative from above. We went to their Russian congress in Sverdlovsk, but 80% of the people there were trade union functionaries. We had a look at their organisation, but didn't join. At about that time we got in touch with the Sverdlovsk Workers Club and started discussions with them. In the summer of 1989 came the
miners' strike, and then in December a meeting of the Organising Committee for the Confederation of Labour, with representatives of the miners in Vorkuta and the Kuzbass taking part.
The congress of the Confederation of Labour took place in the spring of 1990. We attended once again, and saw the apparatus playing the same games. We didn't stay in the Confederation of Labour for long, though we were on its Council of Representatives.
We consulted with people from other cities in the Urals, and after two working sessions in the winter of 1990, decided to establish the Rabochy group. People from Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Perm and Magnitogorsk participated. At that time we numbered about 200 activists. Later, in the summer of 1991, some groups from the Volga region joined. Unfortunately, we've lost a lot of strength since then. In Chelyabinsk today there are few really active workers, perhaps two dozen or so. That's not much for a city of more than a million people.
People haven't yet learned to stand up for themselves. When I was working in the tractor factory in 1988, people were ready to go into action if the economic interests of the shop or the brigade were being affected, but today this scarcely happens.
Over the last period several projects have been launched to establish a Party of Labour. What's your attitude to this?
Boris Kagarlitsky has spoken of orienting toward skilled, highly qualified workers. But this is hardly more than one in 15 or 20 of today's working class. If the party orients only towards them, it won't get broad support. It might find a niche as a party of the labour aristocracy, in the western sense, but not as a party of broad layers of the working class.
What kind of organisation should workers aim at in the present conjuncture?
Today it would make more sense to form active trade unions, independent of the official structures. This is very difficult, but if we managed to set up such trade unions, which concretely defended people and their social rights, this would unite a broad range of people around basic demands. On the basis of
these trade unions it would then be possible to establish real political organisations. The workers would then have the chance to control their politicians from below.