The power of the common man is still alive!
The eXile, 5 Jul 1998
LET THEM EAT COAL Vorkuta’s Miners Enjoy the Fruits of Reform
By Matt Taibbi
After 33 long years working in the Severny coal mine in his native Vorkuta,
Grigory Mikhailovsky decided one day in 1996 he’d had enough. He’d spent
the last ten years of his career working in a part of the mine so cramped
that he had to do most of his work on his knees, leaving him unable to walk
without a cane, but the mine administration had lately seemed less than
appreciative of his efforts. Not only had he not been paid his salary for
months, he was beginning to suspect that he was being lied to about the reason
for the delay. So he took matters into his own hands.
The Severny administration had told its employees that the reason no one
was being paid was that its chief customers, among them the Novolipetsk and
Cherepovetsky metallurgical factories, were delinquent in paying for recent
coal shipments. The managers said they had no money at all. Mikhailovsky
didn’t believe them. Among other things, the administration offices had been
furnished with new computers in recent months, and a new slate billiard table
had mysteriously appeared in management’s swank rec/sauna room. You could
pay a lot of miners with the cost of one fancy pool table.
So when Severny sent its next shipment to Cherepovets, Mikhailovsky hopped
on the train with the coal, armed with a video camera. At the factory, he
filmed the coal being unloaded, then filmed the Cherepovets accountants making
out a platyezhka proving payment for the load. Smoking gun secured, he hurried
back to Severny, showed the tape to the other workers, then took it to the
director’s office and publicly demanded an accounting of the mine’s bank
Mikhailovsky never got paid, nor did he get his accounting. Instead, he was
fired by the mine two days later. A year after that, in August, 1997, an
independent medical commission from Moscow sent for by VorkutaUgol, the
conglomerate which owned Severny, reviewed Mikhailovsky’s invalid status,
which had allowed him to collect 30% of his salary every month in “regres”,
or injury compensation. After being examined, Mikhailovsky joined 600 other
VorkutaUgol miners who had their invalid status revoked by the visiting
commission. He was left with nothing.
The panel of hired guns from the Moscow Institute of Work-Related Injuries
concluded that his mangled knees had been caused not by work stress, but
by old age. Mikhailovsky had it pretty good, relatively. Overnight, the
conclusions of the medical commission had rendered Vorkuta the most dangerous
city in the world to grow old. Among those 600 whose injuries had been judged
to have been caused by simple aging were ex-miners missing legs and arms.
And even the amputees who didn’t lose their benefits were told they would
henceforth have to be reviewed by the commission once a year-as though their
missing body parts might grow back in the meantime.
By late June, 1998, a month after the so-called “railway war”, Mikhailovsky’s
lone occupation was now volunteer work at “Vzaimopomosh”, the Vorkuta Invalid
Society. The society was not funded by the state, and did not collect dues
from invalids. It subsisted entirely on sporadic contributions from working
Left in charge of the office when the Society’s director, Vladimir Potyishniy,
went to Moscow to join in the White House protest, Mikhailovsky was surprised
one morning to receive a bill for the phone and a notice from city hall.
The note said that the city had revoked the Society’s rent-free status, and
that the state would no longer be picking up the phone bill. In fact, the
bill for the society’s May telephone calls charged the Society at private
consumer rates-or twice the rates for commercial organizations.
“I understand that they want the building, but still,” he said, throwing
his hands up in the air. “These people go beyond just being greedy. They’re
mean just for the hell of it.”
On Tuesday, June 24, I changed into a blue canvas spetsovka (a set of miner’s
work clothes) in the management dressing room at that same Severny mine where
Mikhailovsky had worked. The notorious billiard table was still there, and
had been joined by a wide-screen TV and a jumbo chess table with mahogany
pieces the size of wine bottles. While I was struggling to put on my partinki-the
rags miners wrap around their feet instead of socks-a maid named Irina came
into the room with a big smile on her face. “Here’s your helmet,” she said.
“See how it’s white? White is what the bosses wear. The regular miners wear
orange. When you wear this down there,” she said, giggling, “everyone will
fear you!” Great, I thought. Thanks a lot.
Like a lot of journalists who’d visited lately, I’d come up to Vorkuta to
do “the miner story.” In light of the recent railway protests, what “doing
the miner story” mostly meant was attempting on the one hand to ascertain
how close the unpaid miners are to more drastic protests or even revolt,
while on the other hand trying to uncover what the causes of the crisis were.
In particular, that meant finding out where, if not to worker salaries, the
proceeds if the sales of coal were going. The more general reason for coming
to a shithole like Vorkuta-a place so grim that on the day I arrived, the
longest day of the year, it was snowing-was the sense that “the story” in
Russia was no longer in Moscow.
If during the previous years of the Yeltsin regime a journalist could give
a good account of himself by staying in Moscow and documenting the distance
between the government’s “Democratic” image and the uglier reality, or by
dissecting the efficacy of the Western aid effort, or deconstructing “reform”,
the country by now had flown so out of control that these mostly intellectual
assignments were no longer relevant. With the government faced with an
irresolvable non-payment crisis and the threat of a crippling currency
devaluation, with even the IMF unable to feign enthusiasm about Russia’s
future, Moscow was, journalistically speaking, already nowhereland.
Instead, covering the next and probably last phase of the Yeltsin regime
would be mainly a matter of recording the physical process of this society’s
deterioration. The places that were hurting the worst would probably be the
first places where the seams would come apart. And by all accounts, coal-mining
cities like Vorkuta were really in crisis. By the time I’d reached the Severny
locker rooms, I’d already come to the conclusion that some kind of breaking
point was being approached by the local non-payment problem and the accompanying
deterioration of morale at the mines. Exacerbating everything was the surge
in industrial accidents, which had caused the atmosphere around the mines
to resemble a guerilla war zone.
Earlier that morning, on the way to Severny, I’d had to listen as Independent
Miner Union deputy head Yevgeny Shumeiko calculated the number of fatal
industrial accidents that had taken place in Vorkuta-area mines that year.
“Ras, dva, tri…” he counted, going through one hand full of fingers, then
the other. Then he repeated the process, then repeated it again, and finally
turned around to say that in mines like the one I was about to go down in
and in five others, there had already been 35 deaths since January of this
year. There had been two that week, including a gruesome death that very
morning at Aich-Yaga, the smaller mine whose entrance was just a few meters
from Severny’s. That miner had been caught in a combine and ground to bits.
“People are losing fingers and hands on almost every shift,” said Shumeiko,
who’d just retired to union work after 13 years as a Severny miner. “The
guys are terrified.”
Without knowing a thing about where the proceeds from coal sales are going,
it’s clear that the miners aren’t getting much of it to go down into the
thresher every day. As far as cash goes, miners at Severny, for instance,
have at most been periodically receiving what they call “advances”-actually
small installments of their back wages-at random increments throughout the
year. Severny miner Nikolai Polyakov, for instance, says he’s been paid a
total of 700 rubles in the past three months as an “advance” against his
delayed October salary. Others report different figures. But both Shumeiko’s
union and the press office of VorkutaUgol confirm that advance or no advance,
no one at Severny has received so much as a kopek for November yet, meaning
that the constant reports of miners not having been paid for over six months
is fact, not journalistic cliche.
With cash more or less out of the picture, the daily routine at Severny is
virtually indistinguishable from prison labor. There was a place near the
mine entrance I’d already seen on the way which drove the gulag flavor home
with especial force-the “tormozhki” window. The “tormozhok” is a food ration
the mine administration hands out every day and which the miners eat on their
breaks (hence the term, derived from the word “tormozhat” or “to stop”).
The tormozhok is a little bundle wrapped in brown paper containing a small
chunk of kolbasa, a half an onion, a piece of cucumber and a hard-boiled
The meat and eggs stink; they’re usually spoiled. Severny gets its food for
free (well, for coal, anyway) in a barter deal with the Cherepovets factory;
it’s low-quality stuff. The mine administration gives out this rancid food
on credit, and the miners, lacking the cash to buy anything else, take as
much of it as they can. The only problem is, each tormozhok ends up costing
them six rubles a pop-the cafeteria keeps a record of how many each miner
takes each month, and the administration then strikes the amount from their
salaries, thereby making the miners involuntary consumers of their own coal.
When I got to Severny that morning, miners were lining up at the cafeteria
window and stuffing five to ten tormozhki apiece into their bags before heading
to the locker room. That’s how these guys feed their families, with tormozhki
taken on credit. “We’re just barely staying alive,” Polykov told me. “My
son came to me the other day and asked for money to buy a banana he’d seen
for sale on the street. I had to tell him no and hand him another tormozhok.
He’s been eating two a day for about a year.”
The survival scenario for the average Severny miner therefore ends up sounding
like a sob story clipped from old Soviet anti-capitalist propaganda. The
average miner makes about 2300 rubles a month, but he usually won’t see more
than a half of that sum, even if the mine makes the unlikely decision to
pay him. At Severny , 220 rubles come out of each miner’s salary automatically
to pay for his monthly bus pass: miners pay for their own transportation
even though the mines own most of the buses. If a miner has a small family,
and only takes 5 tormozhki home after each of his 22 shifts in a month, then
he’s out another 660 rubles right there. Now he’s down 880 rubles out of
his 2300. His 12% income tax also comes out of his 2300 rubles automatically,
leaving him now with 1144. If he takes more tormozhki, he gets even deeper
in the hole. Some guys I talked to said they felt lucky if they didn’t actually
owe the mine money at the end of the month. In exchange for the privilege
of living like this, these guys got to work in a coal mine. And what a coal
Russian coal miners don’t use canaries to detect trouble. Canaries can’t
live in Vorkuta. Rats can. Rats are the miners’ best friends. In old Welsh
coal mines, miners brought canaries in cages down into the mines with them.
As long as the canaries stayed alive, the air in the mine was considered
free of gases and safe. If they died, the miners headed for the surface as
quickly as possible.
The main threat gas poses to miners isn’t asphyxiation. It’s explosion. Miners
at Severny’s neighboring mine, Tsentralnaya, could have used a canary earlier
this year when a drill combine hit a methane deposit, blowing a whole section
of the mine to hell and killing 23.
Shumeiko had spent the better part of the first forty minutes down in the
mine explaining the methane threat to me. When, after a short mini-railroad
ride and a long walk through a series of howling dark tunnels, we finally
reached our target destination– a spot called the 12th uchastok about 840
meters underground– he sat me down on a plank and explained the methods
miners used for detecting methane. The 12th uchastok was a relatively large
tunnel, about the width of a Volga automobile, and the gas and water pipes
that ran long its edges were hissing loudly as we spoke.
Shumeiko explained that methane makes a noise that miners can sometimes hear,
like running water; an experienced miner could put his ear to the tunnel
wall and hear it coming. And if instead of glittering, coal “cries”, or grows
wet, that’s another sign of methane. There are also electronic methane detectors;
we’d passed one about forty meters before which pronounced the area clear.
But the key indicator, he said, are the rats.
“Rats are everywhere down here,” he said. “They follow the people around
..They sense danger better than we do. That’s why we say: if you don’t see
a rat, you’re in trouble.”
I looked around. “Zhenya,” I said. “There are no rats down here.”
“Yeah, well,” he said. “That happens, too. Actually, we’ve had a bit a of
a problem with the rats lately.”
“Well,” he said, laughing, “the rats basically live off of our scraps. There’s
no other food down here, obviously. That’s why they hang out where the miners
are. But lately, you know, the miners can’t spare that much food for the
rats. Most of these guys are living off of two tormozhki a day, and they’re
not about to give any of that to a rat. We used to feed them out of our hands.
“So,” he concluded, “we have fewer rats now.”
By the time Zhenya finished his rat story, I was more than a little nervous.
I’d been trying not to be a wimp about spending the day in the mine, but
these guys were making it hard for me. Everywhere I went I was running into
the kind of apathy and inattention you don’t like to see on any manual-labor
job, much less one in a place as dangerous as this one. The beams supporting
the tunnel walls were rotting and haphazardly placed, and the ceiling was
hideously cracked, with rusted chains and gravestone-sized slabs of rock
jutting out from under the support slats. Zhenya had warned me that falling
boulders was one of the biggest sources of injury, and it was clear that
ill repair was the main culprit on that score.
Another thing were the bolts. The iron beams holding the walls together were
bolted to horizontal runners, and as Zhenya and I had walked down to where
we were, I couldn’t help noticing these piston-sized bolts littering the
floor. Zhenya explained to me that this was another feature of gas buildup:
when the pressure mounted too high against the tunnel walls, the older and
rustier of the bolts shot off the walls like bullets. He said he’d known
a couple of miners who’d gotten concussions when these things bounced off
But the absolutely scariest thing about the mine was the apathy. Go to any
construction job involving big machines anywhere and you normally hear guys
shouting nonstop-move to the left, you’re all right there, etc. Here in the
mine you heard nothing. These guys didn’t give a fuck. An example: at one
junction, Zhenya and I reached an intersection with a railroad-track-lined
tunnel that headed down at a steep incline. We wanted to go down, but when
we got there, we heard two bells ring. In miner terminology, he explained,
that meant a conveyor wagon was on the way up the tunnel.
“We’d better wait,” he said. “We don’t want to get caught in that tunnel
with a car coming.”
But three, four, then five minutes passed. Zhenya turned to an
indifferent-looking miner who was standing on a little platform full of levers,
a kind of wagon station-master.
“Hey,” Shumeiko shouted. “Is a conveyor coming up, or what?”
“Fuck if I know,” the other said, shrugging.
Shumeiko paused. “Let’s go, Matt,” he said, and headed down.
I followed behind. “But what about the conveyor?” I asked.
“Matt,” he laughed, “you and I are now officially breaking the safety rules.
The thing is, if we followed all the rules to the letter, we’d never get
even a kilo of coal out of this place.”
So we went down. I saw a lot of scary stuff on the way. We stopped at one
point to look at the “combine”, the giant digging machine used to carve out
some of the tunnels. This is a huge crawling snake of a machine some 220
meters long, bordered on both sides with thick circular saw-blades the size
of tractor wheels. Once turned on, the blades cut into the coal and send
it shooting back onto a metal belt, which conveys it back into the main tunnel
and onto a network of lighter-weight conveyor belts that lead it down and
out to the main pit some 10 kilometers away. The tunnel where the combine
lay was only about four feet tall, and when we reached it, Zhenya insisted
that we go down it to take a look at the combine blades. Before we did so,
he shouted around the corner at some miners standing next to the controls.
“Hey, don’t turn the combine on for about ten minutes, okay?” We heard a
lazy response in the affirmative and then headed down.
The walls of the tunnel were pure coal, cut sheer and glowing like a precious
metal. We crawled down about fifty meters to the where the combine lay, then
peered around the blades to look at its length. A similar combine had been
in the blast area during the methane explosion at Tsentralnoye and had been
tossed a full 100 meters forward by the impact. From where I sat, it was
hard to imagine anything propelling something that heavy that far in an enclosed
space. As we crouched over to stare at the thing, a smallish miner noiselessly
approached us and scrambled past to fix something far up the combine: he
had to crawl about 90 meters up in the tiny space between the blades and
the rock face. It was a claustrophobe’s nightmare. As he did so, Zhenya explained
that that morning’s fatal accident at Aich-Yaga had happened just like that-a
worker had gone up to fix the combine, and someone had forgotten he was there
and turned the machine on. By the time they found him, his body was totally
unrecognizable. We got out of there, then returned about a half-hour later
to watch the machine in action. The combine had been turned on and was now
crawling back in the direction of the main tunnel, shooting huge chunks of
coal out the hole as it did so. Some of the rocks that shot out were as big
as medicine balls, and bounced violently off the conveyor belt machinery,
shattering and flying in all directions like shrapnel. And as all this was
going on, miners were standing around the hole, refitting the support beams
of the main tunnel.
The combine, when it moved back toward the tunnel, exerted force against
the main tunnel walls, so much so that as I stood at the hole entrance with
my hand against the wall, I could feel bits of coal sloughing off behind
the beams. When the blades finally emerged from the hole, the walls were
literally disintegrating before our eyes. Zhenya, just a few weeks out of
this job, shook his head nervously.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said. “I don’t need this anymore.”
The trip out was a long, cold walk along mostly empty tunnels. Occasionally
we’d pass a piece of machinery that would be half-submerged in water or covered
in “anti-explosive” powder, a lime-like white substance that supposedly reduces
the volatility of gas-filled air. After almost an hour on foot, we finally
reached an abandoned corridor with an entrance to a tunnel leading sharply
up. Of all things, there was a ski-lift in there. Poles spaced out about
ten meters and ending in metal chairs the size of tenspeed bicycle seats
hung from a giant pulley. I hopped on and hung on as we were hauled up toward
the kleika elevator. It was so much like a decrepit old fun-house amusement
park ride that I had to laugh. Welcome to VorkutaUgolWorld. Take a seat on
Mr. Toad’s Unpaid Ride. Step up to the sign and measure; you must be at least
this screwed from birth to ride.
II. Where’s The Money?
“Tell Yeltsin,” said Lesha Akulov, “that he’s a pederast.”
Akulov, 19, is a worker at the coal-processing factory at the Zapolariya
mine who lives in what has to be one of the shittiest towns in the whole
world-a little village called Mulda. Once populated mainly by railroad workers,
Mulda has emptied out in recent years and now has a year-round population
of about 400. One of a rapidly-growing number of semi-ghost towns in the
Vorkuta area, Mulda is filled with abandoned houses with shattered windows,
doors hanging on hinges, etc. Most of the people in the town live in one-story
huts, glorified gulag barracks, with no running water and only coal-oven
heat. In winter, which in Vorkuta is a serious thing, with temperatures dropping
below -40, people like Lesha have to get their water from a well, carrying
it in buckets back to their homes.
Just before I met Lesha I’d been in the house of one of his neighbors, a
heavyset Ukrainian woman named Irina Spetsina who worked at the village school.
By way of apologizing for the smell in her hut, Irina gave me one of the
great all-time quotes. She’d opened the door to her bathroom, which in essence
was an indoor outhouse adjacent to the kitchen-a crude hole without even
a toilet seat. A pile of used toilet paper literally two feet high stood
in a basin next to the stinkhole.
“I know, it stinks,” she said. “In the summer it’s worst. There is no permafrost
in a toilet.”
Outside Irina’s house, a bunch of guys were gathered around a garage. The
scale of devastation in Mulda was such that it might convincingly have been
used as a set for a post-nuclear sci-fi flick. In this case, it was a Mad
Max movie. Akulov and his friends, all dirt-covered and in raggedy clothes,
were tinkering with a home-made amphibious all-terrain vehicle made from
found parts. It was the only thing to do around there. There were a few others
besides Akulov there who worked in coal factories, and they hadn’t been paid
since the previous fall. Akulov, who that very day had gotten an “advance”
of 300 rubles, was the rich one. To celebrate, he took me on a helmetless
ride on his “Izh” motorcycle. I’d been pestering him with questions about
where he thought the money was that wasn’t being paid to people like him,
and he shut me up by finding a straight road and accelerating to 120 kmph.
As we approached a sand-covered turn, I screamed for him to slow down. He
didn’t. Finally we slowed down to a less fatal speed and talked as we toured
the dead town, passing, among other things, a boarded-up “Disco-Club” that
would almost certainly have been a finalist in a competition for the world’s
lowest “fakhie factor.”
“The company has the money, of course,” he said. “Everybody knows that. They’re
His friend Sasha Kurakin agreed. “It’s all the management. They’re a bunch
I had a pretty good idea of that already. Before coming to Mulda, I’d met
with Vyacheslav Davidov, the press secretary for VorkutaUgol, and he was
indeed a lying little scumbag if there ever was one. I’d traveled to Vorkuta
with two other journalists, and this Davidov, a rat-faced company man with
red cheeks and a bristly moustache, had met us at the plane. From the airport
we repaired to the headquarters of VorkutaUgol, a stark slate-black building
in the center of town which had the feel, given the company’s omnipresence
in the lives of everyone in the city, of a sort of post-Soviet Dracula’s
castle. Significantly, the offices of the city’s three major unions are also
behind the drawbridge and high up in the building– a situation which in
any normal country would be an embarrassment to organized labor, but in Vorkuta,
apparently, is just business as usual.
In any case, when we’d finished interviewing him, we told Davidov we wanted
to leave the castle and go visit some of the dying miner villages. Flipping
out, he immediately grabbed his coat and headed after us.
“Don’t trouble yourself,” one of the reporters said. “We’ll go by ourselves.”
Davidov balked and crowded into the elevator with us. We tried again to separate
ourselves from him and he refused, playing the concerned host, telling us
that the roads were bad, that we’d get lost, etc. Out on the street, he quickly
waddled over to a parked car and started negotiating our taxi fare. In the
meantime, my colleagues and I discussed how best to get rid of him.
“Okay, I’ve got a car for us,” he said, smiling. “The only thing is, it’s
going to cost twenty-five dollars. Is that okay?”
“Listen, Vyacheslav,” I said. “We’ve changed our minds. We’re too tired to
go out tonight. You know, the flight and all. So we’re just going back to
He bit his lip. “Okay,” he said. “But when you want to go, just let me know.”
We said fine and took off, letting him go back to this office. Ten minutes
later we got our own cab out to Mulda for ten bucks.
Davidov, in his interview with us, had insisted that the administration of
VorkutaUgol had gone as long without receiving their salaries as the coal
miners. “The only people who get their salaries on time are the maids,” he
said. Then, smiling and folding his hands together as though in prayer, he
added, “I swear.”
Some time later he added, with a straight face, “All the money we get, we
put toward paying people.”
Given the fact that salaries are backlogged between 8-10 months in the
VorkutaUgol mines, Davidov’s statement would have to mean that the company
hasn’t received any money at all for the coal it has been producing and shipping
out throughout that time. Davidov claims that the consumers of VorkutaUgol’s
coal, in particular the Novolipetsk and Cherepovetsky factories, are delinquent
in their payments, and that the State Tax Inspectorate takes a huge chunk
of the little money that is paid-leaving, one has to assume, just exactly
enough money to pay for the maids.
Davidov gave us a makeshift balance sheet indicating VorkutaUgol’s profits
and losses for 1997. It showed a gross of 4.6 billion new rubles, expenses
of 4.51 new rubles, and an after-tax loss of 521 million rubles. According
to the sheet, the overhead of the company, which included salaries, was a
full 4.2 billion rubles.
The sheet, obviously, was meaningless, because there was no indication on
the side of either expenses or income of which money actually came in or
which money was actually paid out. To even hand us a sheet like this in the
middle of a non-payment crisis was absurd; Davidov might as well have handed
us a Swedish frequent flyer brochure. As for the real flow of money, Davidov
didn’t have any consistent answers-and within a few days of my arrival, it
was clear that neither the company nor the unions had ever bothered to look
That VorkutaUgol has a lot more money than it professes is something virtually
everybody in the city outside of Davidov’s offices agrees upon. Only
occasionally, though, does anyone ever go on the record saying so. In one
well-publicized case earlier this year, the local newspaper Zapolariye published
a story based on testimonials from miners which alleged that the accountants
at several local mines were offering to pay miners their back wages if they
would kick back 10% of the sum to the accountants themselves. After the story
came out, the administration of VorkutaUgol called the editors of the paper,
whose majority shareholder is the city, in and “proved to us how such a thing
could not possibly have happened,” as the Zapolariye editor put it.
The paper printed an apology to the company, but the reporters there still
insist it’s true. Deputy editor Roman Kursurov said that printing those kinds
of stories had simply caused too much trouble for the paper for it to be
worth it to them. “Clearly, though, you’ve got to look for the missing money
in the conglomerate, and in the middleman companies who sell the coal,” he
The miner Polyakov, when asked about the Zapolariye story, agreed that it
was common knowledge that the administration was always in possession of
more money than it claimed. “Those kinds of kickbacks do happen, sure,” he
said. “But they’ve got more than just the salary money back there. They’re
building banks, buying stores-before long, they [i.e. VorutaUgol] and the
middlemen are going to own the whole town.”
As an example, several miners, who asked not to be named, said that the local
Polus-Bank, founded two years ago, is privately owned by the directors of
four local mines; the bank itself denies this. A firm called StroiNort, a
middleman company, has opened four department stores in downtown Vorkuta
in the last year– the time period when, according to Davidov, its customers
have been delinquent in their payments. At Severny, miners claim a Western-style
supermarket in the village was secretly funded by one of the mine’s union
Whether or not any of these stories are apocryphal, it’s clear that neither
the miners nor anyone else in the city believes the line that VorkutaUgol’s
customers haven’t been paying the bills.
The federal government in all of this appears to be playing the role of the
distant mafia overlord, taking its cut in the form of taxes while providing
VorkutaUgol’s racket with blanket protection and occasional favors like the
medical commission review. Just how much in taxes the government gets is
not exactly clear. Vasily Pirozhkov, the head of the Mine Engineers’ Union,
claimed that the State Tax Inspectorate takes 38% of the gross receipts-a
percentage it should normally take out of profits, as payroll tax. What’s
more, he said, VorkutaUgol compensated for the draconian taxes by taking
the payroll tax out of miner salaries-thereby forcing almost a 50% tax on
miners, when you figure in income tax. However, he changed his story when
Davidov came into the room.
Whatever the real tax story is, the Yeltsin regime is clearly not making
many friends in Vorkuta. One of the main reasons some 178 Vorkuta miners
are currently in Moscow demonstrating at the White House and demanding Yeltsin’s
resignation is the so-called “777 fiasco”, widely cited as the government’s
greatest act of treason against the miners. In 1996, prior to the presidential
elections, Yeltsin visited Vorkuta and courted the miner vote by signing
Executive Order 777, which would have reduced railroad tariffs on coal transport
and lowered sales taxes. Executive order 777 never took effect and was formally
revoked by Yeltsin in May of this year. As a result, Vorkuta coal remains
prohibitively expensive. To transport coal to Ukraine, for instance, VorkutaUgol
must pay what amounts to a 100% tariff.
There are other stories circulating among the miners, among them that the
mine directors are selling coal shipments at five and ten percent of cost
for cash to various customers under the table, and keeping records of the
sales secret from the government and the miners. Evidence for this includes
the recent institution of “subbotniki”, weekend shifts, which the miners
say have never been satisfactorily explained by management.
“No one knows where the coal we’re mining on Sundays is going,” said Polyakov.
“And we’ll never find out.”
Can’t the unions demand an answer?
“Our unions,” said Polyakov, “are a joke.”
III. The Unions
I spent a lot of time in Vorkuta with Shumeiko, the new deputy head of the
Independent Miners’ Union. Zhenya clearly lacked experience as a union hack.
When we first met he was wearing a black suit, with a black shirt and a silver
tie-a horrible outfit by any standards, and one he clearly felt uncomfortable
in. He later told me it was the first suit he’d ever bought.
Not only was his dress all wrong, but as a political leader he was a total
flop. Occasionally he would forget to stick to standard labor doublespeak
and blurt out ugly and impolitic revelations about himself and his union.
“I’m not really a union worker. I’m more like a racketeer,” he said once,
blushing. “All I do is go around trying to worm money out of mine directors.
That’s all we do around here-look for money.”
Only 32, he clearly had mixed feelings about the job he’d just left the mines
to take. His driver Igor had told me, in fact, that it was only by chance
that Zhenya had even ended up a union delegate.
“They change deputies like gloves around here,” Igor said, laughing. “Zhenya
was only elected after about hundred other guys who got nominated refused
the job. Most of these guys would rather stay underground than do his job.”
“Why?” I asked. “If I were a miner, I’d do anything to get out of that mine.”
“Why?” Igor said. “Because it’s a lousy job. All you do is beg for money
and listen to old ladies complain.”
It was true. One morning I was with Zhenya when we stopped off at the
Komsomolskaya mine, where a miner’s wife was apparently threatening to throw
herself in the pit if the management didn’t pay her husband’s back wages.
The woman’s daughter, it turned out, had been accepted at a St. Petersburg
University, and the family hadn’t been able to find the money to send her
away. She needed to be there by July 3, or she would lose her place in the
school. Now Mom was telling management that if they didn’t pay, they were
going to find her body at the bottom of a 700-meter pit by the end of the
day on June 24.
Management had to take these suicide threats seriously. Last year, a miner
at that same Komsomolskaya mine killed himself by throwing himself into the
pits. And only a month ago, a miner at Severny hung himself when management
refused to pay him his back wages. That workers are killing themselves over
back wages is a testament both to how desperate their situation is and how
little faith they have in the unions to agitate on their behalf. It was an
ugly situation for the union. As in the case of the rail protests, this miner’s
wife was sidestepping Zhenya’s union and creating her own form of protest.
If the union didn’t get involved, their irrelevance would be more evident
Zhenya went to Komsomolskaya that morning to meet with the mine director
and essentially beg for money. I waited in the car while he held his meeting.
Ten minutes later he came out smiling. The way he told it, the director had
agreed to allocate a small portion of the money owed in exchange for a guarantee
that no one would kill himself on the premises.
When we went to Severny together, practically every second miner came up
to Zhenya to ask him what the word was about salaries. Few of them smiled,
patted Zhenya on the back, or even said hello before asking. Zhenya was clearly
barely a human being in their eyes and the miners clearly had little faith
in anything he said. That day he had good news-Vorkuta Ugol had just received
some money from the Cherepovetsky factory, and some money had apparently
been earmarked for salaries-but there wasn’t much leaping for joy when he
spread the word. And no wonder: by the end of the day, no one had been paid
yet. And they wouldn’t be, for the next three days I was there.
When we went down in the mine together, Zhenya and I took a detour into one
tunnel and pointed out where a miner had recently camped out and held a hunger
strike to demand his back wages. As in the Komsomolskaya story, Zhenya had
intervened to ask the director to pay the miner enough money to call off
“I told him [the miner], you know, you can’t do this,” he said. “Because
if the director gives you the money, then everyone’s going to go on a hunger
“But, Zhenya,” I said. “That’s the point, isn’t it? If they pay up, that
proves they’ve got the money.”
“Yes, but we can’t bankrupt the company,” he said. “We have to be responsible.”
All of the unions in Vorkuta have taken the position that strikes are fruitless.
They have all apparently bought the company line that a strike will only
drive VorkutaUgol’s customers to find new coal suppliers. During the rail
strikes, for instance, when Inta miners cut Vorkuta off from its customers,
Novolipetsk was able to buy Finnish coal at competitive prices. Zhenya and
Pirozhkov of the Engineer’s union both repeated the Finnish coal story like
a mantra when I raised the question of strikes. And in general, the anti-strike
propaganda has penetrated the ranks so effectively that virtually every miner
you talk to will tell you that work stoppages “only take money out of our
That they also take money out of the pockets of villains like Davidov and
his cronies doesn’t seem to matter to most workers. Strikes are not even
discussed, and not only because they’re held to be against worker interests;
they’re also not considered possible.
“We’ll never have real strikes, because the union people are bought off,”
said Mikhailovsky, the retired invalid. “We used to have one union here.
Now we have three. There’s no unity. As long as the unions are splintered
and bought off, the miners will never organize.”
“The unions are a bunch of zeroes,” said Kursurov. “They don’t do anything.
In 1989, the unions were strong. They sent Gorbachev packing. But these guys
are clearly bought off and won’t do a thing to challenge the company.”
All of which is why no one wants Zhenya’s job. In essence, the union delegate
doesn’t really agitate on behalf of the workers. He negotiates on behalf
of the mine directors. Throughout my stay, I watched Zhenya run around, trying
to calm down angry workers before they did things like throw themselves into
the pits or even just stay home from work. In one discussion down in the
mine, he castigated miners for supporting a planned rail blockage by workers
“You’re all fools,” he said. “If they sit on the rails at Inta, we’re the
ones who aren’t going to get food. It’s your families who are going to starve.”
“So what?” said one miner.
“So what? You people have to be responsible,” he said. “You’ve got to stand
up for Vorkuta. Those guys in Inta are going to kill us. They don’t care
In private, though, “responsible” Zhenya knew he’d been set up as a patsy.
After a day in the mines and few bottles of cheap champagne, he grew dewey-eyed
and confessed to me that he was thinking of quitting and going back to the
“That was so much easier,” he said. “I felt so much better about myself.”
A little later, when he was drunker still, he leaned over to me and whispered;
“You know, in the end, the real enemy is VorkutaUgol. I know that.
They’ve got the money. There’s theft going on, I know. Everybody knows that.”
He shook his head. “But we’re just not ready to take them on. They’re too
IV. The Breaking Point
Local legend has it that in 1983, an army of Vorkuta teenagers descended
upon the city of Lyubertsy, travelling in small groups by train over a period
of days. Lyubertsy teenagers had been spreading the word that they were the
toughest in the country, and the guys from Vorkuta were pissed. They decided
to make a point, planning their attack like a commando raid. The biggest
and toughest of the group went out and picked up Lyubertsky girls on the
street, and over ice cream and coffee casually claimed an interest in
weightlifting and asked where they could work out. The girls complied and
coughed up the addresses for “basements” all over town. That intelligence
led to a massacre. In those days, weightlifting was just coming into vogue
in the Soviet Union, and the toughest street kids usually hung out in basement
gyms full of freeweights. Once they’d found the “basements”, the Vorkutintsi
descended on them all over the city, beating the shit out of every weightlifter
they could find.
When they were done, the Vorkuta army returned home heroes. A reporter at
Zapolariye told me there was even a headline in a local newspaper: “Vorkuta:
The Capital of the World.”
The miners in Vorkuta today are desperate. They’re getting screwed from all
sides and dropping like flies in the mines, and no one, not even their own
unions, are standing up for them. The math is pretty simple. No one can work
forever in a coal mine without getting paid. Eventually, these guys are going
to quit. And then what?
Well…even Vorkuta’s optimists know what “then what” means.
“I’m afraid of what might happen,” said Kursurov at Zapolariye. “If they
don’t get help in Moscow, this place could explode. One drop of blood is
all it will take, and everyone will take to the streets.”
“If the government doesn’t intervene by the fall, I think you’re looking
at thousands of people descending on Moscow,” sighed Pirozhkov. “It will
be out of our hands by then.”
“I’m worried, just praying that everyone keeps cool,” said Shumeiko. “Miners
are generally reasonable, but…there are some guys here who might not be
able to control themselves. Miners aren’t afraid of anything, and they know
what death is. I can only imagine what might happen if the OMON are sent
to clear our guys out from the White House. One wrong move and there’ll be
mayhem. If they show it on TV, every miner in this city will be looking to
fight someone. This city is famous for it-we’ll be the first to take to the
Mikhailovsky says he’s afraid the situation will degenerate into violence
because there is no leader to organize miners to a better purpose. “Just
give us any leader, even a fucked-up one like Lenin,” he said. “We’d follow
him to the end of the earth if he could figure out a way to get us out of
this. But there’s nobody out there. And pretty soon people are just going
to go crazy. There’s a limit to everything.”
Johnson’s Russia List, 22 Jul 1998
Armstrong questions re miners
by Matt Tabbi
Sorry I haven’t replied to Patrick Armstrong’s questions– I’ve been a little
behind on my JRL reading.
Obviously, I thank Mr. Armstrong for his comments about the Vorkuta piece.
I’ll do my best to answer his questions, but I also suggest that, if I can’t
answer everything, he contact other journalists who’ve been in Vorkuta and
have covered this story.
1) If the miners have not been paid for a long time (and not much
money when they are paid), how have they been living?
This was in my piece. The miners do get paid sporadically, small “advances”
against back wages. They are also given packets of food, called “tormozhki”,
every day. Most of these guys are feeding their families with these tormozhki,
which are charged against their salaries when they do get paid.
2) Why do they go down the mine and risk their lives if they are not
Because they are getting something (see above), because they’ll be unemployed
if they don’t (and it takes means to move out of Vorkuta and start over),
because their unions won’t organize strikes, and, most importantly, because
these guys aren’t rocket scientists. I personally would rather be unemployed
than go down in those mines, but those guys don’t see it that way.
3) The impression Mr Taibbi gives is that the mine management is cheating
the miners, if so, why do they blame Yeltsin? Surely they know who’s doing
it to them.
Most of the companies the miners are dealing with (both VorkutaUgol and its
clients) are majority state-owned companies, so they see the government,
ultimately, as the boss. They know who’s cheating them, but they have reason
to see the company, the government, and the unions as a united front against
them, and nothing but a total change in leadership is going to wipe that
Also, cynically, some of the unions are working with the company– which
they know to be cheating the workers– in protesting against Yeltsin. It’s
a temporary alliance intended to extract money from the government. No one
has any illusions about the company being an innocent party in this.
4) What is the ownership structure at the mine? Are the miners
shareholders or were they swindled out of their shares? If they are shareholders,
are they making any attempts to remove present management?
I had several miners tell me that the shares owned by miners in VorkutaUgol
amounted to less than 2% of the company, and that the state had the largest
share. But, to be honest, I don’t know very much about this. I do know that
the miners feel their shares are worthless. As for exercising shareholders’
rights, I think that would seem like a fairy tale tactic to these people.
If they have to throw themselves into pits just to get paid money owed to
them by company rules, I doubt they would see working by those same company
rules to remove the ownership as a tactic with a high probability of success.
Johnson’s Russia List, Wednesday, 14 October 1998
On Strike at the Volkov Mine
By Renfrey Clarke
KEMEROVO, Russia – Gennady Filatyev, director of the Volkov coal mine near
this city in the Kuzbass industrial region of Siberia, is a bull of a man.
Even his face has something bull-like about it, with its strong forehead
crowned by a mass of white hair. And when he leans across a lectern,
gesticulating as he makes a point, he could be pawing the ground.
This is one occasion, however, when Filatyev is not about to put his head
down and charge. Before him in the hall are more than a hundred miners, who
have shut down the Volkov mine for the day in protest at its failure to pay
wages in four months. For toiling in primitive and dangerous conditions,
the workers have received nothing, not even the bartered foodstuffs often
provided by cash-poor Russian enterprises in lieu of wages. The miners are
angry, and bawling them out would not be good tactics.
So Filatyev as he speaks reserves his ire for the Russian market system,
which, he asserts, is “savage” and “criminal”, condemning working people
to an “animal-like” existence. To the miners, he is patronising and sorrowful.
“I don’t have the right to ask you to work without pay, but I have to say
that I can’t pay you.” There was due to be money, he explains, from the state
holding company that controls much of the coal industry here in the northern
Kuzbass. But with the financial crisis that has gripped Russia since mid-August,
the promises have turned to dust. The banking system has largely ceased to
function, freezing huge sums in transit from debtors to creditors.
Nevertheless, Filatyev argues, it would be a mistake to extend the strike.
The blow, he says, would only fall on the Volkov mine. And it would be a
crime to force the mine to shut down! Granted, the mine is running at a loss,
but Filatyev insists it can be saved. Without it, there would be no work
for the miners, and no hope for them of obtaining work.. Consequently – and
here is the real point of his speech – the miners should go back onto the
job, while voting to demand the payment within a week of a solid installment
of the funds owing, say a million rubles, with the rest according to a definite
With the moving of Filatyev’s motion, the absurdity of the situation really
hits home. This is a strike meeting, and there on the stage in front of the
workers, alongside the provincial chairperson of the miners’ trade union,
are two representatives of the coal company, and the mine boss. Filatyev
does not seem aware of the paradox. This is a meeting of the mine’s labour
collective, and doesn’t he work here? Won’t he lose his job along with everyone
else if the mine shuts down?
The miners do not seem to find his presence odd either. On the other hand,
they do not seem intimidated, replying to him forcefully from the floor.
That’s all very well, speaker after speaker asserts, but when are we going
to see some money? Give us a definite date.
Here Filatyev’s patronising aplomb starts to slip. The miners’ requests are
put to him civilly enough, with the verbs in the respectful “Bbi”
form. But when he responds, his tone is sharp and overbearing, and the form
of address is the familiar, condescending-in-the-circumstances “Tbi“.
Fellow worker? No way. The relationship, even the language, is that of an
old-time Russian landowner, a baron talking to his serfs. And if the mine
were to close, would the director have to try to survive by growing potatoes
on his garden plot, along with the ex-miners? Hardly. With his commercial
contacts, Filatyev would go straight into private business, and no doubt
But meanwhile, the meeting is continuing. Viktor Bunin, the provincial head
of Rosugleprof, Russia’s main coal trade union, rises to speak. The Russian
state authorities are profoundly anti-worker, Bunin declares, their so-called
reforms a shambles. But an isolated strike would make no impact. The best
course, Bunin argues, is for the miners to take part vigorously in the
country-wide trade union protest campaign that is to culminate in mass actions
on October 7.
An alternative motion is moved from the floor: for work at the mine to stop
until a million rubles are paid, and pledges are given that the remaining
debts will settled according to a fixed schedule. Then the meeting votes,
and it is Filatyev’s motion that is carried, 65 to 60. For the Volkov miners,
it will be back down the pit, with no particular hope of being paid for months
The meeting over, Filatyev makes a beeline for me, a foreign journalist.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what I could tell them,” he says regretfully. “They’ve
got a brutal life, and now I can’t even promise them money. If it were up
to you, what would you do?” Why not say it? The only way out for the miners,
for all hired workers in Russia, is to set about building a massive political
movement that really fights for their interests….
Filatyev reflects on this for a moment. “Yes, that’s it!” he exclaims. “What
Russia needs is a strong leader!”
He invites me to his office for a question-and-answer session before he,
trade union leader Bunin, and the coal company representatives talk over
the day’s decision. But before Filatyev can take his seat, there is a woman
petitioner in the corridor. I watch through the open door as the mask of
benevolence drops away. Suddenly livid with fury, the mine director screams
at the woman, sends her packing. The patriarch is also a despot.
Just as suddenly, the mask is back in place. Where are you from in Australia,
Filatyev asks me jovially. The mine director, it turns out, was in Sydney
I begin asking questions. How does the Volkov mine rate? Is it considered
to have prospects? One of the coal company officials smiles ironically.
Technically, he says, the mine should be dying. It produces low-grade steaming
coal, and the equipment is old and worn-out. Under any other director, the
official maintains, the mine would have shut its gates five years ago. But
its productivity is in fact relatively good, because of a skilled workforce,
good labour discipline and tight organisation. The mine could survive, deserves
to survive. But now, with the country’s finances blown apart, nothing can
I take my leave. Out on the steps of the mine offices, a dozen or so miners
are standing about. They ply me with questions and comments.
“Why don’t you come down the mine with us? You wouldn’t come up again – what’s
down there would scare the life out of you.” “We have to go down there every
day – we’re forced to. And we don’t even get paid for it.” “Up there,” says
someone else, gesturing toward the office where the director is in conference,
“that’s the Russian middle class. Did he tell you he’s been to Australia?
We can’t even afford the bus fare into Kemerovo.”
And is Filatyev getting paid, I wonder aloud. Half a dozen voices together.
“You bet he is. And well, too.” Whatever the truth here, the miners are not
to be convinced that the director is living as meanly as they. Meanwhile,
people want to know, what’s life like for miners in Australia? How much do
they make each month? I hazard a guess. There are whistles, and rolled eyes.
“But listen, they didn’t get where they are by doing as they were told. They
built strong unions and fought like hell. And if they stopped fighting, it’d
all be gone in no time. They’d be like you are now.”
An awkward silence. People seem to be thinking: What the hell have we got
to fight with? Who gives a damn if we go on strike? Across a gully, spread
out across the slope opposite, are the houses of the miners’ settlement.
They are far from being the worst houses to be seen in Russian villages,
I comment. Most are solid and spacious, and many are of brick.
“No-one’s built anything new here for years,” someone notes. “See those cars
there? They were all bought ten years ago.” Back then, people volunteer,
this wasn’t a bad place. You worked, you got paid, and in the end you at
least finished up with something.
My bus rolls up. Handshakes all round. “Tell it to your Australian miners
from us!” “And if anyone offers you some perestroika, say you don’t want