By Simon Pirani
Novocherkassk, June 1962. The workers’ revolt against the Soviet “workers’ state”, put down by the army and the KGB. The revolt for “meat, butter and a pay rise” that ended with tanks shooting into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators (killing at least 26 and wounding many dozens). The revolt against Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet reformer, by workers who wanted real socialism, who questioned the limits of Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinisation” and hoisted placards of Lenin.
Novocherkassk was a symbol, for western anti-Stalinist socialists of my generation. We knew that the workers had revolted against Soviet dictatorship in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Poland repeatedly. But Novocherkassk was the revolt in the Soviet Union itself, that even its amazingly efficient censorship had not been able to hide.
Inside the Soviet Union, even in the mid 1980s, people only discussed Novocherkassk in their kitchens, with the radio turned up to shield themselves from nosy neighbours. (That’s how a journalist colleague of mine, a native of Novocherkassk, learned about the 1962 events from her dad. When she had told me where she came from, I had said: “To me, Novocherkassk means 1962.”)
At the end of the 1980s, under Gorbachev’s liberalisation, first journalists, and then historians, brought the truth about Novocherkassk out into daylight. In 1992, the 30th anniversary of the revolt was marked with a public holiday in Novocherkassk itself; the bodies of murdered demonstrators who had been buried in unmarked graves were exhumed and given a ceremonial burial.
Fast forward to 4 August 2015, then, and as I read a (generally well-researched) report by Andrew Kramer of the New York Times, about Cossack involvement in the separatist insurgency in Ukraine, I had a double-take. Kramer, painting a picture of the Cossacks’ historical background, wrote that they were “an anti-Bolshevik force in the civil war, suffered repression under Stalin, and then fought as cavalry on both sides, with the Nazis and the Soviets, during World War II.” All fair enough. But then: “In 1962, the Soviet authorities put down a Cossack uprising in Novocherkassk, killing 26 people”.
I dashed off a letter to the New York Times (6 August), which said:
There was no “Cossack uprising”; there was a revolt by thousands of factory workers, triggered by the Khrushchev government’s decision to raise meat and dairy prices by about one third. In Novocherkassk, anger was exacerbated by factory managers who simultaneously reduced piecework rates. On 1 June 1962 workers poured into the town centre with posters reading e.g. “cut up Khrushchev for sausages!” Security forces fired directly into the crowd.
Such workers’ revolts against the failure of the “workers’ state” to ensure basic minimal living standards were as much part of the Soviet Union’s history, and its demise, as the national and ethnic tensions that are now again in the foreground in eastern Ukraine.
I don’t write letters to newspapers much. But the mistake was so straightforward – and in a newspaper considered to be one of the world’s greatest, too!
Mark Josephson of the Office of the Senior Editor for Standards replied to me by email (6 August), saying:
Thank you for reaching out, however we are confidant that a correction is not necessary. Novocherkassk is the capital of the Don Cossacks and those involved in the 1962 uprising were Cossacks. Rising food prices sparked the mini uprising, but the fact that those who convened on the regional administration building were Cossacks was decisive in what happened.
Really? This was news to me. The Don Cossacks had been based at Novocherkassk – but, as far as I knew, repression, deportations and other demographic shifts had almost obliterated their communities by the 1960s.
I chatted with some fellow historians. One of them, Don Filtzer, a specialist on Soviet labour who has written five books on Soviet workers in the Stalin, Khrushchev and Gorbachev periods, wrote to Mark Josephson (6 August), saying:
I am curious as to the sources of your information regarding the revolt having a Cossack character. Although I personally have not done archival research on the Novocherkassk events, I know well the work of Russian and Western historians who have, and can recall among them not a single mention of this alleged fact, other than the comments of L. F. Il’ichev, one of the [Soviet Communist Party Central Committee] Praesidium members despatched to Novocherkassk by Khrushchev in a vain attempt to bring the situation under control. Il’ichev is quoted as saying that the rebels were “religious sectarians, Cossacks staging a mutiny”. His remarks were not taken seriously even by his Praesidium colleagues and his hypothesis is generally considered to be nonsense. Interestingly, Sergei Khrushchev, in his biography of his father, also devotes several pages to the deliberations behind the decision to repress the revolt, and he, too, makes no reference to a Cossack element.
I must say that I find the logic of your reply to Dr Pirani somewhat disturbing. The decision to raise food prices provoked widespread discontent among factory workers right across the USSR, from Ukraine to the Urals, all the way to Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East. KGB reports reveal several calls to launch strike action, although only in Novocherkassk did this break out into a widespread rebellion, largely because the city’s main factory was also trying to cut piece rates and because of the way that local authorities so badly mishandled the initial protests. The key issue here was that workers were responding to their position as workers, not as Cossacks or members of other ethnic or national minorities, all the more so in that the events took place less than a year after the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party, at which Khrushchev had announced the country’s impending transition to “Communism”. Many workers took this rhetoric seriously, and used these promises as a yardstick against which to assess what they saw as an abject betrayal by the Soviet state.
And how do you explain the mass participation in the rebellion by Russians and other non-Cossacks? Even if you could demonstrate that “those who convened on the regional administration building were Cossacks” (this may be true, but I have never in my long professional career seen any mention of this), it does not follow that this was a “Cossack rebellion”, as your article claims, rather than a protest by workers who happened to be Cossacks.
At the time of the strikes Novocherkassk had a population of roughly 110,000 people. Most Cossacks were rural; even if many of these 110,000 people were former Cossack peasants who had migrated to Novocherkassk during industrialization or after World War II, by 1962 their identities and modes of self-identification would have changed dramatically. Again, you would need some very hard evidence to show that it was as Cossacks that they participated in the strikes, and not as Soviet workers.
Or let us look at this from a different angle. If a group of Black factory workers goes on strike over wages and working conditions, does the fact that they are Black mean that they are not really striking over wages and working conditions, but are striking because they are Black? Many conscientious and committed Black worker activists and union members would find this deeply offensive.
If professional historians routinely used this type of analytical rigour when handling their sources our profession would be in very deep trouble indeed.
David Mandel, whose interview with a Novocherkassk worker activist, Petr Siuda, has for many years been a classic source of information on the revolt, responded to me by email to say:
I knew Siuda well, spoke at length with him many times. His mother was of Cossack lineage. Father – Belarus. That’s as far as the Cossacks or their [descendants] were in any way involved. Never did he mention any Cossack influence. And it never came up in any of the research I did otherwise.
I went to the library to see if Josephson’s claim that “those involved in the 1962 uprising were Cossacks” was perhaps supported by other historians’ research. It was not. As I wrote to Josephson by email (12 August):
For example, Dr Shane O’Rourke, in his book The Cossacks (Manchester University Press 2007), that attempts to synthesise a huge body of research, concludes (pp. 278-279) that the Soviet collectivisation and dekulakisation campaigns of the 1930s “destroyed any possibility of collective survival for the Cossacks”. The loss of farms and the way of life woven around them was “a mortal threat to Cossack existence”; what finally destroyed communities and families was the deportations of 1930-33, which broke up the Cossack populations in places where they were substantial (even if not necessarily a majority), e.g. in the countryside around Novocherkassk. “Cossack identity would survive in fragments and isolated pockets throughout the remainder of the Soviet period, but the Cossacks as members of distinct communities capable of reproducing themselves generation after generation had ceased to exist.”
The extreme demographic changes that areas of southern Russia, Novocherkassk included, went through, as a result of these events, of famines, and of the second world war (during which Novocherkassk changed hands several times), would have made any accurate measurement of the size of the remaining Cossack population difficult. The Soviet authorities’ decision not to give the Cossacks the status of a national group made it impossible. [And,] under the Soviet system, towns such as Novocherkassk where industry expanded rapidly after the second world war tended to attract in-migrants not only from the surrounding countryside but quite often from other parts of the country.
Professor Samuel Baron, who published the first comprehensive account of the 1962 uprising in English, based on a great deal of archival research, considered these issues. He found evidence that between the 1917 revolution and the second world war about 50,000 Cossacks emigrated and some tens of thousands were deported to other parts of the USSR. He wrote, cautiously: “In 1962 the population of Novocherkassk included a good many de-Cossackized and de-kulakised people, but whether they figured prominently in the upheaval is uncertain.” (Baron, Bloody Saturday in the Soviet Union, Stanford University Press 2002, p. 14).
I would summarise the historians’ conclusions like this: while there were “a good many” people of Cossack family background (although probably not a majority) in Novocherkassk in 1962, it is “uncertain” whether they figured prominently in the upheaval. “Uncertain” because as communities with their own identity, the Cossacks had “ceased to exist”. On what, then, do you base your assertion that “those involved in the 1962 uprising were Cossacks”?
As for Josephson’s confident assertion that the Cossack identity of those who gathered in the centre of Novocherkassk in June 1962 was “decisive” to the revolt, I tried to test my hypothesis that Cossack identity had in fact been virtually destroyed by that time. I looked at the web sites of Cossacks societies and associations in southern Russia, and wrote to Josephson:
These [associations] were typically formed in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and in texts about their own history describe how they tried to rebuild and recover their culture and identity at that time, starting from scratch.
It is absolutely certain that even that minority (possibly large minority, but we don’t know) of people in Novocherkassk in the 1960s who descended from Cossack families would not normally have identified themselves as Cossacks in public. (There is some scepticism among historian friends I have spoken to about whether they would even have done so in private.) But if there was ever a time when they would have done so, surely it would have been during the revolt – when for the first time in the participants’ lives, a mass of people defied laws, authorities and social conventions. And the historical record here is absolutely clear. The rebels did not identify themselves as Cossacks.
I re-read the classic account of the 1962 revolt by Vladimir Kozlov, in his wonderful book Mass disorders in the USSR under Khrushchev and Brezhnev 1953-the early 1980s (Massovye besporiadki v SSSR pri Khrushcheve i Brezhneve, 1953-nachalo 1980-kh gg., Sibirsky khronograf, 1999). Kozlov, who worked until retirement in the Russian state archive, had access to a wide range of formerly secret material in which the security services and Communist Party officials noted every nuance of the rebels’ arguments. And like Samuel Baron, Kozlov found evidence e.g. of some Russian nationalism, and (by contrast) some loyalty to the Soviet Union as a multinational country … but no evidence of any reference being made to Cossack identity. I wrote to Josephson:
While some of the revolt participants came from families that were once part of Cossack communities, they thought of themselves not as Cossacks but as Soviet workers. And it was in that capacity that they revolted, as part of (and indistinguishable from) a large group of other people who also identified themselves as Soviet workers, counterposing their working-class identity to that of factory managers and unjust officials.
To date (17 August), Josephson has not even acknowledged the emails from Don Filtzer or myself (reminding me of that old hack’s wisecrack: “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”).
I would like to highlight three conclusions, for my history students at Canterbury Christ Church university and for us all:
Having a job in the Office of the Senior Editor for Standards at one of the world’s great newspapers can not stop a person from writing a load of old rubbish. Going to the library and checking can.
In the media, and in academia, it has become fashionable among some people to focus on national and ethnic conflict and to downplay social and class conflict. This is why the sentence about the Novocherkassk revolt in the original article leaped out at me, and why it seemed worth correcting it. As Don Filtzer pointed out, the key issue was that workers were “responding to their position as workers, not as Cossacks or members of other ethnic or national minorities” – all the more so since this happened at a time when Khrushchev “had announced the country’s impending transition to ‘Communism’”, and “many workers took this rhetoric seriously” and used it as a yardstick to measure their betrayal by the Soviet state.
These issues have become particularly important in the light of the disastrous conflict in eastern Ukraine, in which working-class communities have been disempowered and turned violently against each other in the name of various nationalisms, and both Russian and Ukrainian history rewritten to justify it.
Note about the title. The much more expressive Russian phrase used was “Khruscheva na miaso” (literally – “Khrushchev to meat”). The free translation “Cut up Khrushchev for sausages!” was by Geoffrey Hosking in The History of the Soviet Union, and I think it’s a good one. The price of meat and meat products was one of the triggers of the revolt. B.N. Kurochkin, the manager of the Novocherkassk locomotive works where the revolt broke out, notoriously responded to women workers’ initial demands for a pay increase to cover price increases by saying: “If there isn’t enough money for meat and sausage, eat pirozhki [pasties] with liver.”
More to read in English
“Revolutionary reform” in Soviet factories: restructuring relations between workers and management by David Mandel (Socialist Register, 1989)
Vladimir A. Kozlov (translated and edited by Elaine McClarnand MacKinnon), Mass Uprisings in the USSR: Protest and Rebellion in the Post-Stalin Years (M.E. Sharpe, 2002) – from any good library.
More to read in Russian
Simon Pirani is a researcher and historian, and author of The Russian Revolution in Retreat 1920-24: Soviet workers and the new communist elite (Routledge, 2008). He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, has published widely on energy issues in the former Soviet Union, and teaches history at Canterbury Christ Church University.