From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives
On the 50th anniversary of the June 17, 1953 East
The myth of the invincibility of totalitarianism
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first mass
revolt against Stalinist totalitarianism--the June 17, 1953 uprising of the
workers of East Berlin. It was followed soon afterward by a revolt inside Russia
by prisoners at the Vorkuta slave labor camp. In light of the claim by today's
ruling ideologues, that it is impossible to oppose totalitarianisms from within,
Raya Dunayevskaya's discussion of these two mass uprisings takes on a special
The following document, originally entitled "Two
Pages of History That Have Shown the Way to Freedom," was written on April
23, 1955, at the time of the founding conference of News and Letters Committees
held that same month. For a fuller discussion of how the 1953 East German revolt
and Vorkuta uprising signaled the beginning of the end of Russian
totalitarianism, see Dunayevskaya's MARXISM AND FREEDOM, FROM 1776 UNTIL TODAY,
chapter 15. All footnotes here are added by the editors.
The letter, which can be found in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA
COLLECTION, 12042–12046, has been edited for publication; footnotes are the
* * *
On June 17, 1953 the East Berlin workers came out in a
strike against the Communist rulers. This unprecedented action began as a strike
against "higher norms," that is, speed-up, and developed into calling
for the release of political prisoners and the formation of a new government
through free elections. It was the first strike to have occurred in a country
under Russian occupation and it thereby changed the political face of Europe.
A few weeks later another "first" occurred
that shook the Kremlin to its foundations. This time it was a strike at its own
slave labor camp at Vorkuta.(1) This strike, inspired by the East German revolt,
was even more remarkable than the first in that it was organized underground by
prisoners who had no rights whatever and right under the noses of the NKVD (the
Russian Secret Police).
We now have the story of this other strike in a most
remarkable book by a Dr. Joseph Scholmer, an inmate there who experienced
imprisonment by the Gestapo for his anti-Nazi activities only to be re-arrested
by the Russians after his liberation for his anti-Russian sentiments.(2)
This eyewitness account of the Vorkuta revolt is
distinguished from all other stories of forced labor camps by its passionate and
relentless struggle for freedom. Even the horrible conditions in these camps
stand out not for their terror but by virtue of the prisoners' sense of humor;
from their reference to the guards' tommy-guns as "balalaikas" to
their tales of how Jews meet the new anti-Semitism by writing, next to the word,
nationality, "Indian." It is this humanity, this comradeship, which
made living tolerable and united them not alone in the aspiration to revolt but
the actual planning and execution of it.
'NOT IN THE WILDEST DREAMS'
The strike in July 1953 could not have occurred without
the previous underground formation of resistance groups within the camps, which
were led by the various nationalities of Russia, mainly Ukrainians. Yet the
strike as it occurred was entirely different from the action planned previously.
Prior to June 17 all the preparations for resistance to
the totalitarian rulers were based on the eventuality of war and therefore
looked to the Western RULERS. When Stalin died [in March 1953] hope spread
through the camp but all that came from the Eisenhowers and Churchills were
condolences to the leaders who continued the Stalin regime. Once June 17th took
place, on the other hand, the Vorkuta prisoners saw that the workers and only
the workers, of whatever country, must achieve their own liberation and by their
own methods. East Germany had shown the way and they decided to follow up that
"For a time," writes Dr. Scholmer, "the
prisoners had not really been thinking in terms of outward success at all. They
were just intoxicated by the strike....For all those taking part in it, the
strike was simply the first positive defiant action of this sort ever to take
place within the Soviet Union. And that was enough. It was something unheard of,
something which no one had ever thought possible even in his wildest
THE STRIKE ITSELF
Indeed, the most remarkable part of the strike is that
it ever took place at all. For most participants it was the first strike they
had ever been in. It was the ordinary man in the camps that had to bear the
day-to-day burden of the strike. At first they just refused to work. But then
they actually organized a public meeting right in the camp. They elected a
strike committee of their own in which all nations were represented, and
informed the camp police that they better withdraw because the prisoners
themselves were taking control of the camp.
The police did so, not of course without informing
Moscow immediately. But so did the strikers--they refused to meet with their
direct jailers but insisted that a representative from the Kremlin be sent down
to meet with them. The Russian government sent a commission headed by General
Derevianko.(3) His attempt to harangue a public meeting of the inmates proved a
failure. The prisoners stood solid, refused to be moved by the better food once
their sentences remained the same, and demanded a review of all political trials
and removal of barbed wire.
The commission returned to Moscow. Nothing shows so the
uncertainty and insecurity of these totalitarian rulers than the caution with
which the government at first dealt with this revolt. The sympathy of the
soldiers too was with the prisoners. In the end they did what the Tsar did back
in 1912 in the Lena gold field strike; they opened fire and shot down the
strikers. But where in East Berlin they resorted to violence quickly, here they
bargained and moved cautiously for weeks before the mass shooting.
MYTH OF INVINCIBILITY DESTROYED
But it had the effect of shaking the Kremlin to its very
foundations. A few months later students from the Leningrad Mining Institute
working in the pit in Vorkuta told [the prisoners] of their strike, which
everyone talked about in Leningrad:
"'We soon got to know you were on strike,' they
told us. 'The drop in coal was noticeable at once. We don't have any reserves.
There's just the plan, that's all. And everyone knows how vulnerable plans are.
It destroyed the myth that the system was unassailable."
Five months after June 17 one of the leaders of the
Russian resistance group met an East German student in Vorkuta and naturally the
talk was all about the East German revolt. The Russian leaders first then
grasped the treachery of "the West." Not alone had the Eisenhowers and
the Churchills sided with the Stalin regime in Russia as the prisoners here
knew, but they now found out that even from their safe Allied radios no
encouragement to the workers in revolt was sounded. To the prisoners'
"why," the East German students replied: "Because they were
afraid that any aggravation of the situation might lead to war."
But it's clear from the reports from the prisoners [Scholmer
explains] that the Russians were also afraid it might lead to war! Each
side was afraid of the non-existent courage of the other!
The East German students resumed their tale that the
labor bureaucrats, as well as the West German government, found nothing better
to tell the West Berlin workers than to be sure "not to compromise
themselves." Finally the Russian resistance leader saw how wrong it was at
all to depend on "the West." He said: "These radio stations are
controlled by the various governments, aren't they? Well, on June 17 they had to
ask the government officials what they were to do. AND THE GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS
HAVE A PROFESSIONAL DISLIKE OF POPULAR UPRISING, wherever they take place."
'MAN IN THE STREET HAS THE BEST IDEA'
The epilogue Dr. Scholmer writes is much more depressing
than the conditions at Vorkuta. For here he was free at last, he thought. He had
been one of some thousands of slave laborers released during the Big Four
ministers' conference.(4) He had a story of revolt to tell and the press to
listen to him. They listened but they didn't HEAR. First, these Russian experts
could not understand that a revolt had occurred; they were ready to discuss
abstractions, such as COULD such a revolt occur, but not the concrete FACT that
it has occurred. Then he was given the line that "the time was
inopportune" to tell his story.
"When I first mentioned the word, 'civil war' to
these people," Dr. Scholmer concludes, "they were appalled. The
possibility of a rising lay outside their realm of comprehension. They had no
idea that there were resistance groups in the camps...
"I talked to all sorts of people in the first few
weeks after my return from the Soviet Union. It seemed to me that the man in the
street had the best idea of what was going on. The 'experts' seemed to
The man in the street does indeed know more than these
experts because the American worker, as the American public in general, in its
own struggles with the bureaucrats, inside and outside factories; in its own
aspirations for a new society and struggle for it feels at one with the Russian
and East German workers. It is not a question of language. It is a question of
experiences and expectations.
1. The Vorkuta camp, 1,500 miles north of Moscow, was a
coal mine that employed tens of thousands of slave laborers at a time. In total,
more people perished in Vorkuta than at Auschwitz.
2. See Joseph Scholmer, Vorkuta (New York: Henry Holt
& Co., 1955)
3. General Kozma N. Derevianko was a major figure in
Stalin's regime, who along with Gen. Douglas McArthur accepted the surrender of
the Japanese in 1945.
4. The "Big Four" refers to the U.S., Russia,
England and France, the occupying powers which controlled Berlin after World War
Published by News and Letters Committees