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NEWS & LETTERS, JUNE 2003

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives

On the 50th anniversary of the June 17, 1953 East German revolt

The myth of the invincibility of totalitarianism

Editor's note

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 importance.

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, 1204212046, has been edited for publication; footnotes are the editors'.

* * *

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 strike.

"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 dreams."

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 understand nothing."

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.  

NOTES

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 II.

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