Vorkuta revolt 60 years on: ‘Russia more than ever full of revolutionaries…’

July 3, 2013

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya:

In 1953 Russian slave laborers in Vorkuta acted

Editor’s note: July-August marks the 60th anniversary of the historic strike in the Russian slave labor camp in Vorkuta. Following Dunayevskaya’s May 1953 Letters on Hegel’s Absolutes, the 1953 revolts in Russia and East Germany were formative events for Marxist-Humanism. Few agreed with her view that they were “the beginning of the end of Russian totalitarianism” until after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. This “Two Worlds: Notes From a Diary” column by Raya Dunayevskaya forCorrespondence, June 12, 1954, is in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #9347-48.

“You all seem to be so skeptical about the chances of a revolution in Russia. I am not sure myself. But, believe me, Russia is more than ever full of revolutionaries.”

Thus Brigitte Gerland addressed her co-journalists attending the Four Power Conference in Berlin last January. Miss Gerland, a German journalist who had been arrested in 1946 and sent to a Russian concentration camp, was one of several thousand German inmates who had suddenly been amnestied for the show at the Four Power Conference. Her audience was very skeptical because she was not telling a tale of woe, but of revolt. She would have found sympathetic listeners had she engaged in an abstract discussion of whether a revolt can occur under a police state, but not when she related that one had happened.


Gerland relates that she met students from the big cities of Russia: Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa. The outstanding among these were the sons of Old Bolsheviks, that is to say, sons of the leaders of the 1917 revolution who had been executed by Stalin in the infamous Moscow Trials of 1937. Those “children of the ‘generation of 1937’…had been educated in State orphanages and had managed to fight their way to the universities only by endless efforts and tricks. Now these would-be philosophers, historians or economists sat in the camp with 25 years of forced labor as their only future…” But they weren’t broken or resigned.

“In their view,” continues Gerland, “the Socialist State of the future would not be run by either one or several parties, but purely by workers’ and peasants’ ‘syndicats‘–they used the French word, picked from a study of the Paris Commune of 1871, which Lenin himself had hailed as his model before he seized power.”

Translated, the words Marx used in describing the Paris Commune were “the self-government of the producers.” In any case, the program of the youth “had been born from a desperate rejection of the alternatives of the system of Stalinist oligarchy on the one hand, and of Western ‘bourgeois’ democracy on the other. The parliamentary forms and the capitalist economy of the West held little attraction for these young people thirsting for social justice, who, as they put it, ‘were not ready to be seduced by motor cars and nylons.'”

East German youth, June 1953

A scene from the June 1953 East German revolt, whose 60th anniversary was marked in June. The uprising helped inspire the July-August 1953 Vorkuta revolt.

It is this youth group which Gerland credits with the “courage, vitality and initiative that a new kind of play is now being enacted against the same old backdrop of the camp system, while the big officers of the secret police look on and do not believe their eyes.”


The reference to the “new kind of play” is to the strike at Vorkuta, in European Russia. There are between 35 to 50 mines and 250,000 workers, some free, but mostly slave. Vorkuta supplies the coal for the industries of Leningrad; and no one had ever before heard, and the totalitarian bureaucracy had surely never conceived, of a strike of slave laborers. They began sending their big shots, their top names, down to the struck mines to offer some concession.

Gerland reports from her vantage point in a women’s camp. She speaks of the three types of resistance: the students already mentioned, the “believers,” a religious group, and the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians had all been in the underground movement. This week the Supreme Soviet of the Ukraine is in session. Premier Malenkov and Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Russian Communist Party, are both there. The whole agricultural campaign, over which Khrushchev is boss, is dependent on this rich “breadbasket of Russia.”

Of all the nationalities in Russia, the Ukrainians are the ones who are carrying on actual guerrilla warfare against Russia. It is clear that this is still going on. But at this point we are concerned only with the Ukrainians who were in this forced labor camp in Vorkuta and participated in the mine strike. At the time Frau Gerland left last Aug. 5, the strike was still going on.

Another eyewitness report by a Dr. Joseph Scholmer, who had directly participated in the strike, shows that the strike continued for several weeks. “Order” was finally restored, that is to say, troops opened fire. Sixty-four were killed, 200 wounded.

Dr. Scholmer had been in the anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II and arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, only to be rearrested by the Russians in 1950 and sent to a forced-labor camp for 25 years at hard labor. He was one of those amnestied and returned to Germany.


Dr. Scholmer was asked for the motives of the strike. “Our motives?” he asked. “Oh, they were fantastically mixed. Some wanted a little better living and working conditions. Others were hoping for a ‘new era’ now that Stalin was dead. Some wanted to imitate the 17th of June in Germany, which we had heard described over Radio Moscow and inPravda. Others wanted to destroy the system, and there was an old man in my barracks who cried over and over again, ‘Have we torn down the barbed-wire fence yet? Is it down, is it down?'”

No, the barbed wire has not been torn down, and freedom from Russian totalitarianism was not won by the East German revolt either. But two new pages in history were written: whoever before June 17 had heard of a mass revolt against a totalitarian dictatorship? Whoever had, before July, heard of slave laborers forcing concessions from a police state? Two pages in history that have shown the way to freedom.

That is why the former inmates, Dr. Scholmer and Miss Gerland, speak not so much of suffering as of revolt, of freedom. Not yet? “Not yet,” they too say, and go back to the quote from the great Russian poet, Pushkin, who back in 1827 wrote to his imprisoned friends:

Deep in the Siberian mine,
   Keep your patience proud;
The bitter toil shall not be lost,
   The rebel thought unbowed…
The heavy-hanging chains will fall,
   The walls will crumble at a word;
And Freedom greet you in the light,
   And brothers give you back the sword.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.