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					                  Once a miner, always a miner?

Employment issues in the Russian coal industry: past and
                       present




Annette Robertson,
Centre for Comparative Labour Studies,
Department of Sociology,
Warwick University,
Coventry,
CV4 7AL
                                                   2


… Soviet miners are a renowned people, from a manly profession, one of the most
honoured in our country …(USSR Coal Ministry: 1977)


For almost half a century, Soviet mineworkers were hailed in Soviet literature as the
heroes of socialist labour. In recognition of their supremacy in the sphere of industrial
production - the most prized in the Soviet economy - mineworkers were rewarded by
the regime with high relative wages and advantageous pension rights, in addition to
other non-monetary rewards. Such official acknowledgement of mineworkers’ status
served to create the notion of a special breed of workers - the industrial elite - not only
among the general population, which paid its respects, but among the mineworkers
themselves, who were proud of the position they held in society.

However, while the glorification of coal-mining and mineworkers dates back to the
late 1940s, the history of the coal industry in Russia is anything but glorious. During
the late 1920s and early 1930s, hundreds of thousands of peasants were drafted to
work in the Donbass coal mines of eastern Ukraine, as the country embarked upon its
first five-year plan. These conscripts were paid little, endured atrocious living and
working conditions, and were subject to heavy penalties for desertion (The Duchess of
Atholl (1932:38). The 1930s also witnessed the development of the GULAG,1
Stalin’s corrective camps which absorbed millions of victims into an extensive system
of forced labour. One of the major camp systems was located in the Soviet Arctic,
where camp inmates worked as forced labourers in the Pechora coal basin, helping to
exploit the significant mineral wealth of this area.2

A similar situation developed in Siberia, which had long been used as a place of exile
for the punishment of criminals and political offenders. Under Soviet rule, the region
was earmarked for significant economic growth through the development of its
mineral resources and industrial potential, for which the camp system and the forced
relocation of million of others provided low cost labour. As a result, the development
of the coal industry during the 1930s and 40s relied upon the slave labour of deportees
and victims of the GULAG. Many mineworkers - indeed most families in Siberia -
have deeply personal and moving stories to tell of how their parents or grandparents
came to be in Siberia, and the appalling conditions in which they lived and worked.
Most had to cover vast distances, often on foot, to be met if they survived by chronic
housing shortages and a complete lack of any social and economic infrastructure.
Equally as difficult to bear were the region’s notoriously harsh climatic conditions,
which have long hindered the development of Siberia, and which continue to render
much of the region a difficult environment for human existence.3
1
  GULAG is the Russian acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerov or Chief Administration of
Camps, the organisation which in 1930 assumed control of all camps.
2
  The development of the coal industry in the Komi Republic was based entirely on the use of forced
labour. In 1939, there were 8000 GULAG prisoners working in the mines of the Vorkuta Coal
Association: by 1946, their number had increased to 62,700. The number of political prisoners in the
GULAG began to fall only after Stalin’s death, when Krushchev announced amnesties. By 1959, 55%
of the Vorkuta Coal Association’s workers were recruited freely, and by the end of the 1960s, almost all
of the region’s coal miners were freely recruited (Dobryakova: 1996).
3
  Although the climate varies throughout the vast expanse of Siberia, many of the inhabited areas
experience an extreme continental climate, involving very short hot summers and extended sub zero
winters.
                                                   3




Despite such an horrific background of forced labour in the mines, the children and
grandchildren of those exiled or forcibly relocated to the region faced an entirely
different situation when they in turn had to decide whether or not to work in the coal
industry:

- My father worked in the coal industry for some time - he had no choice. He had to
support the family. He was deported from Saratov Oblast, where he worked with
cattle…I first went down the mine on my 18th birthday - you aren’t allowed to go
down before that… (and) … I thought, this is me… Since then, I’ve known no other
profession and I haven’t wanted to either. Before the Revolution, mining was not a
prestigious occupation. It was said that women married neither actors nor miners
because they liked to drink too much. Both were considered very non-prestigious. Of
course in this town mining is more prestigious.
(Alexander,4 aged 43)


By the time Alexander decided to join the coal industry, the image of mining had
changed from one which relied upon forced labour, to one which appealed to workers’
better instincts by emphasising the economic importance of the industry and
consequently of those who worked in it. The industry was made more attractive to
workers through the introduction of a system of privileges for its employees, which
included the payment of relative high wages, advantageous pension provisions, and
promises of priority access to housing and scarce consumer goods. These material
incentives were complemented by more symbolic gestures, such as the creation of an
annual holiday for coal industry workers - Miners’ Day - which reinforced the
prestigious nature of the industry and those who worked in it.

It is argued here, however, that many of the changes made to the industry were
theoretical in nature and had little real effect on the daily lives of Soviet mineworkers.
Interviews with mineworkers reveal that the conditions in which they and their
families lived and worked hardly changed over decades, remaining to this day harsh
and dangerous. In addition, many of the material and symbolic privileges that served
to distinguish mineworkers as a breed apart have been seriously eroded over the past
decade. So where does this leave Russian mineworkers? How do they reconcile their
relatively prestigious past, in terms of their status in the industrial hierarchy and the
privileges this afforded them, with the reality of the present? What do they think of
the changes that have occurred, and how will these changes influence their
employment choices in the future?

This paper is based on ESRC-funded research carried out in the town of Osinniki
(population 70,000) in southern Kuzbass, one of Russia’s principal coal basins. As
the town developed around the coal field, mining comprises its predominant industry.
The town and its outlying settlements serve four mining enterprises - one of which
was the Soviet Union’s second largest, Kapital’naya. All of those interviewed are

4
 Interviewees are referred to by their first names only. Where the initial of the surname has been
added, this is to distinguish between mineworkers with similar names.
                                                   4


either currently employed, or have worked at Kapital’naya at some time during the last
three decades, in one capacity or another. Their ages range from 26 to 56, the latter
now being the average life expectancy of a Russian male. While no claim may be
made to the universal nature of the respondents’ experiences of living and working
within the Russian coal industry, visits to other coal communities and material from
other sources reveal a certain homogeneity in the general life and work experiences of
mineworkers throughout the country.



The Soviet coal industry

The foundations for the system of special provisions - both financial and non-financial
- to coal industry workers were laid in the 1930s, a time of great upheaval in the
Soviet Union, as Stalin launched his programme of intense industrialisation. While
special provisions had previously been made to peasants drafted to the Donbass mines
during the early 1930s, these had not proved sufficient to stop workers from deserting
their posts.5 As a result, labour turnover, although high throughout the newly
prioritised industries, proved to be especially problematic in the coal industry,6 which
necessitated a shift towards such symbolic and material incentives, all of which
provided miners with a sense of their own much hyped importance, status and
prestige.


Material incentives

The miners are entitled to an extra leave of 12 - 24 work days and their wages are
higher than in other industries. (USSR Coal Ministry: 1977)

The role of financial incentives to industrial workers achieved prominence when the
supremacy of the mineworker was established and immortalised by the work of a
Donbass coal miner, who in 1935 fulfilled his target production norm 14 times over.
The subsequent creation of the Stakhanovite movement encouraged industrial workers
to attempt ever-increasing heroic levels of production, the validity of which was not
always assured. In return, significant rewards were on offer, both financial and non-
financial,7 although the main incentive was the former (Filtzer: 186). As a result, the



5
  In spite of a special monthly allowance of 13lbs of flour to those conscripted workers who maintained
a ‘normal’ level of output, it was estimated that of the 31,000 collective farmers recruited between
August and December 1930, over half soon left. 70% of 22,000 casual labourers also fled. (The
Duchess of Atholl, MP: 1932)
6
  High turnover was not a feature only of the early industrialisation period as chronicled by Filtzer
(1986: 51), but continued to pose problems for coal associations through the decades that followed, so
that between 1955 and 1985, for example, labour turnover in the Pechora basin was almost 100%
(Dobryakova: 1996). In Kuzbass, labour turnover in the coal industry was consistently high in the early
1990s, with 30-33% of the total workforce leaving, with 23-26% being taken on between 1993 and
1995 (Kemerovo Regional Employment Service: 1996]
7
  Non-financial benefits in the 1930s ranged from priority access to new books and journals to priority
access to scarce consumer goods and housing (Filtzer: 1986)
                                                      5


incentive to produce was put firmly on a material basis.8 Stalin emphasised his
conception of the nature of the Stakhanovite movement in a speech to a 1936
Stakhanovite conference as ‘the basis for the radical improvement in the material
welfare of the workers’ (Stalin: 1936).

Higher wages alone, however, did not guarantee the material welfare of the workers,
given the scarcity of consumer goods that was a feature not only of the early 1930s,
but of Soviet life through the decades to the early 1990s. Delegates from the Donbass
coal fields9 to the 1936 conference drew attention to this problem and called for the
allocation of more consumer goods to the region to satisfy the ‘growing demands of
the miners and their families’ (Petrov:1936) and to help them lead a more prosperous
life (Dyukanov: 1936). Those workers at the forefront of the Stakhanovite movement
received not only privileged access to consumer goods, but also to housing, which was
in extremely short supply. As the coal industry and Soviet state developed, the
privileges awarded to mineworkers were increased to include the provision of
advantageous pension provisions, in terms of both financial rewards and early
retirement, depending on workers’ service records in the collieries.


Benefits are also due to miners as they retire on pension. Those with at least a ten-
year seniority of underground work and a twenty year total working experience
become entitled to an old age pension at the age of 50. (USSR Coal Ministry: 1977)

More recently, mineworkers’ preferential pension rights were extended, making
mineworkers with a 20-year underground service record eligible for immediate
retirement, irrespective of age, which was an important symbolic acknowledgement of
mineworkers’ labour.


Symbolic incentives

While financial incentives were important for obvious reasons, the significance of
more symbolic incentives - such as belonging to a prestigious industry and enjoying
the respect of the general public - are more difficult to quantify. It is apparent,
however, that some incentives considered to be of symbolic importance were also
influential as a result of a financial element. The celebration of Miners’ Day, for
example, which appears to be a purely symbolic recognition of coal industry workers’
labour, included the payment of financial bonuses to selected workers. In general
terms, however, for many mineworkers the significance of the holiday was
unequivocally symbolic.


8
  Although Siegelbaum (1988) cites Stakhanovism as having moved the incentive to produce onto a
material basis, at the expense of moral incentives, there is little to suggest that a moral incentive initially
existed in the coal industry, except as wishful thinking on the part of the government apparatus.
9
  There were no delegates from Kuzbass, a fact to which Stalin drew attention, saying that the
Stakhanovite movement had ‘not yet succeeded in getting started’ in Western Siberia, a situation which
he hoped the activities of the Party would soon remedy (Stalin: 1936). The first Siberian Stakhanovite
rally was held in Novosibirsk around the same time, with the first two Osinniki Stakhanovites returning
home with ‘unusual’ rewards for the time - a piano and a motorbike (Tsyryapkin: 1989).
                                                     6




Every year on the last Sunday in August, the coal miners mark their traditional
holiday - the Miners’ Day. (USSR Coal Ministry: 1977)

Miners’ Day was instigated as a professional holiday by Joseph Stalin in 1947. The
first Miners’ Day was celebrated on 29 August 1948 and declared the National
Holiday of Soviet Miners. Newspaper headlines proclaimed, ‘Long live the Soviet
miners!’ and, ‘Long live the miners’ best friend - the great Stalin!’10 The media lead-
up to this first Miners' Day lasted for several weeks, with exhaustive daily news
reports from Soviet coal fields on targets and production figures highlighting one of
the regime’s main motives for the creation of the holiday: socialist competition.

To many rank and file mineworkers, however, their professional holiday served as an
annual state and public acknowledgement of the dangerous work they carried out on a
daily basis. Miners’ Day symbolised and expressed the public’s respect for the
mineworkers, and their valuable contribution to the country’s economy:

- (Miners’ Day) … our professional holiday. We were proud to be miners and people
in other professions respected the miners because of the work we did. Miners died at
work and still do. It’s a dangerous profession to have and we were proud to do the
job.
(Nikolai, aged 46)

While the introduction of an annual professional holiday for coal industry workers
was nothing particularly out of the ordinary,11 there was doubtless an added
imperative for the creation of a mineworkers’ holiday, given the historical
connotations of work in the industry and the overwhelming need to recruit more
workers to ensure that targets and plans were successfully met.12 The holiday thus
helped to bestow a certain credibility and a much needed sense of respect on the work
of the mineworkers. It was also an excellent opportunity to publicise the perks of the
profession and remind the mineworkers of the honoured position they held in the
industrial hierarchy, encouraging loyalty to the trade and preventing potential
disillusionment:

- (Miners’ Day…) That was the miners' safety valve (otdushina) - we always looked
forward to that day for a long time and marked it with pleasure… There were awards
and bonuses and a special meal for management, but not only for them. The director
would gather together the mine section chiefs and select some workers to attend with
their wives. We'd all get together in the dining room, where there would be a band …


10
   Kuzbass Newspaper, 29/08/48. No. 171.
11
   Many occupational groups in Russia, including teachers, medical workers, agricultural workers and
military personal for example, have their own annual ‘professional’ holiday, and most still celebrate to
varying degrees.
12
   Incentives also played the less altruistic role of detracting attention from the more negative aspects of
the industry, and of motivating workers in Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia. There was no hidden
agenda in using awards to motivate workers to produce more: ‘Government awards are not only a high
mark of achievement and perfection, but a powerful means of mobilising workers in the coal industry
to meet targets successfully …’ (USSR Coal Ministry: 1975)
                                           7


music, and drinks. The director or his deputy would give a short speech and then
we'd all have a good time.
(Volodya, aged 57)

The added attraction of national celebrities visiting even the smallest mining
settlement further served to reinforce the idea that the miners constituted a
distinguished group of workers, deserving of special treatment:

- We always invited musicians to the town - the most popular musicians around that
year … the sort who seldom came here, but on Miners' Day! The holiday was
celebrated each year at the sports stadium, where a huge dance floor was set out.
Everything was paid for by the mine.
(Volodya, aged 57)

Financial problems at both national and local level have had an adverse effect on the
importance of Miners’ Day, although it is still celebrated - on a much smaller scale -
on the last Sunday of August in even the smallest of mining communities. However,
one of the former attractions of Miners’ Day - the presentation of labour awards and
financial bonuses to workers with exemplary production and service records - is no
longer a feature of the holiday.


Honours for the miners’ labour

Coal miners enjoy universal respect and honour in the USSR (which) awards the best
mineworkers with orders and medals.

For many years’ faultless labour in the coal industry, mine workers, engineers and
technicians are awarded the sign ‘Miners’ Glory’ 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree, or else given
the title of Honorary Miner.

Diplomas of merit and money bonuses are paid ‘on the strength of their yearly
production results’. (USSR Coal Ministry: 1977)


The presentation of labour awards to mineworkers played an important symbolic role
as mineworkers were seen to be rewarded publicly for their loyalty to the industry and
for any outstanding contributions they had made during the course of the year, or over
the period of their working lives. The allocation of awards and bonuses was an
official mark of recognition of their work in the industry, regardless of grade and
position in the work force, which added to mineworkers’ sense of status and pride.
Although Miners’ Day is now in decline, past celebrations are remembered with great
nostalgia:

- Even then there were people who worked well and others who didn’t work as well.
Those who worked harder were rewarded, perhaps with a financial bonus or an
award from the government… When someone used to receive such an award, it was
very pleasant - a sign of excellence. Because this is a mining town, all sorts of people
                                                 8


were given labour awards, and it was pleasant just to watch them receive their
awards - they used to be respected.
(Nikolai, aged 46)

Taken together, the introduction of a system of symbolic and material incentives to
mineworkers played a significant role in changing the image of the coal industry: it
helped to demonstrate the government’s support of the industry, thus enhancing the
status of mineworkers not only as valued, but even as favoured members of society,
worthy of admiration and respect. It is not surprising, therefore, that these incentives
are widely quoted by mineworkers to explain why they were initially attracted to the
coal industry.


Becoming a miner

Mineworkers of all ages agree that in the past they were part of an industry that
enjoyed public respect, of which many were proud. The pride and prestige associated
with the profession, and the respect they believed they would earn as a result of
becoming coal industry workers were cited by many to explain their initial attraction
to the coal industry.

- Miners were always treated with respect - their work was highly valued. They used
to have uniforms - and they were proud to wear them, it was like being part of an
army.
(Viktor, aged 26)

Although respect and prestige were important factors, their symbolic significance also
stemmed from the fact that they were consolidated by the financial and non-financial
rewards previously outlined which, given the nature of life and work in the industry,
were an important palliative. It is apparent from interviews that the high relative
wages paid to mineworkers as members of one of the country’s key industries played a
crucial role in attracting them, and subsequently maintaining their loyalty to the coal
industry, as well as giving them a sense of their own status.13

- … there’s nothing better than a production worker. We’re paid more and we can
retire earlier.
(Sergei L., aged 37)

Of course there are exceptions to the general rule that mineworkers were attracted to
the profession purely for financial gain: some miners, for example, revealed a genuine
desire to follow a family tradition, and had already decided at a very early age how
they wanted to earn a living.


13
  For comparison, in 1960 (pre-currency reform), wages in the Pechora coal basin varied from R2000 -
R6000, including bonuses and extra payments to northern communities, while the Soviet Union’s
average monthly per capita wage stood at R1270 (Dobryakova: 1996). More recent figures for 1989
show that miners earned on average 400 Roubles, compared to metal workers - R340, construction
workers - R331, energy workers - R325 and machine builders - R267, despite an overall decline in
growth rates of miners’ wages during the previous 3 years (Luksha: 1996).
                                                     9


- I grew up in a mining family and saw for myself how miners worked. It was
accepted that we were a mining family and no-one ever had to provide for us except
ourselves. I decided myself that I wanted to be a miner. When I was in Year 4 or 5
(aged 11 or 12), I wrote an essay in which I described our family mining dynasty - my
grandfather was a miner, my father is a miner, and I wanted to be a miner too. Even
when I finished college I dreamt of being a miner. I dreamt my whole life of being a
miner. I think a man should live through his work, and I was proud to follow in their
footsteps.
(Viktor, aged 26)

Although family pressure may provide an additional incentive for those born into such
families where the mining tradition is very strong - the famed mining dynasty14 on
which so much praise is lavished - even Viktor reveals that to his family, mining was
the most effective means of making a good living. The opposite side of this coin is
having parents or grandparents involved in the coal industry who are not in favour of
their children following them into the mines:

- My father didn’t want me to become a miner, but I was stubborn… Perhaps it was
the risk factor? The danger? In Osinniki, there is nothing else to do really.15 Such
purely masculine professions - mining and driving - are all that we have… It’s hard
work, but I’m used to it. It’s a man’s profession… I chose to become a miner. They
say that miners choose their profession by knowledge, vocation or heritage. Well I
inherited the profession.
(Sergei C., aged 29)

Although many people perceive their association with the coal industry simply as an
acceptance of the inheritance passed down from parents and grandparents, not
everyone who wanted to enter the profession had equal opportunities to do so. While
the standard route into mining used to be through the local technical schools, mining
institutes and academies, which churned out one generation of miners after another,
access to employment in the coal industry was often subject to the possession of
blat,16 despite the fact that demand for labour at mining enterprises was theoretically
high. In this respect, mining enterprises were to some extent prestigious clubs, to
which not everyone had access. Unless would-be recruits had relatives or
acquaintances already working in the collieries, it was not inevitable that they would
find work in the mines.


14
   In 1982, the year in which Kapital’naya mine celebrated its 50 th anniversary, there were more than 10
mining dynasties active at the mine. The largest - the Koroviny family - had a joint service record of
more than 400 years over three generations, and included the wives of 3 of the 6 Koroviny brothers,
whose father had started the mining dynasty in 1934. (Shakhta Kapital’naya - 50 lyet: 1982)
15
   This is one of the standard reasons given by mineworkers to explain their choice of work. However,
while the lack of industrial diversification renders issues of choice of occupation complex, even in the
town of Osinniki, which is considered an archetypal mining town, of the 43,500 employed in the
national economy in 1993, only 21,270 (49%) were industrial workers (Tsyryapkin: 1995). It is not so
much a question of there being no alternatives to mining, but of mining being preferable for the reasons
outlined in this paper.
16
   ‘Blat’ can be translated roughly as influence or ‘pull’, and was an important feature of Soviet society,
whereby those in positions of influence or with special access to scarce goods and commodities could
benefit through a network of ‘back-scratching’ by exchanging favours.
                                            10


- I wanted to go into the mine when I completed my army service, but they weren’t
hiring unskilled labour at the time (beginning of 1969). It was very difficult for
inexperienced people like me to get jobs. I had to go to the technical college for two
years to study for a diploma in mining technology.
(Vladimir, aged 51)

In complete contrast, other mineworkers claim that it was precisely their lack of
education or any great academic potential that led them into work in the industry:

- (Becoming a miner) wasn’t a conscious decision. It was never my dream to become
a miner, although my father was a miner. I went into the mines because I didn’t do
very well at school and there was nowhere else to go.
(Sergei V., aged 26)

In this case Sergei V. not only exaggerates his lack of educational abilities - he
subsequently obtained a diploma in commerce - but also understates his family
connections, through which he was able to find a job at the mine. However, although
he started out working with his father, who trained him to be an electric fitter at one of
the town’s smaller mines, Sergei V. subsequently worked at Kapital’naya mine
following 12 months’ break from underground work, during which time he served in
the mine rescue team and tried his hand ‘in commerce’:

- I got the job through 'blat' of course: they had already started to make cuts and
there was no official hiring, although in actual fact people are always being hired. I
found a job at Kapital’naya through my wife’s mother: She had a friend who worked
in the mine as a book-keeper - in shop 20 (where I work).
(Sergei V., aged 26)


By the time Sergei V. returned to mining in the late 1980s, he was not entitled to any
special consideration due to his previous experience at another mine, although this
would in the past have guaranteed him a job. In the main, mining enterprises feel
obliged to offer work to only one particular group of people - those returning from
compulsory military service who have previously completed some training at the
mine, although they may not feel sufficiently obliged to reinstate such workers at the
grades the latter expect. For example, despite studying for four years to receive a
diploma in mine engineering at the local Mining Technical College, Sergei C. found
himself back at square one when he returned home from his military training:

- When I finished my army service, I had to go in as a general underground labourer -
the lowest grade of worker - because management said the mine didn't need higher
grade workers at the time.
(Sergei C. aged 29)

In addition to keeping wages down, taking on miners at lower grades than they
deserved also offered management the opportunity of demonstrating patronage to
individual workers as and when it suited them - another aspect of blat in the coal
industry:
                                                  11


- I wanted to work in production,17 but there weren't any vacancies, so the shop chief
told me to work for a while as a development worker, and he’d transfer me to
production when there was an opening. I'm still working as a development worker,
and of course the wages are lower. Now I'm trying to get into production through
blat. There are places available: 3 others were recently taken on as production
workers, transferred from another section, but I wasn't 'promoted'. So I keep working
in development…
(Sergei V., aged 26)

The three mineworkers offered better paid production jobs ahead of Sergei V.
evidently had better access to blat than he did. As with many others who encounter
irregularities and unfairness in the grading system, he had little choice but to accept
the situation he found himself in, especially as the mine, like many other enterprises,
is presently in a precarious financial position. Moreover, since most mineworkers get
their jobs at the mine through similar procedures, it would be hypocritical of them to
complain about the situation. Nevertheless, some are sufficiently angered by the
vagaries of enterprise patronage to make a formal complaint:

- I had a student whom I had to teach how to use the machinery: he’d been a
policeman… Although he was my student, he came in at grade 5, while I was a grade
4 electric fitter - my student had a higher grade than me! That was because his wife
worked in a shop and when he came to work, he didn't come empty handed. He came
with two bags of meat - not for free of course, but cheaper than could be had in the
shops. He sold it to the boss for R1.20 per kilo, while we miners had to pay 8 Roubles
per kilo at the market. I complained of course, why should my student have a higher
grade than me? Because I complained, they wanted to get rid of me. I was given my
orders to work in another section as duty electrician.
(Ivan, aged 51)

Despite such problems, none of the obstacles faced by the above mineworkers was
serious enough to force them to consider seeking alternative jobs elsewhere because,
as mineworkers, they had already reached the pinnacle of the opportunities available
to them in respect of the higher wages (and the benefits these allowed for) and
advantageous pension provisions enjoyed by coal industry workers. Although the
system of patronage could appear unfair to individuals, the mineworkers together
formed a privileged industrial group, shielded by the closed nature of coal enterprise
labour markets, which guaranteed job security. If they wanted to continue to receive
high relative wages, they had little choice but to accept local working and living
conditions and get on with the job of earning a living.

The closed nature of coal enterprise labour markets further served to reinforce the idea
of mineworkers as a breed apart, a special group to which most were proud to belong.
Having gained access to the highly paid mineworkers’ ‘club’, many were reluctant to

17
   The highest wages among the rank and file mineworkers continue to be paid to those who are directly
involved in the production of coal, while other posts considered ‘auxiliary’ are less well remunerated.
For example a skilled and experienced production worker (grade 5) should earn the highest wage
among the rank and file workers, while an experienced electric fitter (also grade 5) usually earns
slightly less, and a development worker slightly less again. Machine (combine) operators are also
awarded grade 5 and often receive the highest wages of all mineworkers (most are highly qualified
production workers before they train to be machine operators).
                                                   12


renounce their perceived privileged positions and thus forgo the exclusive benefits of
membership. However, in spite of the apparent privileges enjoyed by coal industry
workers, which enticed many to work in the collieries, the reality of life and work in
coal communities was not always as advantageous as it theoretically appeared.


The miner’s life

Although the privileges offered to mineworkers to attract them to the coal industry
were genuine, they operated at a fairly superficial level, with the result that for many
the difficult nature of work and especially life in coal communities basically remained
the same for decades. One retired miner from Kaliningrad in European Russia, who
married a Siberian woman and returned to her home town in search of work, described
his first impressions of the region and town:

- We arrived in Siberia in December 1967. It was 40 degrees below, and we arrived
with our daughter who was only 4 months old at the time. We came by train - it was
terrible, it took 4 days… I didn't know what to expect from Siberia. To me it was
completely wild. The cold was frightening. My in-laws had their own home up by the
mine, and all day and night, gas was flared off. The blue flames were also
frightening, but there was nowhere else to live and nowhere else to work, except for
the mines… We lived in one of the old barracks up by the mine, built by German
deportees.18 At that time the barracks were called 'klopovniki' (bug infested places),
because of all the 'klopi' (bugs) that lived there.
(Ivan V., aged 51)

The ‘barracks’ - 2 storey wooden blocks of flats constructed in the early 1940s - are
still in use today, housing mining and non-mining families alike. So, in spite of the
fact that the coal industry had been selected for preferential treatment in housing
matters, housing shortages continued to be a huge problem throughout society, as the
Soviet regime failed to make up the deficit in housing.19 It is therefore not surprising
that many mineworkers claim they were at least partly attracted to the mining industry
by promises of priority access to housing, as befitted members of the country’s
foremost industrial group of workers. However, while miners as a group may have
formed the industrial vanguard, it is evident that not everyone was in the same
position vis-à-vis the allocation of flats: one miner spoke of a ‘ladder of blat', which
enabled him to receive a flat with relative ease, even before he got a job at the mine:

- We were lucky with accommodation. When I was still working as a builder, I was a
Komsomol (Communist Youth League) secretary and the City Communist Party
helped me get a 1-roomed flat. At that time you could wait 20 or 30 years for a flat or

18
   Motivated by a need to introduce modern farming techniques, Catherine the Great began the process
of inviting German nationals to settle in Russia. There were three waves of emigration between 1764
and 1862, with immigrants mainly settling on the Black Sea and in the Volga region. A German oblast
was established in Saratov and granted autonomy in 1918. However, at the beginning of the 1940s,
Stalin ordered the inhabitants deported to Central Asia, and many ended up in Western Siberia.
Although large numbers of ethnic Germans (‘Russian Germans’) have left for Germany since barriers to
emigration came down in the early 1990s, there is still a substantial German diaspora in parts of
Western Siberia.
19
   In the mid 1990s, there were 10 million people on housing waiting lists in Russia, thirteen per cent of
whom had been waiting for more than a decade (Mandel: 1995).
                                                 13


never get one at all. For example if you worked in a job that wasn't considered one of
the core professions, such as in hairdressing or communal services, you could work
your whole life and never get a flat. But builders got flats, miners got flats.
(Volodya, aged 57)

So although as members of one of the so-called core professions, mineworkers were
theoretically in a comparatively better position in the housing stakes than other
workers, the main priority was nevertheless given to those with Communist Party
connections, such as Volodya above. Many rank and file workers had to wait on
endless housing lists for 10, 20, even 30 years, with no guarantee that their name
would eventually reach the top of the list:

- My elder brother … received a 1-roomed flat from the mine and immediately put his
name down for a larger flat. More than 20 years later, he died without having
received a larger flat.
(Vladimir, aged 51)

Housing continues to be a huge problem throughout Russia, with little empirical
evidence to show that the problem was any less acute in mining areas than in non-
mining areas. The opposite may even be true, given that accommodation which has
long been condemned as unsafe continues to house mining families in many
communities where demand for accommodation far exceeds supply.20 The Soviet
rhetoric of an ‘honoured’ and privileged profession therefore did little to alleviate
mineworkers’ housing problems.


As for mineworkers other ‘privileges’, most of them were paid for in countless other
ways - in addition to generally poor housing conditions, the dangerous and difficult
working conditions, harsh climate and the poor ecology of the areas in which they
lived and worked all had an effect on mineworkers’ health, and lowered their life
expectancy. Although mineworkers had privileged access to consumer goods and
other scarce products, so that in relative terms they appeared to be a privileged group
of workers, in absolute terms they were no better off than any other group of workers.

Moreover, while mineworkers received higher wages relative to other groups of
workers, they never came close to constituting a prosperous group as such, primarily
because of the previously existing monetary relations of the Soviet Union, in which
access to consumer goods was not secured by money alone, but rather through blat, to
which not everyone had equal access. This system did not, however, eliminate the
need for money, since while good connections won access to scarce consumer goods
(for example), even scarce goods secured through blat still had to be paid for,
rendering purchasing power as important as access to blat. For larger purchases in
particular, mineworkers higher wages were significant, as Vladimir, a mine foreman,
explained.

- (Although) the shop shelves were empty, we still got things through the mine, such as
clothes and furniture and cars. Cars were only given to the best workers, but you still

20
  In the Siberian mining town of Prokopievsk, for example, 12,621 mining families live in dilapidated
and subsidence-damaged homes, most of which are located above existing mine works. Another 1600
families are due for re-housing, and more than 6000 are on the housing list (Rosugol' and
Prokopievskugol': 1995)
                                           14


had to wait in a queue. But I was lucky; I didn’t have to wait in the queue. While I
was still a development worker, our assistant section chief was in line for a car, but
when his name came up, he decided he didn't want it after all. I had been thinking
about buying a car, and when the opportunity came up I decided to buy it. I was only
32 and had dreamt of having a car. I'd already saved up a lot of money and decided
to take it. Even at that time, it cost a lot of money compared to the average wage.
The car cost R6000, and my wage was R300-350 / month, but it was possible.
(Vladimir, aged 51)

It is therefore not surprising that for the majority of mineworkers, wage levels were
crucial, despite the fact that their high relative wages did not in most cases equate with
western notions of prosperity. Mineworkers were far from prosperous if measured
against standards in the West, but their wages and privileged access to certain
consumer goods did allow for the acquisition of certain luxuries, which were not
readily available to the general public:

- We were never rich, but we could get by. When I started at the mine, I earned R120
while (my wife) Galina earned R60, and each month we saved R20, but of course our
parents helped - they kept cows and therefore we could get milk and meat from them,
just like we try to help our own kids now. But nevertheless when we decided to buy a
car, in 2 years I'd saved enough to do so. My mother helped a bit - she loaned me
1000 Roubles, but I managed to repay her in a few months.
(Vladimir, aged 51)

While financial reward provided the main incentive to many of those interviewed, few
expected to receive any other type of satisfaction from their work in the collieries. It
therefore surprised some workers when they subsequently discovered that life
underground was not as bad as they had imagined it would be:

- … I went to work (in the mine) and found that I quite liked working there. The
wages were good and my parents had recently divorced, so the family was in quite a
difficult situation financially. When I was able to go to work and help out, it was
wonderful. I was satisfied with the work for a certain period of time.
(Sergei V. aged 26)

For many such workers, the harshness of life underground was softened by the
financial rewards they obtained by carrying out their dangerous and difficult jobs.
Only one ex-miner admitted to any sort of emotional response to the process of coal
production:

- … when I see the coal moving along the line, I am moved to tears. You organise and
you push the section to produce coal, and when it is finally on its way to the wagons, I
can’t help but be moved by it all.
(Volodya, aged 57)

Despite such a gut reaction, even Volodya failed to experience any real sense of
satisfaction from the work he did in the mines for 28 years, and again, financial
matters take precedence:
                                                   15


- In the final analysis, I have only bad memories, although I gave the job everything I
had… As for satisfaction, well especially during the last few years, the job brought
nothing of the sort. Only the wages were important to me.21

Despite the adverse conditions in which mineworkers and their families lived and
worked for decades, the continued receipt of high relative earnings, together with the
public respect they earned, offered some compensation. In absolute terms,
mineworkers’ lives were not better or easier than those of the rest of the population,
but in relative terms, their privileges, which amounted to many small advantages, as
much symbolic expressions of their ‘distinctiveness’ as materially beneficial, provided
a basis for comparison, which enabled mineworkers to consider themselves a
distinguished breed apart, with their own identity. Mineworkers’ expectations of high
relative wages, however, left them vulnerable to the consequences of the economic
decline that has affected Russia during the past five years, to the extent that their
relatively privileged position has come under attack, undermining the very concept of
mineworkers as the industrial elite. How have miners reacted to such threats and what
do they signify for the future of the industry’s workers?


Once a miner, always a miner?

The Russian government’s re-evaluation of the coal industry as part of the programme
of economic reform has completely altered the status quo in the coal industry: the old
imperative of attracting workers to mining has been replaced by a new objective of
shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs.22 Consequently mineworkers now find
themselves in much the same position as the Russian population in general, facing
huge wage delays and threatened by unemployment - a turn of events that was
completely unthinkable less than a decade ago:

- No-one used to have any idea what unemployment was, how it could turn everything
around, how it could affect people. When we first heard the news that in some far off
town or other, unemployment had appeared and there were 5 or 10 people registered
at the labour exchange, it was so far removed and so unreal that we never believed
that miners could become unemployed… We couldn't even begin to imagine!
(Sergei V. aged 26)

The unthinkable has become a reality and qualified mineworkers increasingly number
amongst the unemployed in most towns where mining was prevalent.23 Mining


21
   Although Volodya was entitled to retire in 1990, he claimed he could not survive on his ‘miserable’
pension and continued to work until 1994 when he found a replacement for his job in the coal industry -
something he could do for his own satisfaction (‘dlya dushe’) which paid as much as he had earned as a
miner - he became a bee keeper and now lives comfortably by selling honey.
22
   The restructuring programme for the coal industry, which envisaged losses of up to 493,000 direct
jobs between 1995 and 1997, 224,400 of these in Kuzbass, was drawn up by the World Bank.
Although it subsequently allocated loans to the Russian government of $500 million to mitigate the
social consequences of restructuring, there is little evidence to suggest that much has been done to help
the miners.
23
   In Osinniki, for example, almost 5% of the 2613 unemployed manual workers as of June 1996 were
former mineworkers (Local Employment Service statistics).
                                                  16


enterprises have frozen all recruitment24 and are now actively seeking to cut numbers.
Incentives are now needed to encourage workers to leave, rather than to stay in the
industry. The prestige once associated with the industry has gone, as wage levels are
increasingly eroded, more or less nullifying the most important of the perceived
benefits of a life in mining:

- You can't compare the past with the present: you can’t say whether it was better
then or now, but at some point some things were better. I earned a good wage, I had
enough money to buy clothes and food and everything else I needed. Moreover I
could save a bit for the future … Now it's difficult for most miners.
(Nikolai, aged 46)

In addition to the loss of monetary rewards, mineworkers have also lost much of the
respect they previously enjoyed. This loss of the respect, which coal industry
employees previously attracted through their dedication to their difficult and
dangerous jobs, is a theme which is continually raised by mineworkers who are
disillusioned with the changes that have occurred in their profession over recent years:

- I used to be proud to be a miner, but not any longer. Times have changed. It used to
be a good, prestigious profession … people respected us - it was difficult and
dangerous work.
(Sergei L. aged 44)

The perceived loss of respect is especially difficult from many to accept, given the
role this factor played in their decisions to become miners. Many now recognise that
coal mining no longer carries inferences of pride and prestige as it used to, and that
unqualified respect for those who work in the industry is a thing of the past:

- Mining used to be something to be proud of … People would ask, ‘What do you
do?’, and if you replied you were a miner, you felt you had something to be proud of.
Now they say, ‘Find yourself something better’.
(Sergei C., aged 29)

Although such comments are hurtful and humiliating, mineworkers’ nostalgia for the
past appears to stem not so much from the loss of their pride or status, but rather from
the loss of their financial security, about which they are particularly resentful. They
are not alone in lamenting the passing of a certain income stability - the nature of
which is characterised by their perfect memories of the former prices of food,
clothing, and travel. The cost of goods and services in the past is used as a constant
point of reference for many, especially those of a certain age or generation:

- Wages used to be very high. For example, my wife and I had a combined wage of
R700-R800 before perestroika. With this money I could fly to Moscow 10 times. Now
a miner's wage wouldn't pay for one trip to Moscow. Miners now earn…well the
24
  The freeze on recruitment is a moot point, as mining enterprises continue to hire workers to make up
for ‘shortages’ caused by voluntary turnover. However, the recruitment process has been tightened up,
so that only those workers directly appointed by the mine directors are now taken on. The influence of
blat on recruitment has therefore become more important, although even family connections are no
longer a guarantee of work in the collieries.
                                           17


highest wages tend to be paid to the most prestigious professions - coal cutters and
development workers, who earn about R3 million, while all other workers - surface
workers, train drivers, and all the service personnel - earn between R1 million and
R1.5 million. They’d be lucky to get back from Moscow on one month's wage!
(Volodya, aged 57)

Mineworkers have seen their living standards plummet, not only as a result of the
decline in their relatively high wages, but also as a result of the huge wage delays
many now face. As a result, some have left the collieries for jobs outside the industry.
In most instances they are required to compromise on wage levels in return for a
certain stability of earnings, which has not been a feature of the coal industry during
the past few years:

- One of my friends left (the mine) to work as a security guard in Novokuznetsk. He
only gets R1,200,000, which isn't much really compared to what he got as a miner,
but at least he gets paid on time every month.
(Sergei C., aged 29)

In other words, mineworkers are being forced onto the labour market like everyone
else, which challenges the common assertion that mineworkers are a breed apart, a
special group with occupationally specific and non-transferable skills and culture, who
are unable to find alternative employment without extensive retraining, but hostile to
the notion of such retraining. While many are reluctant to seek alternative jobs, many
believe they have little choice in the matter, given for example, the lack of suitable
alternatives. However, there are other less tangible reasons for mineworkers’
reluctance to seek alternatives, one of which is the belief held by many that despite the
persistent nature of wage delays - most mining enterprises now have permanent delays
of up to six months - such problems are temporary. Others refuse even to accept the
premise that the golden era of mining is over, despite the overwhelming evidence to
the contrary:

- I was never a communist but (under communism) we had some sort of order and
demand and industry and production. Now we have nothing. Everything has gone.
Before perestroika things were better. Compare, for example, production at
Kapital’naya: in 1987 we had our best year ever - 3.6 million tonnes of coal. Now
we're lucky to make 1.5. million. You see the slump?
(Alexander, aged 43)

Unconcerned by the increasingly difficult nature of life and work in coal communities,
many are adamant that they would be more than willing to remain in the industry were
more stable times to return. Moreover some also state that they would be happy for
their male children to follow them underground if things were to return to how they
were previously:

- If mining was still as before - prestigious and well-paid work, then I wouldn't mind if
my sons became miners. What about the danger? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
(Ivan K., aged 32)
                                                   18


The inherent dangers of work in the coal industry have long been forgotten and even
the threat of restructuring appears to have little to do with decisions to leave the
industry: only the perceived lack of financial stability is now forcing some to leave
the industry:

- …when they know their bonuses will only be paid 4 months in arrears, and they
aren't sure in what form they'll be paid - it’s complete nonsense - they just don't know
what will happen. Of course this influences them. They don't see the results of their
labour. If they received their money on time, I think many more would stick with their
jobs.
(Viktor, aged 26)



The changing labour force

The decline in relative wages and chronic wage delays is not only forcing
mineworkers to seek alternatives in other industries, but is also having a detrimental
effect on the recruitment of younger workers, which does not bode well for the future
of what remains of the industry following restructuring:

- It's especially difficult for young people starting out now. It’s not only the mines
that aren’t hiring, it's difficult everywhere, and when they do find a job, they are paid
peanuts… Work forces are changing because young people aren't being recruited
and older miners aren't leaving because they can't live on their pensions alone.
Young people don't want to go into the mines, no-one does. Why? Because it's
difficult work, it's not well paid and it's dangerous for your health. Why bother going
into the mine then? Stand on the square instead and sell!25
(Nikolai, aged 46)

Since the difficult and dangerous nature of coal mining appears always to have been
only a minor disincentive compared to the attraction of the high material rewards
involved in coal mining, a relative drop in average wages is most likely to be the
deciding factor in young people’s decision not to enter the profession, despite the
apparent lack of alternatives in many areas to work in the coal industry.26 It is also
likely, however, that some young people are turning away from mining partly as a
result of the changing attitudes to the occupation:

- (Mining) was a prestigious job. Miners were respected, young people wanted to go
into mining. When people finished college or technical school, they went into the
25
   The town’s central square has developed into a thriving market, where fruit, vegetables, and clothing,
for example, may be bought from market traders, some of whom are ex-miners.
26
   Young people have also had to cope with the freeze on recruitment, especially a huge reduction in the
number of graduates being recruited directly from institutes and technical colleges. For example, in
1993, 329 (74%) of the region’s 442 technical school graduates found jobs. In 1994, 160 (38%) of 419
graduates were placed in jobs, while in 1995, only 55 (17%) of 320 found jobs. Changes also occurred
to the nature of recruitment over these three years, so that by 1995, 95% of those who found jobs had
studied under contract to the mine, compared to 74% in 1994, and 59% in 1993. Those taken on by
employers on an ad hoc basis fell correspondingly from 41% in 1993, to 26% in 1994, to 5% in 1995
(Kemerovo Regional Employment Centre: 1996)
                                                   19


mines. Everyone knew what the mines were about, they all had experience of them,
but now young people don't want to work there.
(Sergei V., aged 26 )

Even where jobs are available and young people complete their training for mining
occupations, not all are subsequently prepared to spend their lives in the coal industry,
primarily as a result of the decline in mineworkers’ earning potential:

- We had three young men do their practical training with us, but once they'd finished
they said, that's it, we won't be going down a mine again. One of them was (my
wife’s) cousin who said he refused to work underground for R 800,000 / month.
(Sergei V., aged 26)

The result is an ageing workforce in many mining enterprises, a situation which is
being exacerbated by the erosion of mineworkers’ pensions, which also used to be
considered more than adequate:

- They say that we lived badly before, under communism, but at least we were certain
of the future, we knew we'd always receive a wage, our pensions were guaranteed and
enough to live on… Nowadays the pension is pathetic compared to what our parents
received. Our R300,000 pension now is the equivalent of R30 then. Money has lost
its value.
(Vladimir, aged 51)

Although most mineworkers agree that retirement provisions made for workers in the
coal industry were particularly advantageous, the latter also provide a focus for much
nostalgic deliberation. In contrast with the present situation in mining enterprises,
where large numbers continue to work once they have qualified for early retirement,27
many mineworkers like Vladimir above maintain that this was not the case in the past.
However, while it used to be legally impossible for pensioners to continue to work at
the mine and draw a pension, interviews with miners suggest that many nevertheless
continued to work underground for much longer than they had originally anticipated.
Long before the acute financial problems of recent times appeared, many mineworkers
who had worked long enough to qualify for early or immediate retirement
subsequently found themselves unable to turn their backs on higher earnings, despite
the fact that part of their initial attraction to work in the industry was the advantageous
pension provisions on offer:

- The law provided (for us to retire early), but if you leave the mine, you earn a lot
less than if you stay on after the 10 years, so people didn't leave. They trained and
worked and after 10 years, they'd have become used to the high wages - high wages
by our standards that is - by Russian standards.
(Volodya, aged 57)

Such was the attraction of high wages that many did not retire even when they had
completed 20 years of underground work, which qualified them for immediate
retirement, regardless of age, on what was by all accounts a good pension.
27
  Miners who are entitled to retire continue to work, receiving both a pension and a wage for two main
reasons. Firstly, pensions are much lower in relative terms than they used to be, and miners are
unanimous that they cannot live on their pension without an additional source of income. Secondly,
because of the 20-year rule, many mineworkers who are entitled to early retirement are relatively young
men, often with young families, and are therefore reluctant to retire until their children have grown up.
                                                  20




- We used to work for 10 years underground, which allowed us to retire at 50, so we'd
work 10 years underground and then work on the surface until retirement - when we
collected what was considered to be a good pension. I also thought I could work for
ten years underground, but I ended up working underground for 24 years.
(Nikolai, aged 46)

While mineworkers no longer receive relatively higher wages, the fear of losing out on
their still advantageous pension provisions adds to the reluctance of many, with only a
few years to work to reach the 10 or 20-year benchmarks, to seek alternative
employment outside the industry. In contrast, some are not convinced that staying on
will make any difference to the future. Sergei V., for example, is keen to move away
from Siberia, but has been advised by his father - a retired miner - to work out his ten
years to qualify for the miners’ pension. Sergei is sceptical of taking a long-term view
of the situation:

- (My father) told me to bide my time, not to be in a hurry. The most important thing
is to serve out my ten years in the mine, which will enable me to retire at 50. But I've
explained to him that I don't intend to sit here - to live here just to make up 10 years,
especially when I'm not being paid. What's the point? Maybe I'm in a hurry to get out
of here… I've already worked for 8 years, since I was 18. The only benefit I'd get out
of staying for the whole 10 years is that I will be entitled to receive my pension from
the age of 50. In other industries you have to work for 20 years before you qualify to
retire at 50 … But I'll receive nothing in the meantime, only when I turn 50, and even
now I see how those entitled to retire continue to work at the mine because they
receive so little as a pension. They don't get their pensions and they don't get their
wages.
(Sergei V., aged 26)

Sergei’s scepticism of the future is shared by many others, who have in recent years
seen the status of their industry collapse. For older generations in particular, such a
turn of events is difficult to comprehend. As they witness the dramatic reversal of
coal’s fortunes, so they witness the demise of their own:

- They say our government doesn't need coal now, yet under communism there was
never enough. They'd say come on, come on, come on! We’d work extra days - even
Sundays - so that only one in four shifts was off at any one time. The workers would
prefer to have weekends off, but they said that wasn't possible, the mine had to work
round the clock. So we work three days and then rest for one. Even now we don't
often get 2 consecutive days off… Now I’m in a hopeless situation. I no longer want
to work at the mine. I have to force myself to continue, but it’s too late for me to
transfer to a job on the surface, especially without any other qualifications. I'll just
wait until I'm thrown out of the mine.28
(Vladimir, aged 51)


28
  A few days before Vladimir was interviewed, the personnel department had worked out a redundancy
schedule for all pensioners still employed at Kapital’naya mine, beginning with immediate notice to all
those over the age of sixty. Having claimed his pension in 1991, Vladimir knew that he too would
eventually be forced to retire officially.
                                            21




The attitudes of Sergei and Vladimir are representative of the mood of their respective
generations: younger miners tend to be more willing, and perhaps able to try
something new, but are greatly hampered by the lack of feasible alternatives in the
regions where they live, while older workers are less likely to be prepared to make
changes, and instead wait for the inevitable to happen. All mineworkers, regardless of
age, are bitter about the changes that have occurred, particularly as some believe their
protest action of the late 1980s and early 1990s was one of the main catalysts of
economic reform. Some now contend that the mineworkers were wrong to back
Yeltsin and the democrats:

- …the strike for Yeltsin - was useless by the way - u-s-e-l-e-s-s… Apart from
inflation, the collapse of production, we've lost the (Soviet) Union, we've lost relatives
who now live 'abroad', we've lost everything. I believe that Yeltsin and the democrats
are to blame. We miners who supported him were stupid. He climbed to power on
our shoulders - only on our shoulders. We supported him… So we're now a
democracy, but democracy is going nowhere. And it will bring us nothing.
(Alexander, aged 43)

While few would readily agree with Alexander’s assertion that the miners were
‘stupid’ to support Yeltsin, with the benefit of hindsight others share his point of view
that the mineworkers were misguided to do so because the changes which they helped
to provoke have consequently worked against their own interests.

- People wanted things to change, but for the better. They never expected the changes
to act against the people, against the workers. We've yet to experience any positive
results from the changes that have occurred. Nothing has changed really, things have
just become worse. When we remember communist times, we always say, at least we
had work, we had hope, we received our wages on time, we could live, but now it's
difficult even to survive.
(Sergei V., aged 26)

Whether or not such nostalgia expresses accurate representations of the past is of
minor importance: more significant is the fact that such reminiscences reveal the
extent to which people felt secure under the old system, irrespective of their actual
working conditions and living standards. For many, the real tragedy of the reform
process has been the loss of stability in their working lives, when a certain
commitment to work could not fail to bring certain benefits, however fundamental:

- We (Russians) are a very patient people. We were patient for 70 years under the
communists, when it was said that they were rotten, that they repressed us, that they
sent us to prison … But if you went to the Komparty secretary or to the trade union
and told them you had nothing to eat and no money to buy food with, they would
always help… I don’t want you to think I have any nostalgia for the past: I was never
particularly enamoured with the communists, but during those times, those who
worked could live. But now that possibility has gone. Now it's the thieves and the
Mafia who can live, while those who work get nothing.
(Alexander, aged 43)
                                             22


Alexander is not alone in bemoaning the passing of the stability perceived to have
existed during the communist era:

- Now we don’t know what will happen, we just don't know. They say that we lived
badly before, under communism, but at least we were certain of the future, we knew
we'd always receive a wage, our pensions were guaranteed and enough to live on.
(Vladimir, aged 51)

In sharp contrast to perceptions of the past, there is no longer any certainty in the
future, and wages and pensions, the value of which has been seriously eroded, are
subject to long delays. Yet despite the apparent losses suffered by Russian
mineworkers since their questionable victories of 1989 and 1991 - losses that are both
financial and symbolic in nature - many remain reluctant to consider alternatives to
life in the coal industry. Although there are special conditions in coal communities
that contribute to mineworkers’ inability to seek other jobs, such as the lack of
industrial diversification, which restricts the availability of alternatives, there are more
basic reasons, some of which relate to mineworkers’ privileged treatment in the past.

While many of the privileges have now gone, this has only reinforced mineworkers’
desire to receive reasonable financial compensation for their labour. If they are not to
receive adequate financial recompense in the coal industry, they are more likely to
seek financial satisfaction elsewhere. Once again they are limited by a lack of suitable
alternatives: despite a devaluation of their earning capacity, mineworkers continue to
receive high relative wages, so that less well paid alternatives - where they exist - are
not always attractive. Only the increasingly acute financial problems experienced
throughout the industry have led to a situation in which some mineworkers have
become more interested in the stability, rather than the actual level of wages. If wage
delays persist, it is likely that increasing numbers of mineworkers will seek alternative
employment away from the industry, leading to further falls in total coal industry
employment.

It is evident, therefore, that while Russian mineworkers face fairly similar
circumstances, the ways in which they respond to the changing nature of work in the
industry and the threat of restructuring are not homogenous, but are to some extent
conditioned by their past experiences of work in the industry. In spite of the rhetoric
of shared distinctive characteristics, in practice mineworkers form a highly
differentiated group: as their status and employment situation changes, they are
increasingly under pressure to seek more stable employment opportunities wherever
possible, which in recent years has resulted in individual, rather than collective
responses. As the restructuring of the industry continues, mineworkers responses are
less likely to be influenced by the past, and more likely to be affected by contemporary
financial imperatives. Whether this will result in a re-appearance of the mineworkers’
traditional collective resistance to the restructuring programme, or have the opposite
effect of leading to increased fragmentation in - and possibly the demise of - the
Russian coal industry remains to be seen.

                                         *****
                                          23


REFERENCES

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