Tragedy in Siberia


It has been a commonplace to describe Russians as fatalistic. They have, after all, borne in comparative silence their 26 million dead in the second World War, a further 10 million in their own civil war and the as yet uncounted casualties of the Stalinist terror. In this context the tragedy which took place yesterday in the coal mine in Novokuznetsk in western Siberia might appear of little consequence. But the pictures of the dead being carried out of the pit, the television images of wives and families waiting tensely for news of husbands, fathers and loved ones, have brought the grim realities of life and death in the mines of the Kuzbass into the comfortable living rooms of western Europe.

To older people and those in middle age these images may have triggered memories of similar scenes nearer to hand, in the mines of England and Wales, in darker days before safety regulations were enforced with any real severity. This comparison brings some political and historical lessons to the forefront. There were few groups in the western society of the past to whom communism was more attractive than to miners. They saw themselves, rightly, as oppressed and exploited to the extent that their very lives were put at risk. In the capitalist west the pressure applied by the miners' unions and a growing enlightenment among the mine owners led, gradually, to a situation in which such tragedies became fewer and farther between.

East of what was known as the Iron Curtain the attitude was different. Mineworkers were, paradoxically, exhorted to Stakhanovite levels of production in order to defeat capitalism even if their own safety was imperilled in the process. Not surprisingly when, in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr Boris Yeltsin, then an up and coming politician, offered capitalism in place of communism, the miners of Siberia and the Don were his strongest and most active supporters. They attended massed rallies whenever he called for their aid. They threatened to bring the Soviet Union to a standstill and their actions were reported with enthusiasm in the United States and western Europe. Their political clout also brought them, briefly, to wage levels which were far superior to those in other industries.

From the introduction of economic reforms in 1992 onwards, disillusionment set in. Mr Yeltsin is certainly not the miner's hero in today's Russia. Colleagues of the men who died in such awful circumstances yesterday have, throughout the Russian Federation been waiting, stoically as usual, for several months to receive their wages. In the presidential elections of last summer western Siberia and the Kuzbass mining region reverted to supporting the communist leader, Mr Gennady Zyuganov, after years of strong allegiance to Mr Yeltsin. In recent weeks Russia's first deputy prime minister charged with economic reform, Mr Anatoly Chubais, has intimated that Mr Yeltsin's promises to pay long-standing wages to industrial workers may not be fulfilled. The tragedy is likely further to erode support for Mr Yeltsin and his team. The fact that Mr Chubais's exhortations towards belt-tightening have been accompanied by a scandal in which he has been accused of receiving $100,000 for a book he has not yet written is likely to antagonise the unpaid workers even further.