Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
On June 2, 1962 several thousand workers from the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Works (NEVZ) and supporters marched to the Communist Party’s headquarters in the center of the city to protest nation-wide price increases for meat and dairy products that had been announced two days earlier. Failing to heed a warning from the general in charge of troops stationed in and around the building, the crowd was dispersed by gunfire. A total of twenty-four people died and dozens were wounded. Subsequently, 114 persons were convicted on charges of causing “mass disorders” and committing “banditry,” and seven were sentenced to death and executed.
As the KGB reported at the time, numerous individuals throughout the country expressed their disgruntlement with the price increases, called for strikes, and produced leaflets denouncing the decision. Why only at the NEVZ did workers walk off their jobs, seize the factory’s administration building, and engage in other acts of civil disobedience? Part of the answer lay in a recently implemented upward revision of work norms and the factory’s participation in a socialist competition campaign, both of which presupposed greater effort on the part of workers. It also would appear that the particularly insensitive factory director — who reportedly uttered to a protesting worker the Marie Antoinette-like phrase, “If there isn’t enough money for meat and sausage, let them eat pirozhki with liver” — added fuel to the flames.
Whatever the provocation, the fact that the protest culminated in a massacre can be attributed to the indecision and disagreements among the four Politbiuro members who flew to Novocherkassk, and, ultimately, to fears among the authorities that the protesters were gaining the upper hand. In the aftermath of the shooting, the authorities did their best to cover up what had happened, but information of varying accuracy soon leaked out of the USSR and was relayed back to the country via Radio Liberty broadcasts. The first article devoted to the Novocherkassk events that was published by a Soviet newspaper appeared in June 1988, and it was followed by dozens of exposes. Since 1991, documentary films, articles, and books have appeared, and the entire affair was subjected to an official investigation by the Chief Military Procuracy. A monument has been erected on the site.