1932: The Vichuga uprising

1932: The Vichuga uprising

In April 1932 at Vichuga, Ivanovo Industrial Region (IPO), USSR, 16,000 textile workers struck at several factories and temporarily took control of the town until the uprising was crushed by both heavy repression and promises of reform from central Soviet command.

Part of a wave of unrest which hit the USSR in the IPO, Lower Volga region, the Urals, Western Siberia, Ukraine and Belorussia, the strike was one of the most significant of the 1930s, winning reforms nationally as a result of the threat it posed to the Soviet authority.

The information in this article is taken from A Workers' Strike in Stalin's Russia. Jeffery J Rossman1. Rossman's research appears to be the only information available in English about these events.

The strike was sparked by a cut in rations, implemented on the first of April, and other grievances such as wages, high rent, living and working conditions and lack of child-care; similar to the poor conditions in many areas towards the end of the first five year plan. During 1931, the secret police (OGPU) recorded about a dozen episodes of unrest in Vichuga's mills, and absenteeism and turnover escalated into 1932.

Six hundred workers at the Nogin mill, who had not received any flour from the local cooperative in February, began slowdowns and stoppages on the 25th March. There was no response from the authorities, and they marched to the town centre on 31st March and demanded their full rations, which were later cut officially by 31-47% for workers and 50% for dependants. A one-hour strike by the Nogin Mill's clerical staff led to the party, Komsomol2 and trade union officials deciding to break the news to small groups of workers in brigades or workshops, rather than the general assemblies where most news was communicated. Workers were infuriated by these restricted discussions, and 150 stormed out of an assembly at the Nogin Mill's club, "burst into the factory, and demanded the summoning of an all-factory conference on food supply." on 3rd April3. This was followed by two further assemblies of workers at Shagov Mill No. 1 a day later. Managers partially conceded to demands for a general assembly on Wednesday 5th and allowed several departments to hold a joint meeting. This resulted in calls for a strike when ration levels were announced, and weavers later gathered outside the factory at the end of the day, calling for both a strike and a general assembly.

Shagov Weaving Mill No. 1 struck from 9.30 to 11am on 6th April, and demanded a whole-factory meeting to discuss food supplies. The afternoon shift and Spinning Mill No.1 had joined the strike by 4pm. The 7th April was a day off.

At 5am on 8th April, workers at the Shagov Weaving Mill No.1 and Spinning Mill No. 1 resumed the strike. Male supervisors showed support for the strike by their mostly female subordinates, "forcibly idling production lines and threatening those who held their support"4 Support for the strike was mixed among party members, with most resistance to it coming from the Komsomol. The workers formed a picket at the gates of the Shagov Combine, and were joined by the second shift in the afternoon, and the remaining three Shagov mills, along with workers from the Krasyni Mill. Nogin had 2,529 workers, Shagov 7,439, and Krasnyi 7,494 - the factories were all within a few miles of each other, and workers at each of the mills all raised the same demand for the restoration of their full rations. Officials remained inactive, with members of the disctrict soviet executive committee continuing with other engagements or even abandoning posts during the early stages of these events.

On 9th April, two workers from the Nogin Mill, Iurkin, a communist who had quit the party in 1922, and Komarov, demanded an all-factory conference. Their co-workers stopped work and marched on the factory committee stating they wouldn't work for the rations they were getting. Krasyni and Shagov remained on strike that day, with sabotage and physical attacks on scabs ensuring that the mills were largely shut down. During mid-afternoon, workers from Shagov headed to the Nogin mill to extend the struggle, picking up additional supporters on the way and scuffling with Komsomol and Party members who'd been sent to intercept. More Komsomol members were stationed at the gates of Nogin Mill, but strikers threw rocks through the windows, broke through the line, and got into the shop floor: smashing equipment, destroying supplies and beating up scabs. Others stayed outside the mill to greet the night shift as they arrived for work. Around 1,500 workers at the mill joined the protest, and the mill was out of action for the next five days.

With this momentum, women in the crowd shouted "Comrades! Let's go to the Teinskaia (Krasnyi) mill". Three thousand strikers marched on the mill, where Iurkin called on the workers there to join the strike. As at Nogin, many workers left their machines, including a small number of party members (29 out of c.500). To enforce the strike, machines were sabotaged and the scabs, nearly all Komsomol or Party members were beaten with shuttles. The number of strikers outside the mill now reached over 5,000. By the end of the day, nearly all factories in Vichuga were on strike, with the exception of the Machine-Building Plant No. 6. This differed from the other factories in that the plant's workers were primarily male, and they they made weaving and spinning equipment, although wages were similar. Iurkin was later that evening arrested by the secret police and taken to Ivanovo.

The strike continued again on Sunday, with co-ordinated groups of strikers picketing the gates of each mill to enforce the strike, halting all production by 7am. A further unsuccessful attempt was made on the machine plant, with production resuming after sabotaged boilers were repaired. By 10am, 5,000 strikers had assembled in the square in front of the city soviet as agreed the night before. The demand for rations to be restored was to turn into a demand for Iurkin's release once they heard he'd been arrested, and the strikers refused to speak to local officials. Mounted police were sent in to disperse the strikers, but they were fought off, and having been further angered, the crowd marched to the police station. After gaining entry, and being told by the chief of police, Mokhov, that he was unaware of Iurkin's whereabouts, the workers beat up every officer they could find, ransacked offices and went through files attempting to find Iurkin's location, then broke into the jail and liberating the prisoners. Mokhov and his deputy were beaten unconscious, and heavy damage was done to the police station including smashed windows and doors and cabinets ripped out. Mounted police also sustained serious injuries outside the police station after repeated failed attempts to disperse the crowd.

The strikers then moved onto the party headquarters and OGPU office, which were next to each other in the town centre. The head of the local trade-union council and a party official were beaten, whilst others fled just before the building was taken. Then the OGPU building was taken, with the head of the local secret police, Itkin, beaten to a critical condition, and several other agents attacked while the offices were ransacked.

At this point, events took a more deadly turn, as a district OGPU officer, Golubev, took charge of the previously routed mounted police. Ten officers successfully re-took the OGPU building although they were injured by stone throwers during the process. Strikers attempted to re-take the building once again, throwing bricks and rocks at the officers standing in the courtyard. At this point, Golubev ordered the officers to fire their weapons into the air, which caused a momentary retreat by the strikers. The officers left the gates of the building and continued firing, this time into the crowd. A number of workers were hit, one was killed, and the crowd fled.

Although Golubev retook all the administrative buildings by late afternoon, the strikers regrouped in several locations in the town, train stations and at the mills. The continued to enforce the strike, driving out scabs from the factories. A failed attempt to occupy the post office was superseeded by tapping into the town's telegraph cables, both to control communications in and out of the town, and contact other industrial centres. Activity continued until 2am, with more routing of scabs, attacks on party members, and sabotage of boilers at the factories despite several lines of defense from Komsomol, party members and OGPU agents.

It was at this time that district and central reinforcements began to arrive, in the form of 300 party members, 450 police officers, and 17 OGPU agents, and L M Kaganovich, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

On Monday 11th April, the strike continued, and around 2,000 workers gathered in the town square at 9am for a meeting. Several local party officials attempted to address the crowd, but were ignored or ridiculed. However, eventually the workers listened to two officials, one who promised an investigation into the rations and child-care provisions, and another who suggested they send a delegation to Moscow. Although this was also treated with mistrust, the strikers elected a committee of five people to draft a message to Mikhail Kalinin, Chairman of the All-Union Executive Committee.

It was at this point, although peasants from some rural areas had begun to join the strikers in Vichuga, that overall momentum began to subside, with many strikers exhausted from the week's events. Around 40 percent of workers reported for duty the next day, following overnight preparations by management to open at 5am, however this quickly reduced by half, then to around 15 percent by the afternoon following continued efforts to enforce the strike. District police under the control of Kotsen enforced a curfew overnight, and OGPU agents continued "securing state property, infiltrating the crowd, and combating "strike moods" in the district's collective farms". Although they managed to dampen movement around Vichuga, by this point there were already many delegations from other towns, alongside some railway workers, who had travelled to Vichuga to 'study how to do this'.5.

Kaganovich, accompanied by other high ranking officials, met with non-striking workers to gain their views (many of whom were angry about the rations but less militant than their co-workers who continued protesting in the streets). There were continued attempts by some strikers to undermine the authority of the Moscow delegates, but around 1,000 workers gathered at the square near the city soviety to hear Kaganovich. They were then sent to the Nogin mill, where Kaganovich was still speaking to workers who had reported for duty, but were refused entry by armed guards, and eventually Kaganovich left the mill and led them to a nearby club, by which time there were around 3-4,000 workers in the crowd.

Kaganovich promised to address the concerns of the strikers, criticised their methods, and ordered them to disperse and go back to work. Several workers attempted to address the crowd after he spoke, but he refused any further discussion and left. That night, around 65-85% of workers reported to the night shift. Kaganovich and other officials mobilised party members, and held several tightly controlled assemblies in the mills and barracks, promising to deal with the supply agencies, and collecting petitions. Wednesday 13th April was another rest day, and ther were continued meetings held by Kaganovich with workers from the mills, and at the non-striking machine plant. By the end of Wednesday, several concessions had been agreed by the regional party committee. Rations were to be restored, and supplies increased. They also called for various concessions around alternative supplies of food - suburban farming, "Soviet bazaars", and allowing workers to tend kitchen gardens. Many reforms similar to these were implemented by Moscow shortly afterwards, and they represented real gains by the Vichuga workers and other strikers in the IPO region, which won reforms at a national level.

The strikes in Vichuga were almost unknown until recent archival research. Not only did it involve a large number of workers, around 16,000, but it was also but the largest of several strikes in the IPO region during April 1932. Strikers raised class demands related to their immediate material conditions, as well as invoking the revolution of 1917 and the soviets as a revolution to be defended from the local officials and secret police. However, although they managed to control not only the factories but the town itself for a few days, they did not challenge the local soviet, or the central Soviet power with any resolve, and this eventually led to the diffusion of the strike once representatives from Moscow had promised to deal with the local administration.

The strikers displayed a great deal of co-ordination, leading OGPU records to suggest that there was pre-planning by an underground organisation behind the strikes. However Rossman suggests the strike committee was more realistically a loose group of workers centred around Iurkin and some other experienced workers. The mass assemblies, marches to other factories and attempts to take over communication lines in order spread the struggle further afield gives us a picture of an uprising that showed advanced tactics and took full advantage of events during its early stages, and which clearly felt continuity with the revolution of fourteen years earlier both in sentiment and method. However it was this respect for the soviets, if not the party, which appears to have led to acquiescence to the central Soviet authority, and to the dissipation of the strike which had previously escalated on an almost daily basis.

libcom, 2007

More about the IIR strikes can be read in Rossman's book Worker Resistance Under Stalin: Class and Revolution on the Shop Floor.

  • 1. A Workers' Strike in Stalin's Russia. Jeffery J Rossman in Contending with Stalinism, Soviet Power and Popular Resistance in the 1930s, ed. Lynne Viola, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8774-9.
  • 2. Komsomol: the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League - youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
  • 3. Rossman. Ibid., pp.53
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid.,.71.