ANZHERO-SUDZHENSK, Russia - For some reason, the Soviet system had a way of playing cruel jokes on this coal-mining centre in the Kuzbass industrial region of Siberia. One such malign whim was to locate the city administration building hard by the heating and electrical generating plant. Ever since, two immense chimneys have towered over the municipal offices, pouring out dark smoke. In winter the snow here is black; in the autumn rains, the forecourt outside the building is covered with grey sludge.
A still worse caprice of the old system was to leave most of the city's 100,000 people living in tumble-down log houses clustered around the pit-heads or strung along unpaved, rutted streets. But in important ways, the Soviet system was benign compared to what has come since. Anzhero-Sudzhensk, one resident told me bitterly, is now "a museum" Of the six mines operating in the city in the early 1990s, only two are still functioning, and one of those is in the process of being shut down. Almost none of the local enterprises pay wages regularly, and the pay backlogs in some cases stretch into years.
"Anzherka'', however, has not decayed quietly. Its workers have some of Russia's strongest traditions of popular struggle, and snaking through the city are the twin tracks of the Trans- Siberian Railway. Place a steel girder across the line here, and rail traffic to Russia's eastern regions is totally cut off, except for what can pass along a minor line through the mountains to the south.
For the workers of Anzhero-Sudzhensk, the temptation to do as they have been done by has been irresistible. Rail blockades in May, and again in July, quickly racked up huge economic costs and forced the Russian government to negotiate on wage pay-outs.
One of the nerve-centres of this "rail war'' was the Anzhero- Sudzhensk City Workers Committee, convened by elected delegates from enterprise committees in local workplaces. To interview some of these delegates, I have come to the city committee's sparsely furnished room in the administration building. About a dozen men and women are present, talking intently in several groups. Should I wait for the discussions to finish? No need, says the committee's chairperson, Vladimir Fokin. He'll talk to me while business goes on.
A large man with a relaxed but shrewd manner, Fokin was a miner for 18 years until his mine shut down; he continues to represent its laid-off workforce. The City Workers Committee, he explains, evolved out of the city strike committee that led the struggle in Anzhero-Sudzhensk during the great coal strikes of 1989 and 1991. Similar organisations, he says, operate in most of the larger cities of the Kuzbass. The bodies go by various names, including "committees of salvation''. Fokin prefers the term "workers' committee'', since it makes clear which social layer is primarily involved, and does not imply that the organisations restrict their activity to leading strikes.
So what role do the committees play? Fokin outlines several functions. One is simply to allow labour activists to share news and ideas about developments in their various workplaces. Another is to monitor the activity of enterprise managements, trade unions and local authorities. Yet another is planning and coordinating various campaigns of struggle, such as the continuing fight for wage pay-outs.
And does the Anzhero-Sudzhensk committee play an openly political role, I ask. "We're a political organisation,'' Fokin responds. "We agitate around the demand for Yeltsin to resign.'' The committee, he points out, has no prejudice against electoral activity; Fokin himself, and several other committee members, have been elected to the local municipal council.
For workers, Fokin's committee is a highly accessible body, since it is in almost permanent session. Delegates are usually available to be consulted with informally. If a particular question requires it, a more structured discussion will be organised.
Because the committee is not a legally registered entity, it tends to rely on local trade unions in order to have its decisions implemented. But the committee's authority is high, Fokin argues, since elections to it are frequent, and the delegates can be voted out by the workers at any time. As an example of this authority, Fokin notes that the committee at one point demanded the resignation of the city's mayor - and got it.
According to Fokin, the committee's strong following among the workers in Anzhero-Sudzhensk and the unity this has helped create were key factors during the "rail war''. The government was wary of using force to clear the blockaders from the tracks, knowing that the response from other workers would be dramatic. Nevertheless, the pressures on the blockaders were intense; above all, there was the danger of legal reprisals against activists once the blockade was lifted.
Fokin pulls a document from a safe, explaining that it is a copy of the agreement with government representatives that led to the blockade being suspended in May. Under the agreement, the government was not to take any action against participants in the protest. The workers were to receive their back pay according to a set schedule; if the payments fell more than 15 per cent behind, the protesters were at liberty to renew the blockade. And that, Fokin explains, was why the Anzhero-Sudzhensk workers went back on the rails in July. "The government handed over only 40 per cent of what it promised,'' he relates. "For that matter, the terms still haven't been met.''
At present, an uneasy truce prevails between the government and the Anzhero-Sudzhensk workers. "The state organs are still investigating activists though,'' Fokin remarks. And in the city of Yurga to the west, where a rail blockade was also in force in July, criminal charges have been brought against three of the blockaders. Fighting the prosecutions has become a prime task for labour activists in Anzhero-Sudzhensk and other Kuzbass cities.
Here Fokin begins explaining how his committee views the need to expand the ties between labour activists throughout the region, in order to improve the defence effort. A phone call interrupts him. "Yes...a journalist. I'm talking to him now. From Australia. No, nothing.'' Fokin puts down the receiver, giving me a significant glance.
"That was the local head of the FSB,'' he says. The initials, I recall, are those of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB. Fokin shrugs his shoulders, calculating that I know enough about Russia to have grasped the situation. And indeed, the situation is clear enough. Someone noticed me as I entered the building and sought out the office of the workers' committee. A call went through to the security police, and the police chief, relishing the chance to remind the committee members they were being watched, decided to ask who the odd-looking visitor was....
Meanwhile, Fokin is telling me about the Coordinating Committee of the Cities of the Kuzbass. Set up in May during the "rail war'', this body has continued to function, uniting workers' committees in eight centres. The members meet weekly in the provincial capital, Kemerovo, and to the extent that funds allow, keep in touch by phone.
More people arrive, including a man in his thirties whom Fokin introduces as Vladimir Arent, head of the trade union committee in the local glassworks and a member of the city workers' committee. Where Fokin is relaxed and ironical even when being quizzed by the FSB, Arent at first gives the impression of being tense and taciturn. Suddenly, though, he explodes in articulateness. "The government's reforms are criminal, against workers and against humanity!'' he declares.
It is now more than five years since the 1800 workers in his enterprise have received their wages, Arent tells me. Each day they are given a loaf of bread and a half-litre of milk. From time to time there are other payments in kind, perhaps some meat or cheese, depending on the barter deals that the plant's managers have been able to work. People keep turning up to their jobs, Arent says, because if they were to quit they would have absolutely nothing.
The problem is not that the glassworks are obsolete or inefficient, Arent insists. The equipment is quite modern, from the late 1980s, and the plant is the only producer of window glass for the construction industry in Russia east of the Urals. But its customers claim to be unable to pay for their supplies in rubles, and the barter deals the glassworks is forced to accept are highly disadvantageous.
The workers in his plant, Arent maintains, are hostile not just to the government but to the social system in general. "We take the view that basic industry should be state-owned,'' he says. Earlier in the 1990s, he relates, the glassworks was privatised to its employees. "But now,'' he says, "we're demanding that it be renationalised.''
A general discussion is about to be convened; it is time for me to go. Arent makes a final point. "You understand,'' he says, "People here have gone through everything - they've struck, blockaded, marched. We just have to keep doing it - organising, showing solidarity, working with people in other cities to build the widest actions possible."
Outside the building, a frigid rain washes more soot down from the smoke-blackened sky. For workers in Anzhero-Sudzhensk, there is no easy escape, either from the town or from their predicament. But if the people cannot escape, Fokin and Arent have clearly decided, good ideas and militant examples can.