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  • Bloody Saturday in the Soviet Union: Novocherkassk, 1962
  • Linda J. Cook
Samuel H. Baron , Bloody Saturday in the Soviet Union: Novocherkassk, 1962. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. 241 pp. $45.00.

In Bloody Saturday in the Soviet Union, Samuel Baron has presented a compelling account of the June 1962 workers' strike in Novocherkassk that ended in bloodshed. The fact that the strike occurred and was suppressed by Soviet troops has been known for many years, not least because Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described the incident in his Gulag Archipelago. Baron has revisited these events in the post-Communist period, interviewing participants, using published materials from the glasnost period, and gaining access to some of the official investigations undertaken at the time and afterward. The result is a book that its author, a professional historian, accurately characterizes as "a cross between history and journalism" (p. xv): it is at once meticulous in the research and vivid in the telling. It sets the historical record straight, includes many fascinating insights and details for the specialist, and brings the voices of key actors into the tragic story.

The core of the book is a careful account of the emergence, suppression, and aftermath of the strike. The work stoppage began at the NEVZ, an electric locomotive construction factory, when workers arriving early for their shift vented anger over food price increases that had been announced by Nikita Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU), the previous day. The strike spread spontaneously, and by the afternoon the workers were blocking a rail line and putting up placards denouncing Khrushchev, low wages, and the price increases. They detained a local official and briefly held him hostage. By the following morning the town's communications had been cut, troops had massed, and several members of the CPSU Presidium had arrived. In the afternoon a crowd of several thousand marched to the town center, where they made speeches and voiced their demands. Some entered public buildings, and a few were disorderly or menacing. When the crowd ignored orders to disperse, the troops opened fire, killing twenty-four, the majority of them bystanders. By evening the bodies had been removed for secret burial, the site of the killings had been hosed down, and many people had been arrested. The ensuing legal trials (Baron recounts the most important of these) resulted in the execution or imprisonment of many strikers. For decades afterward, the Soviet regime denied that any such events had occurred. The story was not openly discussed in the Soviet Union until the glasnost period of the late 1980s when, despite much official resistance, the strikers received posthumous rehabilitations, reburials, and commemorations.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Baron's study is his account of the official response to the Novocherkassk strike. The strike was immediately treated as a national emergency. Six officials from the highest levels of the CPSU were dispatched to the scene within hours, and they kept in regular telephone communication with Khrushchev. Baron shows that Khrushchev and his colleagues were divided and indecisive. The delegation that was sent to Novocherkassk included the hardliner Frol Kozlov [End Page 175] and the more moderate Anastas Mikoyan, who tried unsuccessfully to address the strikers. Baron reports that Khrushchev wanted a peaceful resolution but was unwilling to make any concessions on the price increases. Baron also says that most of the strikers did not reject the regime. Many of them carried pictures of Lenin, and their demands were modest. Baron emphasizes that the decision to crush the unrest was not inevitable and that a negotiated solution should have been possible, but "Lacking a tradition of collective action and having taken no steps to create a strike committee, the workers were ill prepared to negotiate. The elite leaders who came to Novocherkassk disagreed on the course to take and proved inept at exploring the possibility of a negotiated settlement" (p. x). This, along with the rapid flow of events, led instead to violence.

Baron's book tells us quite a bit about the relationship between Soviet leaders and Soviet society in 1962. Many of the political and military leaders (though not hardliners such as Kozlov) wanted...