Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Russian Worker: a review

One of the books I’ve been reading on my own time recently has been the volume The Russian Worker: Life and Labour under the Tsarist Regime, edited by Victoria Bonnell. This volume is valuable because it presents—in both short-fictional and nonfiction forms—a series of sketches which trace out the life patterns, ideals, motives and travails of Russian industrial factory, textile and service workers. It presents the viewpoints, often highly personalised and partial, of five Russian authors who enjoyed a close degree of familiarity with the lives of the Russian working class, either by being part of it or by long-standing close observation: SI Kanatchikov, P Timofeev, FP Pavlov, EA Oliulina and AM Gudvan.

Several different political perspectives are represented in this volume. Kanatchikov was a member of the Social Democrats, and later the Communist Party—becoming a convinced Marxist over time. Timofeev, originally a Social Democrat, later drifted toward the populist and agrarian-socialist SRs. Pavlov, as clearly evidenced in his narrative, is a reform-minded liberal in the manner of the Kadets. Less is known about the ideological inclinations of Oliulina and Gudvan at the time they undertook their studies, but both of them maintained their positions and later continued their work under the Soviet government. One of the benefits of The Russian Worker, therefore, is that we get to see the worker’s position from several different angles.

One notices similarities between post-1880 Russia and other developing countries during the initial stages of capitalist development. Many workers, like Kanatchikov, travelled into the cities from the rural villages to look for work, or were sent there by their parents. Others, like the ‘apprentice’ salesclerks mentioned in Gudvan’s essay, were essentially kidnapped from their villages (around poorer northern cities like Yaroslavl, Novgorod and Pskov) by black-market ‘middlemen’, where they were bought by store managers and essentially used as slave labour. In either case, the conditions which the average Russian worker had to endure were dangerous, unhealthy, cramped, squalid and abusive.

Most Russian workers were former peasants who had been emancipated from serfdom in 1861. However, emancipation did not bring with it freedom in anything more than a bare legal sense—they received neither land nor money upon being ‘freed’. The owners of the urban factories took full advantage of this precarious position. Workers who came in from the village were very often ‘on their own’ when looking for work, as Timofeev describes. Many times they had to depend on favours from others from their home village in getting work. And villages themselves often depended on remittance income from their urban workers to survive. As such, workers didn’t often have savings sufficient to take care of themselves or advance.

Workers could have their pay docked for mistakes by the owner or the foreman, and often were docked for petty and arbitrary reasons. Foremen also had the prerogative to beat workers with their fists. Owners often withheld even the promised wage, which ranged from 70 kopecks to 1 ruble a day for most workers. Many workers were put to machines that did not have safety guards, and injuries and loss of digits or limbs were common. Many workers only had one set of clothes which they wore through the whole week. They would work anywhere between twelve and fourteen hours, even though the Tsarist government had legally capped the workday at a maximum of eleven hours. Workers’ living space and bedding was not cleaned or washed unless they did it themselves (something prohibitively difficult after long days on the factory floor), and as a result, vermin such as cockroaches and bedbugs were common.

Even the more respectable factories in Russia usually housed their workers in quasi-military barracks, on bunks with practically no other personal space. If the worker had a family, the family would also be housed in these barracks on bunks. Meals were served from a communal kitchen by the married workers’ wives, with the money for food being pooled by the ‘elder’ (often elected) of the factory artel’, who additionally had quasi-religious functions like assisting the factory priest and deacons at Liturgy or keeping the icon lamps lit. (In Timofeev’s telling, Old Believer workers were sometimes passed up for eldership in the artel’ for this reason.)

The artel’ would occasionally serve the same functions as a labour union, but was more often an extension of the rural collective obshchina or mir—the antique grassroots-communal organisation by which the free Russian peasantry had survived since at least the 1600s (and possibly many centuries before). The factory artel’, however, had very little bargaining power against the factory owners or directors. In addition to this, Timofeev describes how there was a pre-capitalist class divide between skilled workers (masterovoi) and unskilled workers (rabochii)—which was already being dissolved by the owners who wanted to reduce the compensation of the skilled workers in the factories. It seems the owners quickly understood that they needed the distinction between skilled and unskilled in order to retain control, so although the masterovoi were still considered rabochii, the former rabochii were called ‘black-workers’ (chernorabochii).

The factory directors themselves were a motley bunch. Many of them were of French or German extraction—it’s implied that their forebears were among the transplants brought to Russia by Peter I or Empress Catherine. Others were among the lucky few who managed to play the system of favours among foremen and assistant foremen, and came into their director’s position through marriage. The Russian directors were rarely better than the foreign ones—and in some respects they could be worse. Timofeev mentions factories owned by a Russian director from a particular village, which would only hire new workers from their home village and shut their floors to anyone else. If you were fired from another factory or down on your luck, you could give such factories a pass completely.

The commonalities between the factory directors, however, were that they tended to be greedy and callous—many of them would refuse to pay their workers in a timely fashion, and had to be begged or cajoled into it—and poorly educated. Pavlov complains about the almost universally low degree of literacy among factory directors, ascribing it to the nepotism and chance by which they were elevated to that status, in addition to an attitude amounting to: ‘why should I read books? I’ve got a factory to run!’. He describes the attitude of an archetypical factory director when an inspector tries to speak reason to him about conditions in his factory. The director simply tries to blame the workers themselves for the conditions, or complains about the expenses involved in the upkeep of his own equipment.

The spiritual condition, such as it could be called, of most workers, wasn’t much better. Without hope of advancement, and without entertainments of a more uplifting sort, most workers—both male and female—resorted to drink for an escape. ‘Blue Monday’ was often observed: a ritual in which entire factories and shops would shut down on account of factory-wide drinking binges in which foremen and owners would partake as well as the average workers on the floor. Venereal diseases, particularly syphilis, were common among workers. And—not that workers had much to gamble with anyway—games of chance with cards and dice were also popular.

Women had it worse than men. Oliunina describes that Russian women began to be draughted into the factories during the Russo-Japanese War, though they had been working in textile mills long before that. Women worked for pay that was significantly less—often only half as much—as men working at a similar job. They also required (so owners thought) less living space. They were treated often little better than children who were put to work. Oliunina’s description of female textile workers is depressing enough. She says that most women in textile-work developed drinking and smoking habits by the age of 25.

And Gudvan’s descriptions of women’s fate in clerical work are even more harrowing. Most women who entered clerical professions, particularly in pastry and clothing shops in urban settings, were hired based on their attractiveness, at a young age. Bosses in these shops particularly went after young, pretty, unmarried women… and their first ‘qualification’ for such jobs was their willingness to perform sexual services for their employer. Bosses often refused to pay their female employees even the legal minimum wage, and when these employees asked for what they were owed, their bosses often told them to go for an ‘evening stroll’ in order to make ends meet. Gudvan accounts that, though the number of undercompensated clerical workers engaged in prostitution in Western countries rarely exceeded 15% (a bad enough figure as it is), in Russia that number was a horrific 45%.

However, Kanatchikov notes that a significant but seminal sliver of the workers—perhaps two percent—used what meagre savings and spare time were left to them out of their twelve-, thirteen- or fourteen-hour workdays, in order to acquire articles and books. Kanatchikov mentions that the Russian workers in his artel’ were often engrossed by tabloid press like the Moscow Sheet, but that they also enjoyed plays like Bogdan Khmelnitskii, and poetry by Dante, Byron, Pushkin and Franko. Sometimes, particularly in Moscow and Petersburg, the artel’ would organise trips to art museums for the workers. More importantly, these workers were curious about news from outside Russia. Many of them read history and political theory—and many of these educated workers tended to gravitate to the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

This was one particularly interesting point of the book: this highlighted difference between workers’ aspirations and the stupidity and complacency of the (both transplanted and native-grown) bourgeoisie. It is never explicitly stated by any of the authors, but I could reasonably see this as being one of the primary factors behind the success of Russia’s three revolutions (1905, 1917 and 1918). The Russian urban owner class was completely unprepared for the rage of Russia’s recently- and partially-urbanised working class, fuelled by a faith in Marxian theory which was only lately ingested.

Another interesting point raised by the book, is that a great deal of the desire for social reforms favouring the workers came from within the Tsarist government itself. Pavlov, interestingly, describes in semi-fictional form an encounter between a factory inspector (an agent of the Tsar) and the director he worked for. The factory inspector, it is strongly implied, was formerly a worker himself, understood the relationship of the worker to his workplace, and sympathised with the worker’s troubles. In Pavlov’s account, the Tsar’s inspectors were often the ones to push for improved living conditions, for increases to the minimum wage, for timely and regular pay, for reduction in working hours to the legal maximum, and for upgrades to the factory machinery to make them safer to use. Intriguingly, Pavlov, a Kadet-style liberal reformist, places this agent of the Tsarist autocracy to the left of himself in terms of favouring the workers… in his own account, Pavlov tries (unsuccessfully) to strike a compromise between the director and the inspector.

However, Pavlov, Timofeev and Oliunina are all in seeming agreement that the Tsar’s reforms, attempts at government intervention, and appeals to the courts were ineffective. Timofeev sums it up pithily with a borrowed Chinese saying: ‘God is too high, and the Tsar is too far away.’ The issue with the Tsarist government, in Pavlov’s and Timofeev’s views, was not that it was reactionary, tyrannical and overbearing, or part-and-parcel with the capitalist machinery that was crushing the worker. Rather, the issue with the Tsar was that even his well-intentioned social reforms to improve the lot of Russia’s workers were insufficiently and irregularly enforced, leading to a mismatch between the laws on the books ostensibly put in place for workers’ protection, and the situation ‘on the ground’ in most workplaces. This fed into the frustrations that workers already had with the plight they were in, prior to the First World War.

Again, Bonnell’s book doesn’t really purport to be an exhaustive study of the plight of Russia’s workers before the Revolution—however, as source material for understanding Russia’s working class from a worker’s-eye view, it is invaluable to the English-language reader, and I highly recommend it for that purpose. It’s a text that sheds a great deal of light on the conditions that led up to the Russian Revolution, and has helped me revise and clarify certain key pieces of my own perspective on the question of ‘why Russia was first’ to embrace Marx’s theories.

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