The Astrakhan' shootings, March 1919
Translator's note: This essay by P. Silin, a supporter of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, appeared in 1922 in ChE-KA. Materialy po deyatel'nosti chrezvychaynykh komissiy - an indictment of Lenin's political police published by the SRs' Central Bureau in Berlin. Given its provenance, it cannot necessarily be regarded as a full and impartial account of events. It is not even entirely clear whether the author was actually an eyewitness of all, some, or any of the events he described. Nonetheless, the bare facts of the story are clear enough: in March 1919, at a time in the civil war when the Soviet state's survival was at its most precarious, there was a mass strike and workers' rising in Astrakhan' against Bolshevik rule. It was fuelled by a disastrous food supply situation, ineptitude and power struggles among the local communists and inconsistent policies from the centre. In the course of the rebellion 47 members of the ruling party lost their lives, and in reprisal many more Astrakhan' workers were killed. For further details and background, see John Biggart, "The Astrakhan Rebellion: An Episode in the Career of Sergey Mironovich Kirov", Slavonic and East European Review 54:2, 1976; and Vladimir Brovkin, "Workers' Unrest and the Bolsheviks' Response in 1919", Slavic Review 49:3, 1990. - Francis King
In April 1912, on the River Lena, in a remote corner of distant Siberia, 300 hungry workers, exhausted by their unbearable workload and intolerable living conditions, were shot by low-ranking agents of the autocracy.
Under pressure from the Russian and foreign press and public opinion, the Tsarist government had to allow members of the State Duma to investigate the shootings, and then to dismiss those guilty of violence against unarmed workers. That is how it was under the autocracy.
But then in March 1919, in the Soviet Republic, a representative of the highest body in the communist state directed the shooting of thousands of hungry workers in Astrakhan'. The Soviet press passed over this nightmarish deed in silence. And to this day few know about it.
Astrakhan' is a large gubernia town by the mouth of Mother Volga. A little while back it sustained tens of thousands of workers. It had numerous trade union organisations. It lacked any socialist organisations, but that was just because in 1918 most of the party workers had been shot.
In August-September 1918 the entire gubernia conference of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, headed by the 15-strong gubernia committee, was killed. Among those shot were comrde Dovchal', the secretary of the gubernia SR committee, Constituent Assembly member Petr Alekseevich Gorelin, a peasant from Saratov gubernia, Mecheslav Mecheslavovich Strumilo-Petrashkevich, a foundation member of the party, and others. Those party workers who remained alive were terrorised, and party life ceased entirely in Astrakhan'.
It is clear how much the authorities hated the socialists - it could cost you your life if you so much as declared that you belonged to a socialist organisation. For example, Comrade Metenev, the committee chair of the Metalworkers' Union, was arrested in connection with the strike under discussion here. He was shot after he stated on his arrest that he sympathised with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries.
Astrakhan''s metalworking factories "Kavkaz i Merkuriy", "Vulkan", "Etna" etc. had been put under martial law, labour had been militarised and the workers put on the military payroll. Astrakhan' city had always survived on grain brought in from outside. As soon as the grain monopoly had been declared and the free purchase of grain stopped, the city found itself in a difficult position. In the past there had been an abundance of fish. Tens of millions of puds had been caught every year in the mouth of the Volga. But after the fisheries had been declared "socialised", and fishermen like Bezzubkov and others had been shot, the city did not even have herring. Trade in herring was prohibited on pain of arrest for both buyer and seller.
Through 1918 the inhabitants of Astrakhan' had somehow managed to get food supplies via the Volga sailors, but with the onset of winter unofficial deliveries of food virtually stopped. Requisitioning squads surrounded Astrakhan', blocking both railways and byroads. Food supplies would be confiscated, buyers and sellers would be shot. Although Astrakhan' was surrounded by grain and fish, it was dying of hunger. It was like an island, surrounded by fresh water, dying of thirst.
By January 1919 the food supply situation threatened Astrakhan''s workers with a full-blown famine. The authorities had taken the decision to grant the workers the right to buy foodstuffs freely, but the centre recalled the local chief Shlyapnikov for his soft line and sent K. Mekhonoshin to replace him. Instead of the expected concessions, repression was tightened still further. The workers in each factory were instructed by order to maximise production.
Hungry, tired, and embittered, the workers would stand in line at the bakery after work to get their bread ration - one-eighth of a kilogram. They turned their queues into meetings, trying to find a way out of this unbearable situation. The authorities set up special patrols to break up these improvised meetings. The most active workers were arrested. Food supplies deteriorated, repression intensified, and towards the end of February 1919 the workers, having elected a new leadership for the Metalworkers' Union, began to plan for a strike. At the very end of February, at a joint meeting of the gubernia trade union council and the factory committees, a representative of the Volga fleet sailors declared to the workers that in the event of a strike, the sailors would not move against the strikers.
It remained only to set the date of the strike. Work virtually stopped at the factories from the first days in March. Everywhere people were discussing the demands to be presented to the authorities. They decided to demand freedom of trade in grain and freedom to catch fish temporarily, until the difficult supply situation was resolved. But they did not have time to formulate their final demands before the strike broke out. And during that time the authorities had been seeking out reliable units and bringing them to the factories. The catastrophe was drawing near. And so, on the second anniversary of the February Revolution, the "Workers' and Peasants' Government" was to drown workers' Astrakhan' in blood.
Even when considered against the background of Russian communist terror - ostensibly directed against labour's class enemies but mainly hitting workers and peasants - this was reprisal on a scale without precedent in the history of the workers' movement. Two things are striking about it: its shamelessness, bordering on cynicism, and the workers' helplessness. The shooting was led by a member of the state's highest legislative and executive organ, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee - K. Mekhonoshin. This eminent executioner would put his full title on all his instructions and orders: "Member of the All-Russia CEC of Soviets of Workers', Peasants', Red Army and Cossack Deputies, Member of the Revolutionary-Military Committee of the Republic, Chairman of the Caucasus Caspian Front etc. etc.
The official announcement of the shooting read as follows:
"On 10 March of this year, 1919, at 10.00 a.m., workers at the Vulkan, Etna and Kavkaz i Merkuriy factories stopped work after a siren sounded and began to hold a meeting. The authorities demanded that the workers disperse, but they refused and continued to hold their meeting. Then we fulfilled our revolutionary duty and used our weapons...
K. Mekhonoshin [with full title]"
A ten thousand-strong meeting of workers, who had been peacefully discussing their harsh material circumstances, was surrounded by machine-gunners, sailors and grenadiers. After the workers had refused to disperse, a rifle volley was fired. Then the machine guns opened fire directly into the body of the crowd at the meeting, while hand grenades began to explode with deafening bangs.
The meeting faltered, threw itself to the ground and fell eerily silent. The roar of the machine guns drowned out both the groans of the injured and the death cries of the fatally wounded...
Suddenly the meeting tore itself away from the place. In an instant, in a powerful surge made ten times stronger by sheer terror, the people burst through the deadly cordon of government troops. And they ran and ran, without looking back, in all directions, trying to save themselves from the bullets of the machine guns which had again begun firing. People were shot as they ran. Those who remained alive were chased into buildings and shot point blank. Where there had once been a peaceful meeting, there were now masses of corpses. Here and there, among the workers writhing in their death agonies, one could see a few of the "revolutionary suppressors", crushed by the stampeding crowd.
The news of the shooting spread round the town in an instant. People came running out from everywhere, crying in panic "They are shooting! They are shooting!"
A large group of workers gathered by one particular church. People started saying "Let's get out of town", quietly at first, then ever louder. "But where?" All the roads were impassable in the thaw. The ice on the Volga had melted. And there was nothing to eat out there. "Let's flee! Even to the Whites. They'll shoot us here. But what about our wives, our children? How can we do that? We'll all die anyway. Either here or there. There's nothing to eat. Let's get out of here!!"
In the distance, there was an artillery shot, a strange rattling salvo in the air. The buzzing was followed by a sudden explosion. Then there was more buzzing. The church cupola came crashing down. There were more bangs and explosions. A shell exploded, then another and another. In an instant the crowd lost their heads and stampeded in all directions, while the advance post carried on firing. The shells' trajectory was being corrected from somewhere so that they fell among the fleeing people.
The city, denuded of people, fell quiet. Some had fled, some had hidden. No fewer than two thousand victims had been snatched from the workers' ranks. This marked the end of the first episode of the appalling Astrakhan' tragedy.
The second episode, even more terrible, began on 12 March. Some of the workers had been taken prisoner by the "victors", and had been divided up between six commanders and held on barges and steamers . Among the latter the steamer "Gogol'" was noted for its horrors.
The centre received a stream of telegrams about the "rising". L. Trotsky, the Chairman of the Revolutionary-Military Council of the Republic sent a laconic response: "merciless retribution". And the fate of the unfortunate imprisoned workers was sealed. There was an orgy of bloodshed on the water and on land.
There was shooting in the basements of the Cheka stations and in open courtyards. People were thrown straight into the Volga from barges and steamers. Some unfortunates had stones tied around their necks. Some were bound hand and foot and thrown overboard. One of the workers who had remained unnoticed in captivity near the engine-room and had survived said that in just one night one hundred and eighty people were thrown from the steamer "Gogol'". Meanwhile so many people were being shot in the Cheka stations that they could hardly manage to cart them all off to the cemetery at night, where they were buried in piles as "typhus cases".
The Cheka commander Chugunov issued instructions forbidding, on pain of shooting, the loss of corpses on the way to the cemetery. Almost every morning as they rose, the people of Astrakhan' would find the half-undressed, blood-drenched corpses of workers who had been shot. And in the light of the early dawn, the living would hunt for their loved ones among the corpses.
On 13 and 14 April they continued to shoot only workers. But then it seems that the authorities had a sudden thought. Couldn't the blame for the shootings be laid on the insurgent "bourgeoisie"? And so the authorities decided "better late than never". In order to provide a fig-leaf for their naked reprisals against the Astrakhan' working class, they decided to seize the first "bourgeois" they could lay hands on and deal with them very simply: they took every landlord, fish-processor, petty trader and enterprise owner and shot them.
Here is one of many examples of violence against the "bourgeoisie". Princess Tumanova was a princess by marriage, the daughter of Zhdanov, a local lawyer, and was employed in Soviet institutions. She was known as "the beauty of the Volga" in the Lower Volga region. She was constantly the object of the attentions of the commissars, great and small, right up to the highest level. This honest woman always rejected the authorities' advances with haughty disdain. During the days of general reprisals against the "bourgeoisie" the communists decided to do away with this "bone of contention". When her father turned up to discover the fate of his daughter, they showed him her naked corpse.
By 15 March there was hardly a house to be found where they were not mourning a father, brother or husband. In some houses several people had disappeared.
It would have been possible to establish an exact figure for the number shot only by questioning every citizen of Astrakhan'. At first a figure of two thousand was given. Then three. Then the authorities started to publish hundreds of lists of "bourgeois" who had been shot. At the beginning of April four thousand victims were mentioned. And still the repressions did not die down. The authorities clearly decided to take revenge on the workers of Astrakhan' for the whole wave of strikes - in Tula, Bryansk, Petrograd - which broke out in March 1919. The shootings started to die down only towards the end of April.
Astrakhan' presented a dreadful picture at that time. The streets were completely devoid of people. There were floods of tears in the houses. The fences and the windows of government institutions were plastered with orders. On 14 March a notice was pasted up on fences threatening workers with arrest and the withdrawal of their ration cards if they did not show up at the factories. But nobody except the commissars turned up. Nobody was frightened by the withdrawal of the ration cards - no food had been issued against them for a long time, and arrest was impossible to avoid anyway. Besides, there were few workers left in Astrakhan'.
It was not until 15 March that the Red Cavalry caught up with some of the fugitives out in the steppe, far from Astrakhan'. These unfortunates were brought back, and the search for the "traitors" among them began.
On 16 March new orders were pasted up on the fences. All workers, male and female, were ordered on pain of arrest, dismissal and withdrawal of rations to turn up at fixed points for the funerals of the victims of the "insurgents". The order concluded: "With a revolutionary hand, we shall punish those who disobey".
The time to appear had already passed, and only a few dozen workers had gathered. So the Red Cavalry was ordered to drag people off the streets and chase them out of their flats and courtyards. Like enraged savages, they scoured the city in a frenzy, viciously beating with their whips anyone they found hiding. This greatly delayed funeral procession moved to the city park, guarded by lances and whips.
The workers, with their wretched, tearful faces, moved their lips noiselessly. The funeral song "You fell a victim" wafted on the spring air, eerily quiet, barely making a sound.
What an evil, diabolical mockery! The workers were burying them, their executioners, hardly daring to think about their own fallen comrades, dumped in heaps in the cemetery. They sang to them, their executioners. But their thoughts were with those with whom they had broken through the deadly cordon of government troops, just six days previously. The listened to the speeches of communist orators about them - their executioners - who had carried out their "revolutionary duty". They could not say a word about the revolutionary workers who had been shot.
"We shall avenge, we shall avenge every communist a hundred-fold!" the government orator roared, "See here, forty-seven of our comrades, who have died in the workers' cause!" The workers lowered their heads still further, with tears and violent sobs. The orator carried on shouting in the loud, triumphant voice of the victor, piling on threat after threat.
The common grave was surrounded by forty-seven red coffins. And around them there were black and red banners with the inscription "To the revolutionary fighters who have given their lives for socialism". Other "revolutionary fighters", with their lances and whips, were holding the banners. There was no escape from this place of torture. The workers were weighed down by their misery and powerlessness. Their thoughts and actions were paralysed by an invisible, but tangible terror. They drank the cup of suffering to the very dregs.
The newspapers appeared with black borders. All the articles were devoted to the "revolutionary" suppressors. As for the workers, they were told: "it is your own fault". The much-titled executioner K. Mekhonoshin expressed his gratitude to the troops: "You have fulfilled your revolutionary duty. You put down the rebellion with an iron fist, without wavering. The revolution will not forget that. It was the workers' own fault, for succumbing to provocation..."
Workers' Astrakhan' ceased to be. The factories fell silent. Their chimneys stopped smoking. The workers fled the city in droves. They could no longer be stopped by official permission to catch fish and buy grain. That permission had been bought at too high a price. It had been written in the blood of friends and relatives. This government "concession" reeked of the blood of thousands of Astrakhan' proletarians.
The Astrakhan' tragedy will be written into the history of the workers' movement in letters of blood and fire. And the objective court of history will pass its verdict on one of the most appalling pages of the communist terror...
But we, its contemporaries and witnesses, have to shout out to all our
working friends, to all socialists, to the proletariat of the whole world:
"Look into the Astrakhan' tragedy."
P. Silin, Moscow, September 1920
Source: P. Silin, "Astrakhanskie rasstrely", in Viktor Chernov, (ed), ChE-KA. Materialy po deyatel'nosti chrezvychaynykh kommissiy, Iz.TsKPSR, Berlin, 1922, pp. 248 - 255