Striking Soviet miners want better pay, conditions--and 'to change the system'

March 24, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- It is Anatoly V. Malykhin's ninth day on a diet of mineral water and cigarettes. His square-jawed face looks like the kind they used to put on propaganda posters about the heroic working class of the world's first socialist country.

Normally, he works as a tunneler deep in the Yesaul Coal Mine in Novokuznetsk, 2,000 miles and four time zones to the east.

Now, he sits nervously in a two-room suite seven floors up in the Hotel Rossiya, next to the Kremlin. He is a key leader of the strike that has closed one-fourth of the Soviet Union's coal mines and brought dozens of coal-dependent factories to the brink of shutdown.

Many of the miners are striking for higher pay, better working conditions, more food in the stores. But at Mr. Malykhin's Kuzbass, the Western Siberian coal fields where the first big coal strike began in 1989, miners no longer want promises of handouts from Moscow.

"We have to change the system," says Mr. Malykhin, who has worked 14 of his 34 years in the mines.

"We have to break the old system, the idiocy that's driven us to destitution for 73 years," he says. "Over the last two years, we've understood that economic reform is impossible without a change in the institutions of power: the Communist Party, the KGB, the military-industrial complex, these imperialist-monopolist ministries."

Mr. Malykhin, five other Kuzbass miners and one member of the Russian Parliament, Bella Denisenko, are on hunger strike until their demands are met, they say. Their demands are very simple:

* Resignation of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

* Resignation of Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov and the Cabinet.

* Dissolution of the Soviet Parliament.

* Transfer of all political power to the Federation Council, which consists of the leaders of the 15 Soviet republics, notably Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin.

Such demands might seem absurd -- except that the hunger strikers represent Kuzbass miners who have shut down 45 of the region's 76 coal mines and persuaded strike leaders in Donetsk in the Ukraine and several smaller regions to adopt the same political demands.

Except that the miners are crisscrossing the country, making contact with other industries and agitating for a general political strike.

Except that on April 2, state prices for food and consumer goods will increase more than 60 percent on average, a possible spark for a spreading strike.

Except that Friday night, Mr. Yeltsin, speaking to workers at Leningrad's Kirov Tractor Factory, expressed support for the miners' strike.

The balding, stocky Mr. Malykhin sits in his green work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, puffing on Soviet Yava cigarettes, then pacing Room 7-124 like a caged animal.

People drop in and consult him. A group of miners is heading to Riga to accept food donated by Latvians -- who also want to break the old system. Another group is flying to Yakutia in Eastern Siberia to explain their demands to gold miners and other workers who might be persuaded to join the walkout.

On television appears the noon broadcast of "Television News ++ Service" (TSN), until a week ago, a daring competitor for the Communist-controlled evening news show, "Vremya." Perhaps

the Kremlin decided that the outspoken young broadcasters were trying to break the old system. They were fired.

Now, "TSN" is tamed. Mr. Malykhin turns up the volume and listens for a minute, then turns it down in disgust. "Vremya No. 2," he says.

Two Moscow women come by to plead with Mr. Malykhin to halt the hunger strike and save his health. "I feel fine," he says.

Somebody brings a stack of the day's issue of Kuranty, the feisty daily tabloid of the radical-dominated Moscow City Council -- which also would like to see the old system broken. On the cover is a photograph of the hunger strikers, minus Mr. Malykhin, who had stepped out when the photographer came by.

"Malykhin died already," one of the miners says. Mr. Malykhin laughs.

Perhaps a political scientist could say why coal miners such as Mr. Malykhin are striking and hunger-striking to change the system. True, coal mining here, like coal mining elsewhere, is dirty, dangerous work. Soviet mining regions, moreover, have even worse food and housing shortages than does the country as a whole.

But Mr. Malykhin, like most miners, earns about 500 rubles a month, twice the Soviet average. His wife, Yevgenia, earns about the same amount as an economist for a brick factory that has, under new laws, become an independent business.

They and their two children lived for years in a one-room "shack," he says. In 1987, because Mr. Malykhin took two years away from the mine to work in construction, they received a four-room apartment.

They might be considered among the beneficiaries of perestroika, but change has only fueled discontent. Mr. Malykhin says he doesn't want concessions from the regime; he wants to replace it and live "with a normal, market economy, like in any civilized country."

Mr. Malykhin went to work at 16 and never cared about politics. "It was slavery: Work diligently, love the boss and listen to him," he says.

If a reporter had asked him 10 years ago about "the system," he says, "at best, I would have repeated some official slogan."

All that changed the night of July 11, 1989, when his colleagues elected him to the mine's strike committee. Now, he can spend 250 rubles for six volumes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and consider it "a stroke of luck." Now, he can speak to a rally of 100,000 people one day and to the Supreme Soviet the next.

For two years, he has lived a crash course in politics. Now it has landed him in this hotel room.

"We want freedom," he says. "If we're not victorious, it will be back to the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn will have to write another book."

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