KEMEROVO, Russia -- Coal miners, the grimy-faced heroes of the Soviet era who went on to become the saviors of reform, are once again in the front lines of a struggle over the nation's destiny.
They are forcing the Russian government to reveal the degree of its commitment to reform by threatening a mining strike March 1 unless the government invests millions of dollars in the troubled coal industry, which has failed to pay the miners' salaries for months.
At issue are government subsidies given to keep unprofitable industries alive. Reformers advocate ending most of those and thereby forcing coal mines and other businesses to make money or die.
And that is part of the larger debate about how best to rescue the country's economy -- an economy in which nearly bankrupt customers cannot pay nearly bankrupt producers, who then fail to pay their workers.
More than 500,000 miners went on a warning strike earlier this month to demand that subsidies be raised. More prosaically, the strikers wanted the wages already owed to them.
"This is the last warning," said Ivan Mokhnachuk, deputy chairman of the nation's largest miners union. "If the debts aren't paid, we'll strike until the government resigns and early presidential elections are scheduled."
But the dangers to the miners may be even greater if the program of government subsidies continues.
"This is a very dangerous moment," said Alexander S. Bevz, a Russian economist who studies the coal industry. "If all the demands are met, other workers will insist on the same."
And, "If subsidies are expanded, the inevitable result is hyper-inflation. And then the government will be blown apart."
Thousands of miners live here, in the region called the Kuzbass, the coal-rich taiga of western Siberia. These are the miners who helped bring down the Soviet Union -- and who now wistfully talk of the past as better than the present.
On a rare sunny afternoon, three miners sat in their changing room at the Severnaya mine on the edge of Kemerova, trying to figure out what had happened to them and what would come next. They had just finished their shift and half a bottle of vodka. Vladimir Doroshenko, a worn-looking 54-year-old, sighed at memories of the past. "Now we remember the former years as paradise," he said.
In July 1989, Kuzbass miners were fed up with the fruits of socialism: Shops were empty and miners couldn't even get soap to wash off the coal dust. A strike quickly spread and radicalized many of the miners, who formed a new union independent of the official, Communist-dominated one. They soon became convinced that their problems would not be solved by a few placating shipments of soap and food.
When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of 1991, many of the miners took credit for helping its demise along. Now, their hopes have been replaced by despair.
The Severnaya miners haven't been paid since August, though every work day they descend deep into the pits to scratch away for coal, using ancient equipment and risking their lives in extraordinarily unsafe conditions.
"We're living off of our wives," said Ivan Malin, the 45-year-old crew leader. "Not living -- we're surviving."
Miners are divided
The miners themselves are divided. Mr. Malin belongs to the old government-sponsored union, which advocates the strike and wants the industry saved by larger government subsidies. Mr. Doroshenko is a member of a newer, independent union, which favors closing inefficient mines and retraining workers.
In the last elections, Mr. Malin voted for candidates from one of the democratic parties. "If we had elections now, I would vote for Communists," he said. "I would vote for that time and conditions that we had under communism."
The miners' unhappiness challenges Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin at a time when his government is notably weak because of the unpopular war in Chechnya. But the government needs the support of the miners -- workers Russians regard as heroes. In Soviet times, miners were lauded for doing the dirty work that made industrialization possible. Now, they could mobilize millions of other unhappy workers.
"It's simply impossible for the government to satisfy the miners," said Mr. Bevz, the economist. "The only way to win their support is to give them more subsidies, and that's impossible."
The industry's problems are enormous. Much of the most accessible coal has been mined, and what's left is dangerous and expensive to reach. It generally takes a Russian miner, still equipped with pick and shovel, a month to produce what an American miner turns out in a day and a half.
And transportation costs are ruinously high: To ship one ton of coal one kilometer costs 35 cents, according to mining engineers. In the United States, the figure is 3 cents. Shipping coal hundreds of miles from the Kuzbass to the metallurgical factories in the Urals becomes a hardship for both buyer and seller.