Russia on Saturday quietly marked half a century since Soviet forces brutally suppressed a rare protest led by striking factory workers in one of the worst massacres of the USSR’s postwar era.
Twenty-six people were killed on June 2, 1962 when Soviet troops fired on the mass protest against working conditions and rising prices in the southern city of Novocherkassk.
In the brutal ensuing crackdown, seven protestors were condemned to death and shot and while over 100 received 10-15 year terms in Soviet prison camps.
With modern Russia still reluctant to face head-on the traumas of its Soviet past, commemorations of the 50th anniversary were modest in scale and not promoted by the Kremlin.
Memorial services were taking place in Novocherkassk while in Moscow leaders of the liberal Yabloko party laid a wreath at the Solovetsky Stone that remembers the victims of repression opposite the ex-KGB Lubyanka headquarters.
“Let us remember those who were shot dead and those who ended their lives in the camps just because they dared ask for justice,” said the deputy head of the Yabloko faction in Moscow, Galina Mikhaleva.
“Unless we understand the situation where people found themselves in a totalitarian state we will never be able to build a democratic society where the authorities are under the control of the people,” she added in a Yabloko statement.
State television also broadcast a low-profile scattering of factually-worded news reports about what is now known in Russia as the “Novocherkassk Tragedy”.
“I heard a crackling noise. A sharp crackle. And I looked down and there was blood, a puddle of blood,” pensioner Nadezhda Dmitriyeva, who was caught up in the events as she walked in the city centre, told state television.
The strike broke out on June 1, 1962 at the electric train factory in Novocherkassk whose workers protested against a new order to increase output by 30 percent at a time when their salaries were falling and prices rising.
When asked by the workers how they were going to live, the head of the factory is said to have fueled their anger by replying: “If you don’t have enough money for meat then just eat liver pies!”
The next day, joined by other segments of the population as well as women and children, they marched to the local Communist Party headquarters and occupied the central square in Novocherkassk.
According to documents that were only made public after the fall of the Soviet Union, top leader Nikita Khrushchev gave precise instructions: “No pity for the enemy.”
All information concerning the Novocherkassk massacre was carefully concealed by the Soviet Unionduring almost the entire Communist period and the Soviet press first mentioned the tragedy only in 1989.
Those condemned were finally rehabilitated in 1996. Criminal proceedings against the Soviet leaders were dropped on the grounds that by then, they were all dead.
The massacre was first revealed in the West by the US government in October 1962 which described an uprising and gave indications of a deadly crackdown but gave no firm details.
Dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn went to Novocherkassk in 1971 to speak to witnesses about the events and it is thanks to these statements published in his book “The Gulag Archipelago” that the world was made aware of its scale.
However twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union there are still relatively few memorials in modern Russia to the victims of Soviet purges and repression while its leaders have only rarely raised the topic in public.