Workers, Strikes, and Pogroms: The Donbass-Dnepr Bend in Late Imperial Russia, 1870-1905.
Wynn traces worker violence in the newly industrializing stretch of the Ukraine to the deplorable conditions under which the rapidly growing labor force lived and worked, to the transience of all but a small minority of highly skilled workers in the steel mills, to the violent culture that Russian peasants brought with them, and to the peasant-workers' propensity to drink themselves into a fury. Their miserable lives in dugouts, barracks, and taverns outweighed the superior wages they received in a labor-deficit industrializing region. The mostly male, mostly young inhabitants of factory and mining settlements were prone to turn recreational violence (the wall-to-wall fist fight) against company authorities, especially foreigners, and company property. They were especially likely to take out their frustrations on Jews. Rapid growth of the cities and rude settlements of the region attracted large numbers of Jews, who provided the artisan service sector. Thus workers Ekaterinoslav in 1883 and Iuzovka in 1892 engaged in violent pogroms against Jews.
Revolutionaries were well aware both of the high labor turnover that severely impaired radical organizing, and the workers' disturbing propensity toward disorganized and anti-semitic violence. Revolutionaries and the thin stratum of skilled workers tried, not very successfully, to prevent these outbursts. On the other hand, despite all the obstacles revolutionaries did enjoy organizational success, which was capped by the impressive general strikes in Ekaterinoslav and other southern cities in 1903. But revolutionaries were cautious about calling workers out for fear that strikes would turn into pogroms. After the even more impressive strikes of January 1905 they again grew wary of workers' pogromist tendencies; the pogrom following the October strike was just what they had feared all along. Wynn believes that the big strikes always threatened to turn into pogroms because most workers sought economic rather than political gains, were always disappointed, and concluded that they had been misled or betrayed by Jews and intellectuals. Ironically, in Wynn's view, the October pogroms paved the way for the greatest show of worker political militance anywhere in Russia in December 1905: revolutionaries and skilled workers armed themselves to combat pogromists, and so were able to seize control of central Ekaterinoslav and many of the stations along the Ekaterinin railroad, and even to attempt to take on the military in pitched battle at Gorlovka.
Wynn must be right about much of this. His analysis of the region's social history makes good reading, and largely agrees with Theodore Friedgut's (Iuzovka and Revolution) conclusions about the same place and time. His probing of the interplay of social conditions, radical activism, and reactionary violence, does develop an important theme that has not been squarely addressed in the literature on Russia's revolutions. He has written a fine book. The critique that follows is friendly.
Probably not all of Wynn's judgements on the social setting strike the right balance. It is more than a cavil, for instance, to observe that he exaggerates the violence of Russian peasant society (peasants may periodically have erupted in orgies of destruction, but those periods were generations apart and always triggered by extraordinary circumstances), and thus the propensity to violence that peasant migrants brought to the region. Nor was urban life on this raw industrial frontier so anomic as Wynn implies: the artels and landsmannschaften in which miners and mill workers lived and labored produced nothing like a class, but did make up a checkerboard of tiny communities. Furthermore, if these peasant-workers drank up their pay checks as the moralizing commentators Wynn quotes said they did, they could not have taken large amounts of money home to their villages (as other of Wynn's sources attest). Viewed from the factory and mine, these workers looked--if for no other reason than their transience--disorganized; the view from the villages to which they wanted to return was quite different, and that was the view that most of the peasant workers had of themselves. They knew what they were doing.
Wynn's discussion of antisemitism and pogroms is surprisingly thin. He treats the workers' antisemitism as though it were entirely unproblematic. Yet coming from the Russian interior, most peasant-workers would have had no contact with Jews prior to migration. Did their abstract religious anti-semitism turn violent merely because they bought goods from Jewish merchants? Did it take no more than contact with a physical Jew to turn a Russian peasant from a token antisemite into a potential participant in a pogrom? Wynn's interpretation of pogroms as chiefly (but not solely) the result of frustration over the outcome of strikes is plausible but not well supported. The evidence he quotes suggests that, in October 1905 at least, the pogromists were outraged by what they took to be insults to deeply held convictions about the place of Tsar and Orthodoxy in the world: radical celebration of the humiliation of the Tsar, together with rumors about mockery of the Church, were the proximate cause of the pogrom, in Ekaterinoslav as elsewhere in the Russian empire. Wynn missed an opportunity for a far more nuanced analysis.
As for the challenge to other historians to attend to the workers' reactionary violence as well as their emerging class consciousness, it is well taken. Yet Wynn gathers the evidence that the behavior of the workers of the Dnepr bend and Donbass was not unique from the very historians he challenges. What historians usually observe is just what Wynn himself concludes: that skilled workers were class-conscious and opposed to random violence and pogroms, while the unskilled were more hostile to radicals, resistant to politics, but potentially more volatile and (where there were Jews around) more anti-semitic. It may well be that the balance has not heretofore been properly drawn, and that now that Wynn has alerted us we will see worker behavior and identity in a new light. But it may also be that the conclusions about workers in Ukraine's coal and steel belt cannot be readily extended to workers in Russia's interior or the northern industrial cities.
A final criticism is the same that I make of almost every study of 1905: Wynn puts too much emphasis on Social Democrats. He does note in passing the considerable presence that Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists had in the region, but since virtually all of his sources on the revolutionary movement originated with Social Democrats the accumulation of evidence gives the SD's far more than their due. SD's dominate the revolutionary stage in Wynn's and other studies in a way they never did in reality. The role of the important SR organizations in the south can only be examined by working in the SR archive at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam; no study of the 1905 revolution can be considered complete without the use of SR sources. Nor should historians ignore, as has Wynn, the Bund archive in New York.
Those glaring omissions aside, Wynn's book is commendable in almost every respect: it is illuminating, well-written, and presents a challenging argument. That challenge should refresh what has become a somewhat stale historiography on 1905.
John Bushnell Northwestern University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1994|
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