Russian workers beat off armed attack on occupied factory


SOVIETSKY, Russia - On July 9th 1999, eighty masked, uniformed gunmen accompanied by the local prosecutor and other officials tried to storm the Vyborg Pulp and Paper Mill, under occupation by its workers for the past eighteen months.One special police unit, normally used to put down prison riots, is reported to have been particularly vicious. At the same time, another private armed militia linked to the mill owners captured the workers elected director Vantorin and tried to force (and offered him a substantial bribe) him to call off the strike. He stood firm and the workers, using the mill's own alarm system managed to mobilise enough people, including local residents who support their struggle, to beat off the attack. However, the fighting was fierce, and two workers are seriously injured.

The Vyborg Pulp and Paper Mill, in the town of Sovietsky sits in a highly strategic location near the Russian- Finnish border, one of the busiest border and trade crossings in the country, as well as being near the railway line that links Russia with Scandinavia. The mill itself is very large and features some of the most modern equipment in the industry.

Formerly owned by American Cellulose, this plant was bankrupted in 1996, in a process which has become very typical of Russian capitalism today, where firms are allowed to run into the ground, then asset-stripped and auctioned off at low prices. Profits made are inevitably salted away abroad.

Meanwhile the local workforce, often highly skilled and experienced, are left with no replacement jobs and no social welfare.

What made the Vyborg situation different was that they refused to accept their impoverishment and they seized complete control of their plant. They ran production themselves, electing their own (unpaid) plant director.

A few months later, the new owners, Nimonor Investments, sued the workers' committee and trade union. A counter-suit was filed by another group of vultures, the creditors of the bankrupt mill, who felt the property had been unfairly awarded to Nimonor. Nevertheless, though the courts ruled in favour of Nimonor, the latter was unable to drive out the occupying workers and establish control over the mill.

Key strengths for the workers were the solidarity they received from other local and regional workers organisations, the massive local sympathy (the mill produces the electricity that supplies people's homes), and, perhaps most importantly of all, their threat to cut off all traffic on the Russia-Scandinavia highway and the railway. The mass blockades of last summer's "rail war" in support of the miners and other workers showed just how important this tactic is proving to be.

The mill has since been sold by Nimonor to a company called Alcem UK Ltd., apparently linked to some of the most mafia-ridden sections of Russian industry, the alcohol and aluminium sectors. The relationship of Nimonor and Alcem to each other is not clear, nor is it clear whether these are actually front companies for a larger firm.

One thing is clear, however. The combined attack by government authorities and private company militias, armed with guns and batons, was designed to destroy in the bud the new, rising militancy of Russian workers. The IMF-Yeltsin privatisation programme has reduced much of the economy of this former superpower to that of a Third World country. Russian workers, who once enjoyed a life expectancy similar to western levels, now live on average to the age of 56. An oncreasing number of them will not put up with this situation any longer.

The ruthless attack on the Vyborg workers comes hard on the heels of an unprecedented victory by the workers of the Yasnogorsk machine plant, who also took control of their factory in a similar scenario to the Vyborg one. Nearly all of their demands were conceded after a long occupation during which the workers ran production, shared the profits and fed their town.

Every boss in Russia is terrified that this method of fighting will become widespread, and that the authorities will lose more and more control. Clearly they hope to roll back the tide now by using intimidation and violence, before this militancy goes any further.

Source: A-Infos Anarchist News Service

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 58 published in Oct 1999