MOSCOW — By the end of June 1991, coal miners were fast becoming the heroes of the Soviet Union. They had always suffered. Mining was so dangerous throughout the empire that the casualty rate was 24 times higher than in the United States.
Their industry was emblematic of all that was wrong with the Soviet system. Not only was the well-being of workers largely ignored, coal mining was staggeringly inefficient, so wasteful that it cost more to produce a ton of coal than it was worth.
Two years earlier, the miners had begun to rebel. In July 1989, miners in the coal-rich Kuzbass region of Siberia could no longer endure the misery, the low pay, the stores with nothing to buy — shelves so bare that they had trouble finding soap to wash off the grime when they emerged from their deep, dirty tunnels.
That month they went on strike, encouraging miners from across Russia and into Ukraine to stand up together and demand reforms of their industry, their government, their country.
By 1991, the miners had become a movement, and that spring, they organized a two-month strike in the Kuzbass, with 300,000 miners closing down a third of Soviet coal mines at one point. That forced Mikhail Gorbachev, under heavy pressure from conservatives in the Soviet leadership to retreat from the path of reforms, to stay the course.
Russia’s leader, Boris Yeltsin, allied himself with the miners and credited them for forcing Gorbachev to agree on negotiating a new union treaty among the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, one that would replace the enforced union of 1922 with a voluntary agreement. Power would be vested in the republics — Russia, Ukraine and the others — rather than in the Soviet government.
“The miners have turned out to be the initiators of the destruction of the old command-administrative system,” Yeltsin said that May, “and creators of a new system of economic management.”
June 30, 1991, brought yet another reminder of their cause and condition: A fire roared through a mine in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, killing 31 miners. Gorbachev sent a telegram: “I express deep regrets over the tragedy at the mine. I share the grief of the families and relatives of the minters who were killed.”
Telegrams were no longer enough. The miners stayed behind Yeltsin, giving him the strength, he would later say, to stand up to the hard-liners, to rally Russians behind him, to free Russia and bring about the demise of the Soviet Union.
Today, little is heard from the miners. When he became President in 2000, Vladimir V. Putin slowly but powerfully quelled outspoken voices. Huge crowds of demonstrators, lengthy strikes, are almost unimaginable. And even when voices are raised, few hear them: Tightly controlled television does not dwell on the plight of unhappy workers.
The miners’ glory was fleeting. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought them freedom, but the economy was wrecked. In early 1995, growing disillusioned, already remembering the Soviet years with nostalgia, 500,000 miners struck to demand wages that had gone unpaid for months.
The industry, relying on aged equipment and outmoded methods, remained dependent on subsidies. Moscow debated what to do, facing the difficult choice of closing unprofitable mines and throwing thousands out of work — or increase the subsidies and prolong the agony.
International institutions, including the World Bank, offered help. It did little good. In 1998, World Bank officials said at least $240 million provided to modernize the industry has disappeared, either unwisely used or stolen. The corruption that had already entrenched itself was sapping the economy.
That summer, a determined band of 300 miners camped outside the Russian White House, banging their helmets on the pavement, demanding Yeltsin’s resignation and a job that paid. Those who still had jobs feared they would not last. Mines were closing and a workforce of 1 million miners in the early 1990s had shrunk to half that by 1998.
The miners banged their helmets, and the government ignored them.
In 2002, most of the Siberian coal mines were sold off and the miners were no longer government employees. Working for different owners, the miners no longer had a common antagonist. Problems became regional, not national.
In November 2007, 100 miners were killed in a methane fire in Ukraine, long since a different country. In May 2010, methane explosions in a Kuzbass mine in Western Siberia killed 91 miners.
National television stations reported on the accident. They reported that Putin ordered a mine official to resign. They did not report on what followed, when 300 people gathered to protest the conditions and the government’s unemotional response. They did not see riot police disperse the miners, or know that more than 20 were arrested.
The only knew that, once more, miners were dying.