NOVOCHERKASSK, U.S.S.R. -- Even now no one knows where the dead are buried. There are only rumors: The KGB pushed the corpses down a mine shaft or into a swamp. The police brought the bodies to a series of unmarked graves in various cemeteries spread across the Black Earth zone of southern Russia. No one really knows.
Like the location of the dead, the story of the Novocherkassk rebellion has long been a secret of the state. The strike here in June 1962 over price rises and wage cuts at the city's Electric Locomotive Works was the first workers' uprising in Russia since the initial, fitful post-revolutionary years. At Moscow's orders, the military turned its machine guns on the unarmed demonstrators; at least 24 were killed, dozens more injured. Not long after, the Kremlin's judges ordered the execution of seven "ringleaders" who had survived.
Within three days, all mention of Novocherkassk disappeared from the state-controlled press. Even Western specialists knew almost nothing of it. Thirteen years later, Alexander Solzhenitsyn published a few pages of rough description in the third volume of "The Gulag Archipelago," but that was banned material in the Soviet Union until this year.
Only now is the Soviet public learning about Novocherkassk, and there is an eerie feel to it. An oral history of the massacre, published this summer in the literary journal Don, reads like a modern cautionary tale: With the KGB, the army and Mikhail Gorbachev himself feeling threatened by nationalists and political opponents, in a time of increasing food shortages and ethnic division, there is always talk of conflict, of civil disobedience, of the possibility of bloodshed.
Indeed, in the Gorbachev era, army troops have attacked and killed nationalist demonstrators in Tbilisi and Baku. Few seemed to have learned the lesson of Novocherkassk.
The 1962 massacre claimed at least one more victim: Red Army Gen. Matvei Shaposhnikov, a true believer in the Bolshevik ideal who was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union after leading a tank division to victory in some of the bloodiest fighting in World War II. Years before the emergence of Andrei Sakharov and the dissident movement, Shaposhnikov had done the unthinkable. Ordered to attack the demonstrators at Novocherkassk, he refused.
The general is 84 years old. His political superiors forced him to retire 25 years ago, but he is healthy and strong. With his grip, he could crush walnuts. His apartment, which he shares with his daughter, son-in-law and their children, is military-neat. "Let's talk, vis a vis," he said, lifting a heavy chair and setting it down for his guest.
"I remember clearly singing revolutionary songs as an 11-year-old boy in 1917: 'Oh, march forward, comrade, forward... .' I believed all my life in Soviet power and now I was being told to shoot at my own people, unarmed people," Shaposhnikov said.
"I had to pay for my decision with everything. They stripped me of my rank, my decorations, my membership in the Communist Party. They told me to retire for 'health reasons.' And my wife, my dear, dear wife, finally paid for it even more deeply. She died a few years ago, and I am convinced she died from the attacks on us. Finally, she just could not bear it."
Khrushchev's three volumes of memoirs, including the new "Glasnost Tapes," make no mention of the Novocherkassk events. Neither does his son Sergei's new memoir, "Khrushchev on Khrushchev."
The Khrushchev family's silence is as cynical as it is understandable. Khrushchev's rise to power represented a break with the Stalinist past. He freed hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and eased censorship restrictions to begin the great "thaw" in the Soviet arts. Gorbachev was profoundly influenced by Khrushchev's brave, if superficial, attempts at reform, and even now looks to the late 1950s and early 1960s as a period of hope.
These days there is almost a Khrushchev revival, a mini-cult. But Khrushchev was a reformer still immersed in the habits of mind and politics of the Stalin period. When the intelligentsia of the "thaw" began to trespass the boundaries of his sense of the permissible, he lashed out, attacking everyone from Boris Pasternak to the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. As Khrushchev stormed out of Neizvestny's exhibit, the KGB chief Alexander Shelepin turned to the artist and said, "One day you'll rot in a camp."
Khrushchev's circle could bully a sculptor, perhaps, but it would do less well with a Hero of the Soviet Union.
On the morning of June 1, 1962, the Communist Party press in Novocherkassk announced that the prices of meat and butter would go up at least 25 percent. And when workers at the Electric Locomotive Works arrived at the plant, they discovered that their wages would be cut by as much as 30 percent. Both local papers, the Hammer and the Banner of the Commune, assured the people that these were merely "temporary measures," all in the name of "social advance."
Somehow, the workers were not prepared this time to swallow the usual doublespeak. Their anger was so intense that they forgot themselves, forgot for a moment their "party discipline" and confronted the plant director, Kurochkin.
How would they live now? the workers demanded.
"You're used to wolfing down meat pies," Kurochkin replied snidely. "Now you can fill them with jam instead."
According to workers at the factory, witnesses like Pyotr Siuda, the workers were enraged. They blew the shop floor whistles and started gathering in the courtyards. There they talked of a strike and drew up placards: "Give Us Meat and Butter," "We Need Places to Live." They ripped down portraits of Khrushchev and burned them. The plant managers were terrified and locked themselves in their offices.
Meanwhile, the regional military command had been on alert for weeks in anticipation of the announcements of price hikes and wage cuts. According to Shaposhnikov, the commander, Gen. Issa Pliyev, was getting coded orders from Khrushchev and the Ministry of Defense. That night, KGB officers and police arrested Siuda and other factory workers in an attempt to undermine a potential strike. Local Communist Party officials refused to meet with any of the strike representatives.
Two members of Khrushchev's inner circle, Anastas Mikoyan and Frol Kozlov, were already in the city. Shaposhnikov, who had been put in charge of armed detachments stationed near the locomotive factory, told them that he was "gravely concerned" that the troops were carrying guns. Kozlov said angrily, "Commander Pliyev has been given all the instructions he needs."
On the morning of June 2 at around 11, 7,000 workers and other demonstrators began a protest march from the plant to the center of Novocherkassk. They simply ignored the troops and tanks that surrounded the plant. As they marched, some workers tried to block the railway line leading into town as a further show of protest. "But people were unarmed, peaceful; they even carried portraits of Lenin," said Vladimir Fomin, one of the region's deputies in the Russian parliament. Their offense, their threat, was ideological, their willingness to question Moscow and chant, "Khrushchev for sausage meat!"
Shaposhnikov, anticipating the chance of violence, told all his soldiers to empty the ammunition from their guns and for the tank brigades to do the same. As the column of demonstrators passed, Shaposhnikov stopped one worker and asked where they were going.
"Comrade General," the worker said, "if the mountain will not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed will go to the mountain." They were headed for the police station and Communist Party headquarters.
Shaposhnikov radioed ahead to Pliyev and told him that the column of protesters was now moving across the Tuzlov bridge and into town.
"Stop them! Don't let them pass!" Pliyev shouted into his radio.
"I haven't got enough men to stop 7,000 people," Shaposhnikov said.
"Send the tanks! Attack them!" Pliyev said.
Shaposhnikov said, "Comrade Commander, I see no enemy that our tanks ought to attack."
The line went dead. Pliyev had slammed down the receiver in a rage.
In that moment of dead air, Shaposhnikov sensed disaster but thought he might be able to head it off. He jumped in a jeep and tried to catch up with the column of protesters. But by the time he neared the city's central square, the protesters were at the gates of the police station, demanding that the strike leaders be let out of jail.
Suddenly, soldiers started firing into the crowd. Some witnesses claim the troops were issued dumdum bullets, which expand on impact. In a panic, the crowd turned and started to flee up Moskovskaya Street. The troops continued firing at their backs. One woman lay in a flower bed bleeding to death, a writer named Sergei Podolsky recalled. Her arm had been blown off. By the time the crowd was gone, Solzhenitsyn writes, "the soldiers looked around for trucks and buses, commandeered them, loaded them with the dead and wounded, and took them to the high-walled military hospital. For a day or two afterward these buses went around town with bloodstained seats."
News of the killings spread to other factories. Workers left the plants and staged an even bigger rally in the center of town, Podolsky said. "Trucks full of workers arrived from everywhere. It was a torrent of human bodies. No force on earth could have stopped them."
"Khrushchev! Khrushchev! Let him see!" the crowd chanted.
Soon Mikoyan was on the radio. He spoke of "hooligans" and "the tragic accident." The police issued a curfew order and sent the crowd home. The army left its troops and tanks in the city for weeks. But within two days, all mention of the Novocherkassk massacre disappeared from the official press. And so it stayed for decades.
Letters to the Kremlin Matvei Shaposhnikov was a loyal party member with memories of the first days of the revolution. He could not understand why the local Communists had not simply met with the workers as "comrades" and negotiated with them. He thought that he should write a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Maybe they would understand.
After all, he thought, the Red Army simply did not attack its own people. You could read it in Lenin, in all the party rule books! He remembered "Bloody Sunday," one of the signal events of the revolution, when the czarist police in 1905 attacked a crowd of peaceful petitioners. The party and its army would never act that way. Shaposhnikov asked to speak with the party officials. He was refused.
After a few months went by, Shaposhnikov could not let the killings pass. He began sending anonymous letters to the Writers Union in Moscow in the naive hope that it could help. He thought of the writers and their "great humanism." But the union, especially then, was a hopelessly corrupt organization, and its officers likely turned the letters over to the KGB.
It is hard to imagine now, in an era when younger KGB and military men are joining the ranks of the political opposition, the daring of Shaposhnikov's act, how deeply it ran counter to his past, his training. Imagine a Red Army general, already in his sixties, a Hero of the Soviet Union, sitting at his desk and writing:
"The Party has turned into a car which is steered by a reckless, drunken driver who is always breaking the traffic rules. It's high time to take away the driver's license and prevent a catastrophe... .
"Today it is extremely important that the working people and the intellectuals should see clearly the essence of the political regime under which we live. They must realize that we are under the rule of the worst form of autocracy which rests on an enormous bureaucracy and an armed force... .
"It is necessary that people learn to think. Our blind faith is turning us into mere living machines. Our people have been deprived of all political and international rights."
To this day, Shaposhnikov declares his intentions were never "anti-Soviet" but rather "anti the bureaucrats and their arrogance." Somehow the KGB did not see it that way. Shaposhnikov began noticing his mail was arriving already opened. He knew he was under surveillance. In 1966, with no explanation, the army forced him out of active duty. In 1967, police searched his apartment in Rostov-on-Don, confiscated his archives and, without any pretense of secrecy, installed a listening device in the bedroom wall.
"I was basically under house arrest, and I was followed by men in dark glasses all the time," Shaposhnikov said. "There was nothing I could do. Some friends remained loyal, but it was very hard for them, especially in a provincial place like this. They saw what was happening, and people tried to avoid me. People would actually cross the street just to avoid saying hello to me in town."
Finally he was called into the local KGB headquarters for a prolonged interrogation. Over and over they demanded that he confess to "anti-Soviet" activities, and Shaposhnikov always described his work in the countryside teaching illiterate workers to read, his work in the mines for 20 kopecks a shift, his long and celebrated career in the army.
"How could I have been anti-Soviet when I gave Soviet power everything?" he said. "If anyone had been dedicated to building communism, it was me."
Only by writing an impassioned letter to KGB chief Yuri Andropov did Shaposhnikov save himself from imprisonment. But he was stripped of his army rank and his membership in the Communist Party. Through the Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko years, there was hardly anything he could do except live in shabby retirement. While other Soviet generals had generous benefits -- dachas, special food orders -- he lived no better than a retired factory worker. He wrote memoirs of the war, about the tank assaults on the Nazis on the Ukrainian front, about the history of the Soviet tank divisions.
But he never connected with the underground political ferment percolating in Moscow. The dissident movement confused him. It seemed directed not only at the leadership, but also at the foundations of Leninist ideology. "I could never understand that," he said.
When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Shaposhnikov wrote five letters to the Kremlin. They were never answered. And while Gorbachev's failure to respond personally irks him even now, Shaposhnikov's appeal for a trial on his alleged "anti-Sovietism" won an answer from the Supreme Court two years ago:
"Your case has now been dismissed in view of the absence of corpus delicti... . The acts perpetrated by you in the '60s provided ample grounds for bringing charges of anti-Soviet propaganda against you. It is only in the context of perestroika and the democratization of all spheres of life in the Soviet Union that it has become possible to find you not guilty."
It would be hard to find a more egregious example of indirection and self-righteousness in the service of simple justice.
Now Shaposhnikov goes to his local party meetings -- "60 years a Communist!" But his faith is of a certain kind. Last year, when a group of young officers in the army scandalized the generals by forming a reformist group called Shield, they made Shaposhnikov their honorary chairman. They even asked him to speak at a huge outdoor rally last winter, just as troops were killing Armenians and Azerbaijanis on the streets of Baku.
"I thought a long time about what I wanted to say that day," Shaposhnikov said. "I thought about that afternoon in Novocherkassk and everything that is going on now, and so I said the army has to vow that they are always with the people and not against them. We can never shoot at our own people. Otherwise we are nothing. Otherwise, we have no future. We'd better remember that."