In September 1992 a delegation from the International Committee of the Fourth International visited the Ukrainian town of Shostka to deliver more than seven tons of medical supplies and equipment which had been collected in a worldwide campaign. This report first appeared in the Neue Arbeiterpresse November 20, 1992
Although Shostka lies only 168 miles from Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, and the intervening countryside is completely flat, the journey there proves to be very onerous. It takes the “Elektrishka,” the bumpy local train, a full six hours to traverse the main Kiev-Moscow line back to Voronesh. From there, a diesel train travels to Shostka on a branch line.
We experience some difficulties trying to find the right train. At the station, the final destination is shown as “the hamlet Mikhailovska,” a village on the Russian border which is not shown on our map. Shostka, on the other hand, is not shown on any timetable. Even with 100,000 inhabitants, it only counts as a small town.
In the past a bus traveled the route from Kiev to Shostka. But since oil supplies must now be purchased at world prices, the cost of travel has risen astronomically and the route has been closed. However, the Elektrishka is cheap: 32 coupons (the provisional Ukrainian currency which has replaced the ruble) per person. This is less than 25 cents at the official exchange rate.
As we later found out, even this price presents a considerable obstacle for the average worker visiting the capital.
The large wagons of the train are not divided into compartments. To the left and right of the central aisle, six passengers sit on hard benches. Although the train is long, almost all places are filled. Most passengers seem tired and listless. Despite their uncomfortable surroundings, many are asleep. What is noticeable are the many heavy bags and rucksacks, in which they transport vegetables and potatoes from their own patch of land back to their homes.
The countryside offers little diversion. Once the last suburbs of Kiev are left behind, the picture remains almost the same: next to the railway embankment, a small strip of woods; behind that a vast expanse of fields which appear untended. From time to time a small, carefully tended potato field appears between the embankment and the woods.
Here and there the train stops at a village. One cannot help being reminded of films from the time of the Russian Revolution. The face of the village has changed little since then: single story wooden houses with flat gable ends, surrounded by wooden palings.
Most of the roads are unpaved and have huge potholes. They turn into a quagmire with every shower. Fat white geese waddle down the main street surrounded by cackling hens.
Only when a larger factory is to be found in the village do one or two of those monotonous prefabricated apartment structures, such as are to be found by the hundreds in the cities, rise above the small houses. The journey reveals that the Ukraine, despite its large cities, still strongly bears the imprint of the countryside.
We are met at the station in Voronesh by a delegation from the Chernobyl Association, who present us with an enormous bunch of flowers. They have borrowed a car from the hospital in order to spare us the last stretch of the train journey. While the driver skillfully navigates the numerous potholes, Yuri Korsun describes the surroundings to us.
Outside the town, large agricultural expanses have been divided up into small parcels of land which the inhabitants use as their private gardens. There are about 15,000 such plots, i.e., one for every seven of the town’s inhabitants. They are planted with potatoes, vegetables, fruit and other basic foods.
During our visit we will meet many people—from an ordinary worker up to a director of the apprentices school—who spend all their spare time on their plot of land so as to ensure that their families get enough food to eat. They have no choice. Galloping inflation means that wages are not sufficient to cover the cost of a month’s basic items, let alone provide for clothing and other necessities. For the government this is an easy way to direct the pent-up social antagonisms into nonpolitical channels.
Shostka, which we reached after dark, gave the impression of being hospitable and well-kept. With the exception of a small center from the prewar era, the town is a typical product of the industrial upturn in the 1950s and 1960s. The five- to twelve-story apartment buildings are carbon copies of those found in the outer suburbs of Kiev, Moscow or East Berlin. However, they are not built so close together and there are more lawns and trees in between, so that the overall appearance is more pleasant.
The changes of the last years have left little trace here. Lenin’s statue still stands in front of the town hall, which is a massive plain building on an overly broad street which serves as a central square. In the waiting room at the railway station, the yellowing pictures of the martyrs of the “Great Patriotic War” still hang, adorned with the hammer and sickle and other insignia of Soviet power. No one here seems to feel the need to pull it all down.
Even the Communist Party and Komsomol (Communist Party youth movement) functionaries continue to use their old offices, although both organizations are banned.
The economic backbone of the town is formed by three large chemical and defense factories, each employing between 8,000 and 15,000 workers. The Svema factory, which makes films and photographic products, is known far beyond this region.
The more one comes to know the life of the town, the more apparent become the sharp contradictions which lie beneath the placid surface—contradictions which must inevitably sharpen with the progression of capitalist restoration. Our hosts have organized an extensive program of visits for us, bringing us into contact with the most varied social layers. In this way we are able to gain a more differentiated picture of conditions here.
Our first trip takes us to the central hospital in Shostka. The treatment rooms are to be found in a small old building. In a multistory structure behind this lie the wards. The material donated by the International Committee has been stored here. A young nurse, who searches for the key, shows us the pallets loaded up to the ceiling. At present the medicines are being sorted so that they can be properly allocated.
Finally we talk to Dr. Lyubov Shlyapina, the young doctor who is responsible for the treatment of radiation sickness in the hospital. She gives us a detailed report of the problems with which she has to contend.
The head physician, Dr. Alexandr Apenko, is attending a conference and is only able to meet us the next day. He thanks us warmly in the name of the entire hospital for the donated medicines. He says that our donation is not just a great material support, but above all a great moral one.
“The Chernobyl catastrophe has consequences which cannot be overcome within a short time,” he says. “And suitable medicines are not available anywhere in the world. In a few years, these consequences can become even more serious than they are today.”
Dr. Apenko is a member of the town council, where he was elected as a representative of the now banned Communist Party. He views the present political developments with obvious unease. He listened with great interest to our reports on the work and perspectives of the Fourth International. The problem, we explain, is that the Stalinists’ crimes have suppressed and discredited socialism in the working class. He agrees wholeheartedly with this.
He tells us about the terrible effects the unraveling of the Soviet Union is having on his hospital. It has become almost impossible to obtain desperately needed medical equipment: “Whilst it is possible to replace drugs and medicines with others, diagnostic apparatus is becoming ever more expensive. This makes it almost impossible to buy. Equipment made abroad must now be paid for in hard currency. The hospital does not have any hard currency and so this problem is almost impossible for us to resolve. If you are able to help us in this respect, we would be extremely happy.”
An interview at the local television station has been arranged for the afternoon. It is conducted in the cafeteria of the downtown cinema. The manager of the cinema, who had familiarized herself with the Russian-language “Bulletin” of the International Committee before our arrival, greeted us with enthusiasm and was at pains to be helpful during our entire stay.
The television crew has already reported the arrival of the medical supplies prior to our own arrival. They give us our first opportunity to explain the origins and aims of the Fourth International.
I explain first the struggle of the Left Opposition, under Trotsky’s leadership, against the rise of Stalinism, and then the founding of the Fourth International and its historical significance. I stress that the International Committee decisively rejects the course of capitalist restoration being pursued by Kravchuk in the Ukraine and Yeltsin in Russia, but that the answer cannot be a return to the Stalinist regime, which collapsed for very good reasons.
“The working class needs an international strategy,” I say. “The only way out of the present dead end lies in the international unification of the working class on the basis of a socialist program.”
The reporter then asks questions about the campaign which had brought the International Committee to Shostka.
“The aim of our action,” I answer, “is to show to the workers of the Ukraine and the former Soviet Union that the international working class is their most important ally. They have only mass unemployment and poverty to expect from the invasion of the Western banks and business concerns. These are the inevitable consequences of the economic program dictated by the International Monetary Fund.
“We were pleasantly surprised just how powerful the response was to our appeal. Workers all over the world have willingly donated without hesitation. Many of them are themselves unemployed or threatened with dismissal, and do not know how they are to make ends meet with their own meager wages. This is especially the case with workers in the US, who, in contrast to the continuous propaganda here, do not live in luxury.
“According to official figures, in the United States alone forty million people live below the poverty line.
“Let me mention a few of the places where we have collected donations: from auto workers in Detroit and Pontiac and miners in Pennsylvania in the US. In Australia, employees at hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne gave generously. In Britain, miners in Yorkshire who were out on strike for a year in defense of their jobs in 1984-1985 gave nearly 3,000 pounds.
“In Germany, miners in the Ruhr area, auto workers in Stuttgart and chemical workers in Frankfurt supported the campaign. We also received generous donations from workers at the factories in East Berlin, the capital of the former German Democratic Republic, although many of them are threatened with layoff. Even workers in Sri Lanka, one of the poorest countries in the world, have supported our campaign.”
In conclusion, Yuri Korsun explains why the Chernobyl Association had turned to the International Committee of the Fourth International.
The fifteen-minute interview is broadcast that same evening at 9:00 p.m. by the regional station, and watched by several hundred thousand households.
Following the interview we drive to a school for apprentices. The spacious four-story building has eighteen classrooms, nine workshops and a large dining room. Six hundred and forty students are being trained as carpenters, auto mechanics, painters, welders, maintenance engineers, salespersons, in the construction industry and in the food and bakery trades.
Measured by Western standards, the level of staffing is very generous. The staff of instructors and teachers is over 100 strong.
Many of the apprentices not only learn at the school, but live and eat there too. The school also includes a dormitory and gymnasium. The training is free. Needy pupils are also provided with free clothing and shoes. The training takes place entirely in the school. Only when fully qualified do the youth go into the factory.
The school also possesses cultural facilities, which are open to the local inhabitants. For example, in the school we visit there is an Esperanto Club. In Shostka alone there are three such schools. In the surrounding region there are forty-two.
We ask the director, Nikolai Kondratenko, what the career prospects of the youth are in the face of the political developments.
“Up to now it had never been a problem to find a job following completion of training,” he says. “Since the Ukraine has left the Union, we are confronted with certain difficulties for the first time and the problems become ever more acute. We now have an unemployment office in the town. If our students do not find any work, they are sent to the unemployment office. This year it was about ten pupils; all others found jobs.”
We report how in the former GDR following reunification, tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off on cost grounds and a whole generation of youth deprived of any prospects for the future. He listens to us with alarm, and is unable to conceive of such a development in the Ukraine. Nevertheless he admits, “With the transition to the market economy our problems become more complicated. We must train workers who can stand up to competition. In the past we never had to bother with the problems of survival, but now we are forced to conduct serious discussions with our pupils about their future.”
Finally, Nikolai Kondratenko proudly takes us to two classrooms which have been turned into a museum. “We have to keep pace with the times,” he remarks. “We have created a sort of local history museum. We want to recreate our spiritual values.”
However, what these spiritual values comprise is hard to determine. In the museum there is a collection of agricultural and craft tools, cultural and everyday articles, whose technical level is hardly above that of the Roman Empire at its high point.
Ukrainian culture, which has become so fashionable in intellectual circles, is marked by the complete absence of those urban bourgeois traditions with which the ascent of modem European culture has been inseparably bound up since the Renaissance. The extolling of this indigenous culture, which is accompanied by a glorification of Cossack traditions, is the ideological accompaniment to the massive destruction of industry begun with the restoration of capitalism, which must inevitably throw the Ukraine back centuries.
Kondratenko reflects little about social relations and does not appear to be clear about this connection. I cannot help thinking that had he received us three years earlier, he would have been singing the praises of the Soviet Union with the same enthusiasm that he now lauds the Ukraine.
The next day we visit a dairy produce factory, which is without doubt a sort of model facility. Every day 320 mainly female employees process 250,000 liters of milk into thirty different products, which supply Kiev, Donets and other large cities.
The factory is spic-and-span and contains modem machinery from Hungary and the GDR. One notices the personal commitment of the director, Larissa Rudakova, who guides us through the factory. She expresses satisfaction with the political changes: “Our factory is now completely independent. We control our own finances, which was not the case earlier. In the past our funds were under the control of the ministry. Now we can decide what to do with any profits we make.”
At the same time she takes it for granted that the profits are used for the benefit of the workers. In this way the factory provides funds for the convalescence of workers affected by the Chernobyl disaster, supplies, subsidized food and clothing and also kindergartens. The factory also organizes recuperative holidays at the seaside and is building an apartment structure. As Larissa Rudakova explains, all this is possible because the factory is generating a profit at present and has sufficient funds.
Other factories, particularly the larger ones, are no longer in a position to sustain such services. Svemahas laid off a thousand workers. The first to go were those working in the cultural facilities which had been provided for the workers.
Even for the dairy factory there are clouds on the horizon. “We have great difficulty obtaining replacement parts,” Rudakova tells us. “The equipment that we have here in the factory comes mainly from the former socialist countries, such as Hungary and the GDR. The contracts are not being renewed because we have no hard currency. We are trying to obtain contracts with the relevant factories in the former Soviet Union and help ourselves in this way. Nevertheless, we require hard currency in order to purchase various spare parts. At present we are negotiating with Hungary and Austria. We hope that we will be able to supply milk powder there, but there are problems with this.”
On many occasions we are invited to share a meal with workers. In this way we gain an insight into their living conditions.
From the outside, the large apartment buildings look only half-finished because they are not plastered or properly maintained. Inside they are roomy and astonishingly well appointed. It is apparent that much effort and imagination is spent creating a comfortable home atmosphere.
However, not everyone is lucky enough to have their own apartment. In Shostka, as in the large cities, there is a severe shortage of accommodation. The bureaucratic hurdles which must be overcome in order to obtain an apartment are humiliating and almost insurmountable.
Following several requests, a member of the Chernobyl Association who does not have his own apartment takes us home. He and his wife and their seven-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter live in a room just twelve meters square. They have to share the kitchen and bathroom with two other families who live in the same three bedroom apartment, and must wash their clothing in the bathtub as there is no washing machine. One can easily see how difficult these conditions are for the housewife, who also works full-time.
They have lived like this for six years. The other families have long been on the waiting list for their own apartment, but construction has been delayed and presently there is nothing happening at all. Galloping inflation has meant that the cost of construction materials has skyrocketed and the whole construction industry has come to a dead stop. So it could be months or even years before things change and each year the children get older.
The Stalinist regime has left victims everywhere. On this evening we are visited by two “Afghans,” as youth are called who at eighteen were sent to the Afghan war and had the luck to survive. They have been treated like lepers since their return. They report that many of them were not even able to obtain a residence permit when they wanted to return to their home towns.
These “Afghans” have established their own associations throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States. Lacking any other social perspective, they are attempting to build up private factories in order to support themselves, but even here they are hindered by the government. We interview some of these veterans, and what they have to say makes very clear what a devastating effect this war has had on a whole generation of Soviet youth.
On the third evening of our trip, the Chernobyl Association invites the representatives of the Fourth International to address a public meeting. This also takes place at the downtown cinema. It is attended by about twenty visitors, including victims of the Chernobyl disaster, a radio reporter from Sumy, the region’s capital, and a group of workers who are keenly interested in the program of the Fourth International.
Even before the meeting we are overwhelmed by requests from those who have heard that an aid convoy had arrived and who emotionally explain their problems and the indifference of the bureaucracy.
Decades of Stalinist rule have reduced social life in many areas to ruins, the scale of which would continuously incense one. The new government has only made matters worse. And the consequences of the economic decline and mounting inflation make life more and more difficult each day.
Speaking through her tears, one mother tells us about the suicide attempt of her fourteen-year-old son. After futile journeys to several hospitals, he had given up hope of having his epilepsy cured. She implores us to look for possibilities for him to receive treatment in Germany.
Parents ask us to help them find holiday places for their children, injured as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. One worker asks how the medicine we had brought would be distributed and reports how aid convoys which the government controlled ended up putting more cash in the pockets of the bureaucracy.
There are three women who come from Pripjet, in the immediate vicinity of Chernobyl and who were resettled in Shostka following the disaster. They tell us about the effects of the disaster on their children.
During the meeting, a lively discussion unfolds about the program of the Fourth International. Two workers who saw the interview on television the night before want to know our views on the August putsch of last year. They are pleased to hear that we condemned the putsch without granting the slightest concessions to Yeltsin and the apologists of capitalist restoration. They both leave their addresses to remain in contact and receive the Russian-language “Bulletin” of the International Committee.