An Information Center for the Russian Workers’ Movement

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Alex Chis and Susan Weissman

AS WE GO to press, the early results of the Russian elections show the reactionary, ultra-nationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky getting the highest vote total—approximately 25%, compared to about 15% for Russia’s Choice, the party of First Deputy Prime MinisterYegor Geidar, the architect of Russia’s “shock therapy” march to capitalism, and 11% for the reconstituted Communist Party.

The results, while certainly a dose of “shock therapy” for Yeltsin and his “reformers,” require a fuller analysis, which we will present in the next issue. In another undemocratic maneuver, it appears that Yeltsin won’t let early presidential elections take place. According to Nikolai Ryabov, chair of Yeltsin’s Central Election Commission, “The question of the early election of the president automatically becomes irrelevant,” since the constitution that was passed includes a clause allowing the incumbent to finish his term. News reports just before the election indicated that up to 75% of voters had not read the proposed constitution.

SINCE THE SUMMER OF 1989, when the Soviet working class entered center stage with a dramatic round of strikes, we in the West have been privileged to have an extraordinary and reliable source of information on their activities, one that played an even more important role in the events of October, when censorship once again took hold, if only briefly, in the former Soviet Union.

That source is the KAS-KOR Labor Information Center. Occupying a couple of moms, using a few computers, fax and photocopier, the young activists who staff KAS-KOR reach an enormous audience with modest resources and a spectacular vitality. So when we both went to Russia in late October to participate in a variety of conferences, including press conferences on behalf of the newly-formed U.S. Committee for Democratic and Human Rights in Russia [see box], we made it a point to get to know more about KAS-KOR.

In some ways it’s a little surprising that KAS-KOR isn’t more well-known in the West, especially among socialist and left circles Apart from their English language bulletin, some KAS-KOR articles have appeared in a handful of Western left journals. For example, Independent Politics #2 carried an interview with Kirill Buketov, one of their main organizers.

The fact that many of the KAS-KOR activists have their origins in a new anarcho-syndicalist movement in Russia, with few international ties, may explain their relative obscurity in the West. Much of the Western left, so shocked by the demise of the USSR and dismayed by the apparent Russian embrace of the market, has turned a blind eye to some of the most important developments in the former Soviet Union, one of which is the remarkable effort of the KAS-KOR.

This can partially be explained by the failure of Russian reality to match the theoretical expectations long held by many Western left tendencies. The current state of affairs is profoundly disturbing to them. Perhaps reporting on real attempts to actually build the workers’ movement in Russia can help.

KAS-KOR Begins

KAS-KOR got its start in the beginning of the summer of 1990, during the wave of coal miners’ strikes. There were no sources of reliable information on the strikes, and the USSR was such a large country that strike coordination was difficult, with a strike beginning in one city just as one was ending in another. Some of the strike committees and new trade unions decided to create an independent information center for the workers’ movement, and KAS-KOR was born.

Its primary activity is the publication of a weekly Russian-language bulletin, spreading information on workers’ struggles in the ex-USSR. The information comes from the network of more than 300 correspondents that KAS-KOR has built throughout Russia and the republics of the ex-USSR.

In turn this bulletin is spread to about 500 organizations. Acting as a press service, they are also able to get stories into the major newspapers. They have a weekly radio show on Radio Russia, with a potential listenership of about 300 million, which has to be the most widely heard workers’ program in the world.

An Independent Center

KAS-KOR is an activist group consisting of a few paid staff and a much larger group of volunteers in Moscow, who have so many projects it’s hard to imagine how they manage. They have earned the respect of and work with everyone in the workers’ movement.

Kirill Buketov emphasizes:

“KAS-KOR is an independent center. A lot of left people work with us, not only people with a political point of view but also people without political opinions, who are only trade unionists. We are an organization which gives workers the opportunity to go to the radio, to go to the TV, to go to some newspapers. And we help workers to organize the base for publishing their own newspapers.

“We are not a trade union. We are not a political organization. We are an information center in support of the workers’ movement.”

One of the most striking things about KAS-KOR, for those accustomed to the Western left and workers’ movement, is its youth: The average age of KAS-KOR activists ranges from 21-28. Kirill explains, “Usually in Russia workers’ organizations are not so old, because for old people it’s very difficult to change their viewpoint. So young people can understand better and are more active.”

Using Modem Methods

KAS-KOR’s activism is very evident, as is their internationalism and their desire to reach out to the Western left and workers’ movement, using the most modern methods. Until recently they published a monthly digest of news in English, French and Spanish Many people first learned of them when they saw the English language digest posted on the computer bulletin board Peacenet. They spread their stories around the world via electronic mail (email).

In October they were the primary organizers of the international labor conference “Modern Telecommunications: New Vistas for Workers’ Solidarity” in Moscow. The conference was another step towards the ambitious goal of facilitating the coordination of the workers’ movement ac-ross Russia, where vast distances make electronic communication invaluable.

The fact that the conference, scheduled for October 19-21, took place at all was a tribute to KAS-KOR’s determination. First, Yeltsin’s October 4 coup and the state of emergency threw the proceedings in doubt. Then, just one week before the conference was to begin, the army took over the conference site, where not only the conference sessions were to be held, but where computers and online facilities were to be available to participants and where everyone was to be housed and fed. Organizing furiously, the organizers found an alternate site and the conference went forward.

Electronic mail was also very valuable on October 4 and the days following in Russia. The news of the arrests of Boris Kagarlitsky and others were spread around the world on email, and protests started pouring in. In the following days uncensored news was spread from many sources in Russia to the West via email.

The age of ‘cybermedia’ makes old fashioned methods of repressing information obsolete, a fact with far-reaching consequences for future struggles. For Yeltsin to have achieved a Polish result (completely cutting off communication in the manner of the Jarzuleski coup of December, 1981), he would have had to sever telephone lines and confiscate personal computers, something nearly impossible on the eve of the twenty-first century.

Russian Labor Review

KAS-KOR’s most important new project for Western readers interested in Russia is an attractive new quarterly English language magazine, Russian Labor Review (RLR). Replacing the monthly digest of news, RLR is able to cover the events and debates in the labor movement throughout the ex-USSR in a comprehensive way. Like KAS-KOR itself, RLR is thoroughly non-sectarian, with articles from a wide variety of viewpoints. For any one at all interested in the ex-USSR or the international labor movement, it’s a must.

Subscribers to RLR also demonstrate solidarity with the workers’ movement in Russia, and help KAS-KOR in their work of spreading the word on workers’ struggles throughout the ex-USSR and the world. It is their hope that the financial success of this project will make it possible for them to begin other projects, such as the new Russian-language newspaper Workers’ Action, a joint project of KAS-KOR in Moscow and the NERV center in St. Petersburg, the first issue of which should be out by the time you read this article.

Kirill Butekov said the inspiration for this project came from the U.S.-journal Labor Notes. They are also considering putting out an email digest of news that would be available on Peacenet, on the abr.cis conference, or by subscription. (Peacenet: 18 DeBoom St., San Francisco, CA 94107; 415-442-0220.)

Meeting with the people from KASKOR, witnessing their incredible vitality and energy, learning about the range of their activities in the ex-USSR was the brightest spot in our trip to Russia As we were leaving, KAS-KOR was sending activists to the Urals, to participate in two trade union conferences. As the workers’ movement begins to reconstruct itself, it is this initiative and others like it that should be followed closely.

The working class of the former Soviet Union is in the process of reconstituting itself. It is a working class that “constantly overthrows one’s expectations of it” according to Renfrey Clarke, one of KAS-KOR’s writers and translators. Thanks to their efforts, we can follow and support these developments.

January-February 1994, ATC 48