"At the Mytischensk Factory," ca. 1897
From Kanatchikov, SemŽn Ivanovich. "At the Mytischensk Factory." As reproduced in A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia. The Autobiography of SemŽn Ivanovich Kanatchikov, trans. Reginald E. Zelnik, ed. Reginald E. Zelnik (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986), 65-70, 72-74.
This excerpt from the memoirs of SemŽn Ivanovich Kanatchikov (1879-1940) sheds light on the development of both industrialization and socialism in late nineteenth century Russia. Kanatchikov went on to become increasingly involved in the growth of Russian communism. In this document, he appears as a young man simultaneously charmed with the new factory in which he is employed, and intensely concerned about the troubles of Russian workers and society.
The new, bright-colored, spacious Mytischensk factory sparkled like a toy. It was pleasant to look at from every angle. And the roar of its mighty Herculean whistle, with which the trumpets of hosts of archangels could not compare, resounded through the distant meadows and forests, frightening the animals and awakening the shabby, grey villages from their deep, centuries-old slumber. In and around the factory construction work was still in full swing; new factory buildings were being erected, workers' housing was going up in disorder--both little wooden houses and, for the bachelors, enormous barracks. . . .

Since the factory had been functioning for only a few months, no musty workshop traditions had had time to take shape. There were few older workers; merry, cheerful, freedom-loving young men were predominant. I felt at home the very first day. . . . Despite my youth (I was eighteen), the foreman set my daily wage at a ruble sixty, that is, double what I was paid at Bromley's. I was, as they say, in seventh heaven.

I settled in an apartment that was a half-hour's walk from the factory, in the village of Sharapovo--in a little bungalow with a small front garden. The apartment owner--a metal turner named Vasily Alekseevich Klushin--was a venerable and fully "conscious" man who once had worked at the Gopper factory. He had participated in a strike and knew on a first-name basis all the outstanding workers who had suffered for their convictions. He never attended church, never prayed to God, and ate forbidden foods during Lent. He subscribed to the magazine Niva--because of its supplements, as he explained to me.

From the very first time we took tea together Vasily Alekseevich gained my affections, and for a long time to come I retained the fondest memory of him. I would later recall with great warmth the dark summer evenings when, after work, sitting on the terrace over our tea by the sparkling light of a lamp, Vasily Alekseevich in his monotonous, grating voice, but a voice that penetrated deeply into my soul, would tell us about the heroic struggle of the members of the People's Will, about particular episodes from the history of the French Revolution, about the workers who had led the strike in which he took part, and so on. When he told his tales all the actors would quickly come to life; they became big and strong, with unyielding wills and irresistible charms.

Despite the calmness of his tone, I could sense his profound hatred for the "bloodsuckers"--the nobles, the landlords, the priests, and the tsar. When, in the course of some story, the "tsar" happened to come up, Vasily Alekseevich carefully avoided using that word, either substituting the word "himself" or else lowering his voice to a secretive whisper.

"The people are dark, ignorant, without consciousness," he would say . . . "they believe in the good father-tsar. You can curse the government officials, you can curse the nobles as much as you like--that's just fine, but the moment you try and touch 'himself,' why they'll just stomp on you. . . . [T]hey're ignorant . . . our working people are slumbering. . . . They need to be whacked on the head or something--then maybe they'd wake up a little faster. Or else maybe if some kind of a brigand appeared in our midst, someone like Stenka Razin or Pugachev--then, if you please, everyone would follow him and hang the rich and the nobles from the lampposts, as they did in France," Klushin would sometimes begin to fantasize, unhappy with the slow awakening of the working people.

Vasily Alekseevich also liked to muse about the future arrangement of a just order for humanity:

"Then everyone on earth shall be equal. There'll be neither tsars, nor earthly rulers, nor judges, nor gendarmes, nor priests."

To the lazy belly we'll give no food,
And a heavenly kingdom we'll create here on earth!

--he'd love to cite these verses of Heine, which he altered to his own taste.

It was also from him that I first heard Pushkin's famous aphorism:

In Russia there is no law-
There is only a pillar, and on that pillar--a crown.

There was one thing I didn't like at Vasily Alekseevich's: it was the times when, on payday, after getting drunk, he would begin to go into a jealous rage, without any justification, and to beat his wife--a thin, frail woman, worn out by housework and by her children. Not infrequently I had to come to her defense. . . . [But] in those days wife-beating was a normal occurrence among workers.

But the presence of a Klushin at our factory was no "normal occurrence" at all. To be sure, during my subsequent wanderings I almost always encountered one or two venerable, respected, conscious workers at each factory, men who were very similar to Vasily Alekseevich in their spiritual outlook. They usually subscribed to an advanced, "progressive" newspaper, purchased books with a "tendency," followed political developments, and didn't believe in God. They kept their distance, however, from real political activity. The would never get involved in anything, never get too close to anyone, and would engage in frank discussions only with those workers whom they trusted. In their youths they had almost always been actively involved in politics, and some had even paid a price. They had known some of the outstanding revolutionaries in their day, and they remembered them with great admiration and told stories about them to us younger men with great pride.

These men were not attached to any well-defined political trend, but were always glad to give their advice and share their experience--while maintaining all precautions--with their more youthful conscious comrades. . . .

Vasily Alekseevich had great confidence in me, and was in turn a real authority figure in my eyes. Unfortunately, his knowledge was extremely fragmented and unsystematic, and for this reason he was not always able to satisfy my intellectual curiosity.

One day he advised me to get hold of the works of Shelgunov, which, as he said, were "banned". . . . I would spend entire days during my Sunday excursions to Moscow city strolling about the Sukharevka market searching in vain for the works of Shelgunov. I was just about ready to give up when all of sudden I chanced upon a secondhand bookshop on Sretenka Street, and, just to clear my conscience, inquired one more time. To my amazement and happiness, the bookseller crawled under the counter and pulled out two large volumes in yellow covers--the works of Shelgunov. Overcome with joy, barely even bargaining with the bookseller, I paid him two rubles and fifty kopecks, headed straight for the railroad station, and returned to Mytishchi, holding my precious acquisition firmly in my hands.

Shelgunov's works interested and excited me for two reasons: first, they were banned, and second, Vasily Alekseevich had told me they contained exhaustive answers to all the questions of working-class life. . . .

And yet, when, with my hear pounding, I finally began to read the first volume, I experienced great chagrin and disappointment. The abstract language, the long, circuitous sentences, and the foreign words made it impossible for me to comprehend the book. No matter how hard I tried . . . I got absolutely nowhere. Nor was Klushin's assistance of much use to me. Finally . . . by spending the entire evening at it every day for one whole month, I was just barely able to prevail over one article--I think it was "The Situation of the Working Class in Western Europe."

My teachers had always held up the West European working class--the revolutions it had carried out, its forms of political and trade-union struggle--as an example to me. Yet here is Shelgunov describing its terribly hard conditions, its oppression and exploitation by capital, its poor housing, and so on. What could this possibly mean?

When I shared my doubts with Vasily Alekseevich, he tried to quell them, saying:

"That was earlier, a long time ago; today the workers in other countries are living very well. . . . Once we've had our revolution we won't have to listen to those damn bourgeois anymore. . . . The workers themselves must learn to be leaders . . . and not to put their trust in outsiders."

But I didn't find these soothing opinions very convincing. The article I had read put me in a pessimistic mood about the fortunes of the revolution.

Real life, however, clearly more powerful than any mind-boggling theories, would not allow me to abandon myself to this pessimistic mind-set, pushing me instead to the real activity of this world. Sufficiently fortified by now by my awareness that I was . . . "conscious," I bravely entered into combat with "human injustice." I stood up for the abused and oppressed, enlightened and persuaded the "unconscious," and argued passionately with my opponents, defending my ideals. . . .

One evening I returned home from work to find a "guest" awaiting me. It was my father. When he saw me, he rose to greet me, embraced me, and kissed me three times. In his long, fading pleated waistcoat, with his beard grown white and his dark thinning hair streaked with gray, he had somehow become stooped, pinched and aged over the past few months. . . . Coughing intermittently and breathing heavily, my father spoke in a low voice about the village, about the bad flax harvest, about the loss of two sheep, about our family difficulties, about his quarrel with my older brother, and so on. I understood that in all the family squabbling it was my father himself, with his authoritarian, despotic character, who was guilty, while my brother was the victim. But . . . I was infected involuntarily by my father's mood. I felt an interminable pity for him, for this lonely, suffering old man, forsaken by everyone. But how could I help him? By returning to the village to become a peasant? No, that was out of the question. Even my father . . . uttered not a word about my returning to the village. . . .

Soothed and touched by my attentiveness, Father returned to the village [four days later]. As we parted, I gave him ten rubles. Evidently, this kind of attention was pleasing to him. Many years later people in the village would tell me how proud of me my father had been. It was not the money as such that was important as much as the fact that I had made my own way in life and become independent. . . .

I felt solidly ensconced at the factory: the foreman was well disposed toward me and satisfied with my work; I made no errors in my work and arrived at work on time, missing no days. So it seemed to me.

But one day it happened that the foreman assigned me a very simple task: to make a pattern of the most ordinary straight piece of pipe with flanges. The foreman drew the sketches for the pattern by hand. When the pipe was finished, he came up to me, measured the mold with calipers, and declared that it would have to be thrown away because I had erred by an inch. Then he added that I would be fired because of this. Deeply upset not so much over the announcement of my dismissal as over the insult to my professional pride, I rushed to the workbench to get the sketch and shove it in his face, to prove it was his error and not mine. But, alas, the drawing was not on the bench, and I searched for it in vain. The foreman's sketch, the only proof that I was right, had disappeared, vanished without a trace. The foreman made no effort to locate it, which I found suspicious. And when my anger and resentment had subsided somewhat, everything became clear to me.

After being paid off and saying good-bye to my friends, I headed back to Moscow to find a new job.


Excerpts from
A RADICAL WORKER IN TSARIST RUSSIA, translated and edited by Zelnik, Reginald E.
Copyright (c) 1986 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.
With the permission of Stanford University Press, http://web.archive.org/web/20030423012915/http://www.sup.org/.