World View

Sent to Siberia

It has been called the Frozen Hell. There are no trees. Nothing but rock and tundra. In the winter, which lasts from mid-September until the beginning of May, when the snow begins to melt, the temperature goes as low as –75oC, with blizzards drifting the snow eight-storeys high. The spring and summer last a brief three months; and for two months, in mid-winter, the sun never rises above the horizon. Sixty five miles to the west, the estuary of the Yenisey-Angara river (3,445 miles long) flows, during the short spring and summer months, into the Kara Sea and then the Arctic Ocean. For nine months of the year, it can only be reached by air or by a nuclear-powered icebreaker from Murmansk, docking at the estuary port of Dudinka.

Such is the location of Norilsk, the world’s most northern industrial city, with a population of 200,000 inhabitants.

In 1930, there was nothing there, except a few reindeers and reindeer-hunters. Nevertheless, in that year, Stalin proposed the Angara-Yenisey Combine for central Siberia, similar to the Kuznetz Combine planned for western Siberia. Shortly after, nickel and other metal deposits were discovered. And in 1935¸ construction of what was to be the city of Norilsk and the Norilsk Metallurgical Combine began. The problem, however, was, as elsewhere in Siberia: where would the Soviet state find the hundreds of thousands of workers it needed in such an inhospitable place? Few would volunteer to go there.

The solution was the collectivisation of agriculture and the dispossession of the kulaks, and other peasants, in Ukraine and south-western Russia. Together with “Trotskyists” and other “enemies of the people”, they were rounded-up and shipped off to eastern Russia and Siberia the Soviet Union’s era of what Marx called the “primitive accumulation of capital” had begun.

Responsibility for the administration of the Norilsk Combine was the Glavnoye Upravlniye Lagerei, or Gulag, the Chief Directorate of Labour Camps, a department of the Narodny Kommissariat Gosudarvetvernoy Bezopasnosti, or NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of State Security. After the Second World War, when the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states, eastern Poland, hundreds of thousands of Balts, and thousands of Banderisti¸ Ukrainian Nationalists, were arrested and sent to such places as Vorkuta and Norilsk. Just how many prisoners passed through the Norilsk Combine is not known, as even the present Russian authorities in Krasnoyarsk, where the records are still kept, refuse to permit anyone to see them. Between 1935 and 1955, it has been unofficially estimated that 500,000 prisoners passed through Norilsk. Most died there, buried in unmarked graves or in holes in the ice.

Stalin died on 2 March 1953. Following his death, there was general unrest in many of the Soviet labour camps, including those in the Norilsk Combine. The strike began in zone 5 on 25 May. It soon spread throughout the camps and mines. Thousands of prisoners refused to work. The strike, which lasted about two months, was finally suppressed with many killed by the NKVD guards. After the strike, conditions for the prisoners were, for some time, considerably worse. But 1956 saw the beginning of the end of the vast Gulag system. The rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union required a more sophisticated workforce of “free” wage-slaves. Not that that made a lot of difference to the surviving ex-prisoners in Norilsk! Nevertheless, some returned to western Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

But for many, after ten or fifteen years imprisonment, and five years “administrative exile”, there was nowhere to go. Some of the women married former guards and NKVD (later KGB) officials. All became state employees, or were pensioned off. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ever-increasing inflation ate up their modest savings. Today, the Combine is no longer a state-run enterprise. No longer are the workers exploited by the state. It has been privatised; and according to James Meek (Observer Magazine, 4 July), “it was bought for fraction of its commercial value in 1995 by Vladimir Potanin, one of Russia’s richest industrialists, a man made very wealthy now by the old slavery and the new freedoms, and a business partner of George Soros”. Private capitalism had replaced state capitalism.

Yenseisk lies on the banks of the Yenisey river, 800 miles to the south of Norilsk. Trees grow here, and it is less cold. Indeed, global warming has been noticeable in Yenseisk. It has become milder, with the minimum winter temperature rising from –52oC to –40oC. Even vegetables can be grown under glass. Nevertheless, the ice only melts on the Yenisey in May, when boats from Dudinka arrive, or pass south to Krasnoyarsk. And over the last couple of years, a few thousand workers have managed to escape the frozen hell, and the smog and pollution, of Norilsk, downstream to Krasnoyarsk.

There is a road between Yenseisk and Krasnoyarsk, but no railway; and, furthermore, the local airline, which links such towns and cities as Norilsk, Yenseisk and Krasnoyarsk, is in deep trouble as it has lost most of its pilots. In fact, according to a local priest, Father Grigory, interviewed by the Guardian (3 December 1997), Yenseisk is “a dying town that lived in the past, by subsidies. There’s no industry. Now, it’s thrown back on its resources. The teachers and doctors haven’t been paid for months”.

Krasnoyarsk, a city of 900,000 inhabitants 200 miles south of Yenseisk, is the administrative centre of the area, and is situated on the Yenisey where it is crossed by the Trans-Siberian Railway. It has factories manufacturing equipment for Siberia’s mining industries, a timber combine and a food processing industry. But like Norilsk and Yenseisk, it too is depressed and probably in terminal decay.

One hundred miles to the west of Krasnoyarsk, also on the Trans-Siberian Railway, is the huge Achinsk Company, recently privatised, which produces alumna, most of which it sends to the Krasnoyarsk Aluminium (KrAZ) Company. It does not make a profit, yet it is the source of massive profits. It pays no taxes to the state. For it does not sell its produce direct to Krasnoyarsk aluminium, but through a series of intermediate companies, owned by the managers of Achinsk Company and KrAZ, all of which make “a killing”, and pay very little tax. Much of this money ultimately finds its way, in dollars, to the Bank of New York. Like Potanin, the owner of the Norilsk Combine, Georgi Lokk, the Chief Executive of the loss-making Achinsk ore combine, is a very rich man; from wealth created by the exploited, poverty-stricken workers of Siberia.

Should there be a state religion?

The other day a comrade who had just completed a short visit to Nigeria sent me an e-mail. The content was about one of the states in Nigeria being bent on declaring an Islamic state, come January 2000. For those familiar with Nigeria’s turbulent political past, the repercussions and implications will be obvious. Apart from the dozens of Islamic states around the world, only one declared Christian state in Africa currently comes to mind, Zambia.

In answering the question “should there be a state religion?” most people here will readily reply “yes”, indicating thereby their ability to defend their faith.

The question of state religion is frequently before the public mind, and it seems that the majority who have any view on the subject incline to one of two camps.

In camp one are the secularists who feel that, as the harm done by religion throughout history outweighs the good, the best thing will be for the state to wash its hands of it completely and by leaving its citizens entirely without religious dictates leave them free either to live untouched by religion or to evolve a faith for themselves.

In the other camp are those who believe that their primary duty in life is to proselytise for the faith to which they happen to belong, and who consequently make the most of every opportunity to convert non-believers. They believe that the absence of a state religion is one of the root causes of the materialism, selfishness, and restlessness which prevail throughout the world.

Let us look a little more closely at both of these camps. The secularist argument is plausible and cogent. It is difficult to deny that religion has been either the cause or the pretext of many black chapters in human history and will continue to be a very dangerous rallying-cry so long as the masses remain ignorant and superstitious or bigoted and fanatical. Therefore, say the secularists, let us be rid of it once and for all. Such a theory rests on the assumption that religion is in a class by itself and differs radically from all other activities of the human mind and should be singled out for special opposition.

The people in the other camp, on the contrary, believing that religion is the most important thing in life, leave no stone unturned in their endeavour to persuade or compel everyone to join their particular organisation and unquestioningly profess their creed. In religion what matters is the acceptance of truths miraculously revealed in a book which under no circumstances is to be subjected to rational criticism but is to be venerated blindly as revealing the whole truth.

In approaching the question of state religion, certain basic principles should therefore be kept in mind.

Firstly, that the capacity for clear, honest thinking is one of our greatest and rarest capacities and that, no matter what the subject of their study, people should be encouraged to develop this capacity to the utmost and to be as honest in their doubts and questionings as in their beliefs and acceptances. Such honesty will not lead them astray but will help them sift the gold from the dross, and to distinguish between superstition and facts. Since religion whether state or otherwise, is a drug derived from mythology it should not be too difficult to discredit it, with such clear thinking.

Secondly, when a state upholds a particular faith, it not only makes a mockery of free thought, but also exposes the weakness of its leaders who have to cower behind the veil of religion to perpetuate their tenure.

What, then, is the answer to our question, “should there be a state religion?”

Religions, like a tree, must be judged by their fruits—how else could they be judged? Since not one of the world’s faiths can truly claim to have produced good fruits, our efforts should be used more wisely in pondering pertinent scientific questions. By so doing, humanity can redeem itself from the burden of the superstitious complex that webs its mind. So long as what is taught remains in the hands of leaders whose chief concern is to proselytise religious faith, just so long will their subjects continue to grow up with narrow exclusive notions about the world.

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