The Lena River Massacre refers to the shooting of hundreds of striking workers at a gold mine in Siberia in 1912. The incident caused outrage in Russia and around the world. It revived memories of the 1905 ‘Bloody Sunday‘ shootings, the brutality of the tsarist regime and its willingness to unleash violence against civilians. The aftermath of the massacre was also pivotal in the rise of Alexander Kerensky.
The Lena River is one of the longest watercourses in the world. It flows almost 3,000 miles through north-east Siberia and into the Arctic Ocean. The Lena basin was one of the most remote regions in the Russian empire – but it also contained substantial mineral resources.
In the early 1900s, a group of wealthy Russians and Britons purchased shares in a company planning to mine gold in the area. Some of these investors included the Dowager Empress (Nicholas II‘s mother) and other members of the royal family, as well as chief minister Sergei Witte and steel mogul Aleksei Putilov.
The company, Lena River Mining, began drilling and excavation operations near the town of Bodaybo, 2,000 miles to the northeast of Irkutsk. Several thousand Russian workers were hired and transported to the mine. Most of them came from outside Siberia.
By most accounts, the Lena River mine was profitable but failed to live up to the exorbitant promises made by the company. When the Lena mines failed to yield the anticipated amounts of gold, the company sought to increase its stock value by reducing costs.
It was mine workers at Lena River who bore the brunt of this cost-cutting. They were forced to work long, arduous shifts, often up to 15-16 hours a day. The company encouraged risky work practices but supplied little or no safety equipment. Workers often succumbed to injury or illness, with one source reports suggesting around 70 per cent of Lena River workers suffered some form of traumatic injury.
As in urban factories, the miners at Lena River were also arbitrarily fined for minor or trivial offences. Fine deductions from the already-low salaries were so common as to be routine.
The manipulation of supplies was another sore point. Isolated from cities, Lena River miners relied on the company for supplies of food, vodka, clothing and other necessities. These commodities were purchased from company-owned canteens and stores, a standard practice on mining sites in remote areas. Company prices for these goods were notoriously high and the goods themselves were often sub-standard.
In 1911, the company reduced the cash wages of workers and declared that it would instead pay a sizeable portion of their salary in canteen coupons. This essentially forced them to shop at the canteens.
In late February 1912, the food canteen attempted to distribute rotten horse meat disguised as beef. This, on top of other long-standing grievances, sparked a spontaneous but widespread strike.
The miners’ ultimatum
Within four days, 6,000 miners had formed a strike committee and handed the company a set of demands.
The miners’ ultimatum included the introduction of an eight-hour day, a significant increase in wages, the abolition of company fines, caps on food prices in the canteens and improvements in the quality of stores.
The company flatly rejected these demands and the strike continued for weeks into March, freezing production.
The company requested a detachment of troops from the government. This was quickly approved and government soldiers began to arrive at Lena River in early April.
On arrival, the military contingent immediately arrested the leaders of strike committees. This led to more unrest that extended to surrounding goldfields which were not affected by the first strike.
On April 5th, a crowd of around 2,500 workers marched on company headquarters, demanding the release of their compatriots. They were confronted by a brigade of soldiers who were given orders to fire on the mob. They did so, killing around 250 men and injuring a similar number.
Outrage in Russia
News of the shootings at Lena River generated outrage around Russia, reigniting old wounds from the ‘Bloody Sunday’ shootings of 1905. Around three-quarters of a million Russian workers showed their solidarity with the Lena River miners by also going out on strike. In May 1912, there were more than 1000 strikes in St Petersburg alone.
The Duma conducted an inquiry into the shootings, sending a committee to Lena River to investigate. Among the delegates who travelled to the region was a young lawyer named Alexander Kerensky.
At the mine, the workers remained defiant and the strike continued until mid-August. The company offered some concessions but they were rejected. Four-fifths of the workers and their families drifted away from the area and the gold mine – never as profitable as anticipated and the source of much trouble – was forced to close.
A monument now stands on the site of the Lena River massacre.
A historian’s view:
“Into a deceptive calm burst the news of the Lena shooting. The Lena massacre soon became the empire’s major story, supplanting the sinking of the Titanic that occurred at the same time… Readers of the press could hardly avoid the issue. The State Duma plunged into a heated discussion, as several political parties offered angry interpellations filled with accusations against the government… Russian society reacted furiously and, in a certain way, unexpectedly to the slaughter on the distant Lena River.”
1. The Lena River is a remote region in eastern Siberia. It was also the location of a newly developed gold mine, funded by wealthy Russian and English investors.
2. The mineworkers at Lena River were poorly treated, enduring long working hours, unsafe conditions, company fines and over-priced supplies from company canteens.
3. In 1912, around 6,000 miners went on strike after being supplied with rotten horse meat in the company canteen. Their demands for improved conditions were rejected.
4. The company responded by calling in government troops to arrest strike leaders. This triggered more unrest and led to the killing of around 250 miners by the troops.
5. The Lena River massacre revived memories of ‘Bloody Sunday and reignited anti-tsarist tensions. It also led to a wave of strikes, particularly in St Petersburg.