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 occupied 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 from the area. Some of these investors included the dowager empress (the tsar’s own mother) and several other members of the royal family, as well as the former chief minister Sergei Witte and Putilov, the steel-factory mogul. The company, Lena River Mining, began drilling and excavation 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 from outside Siberia.
By most accounts the Lena River mine was profitable but had failed to live up to the exorbitant promises made by company officials. When the mines failed to yield the amounts of gold anticipated, the company strived to increase profits by reducing its costs. It was the mine workers at Lena River who bore the brunt of this cost-cutting. They were forced to work long, arduous shifts, often as much as 15-16 hours a day. The company encouraged risky work practices but supplied little or no safety equipment, so workers often succumbed to injury or illness (one source reports that about 70 percent of Lena River workers suffered some form of traumatic injury). As in the urban factories, workers were arbitrarily fined for minor or trivial offences; fine deductions from the already-low salaries were so common as to be routine.
The company’s manipulation of supplies was another source of worker unrest. The Lena River miners were reliant on the company for supplies of food, vodka, clothing and other necessities. These commodities were purchased from canteens owned and operated by the company, a standard practice on mining sites in remote areas. Company prices, however, were exorbitantly high, while 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, essentially forcing 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 amongst the miners.
Within four days, 6,000 miners had formed a strike committee and handed the company a set of demands. They included the introduction of an eight-hour day, a significant increase of wages, the abolition of company fines, caps on food prices in the canteens as well as improvements in the quality and delivery of food delivery. The company flatly rejected these demands. The strike continued for weeks into March, freezing production. The company requested a detachment of troops from the government. The troops arrived in early April and immediately arrested the leaders of the miners’ strike committees. This led to even more unrest in surrounding goldfields not yet affected by the 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, killing around 250 men and injuring a similar number.
Michael Melcanon, historian
News of the shootings at Lena River generated outrage around Russia and reignited some of the 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; one of their number was Alexander Kerensky. Back at the mine, the strike continued until mid-August. The company offered some concessions to the striking miners but they were rejected. Four-fifths 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 massacre.
1. The Lena River goldfields were located in remote Siberia and funded by wealthy Russian and English investors.
2. Miners at Lena River endured long working hours, unsafe conditions, company fines and over-priced supplies.
3. In 1912 around 6,000 miners went on strike after being supplied with rotten horse meat in the company canteen.
4. Their demands for improved conditions were rejected by the company, which called in government troops.
5. The arrest of strike leaders triggered more unrest and led to the killing of around 250 miners by the troops. The Lena River massacre reignited anti-tsarist tensions and led to a wave of strikes, particularly in St Petersburg.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Lena River massacre” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/lena-river-massacre/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].