Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Forgotten Hero

At the age of 87, General Matvei Shaposhnikov, Hero of the Soviet Union and recipient of the Gold Star for bridging the Dnepr River in 1943, died last week in complete oblivion, 32 years after events in the southern Russian town of Novocherkassk changed the course of his life. Only a few weeks before, on the anniversary of those events, Novocherkassk held a ceremony of mourning at which the people who were killed and secretly buried at that time were properly re-interred. For 27 years the authorities of the Soviet Union maintained complete silence about the shooting at Novocherkassk. Many important details are only now coming to light. But what exactly did happen in Novocherkassk in 1962 and why has the truth been so carefully hidden for so many years? The years immediately following Stalin's death were accompanied by both a gradual liberalization of the regime and an improvement in the material situation of both urban and rural dwellers. However, by the end of the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev's ill-considered agricultural reforms led to a crisis and production in the country began to decline. On June 1, 1962, the Central Committee passed a resolution that raised prices on many food products by more than 30 percent. The price hikes coincided with a sharp decrease in wage rates at the huge electric generating plant located outside of Novocherkassk. The workers became alarmed and demonstrations were held. The plant administration was not able to initiate negotiations to end the conflict. When the arrogant director addressed workers saying, "If you don't have money for meat, eat liver pies," he ignited a major revolt. The protests were not planned in advance and the indignant crowd did not have any recognized leaders. A mass meeting decided to conduct a peaceful march from the plant to the center of Novocherkassk in order to inform the city authorities of their demands. Witnesses say that many marchers were carrying pictures of Lenin. The police were unable to stop the agitated crowd and they fled. Local party authorities sent panicked messages to Moscow. It is still unclear who gave the order to shoot into the unarmed crowd. Several members of the presidium, as the politburo was then called, immediately flew to Novocherkassk. Among them were Andrei Kirilenko, Anastas Mikoyan and Alexander Shelepin. Khrushchev's instructions were clear: If the disturbances do not stop, open fire. General Issa Pliev, commander of the North Caucasus Military District, strongly opposed the introduction of troops, even under extreme pressure from Kirilenko. He only agreed to act when he received a direct order from the defense minister, Rodion Malinovsky. Neither Mikoyan nor Kozlov nor any of the others had the courage to openly go out and address the crowds or listen to their demands. Troops were called out. The road from the plant to the town passed over a small bridge. This is where the tanks were positioned. General Shaposhnikov, commanding the troops, had direct orders to fire into the crowd if they did not disburse. There would have been hundreds of victims, because no one believed that the troops would fire. Shaposhnikov refused to give the order. In Novocherkassk itself, the tragedy was played out. Thousands of people gathered at the city party building, which was surrounded by troops. A warning volley was fired over the heads of the crowd, but a number of boys who had climbed into the trees and onto the fence to get a better look were wounded. The sight of the bloody children enraged the crowd and moved on the soldiers. That was when the order to fire was given. According to official statistics, 26 people were killed and 87 were wounded. It is likely that these figures are low, but too much time has passed to be certain. The police who were charged with burying the victims were forced to sign an oath: "If I discuss this assignment, I understand that I will be sentenced to execution by firing squad." None of them have yet come forward. In addition, 122 people were imprisoned and seven were executed. It is clear that events such as those at Novocherkassk could not have happened during Stalin's totalitarian regime. They would have been suppressed from the beginning. The uprising is evidence that the authorities were not as decisive as before, and that the people were returning to a normal psychological state. Shaposhnikov was thoroughly shaken by what he had gone through and could not forgive himself for not preventing the bloodshed. For several years he continued on in the military, though he wrote many sharply critical letters to the authorities which he signed with pseudonyms. The KGB searched for many years for the author of these letters, and in 1966 he was formally charged with anti-Soviet agitation. He was expelled from the party, only to be rehabilitated in 1988. In 1989, demands in the press for an objective investigation provoked strong opposition from many highly placed military figures. It was not just a matter of protecting those who were there, but also of protecting the army which, in April 1989, used force to put down another demonstration in Tbilisi. In 1991, the public prosecutorpassed a resolution that justified the use of force at Novocherkassk. In May 1992, the Supreme Soviet protested the sentences of those convicted as a result of the uprising. However, politics again interfered with justice. After President Boris Yeltsin resorted to force in October 1993, the prosecutor's office recalled the material it had already prepared and sent to the Supreme Court. The distant past continues to present an awkward analogy for the authorities. The shadow of Novocherkassk still lingers over Russia. Roy Medvedev is a historian and author. Vladimir Chebotaryov is a journalist and historian. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.