Horreur du Jour (The Obukhovo Defense)

This collectible caught my eye as I was walking home yesterday.

stalin magnet 1
J.V. Stalin, USSR. Workers of the World, Unite!

I mistakenly thought it was a pin. The women in the kiosk, directly opposite the exit from the Mayakovskaya subway station, who sold it to me for 49 rubles (approx. 70 euro cents), told me it was, in fact, a refrigerator magnet.

stalin magnet label

The label on the back of the magnet’s flimsy plastic package informs us its manufacturer and distributor is Bronze Horseman Trading House LLC, headquartered at 95/2 Obukhovskaya Oborona (The Obukhovo Defense) Avenue.

Located in the south of the city, the Nevskaya Zastava district, where refrigerator magnets bearing the bloody dictator Stalin’s image are stamped out like potato chips in the enlightened year of 2017, was historically chockablock with large, mainly armament factories before and after the October Revolution, and thus was a hotspot of labor organizing and political agitation in the period before the Three Revolutions.

In 1901, the neighborhood was the scene of a showdown between striking workers at several of its plants and the authorities. The center of events was the Obukhovo Rolled Steel Plant.

Members of several underground political circles, including Social Democrats and Populists, called a political strike for May 1 at the plant to protest deteriorating work conditions. Plant management fired seventy workers for their actions.

On May 7, the former strikers increased their list of demands. Aside from reinstating the fired workers, they now demanded a holiday on May 1, an eight-hour workday, cancellation of night shifts and overtime work, an elected workers’ council inside the plant, pay rises, and the dismissal of several managers.

When management failed to meet their demands, strike organizers convinced workers to down tools, leave the plant, and block the Schlisselburg Highway. They were joined by workers from the nearby Alexandrovsky Plant and the Imperial Playing Card Factory.

Obukhovo_defence_1901
Police and workers clash during the Defense of the Obukhovo Plant, May 7, 1991. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Mounted police were summoned to the scene. During the ensuing pitched battle, eight workers, including a 13-year-old boy, and several policemen were killed.

On May 12, the conflict between Obukhovo Plant workers and management was temporarily resolved when management agreed to satisfy most of the points on a new list of demands presented to them. For a month after the agreement was conclused, however, sympathy strikes continued to break out at plants in other districts of the city.

In September 1901, however, a number of strike organizers and former strikers were put on trial for insurrection against the authorities. Seven of the defendants were sentenced to prison; twenty, to army brigades for prisoners; and two to hard labor. Eight defendants were acquitted, but most of the 800 men arrested during the affair (whether they were involved in the standoff with police or not) were exiled from Petersburg.

In 1931, Alexandrovsky Village Avenue was renamed Memory of the Obukhovo Defense Avenue to commemorate the events of thirty years earlier. Later, several other streets were joined to it. Now known simply as Prospekt Obukhovskoi Oborony or The Obukhovo Defense Avenue, it runs along or near the left bank of the Neva River south from Alexander Nevsky Square in the central city to the far south, ending near Rybatskoye subway station. It is thus one of the longest streets in the city.

What does the inspiring but mostly forgotten story of the Obukhovo Defense of 1901 have to do with today’s feeble but persistent attempts at restalinizing Russia via symbolic and discursive incursions such as refrigerator magnets?

Nothing and everything.

It is nastily ironic that magnets bearing the image of one of the most thoroughgoing counter-revolutionaries and reactionaries who ever walked the earth are stamped out right down the street from where real revolutionaries and trade unionists once fought for workers’ rights and paid a heavy price for their fight.

Are the workers who make the Stalin magnets aware of this history? Do they see their work as contributing to some kind of “revolutionary” cause? Or, what is more likely, are they just trying to make ends meet? How much are they paid per month? Would they ever think about striking against their employers for better pay and working conditions? Or is life at Bronze Horseman Trading House LLC paradise on earth?

One final demonic irony. I bought the Stalin refrigerator magnet almost exactly opposite the spot, on Marat Street, where a few days earlier I had found a Last Address, commemorating Rudolf Furman, a victim of Stalin’s Great Terror. TRR

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