Kemerovo

A colony of Americans mined coal in Siberia in the 1920s

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 47
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

At the age of 18, Paula Garb met and fell in love with a Soviet man while she was attending a Russian language school in Finland. She returned home and then went to Moscow and married him. They had two children; their marriage ended in divorce. Somewhat disillusioned with the Soviet Union, she returned to San Francisco in the late 60s and tried to pick up her American life. She wanted to go to the university, but couldn’t manage two children, child care payments, and university fees. She ended up doing secretarial work. Within two years, after much soul searching and careful arrangements through the Soviet consulate, she returned to Moscow with her children. (She still has her U.S. citizenship.) In Moscow, she attended Moscow University, which is not only free to everyone, but provides small living stipends to good students. Child care was provided at minimal cost.

Paula’s degree in cultural anthropology is now a doctorate. She has translated a number of books in the field into English, including The Last of the Departed by Bagrat Shinkuba, the story of the cultural genocide of a Caucasian people. Paula is one of those few individuals who have spanned both cultures, lived in and love both, and see their life work in creating bridges of understanding between the two.

– Diana Glasgow

My search for Canadians and Americans who settled in the Soviet Union in places other than Moscow, which is where I reside, began in August 1985 northeast of Novosibirsk in the West Siberian city of Kemerovo.

Throughout the entire four hours I spent on the plane from Moscow, I was totally engrossed in reading the history of a colony of workers from the United States that existed in Kemerovo between 1921 and 1926. I was particularly fascinated by the author’s description of the long and difficult journey of the first colonists who sailed from New York on April 8, 1922 to Siberia, and by their initial impressions of the small mining community with its drab housing, unpaved streets, and stray pigs, geese, and chickens.

I was filled with an urgent need to learn all I could about the everyday experiences of the American colonists and to find out what had happened to those who stayed on in Siberia after the project ended in 1926.

All this information was to unfold in the next several days, when I would go through the archive material at the local history museum, talk to the Soviet Union’s foremost historian on the colony — Dr. Yevgenia Krivosheeva of Kemerovo University — and meet several media people there who had, like Dr. Krivosheeva, interviewed former Americans from the colony who had remained in Kemerovo until they died in the 1970s and early 1980s.

I learned that one of the few people in the Soviet Union today who was a member of that colony was Anna Preikshas, a resident of Dnepropetrovsk who had lived in the Ukraine since 1944. It was from her that I learned the vivid details of life in the colony.

The Kuzbas Autonomous Industrial Colony was the brainchild of Herbert S. Calvert, born in California, William D. Haywood, born in Utah, and Sebald Rutgers of Holland. All three were socialists and staunch supporters of unions. What the men wanted was an industrial project where skilled workers, primarily from the United States, could both make a contribution to the Russian economy and use the project to show what workers could accomplish if they not only labored on an enterprise but managed it as well.

After some negotiation, an agreement was reached between the Soviet government and the originators of the plan. The project met with resistance from some of Lenin’s associates, but Lenin himself stood behind the idea and turned it into a reality.

When the Preikshas’ heard about plans for the American colony that would build up the crucially-needed mining industry in Kemerovo, they did not hesitate to join, because by that time Anna’s father John was unable to find any work in the mines of West Virginia where he lived; the mine owners did not like his union organizing.

Anna’s family, having signed up with Project Kuzbas in 1922, was among the approximately 20,000 immigrants from the United States and Canada to arrive in the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1925. They landed in Petrograd from New York in August 1922.

In January 1923, after being in Kemerovo for nearly six months, Anna wrote a letter describing her first impressions and what life was like to friends in Pursglove, West Virginia. The letter was printed in the Kuzbas Bulletin (published regularly by the project recruiters in New York). Here are some excerpts:

I go to the Russian school every day and can write and read in Russian. I cannot speak very much Russian yet, but the Colony is holding night classes to teach everyone the language.

It is not so cold here as some people suggest. The coldest we have had is 38 below zero. The snow is about three or four feet deep. The air is healthy and pleasant.

The land is very fertile, and you can get as much land as you can work. They give you the seeds and you repay them with seeds on the basis of a percentage of what you raise. There are many different kinds of plants here. Food is plentiful, although we are a little short of sugar.

Papa is mine foreman, and he is very busy. We do not see him from six in the morning until eight at night. There are 12 to 15 veins here, one being 60 feet thick. There is a shortage of miners, and we are expecting more in the Spring.

The carpenters have built a large house to hold about 150 persons, but it is not quite finished, although we, with others, are living in it. The dining room will hold 300. You can have your choice between eating in the dining room or cooking your own meals.

There are two sawmills, two theatres, five mines, a chemical plant, three bath houses besides those at the mines, two machine shops, a carpenter shop, a tin shop, a tailor shop, a shoemaker shop, a baker, and two electrical stations. We have electricity in the houses.

In summer it is warm and beautiful. We go swimming, fishing, boating, and hunting. In winter we are sleighing, skating, etc.

The miners work six hours, and sometimes more; the outside workers work eight hours. The women also work several hours daily, but mostly in the kitchen and the dining room.

At the end of three years we expect to produce not less than two million tons of coal a year. The Americans have already increased the coal production several times. The chemical plant in about nine months will be working full speed.

Best wishes to you, hoping to see you in the spring.

The colony was not all work and no play. The Americans and local people (mostly Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and Tartars) became friendly from the outset and engaged in many activities together. Dr. Krivosheeva told me, "The oldtimers say that the American colonists enjoyed our dances and songs and our celebrations." Vladimir Sukhatsky, a radio reporter in Kemerovo, said his parents lived next door to some American colonists who invited his family over on Halloween, Thanksgiving, and other American holidays and came to his house on Soviet holidays.

Krivosheeva also talked about the joint sports activities and games they played. "Many of the Americans," she pointed out, "came from states where there was no snow, so they learned to ski here. Times were hard, so they made their own skis."

Another joint activity was farming. The Americans set up a large farm where they planted fruits and vegetables and kept livestock. "This also brought the local people and the Americans together," commented Krivosheeva. "When John Preikshas started building his own house and planting trees, many of the Siberians came over to help. They did a lot of work together."

Not only Americans joined the colony. Workers and engineers came from Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Finland. But for some reason, the Russians got closest to the American colonists. Krivosheeva explained that the Americans and Russians had the same outgoing personalities, whereas the others were more reserved in their interpersonal relations.

The colony members also held their meetings together with the local people. Especially in the early months, when serious policy and organizational problems had to be thrashed out, the meetings could get quite hot. The first director of the project, Jack H. Beyer, a Cherokee Indian who had belonged to the I.W.W. in the U.S., died of a heart attack at the age of 64 in the middle of one of those meetings. No doubt the first Native American to become an industrial manager, he lies buried in Siberia.

The colony’s director for most of its existence was Sebald Rutgers, who put an end to endless meetings and bickering over all the petty daily problems that arose. To the dislike of many of the workers, who believed every single matter had to be decided by the collective, Rutgers began making those decisions himself and insisting that his decisions be followed without question. Fortunately for the colony, he was making the right decisions and putting things in good order. He became so well respected that by the time he asked to be relieved of his duties in 1925 because of failing health, no one wanted to see him go.

The Russian engineer who took over, Korobkin, reorganized the whole operation against the wishes of the colony members and indulged in embezzlement. By 1927, most of the Americans had left in protest against Korobkin’s policies. This prompted the Soviet authorities to conduct a serious investigation of the complaints against Korobkin, and as a result he was removed from his post, expelled from the Communist Party, and tried and convicted of embezzlement.

In the meantime, the colony ceased to exist as it was originally founded. In 1927, it merged into the Supreme Council of the National Economy and all but about 25 families, Anna’s included, left Kemerovo. Some returned to the United States, while others went to work on construction projects in other parts of the Soviet Union: Kuznetsk, Nizhny Novgorod (now Gorky), Kharkov, the Turkestan-Siberian Railway, and to commune farms set up by Americans in the Northern Caucasus.

American historian J.P. Morray, at the end of his book on the colony, qualifies the project’s political achievements this way:

There had been many disappointments…To none of the founders was it given wholly to say, ‘I have lived my dream.’ Nevertheless, it still stands as an inspiring example of American-Soviet friendship and cooperation…As such, it deserves to be more widely known, to be cherished and celebrated in our own perilous times.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Morray, J.P., Project Kuzbas: American Workers in Siberia. (New York: International Publishers, 1983).

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!