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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

The Autonomous Industrial Colony "Kuzbass"

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

As Bolshevik power spread to Siberia in the early 1920s following the end of the Russian Civil War (1918-21), a unique colony of workers took shape near the city of Kemerovo. Spurred by idealism and the goal of building socialism after the triumph of the 1917 October Revolution, foreign laborers signed up to work in the factories and coal mines of the Kuznetsk Basin (Kuzbass). Eager to tap their expertise, the Soviet government granted these foreigners a concession to exploit raw materials in this region of south central Siberia in 1921. The result was the establishment of the Autonomous Industrial Colony "Kuzbass."

In the West, the chief proponents of this plan were Sebald Rutgers, a Dutch communist, William "Big Bill" Haywood, an American leader of the International Workers of the World (IWW), and Herbert Calvert, an engineer and former superintendent of a Ford automobile plant in Detroit. These men formed an agency known as the Organization Group of American Workers, which had a "Kuzbass Bureau" in New York City, to recruit volunteers to come to the Soviet Union. Those who signed up served in various enterprises and factories near Kemerovo, as well as in lesser industries in Tomsk and Nadezhdensk (north of Sverdlovsk). All recruits paid their own transportation and living expenses to the border of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), from which point the Soviet authorities provided assistance.

As had been the case in other chapters of Siberian history, the men arriving in the Kuzbass found that conditions were not quite as advertised. Early colonists came in the spring and summer of 1922 and encountered substandard housing and work facilities. Moreover, the promises of an egalitarian sharing of production surpluses as well as a more democratic order than was typical elsewhere in the Soviet Union proved illusory and short-lived. Perhaps as a result, the number of foreign colonists never amounted to more than four hundred persons at any one time, far short of the organizers' initial goals of several thousand volunteers. Nevertheless, many of the foreign colonists performed valuable work in the Kuzbass, in particular by increasing coal production for the steam locomotives along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Although local industry grew with help from this colony of foreign workers, economic output never reached initial expectations. By 1926 only a handful of colonists remained and a Soviet administrator had replaced Rutgers as head of the colony. Contingents of forced laborers in the Gulag soon replaced rosy idealists as a mainstay of the labor force in the Soviet state.