Within weeks of last June's Kremlin decree boosting the prices of meat and butter as much as 30%, a remarkable rumor filtered through the Iron Curtain: several hundred young Russian students and workers had been killed by police in the booming southern industrial city of Novocherkassk, near Rostov, in a wild night of rioting and pillaging touched off by the unexpected price increase.
The sketchy story was briefly and inconspicuously reported by British and French newspapers; last month Radio Liberty, an emigre broadcasting outfit in Munich, beamed the rumor back to Russia. Among the circumstantial supporting evidence: 1) the entire Rostov region was suddenly declared off limits to foreign tourists in June, supposedly because of a cholera epidemic, although a major track meet was held on July 8 and Russian citizens were allowed to move freely in the allegedly disease-ridden area; 2) Novocherkassk imposed a curfew on young people, to remain in effect for two years; 3) Nikita Khrushchev's second in command, Frol Kozlov, made a special trip to the area June 8 and stayed for several weeks to deal with "certain party organizations for neglecting ideological and educational work."
Finally, through later accounts from Soviet travelers and allied intelligence sources, and Russian youngsters attending the World Youth Festival last summer in Helsinki, the full dimensions of the June riots were reconstructed. The latest Washington version:
Novocherkassk (pop. 94,000) has about 16,000 young factory workers and students at technical training schools, who live in 42 barracks-like dormitories scattered throughout the city. About three days after the price announcement, a group of youths marched out of their dormitory after dinner chanting a slogan against the decree. They were soon joined by thousands of others, who also shouted complaints about piecework rates. The huge crowd moved slowly toward the center of town, accompanied by housewives. The main square was jammed, and to get a better look at the turbulent scene, many students climbed trees and telephone poles.
Communist Party officials were scared. From the steps of party headquarters they begged the crowd to disperse, promised to look into their grievances. For a moment the mass of youths moved backward, then surged forward again. Nervous police fired over the heads of the crowd, inadvertently killed some young Russians perched in the dark on trees and utility poles. As their bodies fell to the ground, the rioters exploded with rage. Party headquarters was sacked; officials were beaten to the floor as they frantically telephoned for reinforcements. Fresh militia and secret police units raced to the scene, opened up with machine guns. Hundreds are believed to have died and hundreds more wounded before the riot was quelled.