Along with expressions of outrage from government leaders - Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin vowed that any mine official who neglected safety would be prosecuted - came attempts to prove that the state was not to blame. All the funds allocated for the coal industry in the 1997 budget had been disbursed, finance ministry officials stressed.
Miners' leaders have a different story to tell. Current levels of government assistance to the Russian coal industry, which for the present is still overwhelmingly state-owned, are only about a third of those which the miners' unions consider essential if the industry is to be maintained and developed.
Lack of investment, coal unionists point out, is directly affecting safety. Because of funding shortages, safety equipment is often not purchased or goes unrepaired. At the Tsentralnaya mine, Russian television reported, the miners did not have methane gas detectors that could have warned of the danger of an explosion.
In all, nearly 500 miners have died on the job in Russia in the past two years. Each million tons of coal mined in the country now costs almost three lives - a fatality rate triple that in the late Soviet period, and about ten times that in Western Europe.
Even before the latest disaster, the government's cost-cutting was a prime factor inspiring a wave of protests in Russian coal regions. On January 15 an estimated 200,000 workers in the Kuzbass, Russia's main coal-producing area, took part in a one- day protest action. The central demand of the Kuzbass miners was for the payment of back wages, now owed for an average of five months. In addition, the protesters were calling on the government to draft and fund a plan for the revival of the Kuzbass, and for a halt to mine closures.
Responding to World Bank demands for the "restructuring" of the Russian coal sector, the government plans to close 87 of the country's 200 or so operating mines over the next two years.
Coal industry workers are also renewing their struggles in the Maritime District of the Russian Far East. On January 15 the newspaper Trud reported that Maritime District miners planned to halt coal shipments to non-paying customers, above all the energy firm Dalenergo. Some miners in the region are still owed wages from May last year.
A committee set up to coordinate mass actions by the Far East miners has now called a regional day of protest for January 27. Planned actions include blocking the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The climate of struggle created by the miners has also encouraged protests by other workers - most notably teachers - who have also suffered from the government's austerity strategies. Ironically, these new struggles have come at a time when the government has been congratulating itself on progress in wiping out federal wage debts to "budget sector" workers. President Boris Yeltsin promised last year to eliminate these arrears by January 1, and Vice-Premier Boris Nemtsov declared in mid-January that the federal authorities had "over-fulfilled" their wage obligations.
That is not to say that all the "budget sector" workers - defined as state employees in the area of education, health and culture - have actually seen their money. Citing data from the State Statistics Committee, the newspaper Trud on January 21 reported that there was not a single one of Russia's 89 administrative regions where Yeltsin's pledge had been met.
All that the federal authorities had done was to forward money to regional governments, which were supposed to add their own share and hand the money over to the workers. The regional authorities often failed to make the payments - which is not surprising, since the federal debt to the regions late last year stood at around 50 billion rubles (about US$8.4 billion).
After many of the promised salary payments failed to materialise, teachers staged coordinated protest actions in 78 regions of Russia on January 20.
Even where their pay had arrived, teachers still had cause to turn out and demonstrate. According to union officials, the salaries of Russian teachers have not been indexed since 1995. At about 500 rubles (US$85) per month, the average pay of education and science workers is only marginally above the poverty line. Many teachers' meetings on January 20 passed resolutions demanding that salaries be raised to the level of the average industrial wage.
Even if all of Russia's teachers and health workers eventually receive their back pay, that will not necessarily mean that the broader wage picture has improved significantly. According to Trud, non-budget wage debts declined only minimally during December, to a still-astronomical figure of 44.1 billion rubles (US$7.4 billion).
To meet its highly publicised target of paying the budget-sector workers, the government effectively took wages from workers in privatised industry. Total state indebtedness rose steeply in the final months of 1997, partly because the government was failing to pay firms that were supplying it with goods and services. Many of these firms were then unable to pay their workers.
This strategy of the government has had an important impact on wage arrears in the coal industry, and on mine safety. Some of the government's most notorious unpaid debts are owed to the electricity generating industry, which in turn is often unable to pay the coal mines. When the Russian government argues that it has paid out the sums budgeted for the coal industry, and that the wage debts and other financial agonies of the coal enterprises stem from the workings of the free market and are not the state's fault, it is telling much less than the whole truth.
Encouraged by the militancy of the miners and teachers, Russia's mass trade union body, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), decided in mid-January to call an all-Russia protest action for February 3. Unlike a similar Russia-wide protest last March, which focused on the government's wage debt to "budget sector" employees, the February 3 action will seek legislative changes aimed at forcing wage payments from private firms.
Late in December the Russian Constitutional Court ruled against amendments to the Civil Code that would have compelled enterprises to pay wages before meeting their tax bills. The court's ruling handed responsibility back to enterprise directors to decide which debts should be settled first.
Unpaid tax bills, however, incur heavy fines, while Russian employers routinely delay wage payments with impunity. In effect, the court ruled in favour of another escalation of wage arrears.
FNPR leaders are also reportedly alarmed at lobbying by senior government ministers for a new labour code. A draft of proposed new labour legislation, now being circulated for comment, would make it far easier for employers to sack workers whenever business conditions turned bad.