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26 September 2018

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The Subbotnik is Born

Author: Tamara Eidelman
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

Mar/Apr 2014
Page 22   ( 3 pages)

Summary: A look back at the odd history of "Communist Saturdays" – or how working on non-workdays was not such a big deal.


On a Friday night, April 11, 1919, rather than quitting at the end of the day, fifteen workers at a railway maintenance depot known as Moskva-Sortirovochnaya (Moscow Classification Yard) returned to their stations and labored through the wee hours of Saturday morning repairing locomotives. The organizer of this effort, the chairman of the depot's Communist Party cell, recorded the following account: “We worked without stopping until six in the morning (ten hours) and performed maintenance on three locomotives, Nos. 358, 4, and 7024. We all worked together and our work went more smoothly than ever before. At six we gathered in a service car where, after resting and drinking tea, we began to discuss the times and decided to make our nighttime work – over Saturday night to Sunday morning – a weekly event ‘until complete victory over Kolchak.' We then sang The International and went our separate ways.”

Such was the origin of what Lenin later described in his article “The Great Initiative,” an institution that subsequently took on the name subbotnik (based on the Russian word for Saturday, subbota, and often translated into English as “Communist Saturdays”).

The workers were not paid for their nocturnal work and apparently no one was forcing them to do it. In any event, based on the account of the depot's party chairman, most of the workers went home as usual at quitting time and only thirteen communists and two sympathizers worked through the night before going “their separate ways.” (Whether or not they returned to their jobs later that day, since Saturday was a work day back then, albeit an abbreviated one, is unclear.)

The idea of extra, unpaid work was quickly taken up and promoted by the engine of mass propaganda, and subbotniks began to be organized in various parts of the country. May 1, 1920, saw the first All-Russian subbotnik, during which Lenin was photographed carrying some sort of log on the grounds of the Kremlin.

Lenin's enthusiasm for this “Great Initiative” is hardly surprising. After all, it must have seemed like the realization of a dream central to everything the Bolsheviks were striving toward. They were convinced that all you had to do was abolish private property and the exploitation of man by man and people would change, since, according to Marxist theory, “being defines consciousness.” The conditions under which people were living had changed, so they themselves would surely be transformed. They were bound to understand that, since everything around them belonged to the people, they should work much harder than before. They were, after all, working for themselves now. In the subbotnik, the vision of countless socialist dreamers seemed to be coming true. Soon all social problems, crime, and other evils would disappear, people would be reborn, and paradise on earth would come to pass.

As we now know, paradise on earth did not come to pass. Instead, Russia raced full steam ahead toward a Stalinist hell, toward the Gulag archipelago, toward a life where work, rather than setting people free, increasingly enslaved them.

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