March 01, 2014

The Subbotnik is Born

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.)

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