April 27, 2019

Lights, camera, shovels!

Lights, camera, shovels!
The classic painting of Lenin with the canonical log, by Soviet artist Viktor Ivanov

The acting governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov has not been in office a year, but has already gotten a reputation as a master of public relations stunts. One of his recent gubernatorial activities was to head up a city-wide subbotnik.

Subbotnik, derived from subbota or Saturday, was a Soviet tradition when workers gathered outside of their working hours – usually on Saturday – to work some more, usually on menial tasks having to do nothing with their profession, such as cleaning their offices or the yard around the premises. According to legend, the tradition was started by Moscow railroad workers in 1919, who voluntarily started to gather on Saturday evenings to fix locomotive engines. The initiative was eventually described by Vladimir Lenin as a “victory over sluggishness, indolence, petty bourgeois egotism, and all the habits that the damned capitalism passed down to the worker and peasant.”

In one of the key Soviet propaganda stories, Lenin participated in a subbotnik in the Kremlin, where he carried a log. The incident eventually became the subject of many jokes. One is that so many people through history have claimed to carry the log with Lenin, that the log must have been about a kilometer long.

Watch Lenin leap onto stage with a log in this excerpt of the ballet Falcons of the Revolution, by Kazakh choreographer Bulat Ayukhanov.

In the end, what may have started as a grassroots drive to rebuild a country became a formality for millions of people who grudgingly gave up a weekend day for what was essentially unpaid physical labor, with many pretending to work while chatting or quietly getting drunk. Like other traditions, which included many parades, subbotniks received the tag добровольно-принудительный, or voluntary-coercive. Often they would be held in late April, some time between the thawing of the snow, that revealed mountains of garbage, and the May holidays.

A typical group photo of subbotnik participants. 

Returning to the twenty-first century, Beglov, like many Russian officials, has resurrected the Soviet ghost of subbotnik's past. Yet in modern Russia, the practice seems to serve a solely PR purpose and often delivers a destructive rather than improvement effect.

Count the cameras covering the event of the day: Governor Beglov fixing a board (but not a log)

Before Beglov arrived in the neighborhood in Kupchino, the streets were thoroughly cleaned for the cameras, according to Fontanka newspaper, making the entire idea of the subbotnik irrelevant. The governor brought along an opera singer and footballer, with whom he ceremoniously fixed a fresh board to a bench and adjusted another board on a playground with an electric screwdriver his team had prepared for him. One observer came to the conclusion that the bench was broken for the occasion, in order to give the governor the chance to triumph before the media.

In my Moscow neighborhood, authorities announced a subbotnik on a local boulevard. The next day, I happened to walk through to see the ground scraped of last year's leaves, which were neatly packed into plastic bags, while the garbage had simply been left lying around. The subbotnik apparently took place over a very small area, where the head of the district and his subordinates quickly raked leaves before the cameras, while ignoring the garbage lying beyond the media perimeter.

Ecologists have lamented that such subbotniks actually rob the earth of nutrients. Leaves also keep dust from flying around, while the birds feed on bugs that hide beneath them. Which means that pitched battles are now being waged between publicity-hungry politicians raking leaves into piles and environmentalists trying to prevent it.

In our day and age, returning the subbotnik its usefulness as well as its grassroots essence would take an effort of truly revolutionary proportions.

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