In keeping with the continuing rise in temperatures, I have chosen a very special, very Soviet, and yet still quite widespread Spring-related word: субботник (subbotnik). This story of this word comprises an interesting look into the world of twentieth century Russia, and its legacy today. This is because to be [on] a subbotnik is to be someone who voluntarily goes out into the city to clean it. For free. On Saturday. Because it’s a Communist tradition.
Cубботник is derived from Суббота, or Saturday. On subbotniks, people are called into the streets with various tidying implements to get the streets and office premises cleaned. This sounds like a job for the municipal workforce or for the building’s maintenance crew, right? But oh wait, in Soviet Russia, YOU are the municipal workforce! At least on weekends.
Today it’s more of a commemorative, one-day holiday type deal. Schools take their kids out to clean the yard and classrooms. Employers get their staff out to clean the premises of factories and office buildings. Everybody is happy to do the cleaning and organizing for free on this one day in April. In most cases, a tea party or a corporate dinner may follow, to celebrate the community spirit/initiative of citizens and staff. And unless a person has been forced into a subbotnik by his or her employer (technically illegal), he or she usually feels contented and satisfied with his or her work on that day. That’s how subbotniks work in Russia today.
It was largely the same when the tradition began in 1919 during the Civil War in Russia. At that time, the new Bolshevik establishment (the Reds) were fighting against Mensheviks, royalists still loyal to the Tsar, foreign aid detachments from capitalist countries, and other disgruntled groups (the Whites). The country was utterly devastated (the Civil War pretty much picked up where WWI left off, arguably causing even more damages), but some optimists were very inspired by the promise of communism. Unlike today’s cynical, apathetic Russians, they felt responsible for their country and empowered to shape it into a model society–which included tidy public spaces.
So on April 11, 1919, answering Vladimir Lenin’s call to improve the railway service, fifteen workers from one of Moscow’s train depots returned to the workshop and moonlighted for ten hours to finished some backed-up repair projects. They finished at 6am the next day, and the records of that night stated that the work was mind-blowingly efficient and fun.
“Alright,” Lenin may have thought on reading the report, “if they loved it, everyone else will love it too. Let’s make it a subbotnik!”
About three weeks later the same railway held its first mass subbotnik that involved over 200 people. The Communist Subbotnik movement took on, and a year later Lenin called for a national subbotnik. It took place on 1 May, 1920, and involved Lenin himself, clearing the rubble in the Kremlin. We even have a ‘snapshot’ of that:
The idea of free labor was then massively exploited by Soviet propaganda. It became a big part of the Communist agenda: you had to work for free and because you were very motivated to work, and you got everything you needed in return, for free. That was the Communist master plan, and subbotniks were part of it.
Unsurprisingly, subbotniks became a communist ritual in which the true communists had to display their loyalty to the party and its ideals. Like show trials, but more child-friendly. Not participating in the voluntary working sessions meant rejecting those ideals, and that wasn’t the best way to win your girlfriend’s parents. So in no time the voluntary subbotniks became an obligatory social ritual. It was soon obvious, though, that enterprises were taking advantage of subbotniks to get some extra profit and pay a little less salary to the workers (interestingly, Communist history is largely the history of suffering workers). But it worked ideologically, and complaining probably got you sent to the gulag (you know, for more free labor), so the tradition persisted.
And was filmed extensively. This next piece is a Soviet news film made in 1970, one of many which were designed to play before the start of a movie, like the communist version of capitalist “previews.” But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 didn’t mean that everything Soviet instantly disappeared. And the generation of managers brought up in the USSR still view subbotniks as a good way to spend their employees’ time.
Subbotniks become increasingly common beginning in April, as a form of spring cleaning. Today, 20% of Russians say they take part in subbotniks—a number to be reckoned with. It is undecided as to whether we should attribute this to the Soviet legacy, or take it as a sign that 21st century Russians are actually developing a better sense of community participation. Makes me feel guilty about not cleaning my room.