Each year, after the snow had melted and the sun had sufficiently dried the ground, millions of people armed with rakes and shovels flooded the streets of Soviet cities to clean yards and roads, plant new trees and paint fences while patriotic songs were broadcast from loudspeakers.
The tradition of volunteer labor outside regular working hours dates back to April 12, 1919, when a group of workers at the Moscow-Sortirovochnaya railway depot of the Moscow-Kazan Railway decided to stay at work after the end of their shift that Friday. By working straight through Saturday night, they were able to repair an additional three locomotives.
Lenin was very pleased with the workers’ initiative, and wrote an article called “The Great Send-Off” in which he praised the idea, regarding it as a seed of the free labor of communism.
Since the event took place on Saturday — Subbota in Russian — the practice was called subbotnik, and soon it became an integral part of life in the Soviet Union. The first nationwide subbotnik was held on May 1, 1920, and was immortalized in a painting by Vladimir Krikhatsky that showed Lenin removing rubble from the Moscow Kremlin. A reproduction of this painting, “Lenin at the First Subbotnik,” appeared in popular Soviet-era textbooks, introducing the concept of subbotnik to schoolchildren.
Although a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, a famous poet of the Soviet era, describes subbotniks as the “free labor of freely gathered people” who “load their own logs in their own wagons,” the truth is that the communist subbotniks became obligatory political events in the Soviet Union.
It was next to impossible to skip them without receiving severe reprimands from the administration of your region of residence and a negative notation in your work history. Gradually, cleaning up public grounds and streets became the main kind of labor during subbotniks, but any kind of volunteer work was acceptable, including tasks that were part of your regular job or at places that you found interesting.
Alexander Novak remembers working during a subbotnik at the Badayev Moscow Brewery in 1973 when he was a student. He said at that time there were not very many places in Moscow to drink good bottled beer, so doing subbotnik work at the brewery was actually very satisfying.
“We were sorting the boxes with Zigulevskoye and nobody said anything against our drinking it,” Novak said, adding that today the brand tastes terrible to him but in those days it was quite acceptable.
In the 1950s, after six-day working weeks were introduced, subbotniks lost their meaning and were replaced by voskresniks, from the Russian word for Sunday. The practice was less inspiring, but with the return of the five-day week in the 1970s, subbotniks saw a revival.
The practice almost died out during the difficult economic conditions of the 1990s but has again been resuscitated today. Now, most of the local administrations in Russia declare several spring Saturdays subbotniks. They require companies and organizations to clean the territory adjacent to their property and call upon all citizens to remove the trash from around their houses.
Although today most of the big corporations in Russia are private enterprises and thoroughly capitalistic, they do not seem to mind this socialist
practice and find corporate subbotnik labor a good substitute for company-mandated recreation such as picnics or family days. For example, Protek, a company that distributes goods to pharmacies, asks its staff to clean their offices on subbotniks.
“It is not an obligatory thing. You can stay home if you like, but it means that your colleagues will clean your desk for you. How could you look at them after that?” said a Protek employee who declined to give her name.
Some companies try to use the concept as a PR event. Mobile phone provider Megafon invited its subscribers to join its staff in a subbotnik to be attended by celebrities. The heavily advertised project is to plant trees at the park around the Novodevichy Convent on April 19.
The Moscow authorities have already announced citywide subbotniks for April 12 and 19 this year. Last year, 650,000 Muscovites took part in the annual subbotniks, although many people have mixed feelings about the practice.
“Thanks to this Soviet-era idiocy, the cleaning around our buildings takes place only once a year,” said Valery Nikonov, 37, a web designer.
Olga Kogut, a young mother, agrees: “I think the yard sweepers and street cleaners should do this daily. Why else do we pay our communal fees?”
But others welcome the practice.
“I always do it and clean the 100 meters around my apartment building entrance when the springtime comes. Its a voluntary thing and kind of fun,” said Inga Venina, 40, a housewife.
Those who are not willing to participate in subbotniks but seek to avoid dirty looks from their friends and neighbors have found a workable alternative.
“I give 100 or 200 rubles to our yard sweepers to work for me on subbotnik,” said Igor Dunayev, 23, a student. He said many residents in his apartment building did the same.
“So on subbotniks our yards are swept by Tajiks, as always,” he said.
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