What is a subbotnik in Russia?

What is a subbotnik in Russia?

22.01.2020
Russia & More

How did subbotniks start?

The first ever subbotnik was held spontaneously by 15 workers on April 12, 1919. These men spent the entire night working on trains in a Moscow train depot. Their motivations were pure - they wanted to do something good for their country in that difficult time. The situation was difficult indeed - the Civil War was at its peak, the country was invaded by foreign forces and the people were more desparate than ever. After the night’s work, the men felt good about their work and agreed to gather and work on trains every Satudray until the victory over Kolchak was acheived. And this is how the tradition of subbotniks started - the word “subbotnik” is a version of the word “subbota”, which means Saturday. Subbotnik is essentially a tradition of working for the good of others without receiving any pay for it. 

How did subbotniks become popular in the Soviet Union?

Started by the group of 15 men during the Civil War in Russia, subbotniks quickly became popular in the entire country and the tradition continued after the end of the Civil War. The first country-wide subbotnik was held on May 1, 1920 and among the participants was the legendary Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin himself. Photos of him carrying a huge tree trunk were used in Soviet propaganda for decades after the event. 

The dream of creating an ideal society through subbotniks

In 1919, Lenin wrote a famous essay about the success of the most recent subbotnik, in which more than 200 people participated. He outlined his vision for a communist society that could be created through the change of the relationship between the worker and the labor. The first step in this change was spontaneous volunteer work, and subbotniks were the perfect example of this. 

The reality of subbotniks

As you might have guessed, the perfect society that Lenin dreamt of never came to be, and subbotniks rather quickly turned into mandatory volunteer labor that most people hated. Employers, on the other hand, loved subbotniks, as this was a great excuse to have workers come in on the weekend and do menial labor for free. The so-called heroic labor for the good of the society turned into long weekends of scrubbing the floor, sweeping the street and painting the walls. Subbotniks briefly became popular among the workers again during World War II since once again, there was a reason to come together and really feel like you’re working towards a common good - a victory over the Nazis. Today, subbotniks still exist in some places as mandatory events for students in schools and universities and employees in government organizations. 
What is a subbotnik in Russia?
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