- Cushy Work, Backbreaking LeisureLate Soviet Work Ethics Reconsidered
In thinking about Soviet work attitudes, the emerging picture is relatively simple. Alexander Zinoviev, a troubled dissident, summarized the Soviet work ethic as “Communist society is a society of bad workers.”1 Soviet “cavalier attitudes toward work” entered the political discourse as a never-ending problem and the popular culture as a constant joke.2 Some of those jokes about the notorious Soviet work ethic are still told today, most famously: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Arkadii Raikin (1911–87), a popular actor and comedian, mocked the Soviet work ethic in a number of sketches. In one such sketch produced for Soviet television a dentist, a shop assistant, and a repairman sneak away from work during their shift to get their hair cut. Coincidentally, they meet at the same barber shop. Yet the barbers themselves are trying to sneak away: one to the dentist, the other to shop, and the third to have something repaired.3 Cinema blockbusters such as El´dar Riazanov’s 1977 Sluzhebnyi roman (Office Romance) also decried the Soviet work ethic. In this comedy the only person working at all is the female director, who only works so much because she apparently lacks any other source of fulfillment in her life. The rest of the employees in her statistical office are busy with gossiping, flirting, and getting hold of (dostat´) [End Page 569] fancy items, preferably Western cigarettes and clothes; the last thing they are occupied with at work is work.4
Late Soviet society was famous for its presumably nonexistent work attitude across all occupations. Blue-collar workers got drunk during their shifts, collective farmers seldom showed up, students amused themselves instead of studying, and white-collar workers were rarely present in their offices. Employees working in the Soviet administration were everywhere but at their desks. The purported need to acquire permission for some decision or other often served as an excuse for wandering the halls and corridors of institutions, agencies, or libraries. Not only regular workers and employees were disillusioned. Communists themselves—people organized in Komsomol committees, for instance—were known “to leave for the raikom” (uiti v raikom), a phrase used not only by Alexei Yurchak’s interviewees Natal´ia and Irina when they strolled Leningrad’s shops and cafés during official work hours.5
This society-wide climax of deteriorating work attitudes seems to have set in during the late 1960s and thus corresponds with the narrative of stagnation (zastoi). Until recently, the 1970s in particular used to be interpreted as the decisive decade in which the decline of the Soviet Union began.6 Whereas the early 1960s were allegedly thriving with enthusiasm for building communism and thus showed a corresponding work ethic, the longer the 1970s lasted, the more labor turnover, absenteeism, and shirking seemed to gain ground. These deteriorating work attitudes were reflected in Soviet popular culture as well as in sociology, newly reemerging since the 1960s, which published article after article about problems both at and with work. Unequivocally, Soviet sociologists, Kremlinologists, and Western historians blamed the socialist economy, socialist society, and its members for the lack of a proper attitude toward work. Eventually, the absence of a positive attitude toward work was and is made partially responsible for the end of the Soviet Union or serves as one of its preconditions, as Kevin Platt and Benjamin Nathans point out.7
In recent historiography, however, the late Soviet Union, particularly the 1960s and 1970s, emerges as an empire of consumption. We have learned how new apartments, the dacha movement, or the Soviet car provided the Soviet people with a sense of wealth they had never before had the chance to [End Page 570] experience.8 Household items like washing machines, refrigerators, and fancy vacuum cleaners like the other-worldly Saturnas supposedly transformed tedious everyday chores into a fun activity. Soviet citizens listened to music, watched television, went on holidays, and even dressed in the latest style in the 1970s.9 Shopping was made easier with the introduction of huge department stores.10 For consumer items that the regular economy did...