- To the Editors
In “Cushy Work, Backbreaking Leisure: Late Soviet Work Ethics Reconsidered,” Alexandra Oberländer corrects a misconception in the Western literature that inadvertently supports the Soviet logic of a lackluster work ethic as a moral flaw and the root cause of low productivity.1 Her article highlights the often-overlooked immense amount of work people performed in their leisure time to compensate for the shortcomings of the system. In addition to exposing structural factors responsible for many workplace deviations, the article presents a compelling version of a parallel economy based on essentially capitalist principles with elements of social support and bonding.
Although the author does an excellent job of describing how work increasingly permeated Soviet citizens’ free time, she devotes significantly less time to the accompanying transformation of the workplace. Citizens’ official jobs became more than a place of relaxation to offset the demands of intense afterwork activities or for the fulfillment of unrelated personal labor tasks; they were increasingly important in satisfying employees’ social needs. The “domestication” of the workplace was apparent in the frequent attempts to decorate and beautify generic-looking office spaces, in the presence of window gardens in every room of Soviet organizations, and in the pride of place given to the ubiquitous electric kettle—the office equivalent of a kitchen corner (used for the same purpose: to treat visitors with coffee and tea and to share meals with colleagues). The ever-shrinking leisure time made the workplace an important locus of private life, delivering friendships, entertainment, and a sense of belonging. Strapped for time “after hours,” Soviet citizens developed the practice of celebrating holidays at work with elaborate potluck dinners and treating colleagues with an extensive array of food and drinks to mark birthdays and important [End Page 231] personal milestones. Office time was used to perform many tasks that typically belong to the realm of private life, such as checking on the kids, keeping in touch with parents and relatives, sharing recipes and news with coworkers, reading, knitting, or a backgammon game or two. Most of these activities were social in nature or contributed to personal self-realization, the concept officially ascribed to free time.
The lack of good-faith work enthusiasm was indicative of the general sense of alienation from the declared socialist goals and values, as Oberländer contends, but also from society’s economic structures. The phenomenon she describes of using state-owned materials for personal or “common good” projects reflects an ambiguity of property ownership in the Soviet state—simultaneously defined as a state asset yet ideologically characterized as belonging to all the citizens of the state, making it easier for people to perceive state property as “free to take.” Misuse of the labor force by mandating periodic work on farms, factories, or urban beautification projects by students or white-collar professionals further decreased their occupational pride. The uneven application of the rules and unique pockets of freedom allowed by the Soviet state made it possible for citizens to develop sophisticated coping strategies and to carve out privately fulfilling lives while precariously navigating the ever-changing field of encouragements and prohibitions.
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- Alexandra Oberländer responds:
I completely agree with Nana Tuntiya’s response to my article and her depiction of the workplace as a social institution in itself. My book project dedicates an entire chapter to the question of how the official workplace came to fulfill functions well beyond its formally authorized purpose. In fact, it was the omnipresence of plants and flowers that first drew my attention to the particular role of the workplace. Other important indicators include the depiction of workplaces in Soviet movies and literature as well as the many holidays that were celebrated there a day early.
In other words, as much as the workplace lost its function as a productive sphere of labor, it acquired other associations and functions of sociability [End Page 232] (including social control). Nostalgia about the Soviet Union rests to a significant extent upon those memories connected with the workplace, its atmosphere, and...