Stakhanov – Stalin’s Shock-Worker Supreme!
The brave, new communist world needed hardy shock troops to man its industry, and heroes to offer moral leadership. In the 1930s the miner Alexey Stakhanov was the best known example of openly enthusiastic labour, and as such his name became the synonym for any kind of backbreaking achievement and the banner under which a whole cult of hard work and increased benefits emerged. Stakhanov and the Stakhanovites were the models to follow for a generation of little people who were convinced they could change the world with their big deeds.
Digging for breaking the production record …
On August 31, 1935, Alexey Stakhanov, a thirty-year-old miner working at the central Irmino Mine in the Donetsk Basin, hewed 102 tonnes of coal during his six-hour shift. This amount represented fourteen times his quota, and within a few days the feat was being hailed by “Pravda” newspaper as a world record. Anxious to reward any individual achievements in production that might serve as stimulus to other workers, the Party launched the Stakhanovite movement. The title of Stakhanovite, conferred on workers and peasants who set production records or otherwise demonstrated mastery of their assigned tasks, quickly superseded that of shock worker. Day by day throughout the autumn of 1935, the campaign intensified, culminating in an All-Union Conference of Stakhanovites in industry and transportation, which met in the Kremlin in late November. At the conference, outstanding Stakhanovites mounted the podium to recount how, defying their quotas and often the scepticism of their workmates and bosses, they applied new, innovative techniques to achieve stupendous results. They called for the general adoption of these techniques and, to bursts of applause, thanked Comrade Stalin for, as Stakhanov put it, “the happy life of our country, the happiness and glory of our magnificent fatherland”.
Output above the norm was remunerated at higher rates of pay according to a progressive system. In this way, earnings reached dizzying heights. Some conference participants indicated what sort of consumer goods they would buy with their earnings. Stalin captured the upbeat mood of the conference when, by way of explaining how such records were only possible in the “land of socialism”, he uttered the phrase, “Life has become better, and happier too”. Widely disseminated, and even set to song, Stalin’s words served as the motto of the movement.
… and achieving “kulturnost”
The Stakhanovite movement thus encompassed lessons not only about how to work but also how to live. In addition to providing a model for success on the shop floor, it conjured up images of the good life. Stakhanovites were supposed to exhibit certain qualities such as cleanliness, neatness, preparedness, and a keenness for learning. These qualities were associated with “kulturnost” (level of culture), the acquisition of which marked the individual as a New Soviet Man or Woman.
Wives and comrades
Advertisements for perfume in the “Stakhanovets” magazine, articles about Stakhanovites on shopping sprees, photographs of Stakhanovites sharing their happiness with their families, news footage showing them driving new cars – presented to them as gifts – and moving into comfortable apartments – all this symbolized “kulturnost”. Wives of male Stakhanovites played an important role in the movement as helpers preparing nutritious meals, keeping their apartments clean and comfortable, and in other respects creating a cultured environment at home so their husbands were well-rested and eager to work with renewed energy. It was also important to demonstrate that Stakhanovites were admired by their comrades and considered worthy of holding public office. In a broader sense, Stakhanovites represented fitting subjects for stories that contrasted the harsh, oppressive past (either pre-revolutionary or, in the case of the peasants, pre-collectivization) with the prosperous present and the even-more- prosperous and happy future. Ghostwriters often constructed such narratives as testimonials to Stalin’s wise ‘genial’ leadership and the achievements of Soviet socialism.
Resistance against “recordmania”
Despite the enormous publicity surrounding Stakhanovites and their achievements, they were rather unpopular among ordinary people. Even before the raising of output norms in early 1936, workers, who had not been favoured with the best conditions and consequently struggled to fulfil their norms, expressed resentment towards the favoured Stakhanovites and even physically abused them. Foremen and engineers, only too well aware that ‘recordmania’ and the provision of favourable conditions for Stakhanovites created disruptions in production and bottlenecks in supplies, also on occasion ‘sabotaged’ the movement. At least that was the accusation made against many who often served as scapegoats for the failure of the Stakhanovite movement to fulfil its promise of unleashing the productive forces of the country.
Attempts to spread the idea
Nevertheless, the Stakhanovite movement lasted on into the Second World War and even went through something of a revival in the years after the war when it was exported to Eastern Europe. A popular example is the East German coal miner Adolf Hennecke who, similarly to Stakhanov, achieved 387 % of the norm in producing coal in his shift on 13 October 1948. Consequently, the norms were increased and workers had to perform better to earn the same payment.
Revealing the truth
The whole Stakhanovite movement was a propaganda ploy. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the artificial nature of the movement was acknowledged, and, it was replaced by so-called ‘brigades’ of socialist labour. In 1988, the Soviet press as “Komsomolskaya Pravda” papar and “Ogonyok” magazine finally exposed the widely propagandized achievements of Stakhanov as lies. In truth the production of his co-workers had simply been added to his own total to create the stunning amount that went down on record and into history.