How The Soviet Union Tried to Abolish Weekends

Apr 8, 2022 0 comments

About a hundred years ago in August 1929, the Soviet Union moved to alter the most fundamental tool of daily functioning: the calendar. An industrial revolution had already set the stage for radical reforms in labour, each of which were fuelled by the need for faster economic growth and infrastructural development. Stalin’s government was pushing its proletariat to achieve new and steadier goals with a renewed vigour. Flowing in this momentum of socialist progress, a Bolshevik economist, Yuri Larin, proposed what would be called nepreryvka or the ‘continuous work week’. It did away with the universal recognition of Sunday as the rest day and instead enforced a five-day week with a strange system of offs.

Soviet factory workers in the 1920s. Photo: Archive Z/Flickr

Nepreryvka: a Boon or a Bane?

Larin stood before the Fifth Congress of Soviets in May 1929 with a proposal to offer cultural respite to the citizens and boost productivity for industries. In the revised weekly system, workers of all industries were to work for four days and rest on the fifth day. The unique feature was that this fifth day was not the same for all. Instead, each person would follow a unique schedule. But the response of the cabinet was unexpectedly dejected. Convinced of the prudence of the plan, Larin managed to get a word in with Stalin, and in the name of industrialisation, a new work week was implemented. The entire workforce was divided into five groups, and each allotted off days similar to a shift system that was normally practiced in terms of hours and not days. This way, four-fifths of the proletariat would be at work on any given day. The week ran continuously, as production was now running continuously.

Yuri Larin, the man behind nepreryvka or ‘continuous work week’

The new rosters were colour-coded or often organised using symbols like a star, a hammer, an airplane and more. Each man and woman was handed a colour or symbol, using which they could refer to their calendar and decipher when their next off fell. In theory, the system was simple and easy to follow, with each person responsible only for their own calendar. Growth would now run like a relay race, with each worker giving their best performance during a shorter work week and exiting the play to hand the job over to the next runner. On paper, offs came faster for each worker now, and their frequency in the year increased as well.

Soviet calendar for 1930 showing Gregorian months, traditional seven-day week, five national holidays, plus colored five-day work week. Photo: Wikimedia

Gradually though, what might have been the initial fears of the cabinet began to surface on ground. Imagine spending a week working in sooty basements, only to finally come home for a day to find you have no one to enjoy it with. This lonely landscape painted a grim picture in an already overworked Soviet Union, for the continuous work week meant that friends and families no longer got off on the same days. The bourgeois ways of socialising were falling apart, and faith was being attacked as well. Churchgoers became inconsistent with their practice, for there was no one day allotted to rest and congregate anymore. Disgruntled employees began protesting, saddened and angered by the loneliness of life and the pressure of working with overused machines. In turn, absenteeism began shooting up and the rate of productivity was questionable. The supposedly utopian Socialist experiment was falling apart faster than imagined.

The undercurrent of religious intolerance was missed by no one either. Citizens across the land saw the system as a crack down on ritualistic traditions, slashing Sunday’s ties with its religious importance and taking away the liberty to enjoy festive traditions as a nation. All in all, the calendar offered five days a year when the entire workforce was on a secular holiday: the day of Lenin’s death; two days in May, celebrating International Workers Day; and two days in November, celebrating the October Revolution. Rest of the festivities were wholly disregarded. What importance would they hold anymore if you couldn’t celebrate them with your loved ones?

Photo: Archive Z/Flickr

This wasn’t it. Despite the pompous affectation of the plusses of nepreryvka, the government continued to recognise a seven-day week outside work. The only difference was that Sunday was now not recognised as the common end of the week. The working class was forced to work according to a five-day work week, but recognise the seven-day Gregorian calendar for daily living. The developmental propaganda thus deepened the chasm between the urban industrialists and the rural agrarians: One group was running on the new work week while the other continued to follow the traditional calendar system free from the shackles of the service sector.

Within three years, Stalin had to step in and step up. In 1931, he called the decision hasty and recognised the lack of personal responsibility it had created among the masses. The negative impact of continuous production on machines was accounted for as well. Soon, the Bolshevik government added a day of collective rest to the schedules, changing the work calendar to a six-day week. People would now work for five days instead of four, and the same sixth day was to be off for everyone. Calendars from that time display the week divided into numbers rather than days, keeping track of the offs as per work schedules.

Soviet calendar for 1933 showing Gregorian months, traditional seven-day week, five national holidays, plus the six-day work week. Photo: Wikimedia

The seven-day work week was held off until 1940, when the industrial superpower was once again fuelled to beat the world in its tests for productivity and leadership in anticipation of World War II.

# Cabinet Magazine
# The Atlantic
# Soviet Experience with Shortening the Workweek


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