What was the Soviet 'subbotnik'? (PHOTOS)

“Smile for the camera.” Students and lecturers at a Moscow university on a subbotnik, 1975

“Smile for the camera.” Students and lecturers at a Moscow university on a subbotnik, 1975

Sergey Sukharev/Archive of Pavel Sukharev
Why did Soviet people go out onto the street with rakes and shovels on weekends?

Clearing snow, mud and leaves, and planting trees and flowers are now done by city authorities and eco-activists. But in the Soviet Union, every spring, almost the entire population did unpaid work to spruce up the area around their apartment block, school or university after the long winter. Called subbotnik, it usually took place on a Saturday (subbota means “Saturday” in Russian), which was the only official day off during the week. 

At first, the activity was voluntary — people were simply filled with enthusiasm to work for the common good. Besides, those who stayed at home were branded as lazy. Later subbotniks became compulsory, and often schoolchildren were taken outside to clean up around the school after class. 

The first subbotniks began in the infancy of the new Soviet state and were actively promoted. April 1 – May 1, 1920, was the so-called "Red Labor Month". 

Subbotniks are still organized to this day, but on a far smaller scale and only on a voluntary basis.

Poster “Everyone for subbotnik!”

Poster "Pioneers and schoolchildren! Help plant new gardens in cities and villages. Guys, follow me!", 1955

Nikolay Sysoev. Vladimir Lenin at a subbotnik in the Kremlin. Reproduction

Subbotnik of railway workers, Petrograd, 1919

Subbotnik of peat-layers, 1920

Group portrait at a subbotnik, 1932

Subbotnik of gold-miners in the Urals, 1935

Soldiers at a subbotnik, 1950s

Subbotnik to green a residential village, 1958

Children at a subbotnik, 1959

Employees of the Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve in the Russian Far East at a subbotnik, 1960s

Subbotnik in the city of Chita, 1960s

Construction workers at a subbotnik in Moscow, 1960s

Spring Moscow. Subbotnik on the street, 1963

Subbotnik in Moscow. Schoolchildren and teachers plant trees in a square, 1964

Subbotnik against the backdrop of the Memorial to the Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad, 1969

All-Union communist subbotnik, 1970

Employees of the Hotel Moscow at an all-Union communist subbotnik against the backdrop of the Kremlin, 1970

Sintering plant workers in the Vologda region at a subbotnik, 1971

Subbotnik on the territory of a military hospital in Moscow, 1971

Spring. Schoolchildren plant trees, 1972

Students at the 50th communist subbotnik on the streets of Moscow, 1969

“Where’s my big rake?” 1975

Residents of Soviet Tajikistan at a Leninist communist subbotnik, 1978

Factory engineers at a subbotnik, 1981

Students of Moscow State University plant trees outside a hostel, 1984

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