“Work as Prime Necessity”? An Emotional and Cultural History of Work in the Late Soviet Union, 1960–1980

Alexandra Oberländer

One of the most defining aspects in the history of the Soviet Union is the sphere of work. Former Soviet citizens fondly remember the camaraderie in the workshop, the regular gatherings for celebrations in the office, or the sense of belonging the Soviet workplace provided in general. They claim to have detected a purpose in their work, one which got lost with the end of the Soviet Union. This emotional bond with the workplace and with colleagues, as well as its preconditions and results, is at the core of this project. How Soviet citizens experienced their work and what they considered work to both be and mean are its primary questions.  

This project aims to rethink the history of the Soviet Union between 1960 and 1980 through the lens of work. Soviet policies wanted to transform work into the “prime necessity” of wo/men. This aim and the focus on labor as a transformative force for the new Soviet wo/man were revived under Khrushchev, who imagined communism to begin within the next generation. Usually, the narrative in Soviet history is one of utter failure. The alleged non-existent work ethic is a constitutive element in this narrative, succinctly summarized in the joke: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” I will argue, however, that in terms of implementing work as a prime necessity the Soviet Union succeeded, though not necessarily as Soviet ideology had imagined.

This project will reconsider notions of work in the late Soviet Union by asking what was considered work in the first place? Which activities were perceived as work, and which as leisure? How did emotions shape and constitute those boundaries between work and leisure? Since monetary wages were just one means for survival and many necessary services could not be bought with money but were instead provided through one’s workplace (housing, health, kindergartens, etc.), the workplace was the linchpin for organizing the Soviet everyday. This role of the workplace created a genuine emotional attachment on the part of working people to their workplaces; they often described their factories, enterprises, or offices as rodnoi (native/homelike/domestic). The Soviet workplace was conceived of as an extended version of home and a mini version of the Soviet Union, a notion often framed as “patriotism” toward the factory or institution.

The project draws on a wide array of archival material, newspapers, Soviet popular culture (movies, for example), diaries, memoirs, letters, and interviews in order to assess the emotional and cultural history of work in the late Soviet Union.

Key References

Oberländer, A. (2021). "To be a woman is hard work": The changing landscape of gendered emotions in the late Soviet Union. L'Homme: Europäische Zeitschrift für Feministische Geschichtswissenschaft, 32(2), 79–96. https://doi.org/10.14220/lhom.2021.32.2.79
Oberländer, A. (2021). Working faces, facing work: Portraying workers at work and the search for the Soviet individual. Soviet and Post-Soviet Review, 48(2), 211–234. https://doi.org/10.1163/18763324-bja10027
Go to Editor View