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

Portrait of a soviet worker (1972)
© Udarnik Khozjanov

The 1960s and 1970s in the Soviet Union are commonly referred to as an era of stagnation (zastoi). This alleged stagnation in political, social, and cultural terms, however, hardly matches another popular notion associated with this period: nostalgia. For many of those who lived in the Soviet Union the 1960s and 1970s were the years of normalcy – and, as this project will argue, work was crucial for such an understanding. Work was of central importance to the Soviet state and was pronounced as "the prime necessity of Soviet men" in the third edition of the Party Program of the Soviet Communist Party in 1961.

The project investigates questions such as: What was work in the Soviet Union? What did it mean and entail? Which role did work play in the political economy as well as in citizens' lives? How did Soviet people perceive their work, what did they understand as work, how did work forge relationships among people, what role did the workplace play in life at and beyond work? There was a multitude of alternative perspectives on work, which might reach from identifying with one's work to outright refusal. Others experienced their work mainly as a means to earn their wages or just a job, lacking the enthusiasm that the Bolshevik party considered as the main purpose of the New Soviet Man/Woman. Instead of being the "prime necessity" work became a joke in cinema or popular culture. Nevertheless, work seems to have been a societal and uniting force which was able to induce (a Soviet) community. Memoirs and other private sources indicate that work had indeed become the "prime necessity", a least expected success of the Soviet Union, which has hitherto hardly been investigated.