The mid to late 1930s was a time of unprecedented chaos and misery for the Russian population. During Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937 and 1938, the Soviet secret police arrested more than 1.5 million people, 681,692 of whom were executed.
Despite this, the Soviet Union was developing into a powerful industrial economy in the years prior to World War II, underpinned by a series of nation-wide centralised economic strategies called the Five-Year Plans.
The Soviets launched their first Five-Year Plan in 1928, focussing on heavy industry as they sought to lay the foundation of Russia’s mighty industrial power. To the surprise of the Western world the first plan was completed 12 months ahead of schedule in 1932, largely through the volunteer overtime labour of ‘shock brigades’: groups of passionate young communists who banded together to speed up production.
Under their leadership, factory workers competed with each other for maximum output in what was called ‘socialist competition’. However, the Soviet bureaucracy understood that it wasn’t feasible to drive production on for another Five-Year Plan (1932 to 1937) by the same shock brigade methods.
In 1935, Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov, a Russian miner, became the poster child of a movement intended to increase productivity through output-based incentives. Called the ‘Stakhanov Movement’, it replaced the shock-style volunteerism.
Born into a peasant family, Stakhanov was put to work grinding corn for a miller at the age of 12. As a teenager he was sent to the infamous mines of Donbas, where he learnt to handle a pneumatic pick.
Although the coal was soft and the seams very thick, the output of Soviet mines in the early 1930s was very low: about 6t each day per pneumatic pick.
In comparison, British miners were averaging 10t and the Germans were achieving about 17t per pick in the Ruhr region.
On the night of August 30, 1935 at a coal mine near the town of Kadievka in eastern Ukraine, Stakhanov went down into his pit and proceeded to cut an incredible 109t of coal instead of his previous shift average of 7t.
The communist organiser in his pit reportedly suggested that Stakhanov should try using the pick down the entire seam during the night repair shift by himself, where other miners would normally be working. Instead of using half of his shift in timbering the area out, Stakhanov spent the whole shift using his pick while two auxiliary workers positioned the timber supports behind him.
The remarkable achievement – a combination of improved mechanisation and workplace efficiency – started a nation-wide ‘speed-up’ movement in which workers, nicknamed ‘Stakhanovites’, competed for bonuses and privileges by setting increased output records. Stakhanov rapidly achieved fame, not only in Russia but around the world. He even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in December 1935.
“What has come to be known as the Stakhanov Movement in Russia is receiving a good deal of prominence,” reported Tasmanian newspaper The Examiner in 1936.
“It is a new feature in Soviet industrialism, a combination of mechanical equipment and team work that has so speeded up production that wherever it has been applied all Russian records have been broken,” the newspaper stated.
“A new industrial cult was born to Sovietism and would bear his name; it was a practical response to Stalin’s call for an increase in the productivity of labour and for a fuller utilisation of technique.”
Stakhanov had many imitators. The main incentive behind Stakhanovism, payment by results, saw it obtain a firm hold on industry across Soviet Russia and industry the world over became interested in the progress of the Stakhanov Movement as a method for increased efficiency.
In a 1944 newspaper article from The Mail titled ‘Why the Russian’s don’t have coal strikes’, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin said of Australia’s coal miners: “They just won’t work”.
At the same time, the Australian Government, according to Customs minister senator Richard Keane, asked minister to Russia J.J. Maloney to investigate the Soviet’s output records and how they could be applied to the Australian workplace.
Between 1936 and 1941, Stakhanov was a student of the Industrial Academy in Moscow. In 1941 he was appointed director of mine number 31 in Karaganda, the capital of Karagandy Province in Kazakhstan. The industrial city was built to exploit nearby coal mines using prisoners of labour camps as slaves.
On September 6, 1942 Stakhanov was mistakenly reported as having been one of the 30 million soldiers killed on the Eastern Front during the largest military confrontation in history. However, he survived the war and, up until his retirement in 1974, Stakhanov continued his work in various roles in the Soviet coal mining industry. He was awarded two Orders of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner, and received numerous medals. The last Sunday of August was designated ‘Coal Miners Day’, apparently in Stakhanov’s honour, and the town of Kadievka was renamed Stakhanov in 1978, immediately following his death.
In the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a process of increased political liberalisation and transparency to revive the stagnant Soviet economy.
In a blow to Stalin’s legacy, a 1988 article written as part of Gorbachev’s policy of openness in recounting history more accurately accused Stalin and his successor Khrushchev of driving Stakhanov to drink and ruining his family by promoting him to paper-shuffling jobs.
Trud, one of Russia’s main daily newspapers – established in 1921 as the mouthpiece for the Soviet labour unions – reported that Stakhanov was abandoned by the State after his record-breaking coal mining feat in the 1930s that had made him a hero of the labour movement. “Stakhanov was thrown out and forgotten,” Trud reported.
“That is how short the administrativecommand (system’s) memory turned out to be. The Stalinist system needed a symbol, a poster, and not a living person.” Stakhanov received many awards and a better apartment, and was wined and dined by Soviet officials including Stalin.
However, he did not fare well in the long term, Trud recounted. The newspaper said that in 1936, Stakhanov was taken from the mines and brought to Moscow to become a bureaucrat.
“For 25 whole years after that his name disappeared from newspaper and magazine pages, from documentary films. His voice wasn’t heard from a speaker’s stand,” the newspaper stated.
However, Stakhanov served as a shining example of industriousness and efficiency for Soviet workers for many years, and remained in the people’s memory as an outstanding worker and patriot.