Russia’s Work Ethic

Kyril Tidmarsh. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 2. Spring 1993.

Optimists look to the market and democratic pluralism as the motors for driving Russia, the great outsider, back into the fold of “normal” economic and political development. Seeking aid and investment from the West, President Boris Yeltsin and his economists point to Russia’s vast natural resources as collateral for loans and capital. Little is said, however, of another critical factor the Russian labor force. While the technology can be imported, the essential human element cannot.

In city and country alike workers exhibit a long-suffering passivity and what the labor newspaper Trud called “a psychology of permanent dependence.” With little pride in their inadequately remunerated work, and for years aware that they were anything but masters of their own proletarian country, the resignation of Russia’s workers leaves them ill-prepared for the rough-and-tumble free market. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “Without discipline and hard work we will achieve nothing. We cannot live as they live in the West and work as we work in Russia.” For three generations a negative selection process systematically weeded out workers of the greatest drive, know-how and resilience, giving rise to a pervasive, cowed apathy and scheming work ethic, with the liveliest initiatives directed at seeking maximum personal gain with a minimum expenditure of effort.

Soviet communism has left a demoralized and dissatisfied Russian work force. What use will the world’s poorest white workers make of new economic opportunities? Will they take advantage of novel freedoms and credits to hoist their country again to the respectable growth rates and vigor that it knew at the beginning of the century? Or will the Russian worker remain unproductive and unenterprising even in a democratic environment

Collectivist Roots

Even before the 1917 Bolshevik takeover Russia’s rural and urban working classes were conditioned by a traditional collectivist mentality. Individual effort and achievement tended to be regarded with suspicion. The peasant mentality was molded by the “mir,” or commune, whose ponderous collective decision-making and parcelling out of land and jobs tended to induce mediocrity. That communal tradition—of “being like everyone else”—would later be revived by Stalin.

Migrating peasants within tsarist Russia transported those same group habits to the urban setting. There workers would form “artels,” or cooperatives, sharing accommodations and tools to meet deadlines often set as part of some crash program. The artel did not inspire development of a settled class of craftsmen. Rather it was an ad hoc arrangement to survive along familiar lines in an unfamiliar setting.

Bought and sold like chattels until just two generations before the revolution, suffocated by the local-level commune and subjugated by Moscow’s imperial autocracy, the Russian moujik was treated as a commodity, plagued, in the words of a nineteenth-century Russian historian, by “a curse of laziness.” It was only near the end of the nineteenth century, barely fifty years after the abolition of serfdom, that Russian agriculture began to change. By the eve of World War I half of peasant households held their own land under hereditary private tenure, and a Western form of individual ownership had slowly insinuated itself within the traditional system of communal tilling and joint village responsibility. Across central Russia and into the endless expanses of underpopulated Siberia, a new class of farmer had begun to coalesce, displaying a level of productivity that made Russia the world’s largest grain supplier.

A network of railways connected a number of major urban centers containing a new class of industrial worker. But World War I and the Bolshevik seizure put an abrupt end to any progress made by Russia along a Western path of development. Almost immediately the Bolshevik regime launched a systematic attack on the independent peasant farmer. The policy was principally motivated by apprehension —to preempt the relatively new class of independent and prosperous peasants from resisting accelerated industrialization at the expense of the farm sector.

Apart from the short respite provided by Lenin’s so-called New Economic Policy from 1924-28, the entire Soviet period represented a return to collectivist roots and a consistent attack on the principle of intensive small-scale farming. In place of individual tilling collectivized peasants were reduced to executing orders from above. Surplus labor was syphoned off to cities, as well as to forced labor camps. For many years rural emigration provided what was considered an inexhaustible supply of cheap labor for factories. From 1951-79 an average of 1.7 million persons per year were uprooted from the countryside.

The collectivization process, begun ruthlessly in 1928, had the effect of eliminating the most competent part of the farm community. Stripped of what was considered by the Communist Party to be a potentially obstreperous class, the countryside was left with the weaker brethren. The peasant was again tied to a feudal master in the form of the kolkhoz, whose “elected” chairman was in fact a party nominee. Systematically decimated and mismanaged, the countryside and its captive inhabitants underwent unprecedented degradation. The well-rounded and competent owner-farmer was replaced by a narrowly specialized kolkhoz worker tied to a particular sector of farm work.

The impact of the Soviet regime on the industrial working class, in whose name the Bolsheviks created the “dictatorship of the proletariat ” was no less destructive. In the years following the revolution what remained of Russia’s skilled and unionized European-style working class was swamped by a massive influx of peasantry, toting a traditional communalism and conformist mentality. By 1928 the total number of workers in industry had increased fivefold, and sufficient housing and social services could not be provided for the new arrivals. Flimsy temporary housing became permanent, a situation that persists to the present day.

This radical process of urbanization and collectivization contributed to the destruction of traditional working-class attitudes. Entire nations were moved from one end of the Soviet Union to the other, frequently finding themselves in a hostile ethnic setting with racial tensions simmering barely below the surface, a situation hardly conducive to productive teamwork.

The Soviet working class was also atomized by the party’s systematic efforts to destroy all horizontal links among professional and other groups. The concept of a nongovernmental organization independent of the Communist Party—let alone an independent trade union-simply ceased to exist until recent times. Social cohesion was further undermined by the fact that social benefits were increasingly provided by enterprises for their own employees, rather than by government for society as a whole. The Communist Party, the armed services and the great ministerial institutions tended to look after their own to the exclusion of outsiders. Like those institutions, individuals were also in competition for limited facilities and resources. Workers came to look out for number one, shirking any nobler goal or national motivation. All this, of course, ran exactly contrary to espoused party ideology.

Brave New Incentives

From the start Lenin emphasized compulsory work and quantity output rather than quality, telling an American visitor, “I will force a sufficient number of people to work fast enough to produce what Russia needs.” For decades to come the Soviet population would be conditioned to depersonalized work—a rupture of professional traditions—and to distrust government policies. Not only were individual efforts virtually unrewarded but any display of initiative could be dangerous. Forced labor camps nurtured a universal revulsion for work among prisoners and guards alike. This “Gulag complex” eventually spilled over to grip the entire country.

As the “workers’ paradise” evolved into the dictatorship of Stalin and his heirs a shameful social contract took shape: the worker suffered a low standard of living but in return gained the right to have sloppy work accepted. According to Sovetskaya Rossja, for instance, four out of every hundred kilograms of butter produced was substandard; one in every three television sets had to be returned to its Leningrad factory. Constant invocation to greater effort, bogus “socialist competition” campaigns and policies aimed at leveling incomes gave rise to a culture of slack and sloppy workmanship. Despite party propaganda touting the superiority of everything Soviet, the shoddiness of Soviet goods became legendary, even within the country itself. The August 1991 putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev failed, according to a quip, because it was “made in the U.S.S.R.”

Probably no factor was more destructive of working-class professionalism than the leveling of wages and the narrowing of differentials, regardless of skill and output. The number of pay grades was cut after the Second World War, and in Nikita Khrushchev’s time the difference between the highest and lowest paid fell to 1.5 times from 3.5 previously. One effect was the appearance of labor shortages in the most demanding sectors. If qualifications and output were not appropriately reflected in the pay packet, why aspire to jobs demanding greater skill or application?

In 1988, for example, there were only 60 operators for every 100 available lathes. Many of the millions of job slots that remained vacant tended to be filled by unproductive personnel—generally linked to management—such as propagandists, chauffeurs and secretaries. This category of freeloaders, who came to be known as “snowdrops,” nonetheless took up a vital share of limited welfare, housing and social services.

Particularly undesirable “dirty” jobs eventually had to be remunerated with inappropriately high pay, giving rise to what sociologist Natalia Rimashevskaya called the “inversion” phenomenon in Soviet wage policy. Low-skilled workers thus became higher paid while the high-skilled saw their pay decline. “Wages,” she wrote, “gradually lost their role of being a material incentive.”

A fast-growing-class of workers, commonly known as “bich” (taken from the Russian for “formerly educated person”) abandon their underpaid, dead-end niches for highly paid manual labor, often in less developed parts of the country. By 1991 they numbered some six million persons.

Unable to improve their situation through regular jobs, others turned to moonlighting in repair, maintenance and services, forming a large shadow economy. In the countryside the best efforts of collective and state farms, and much pilfered inputs and equipment, were directed toward private gain. It is a widely quoted fact that private peasant plots, constituting barely three percent of land, made up for the inefficiency of the farm sector proper. These plots, for example, in the 1980s produced more than half the country’s potatoes.

Such trends led to a markedly differentiated society. A 1989 survey found that 86.5 percent of families were “poor,” 11 percent fell into the middle income category and 3.3 percent were described as “rich.” Awareness of the gulf separating the gray working-class majority and dismally underpaid professionals from the small elite of worker-technicians and privileged nomenklatura generated resentment.

Industrial wage-fixing also contained a built-in productivity disincentive. Every operation had a quantitative labor “norm” that workers had to fulfill for basic pay. Productivity above the norm was sometimes rewarded. It was well known, however, that dramatic or continuous norm-beating would lead to an upward revision of the work goal. For decades, therefore, the system encouraged workers to produce below potential.

An abundance of cheap and, for many years, forced labor led to a preference for all kinds of labor-intensive methods—hence the spectacle of automated production lines terminating with teams of old women manually removing the end product. In a jobs-for-all society it was advantageous and indeed necessary to use this vast pool of workers rather than to invest in machinery. The effect, however, was to strengthen the feeling on both sides of industry that the worker was a common and expendable commodity.

Tolerance, even to the present day, of various forms of compulsory labor underscored the low value placed on the worker. Although the Gulags have been closed, there were recently almost a million people in corrective labor institutions, with Izvestia noting that the “entire corrective labor system is used to turn a profit.” Even today the language of these prison workers is little different from that developed by Gulag laborers, a vocabulary filled with an untranslatable stable of verbs describing various forms of work-shirking (mantulit, kantovatsia, temnit).

Much use is also made of military conscript manpower, particularly in civil construction projects. In 1990 some 20 ministries contracted the armed forces to provide 540,000 workers, estimated to cost one-twentieth of civilian labor. Barely paid or trained, the stroibat laborer’s lack of motivation is proverbial and, by the time he is demobilized, on-the-job training in malingering has taken its toll.

In the cities there is also the large category known as “limitchiks.” With urban residence permits (propiska) severely restricted, those falling over the limit are granted conditional authorization to work. They have no residence rights, other than in the lodging provided by their employer. Since such permits are not transferable, limitchiks are tied to that enterprise. For the first ten years they are denied the right even to sin on to waiting lists for individual housing—or to start a family. These workers rightly consider themselves exploited and for that reason display little motivation. Such unjust degradation of workers has contributed to the demoralization of wide swaths of the labor force.

A labor policy depending on low-wage, low-productivity employment also tends to require low skills and low education. It is, however, one of the inexplicable paradoxes of the Soviet system that the educational and vocational training systems churned out large numbers of skilled workers. This absurd mismatch made those skills virtually superfluous, as large numbers were employed in occupations well below their professional and trade capabilities. The phenomenon is particularly striking in the medical and health fields, where training costs are especially high. It was estimated in 1990 that more than half of unskilled jobs were filled by workers with more than the obligatory primary schooling.

Ensuing job dissatisfaction led to various forms of escapism. Many workers simply fled their jobs, seeking better outlets for their abilities. Workers tended to move restlessly from job to job, producing high labor fluidity, which reached frightening proportions in the Brezhnev years. Even under Gorbachev, in 1988, for example, 20 percent of the working population changed jobs. Others drifted into the criminal underworld. Some simply became vagrants.

Belief In Quick-Fixes

The long-suffering passivity caused by such labor practices may explain the remarkable restraint of labor protest in Russia. The few strikes since Stalin’s death tended to take the form of spontaneous explosions against extreme in justice rather than organized movements aimed to improve labor conditions. The 1989 Kuzbass miners strike followed six months of patient waiting while demands were examined at no fewer than seven official levels. In Krasnoyarsk the same year the miners’ committee actually dispatched a telegram to the minister of mines stating that even the most severe disputes should not be resolved by strikes. Orderliness was one of the most significant features of the massive industrial action that finally did take place. The strikes were silenced by government promises but so far, despite worsening conditions, there has been no work stoppages on the same scale.

A general deterioration of public health, years of privation and environmental pollution may also contribute to worker lethargy. Upon retirement at age 55 an average miner’s life expectancy in 1990 was barely five more years. The recent anti-alcohol campaign claimed that there were over 50 million alcoholics in the Soviet Union; every fifth woman of child-bearing age undergoes an abortion annually.

Disillusionment and distrust of government policies is strengthened by revelations that many grandiose Soviet claims had been little but deception. Propaganda about miraculous worker achievements promoted a vision of eventual communist utopia. In 1935 one worker was supposed to have turned out 102 tons of coal in a single six-hour shift—seven times the norm—thus demonstrating the party could inspire almost superhuman feats. Glasnost has since revealed such claims as total fraud.

This mythology contributed to a deeply ingrained belief in quick-fix solutions. Such misplaced faith is now reinforced daily in the media by tales of the apparently effortless production of material goods under capitalism. The working class is heartened to expect affluence at once. Encouraged by Western politicians and bankers, people now harbor the illusion that within a few hundred days or some other tangible time span, given help from Washington or Brussels, they can acquire what the democracies took centuries to achieve.

The Specter of Privatization

Relaxing economic controls has not yet produced a commercial gold rush but an extremely slow start-up of those small-and medium-sized enterprises that had been expected to boom. Liberalization has led to much buying and selling of state property but no significant growth in the artisan activity that could create self-employment for workers with initiative.

The same can be seen in agriculture. In suburban areas weekend farming has increased, concentrating mainly on marketable vegetables and meats such as poultry and pork. Proper agricultural workers, however, remain wary. Few farmers are able to remember the days before collectives. But many well recall the confiscatory currency reform, compulsory state loans and arbitrary adjustments to the size of private plots. Perhaps most painful was Khrushchev’s sudden ban on private cattle. It was a traumatic experience when the family cow, usually the most cherished possession in millions of households, had to be handed over to the kolkhoz.

This background explains why the recent schemes for land leasing have been met with profound distrust. Even today, legislators’ reluctance to adopt guaranteed, nonreversible decollectivization reinforces prevailing suspicions and unwillingness to invest more effort in the land. Rural workers are too accustomed to orders from above, fixed holidays and miserable social benefits in order to risk going it alone, except on micro-plots.

The reluctance of farm workers to acquire land for themselves has given rise among-reformers not only to exasperation but also, ironically, to calls for forcible privatization. Thus if the former owner-farmer no longer exists and if the collective farm worker is afraid to take responsibility, then the solution should be simply to privatize by the well-tried method of compulsion. This is the same instant-solution mentality that gave rise to the past’s painful and catastrophic social engineering. That it can still be enunciated today points to the profound impact of the Soviet experience and of ideological cramming.

The latest Russian revolution was by no means a clean break. The Soviet regime was not destroyed; it just ground to a halt The key people of the ancient regime simply changed hats, leaving in place the familiar framework of labor-management relations. It is not easy for these people to grasp that the market mechanism does not function by the planners’ fiat and that new methods of consultation and remuneration are needed to motivate an inert labor force.

Even though central Moscow and St. Petersburg have come to resemble vast bazaars, it is difficult to think of a country less culturally prepared for individual enterprise. According to academician Leonid Abalkin, one of Gorbachev’s early economic advisers, the seeds of private enterprise in Russia are being sown in hopelessly infertile human soil. In his view the country has spent too long “moving backwards,” struggling against excellence in all domains. What was missing, he argued, was “the culture, the attitude to work and human relations—-which take generations to nurture.”

Individuals in the West believe they can improve their situation through greater effort and skill. The Russian reflex, on the other hand, is to pull back the successful to achieve some kind of equality in poverty. A survey of workers’ attitudes in 120 industrial establishments found that over half the respondents believed that material improvement would not come due to any change in their own motivation but rather as the result of some administrative action taken by the state.

Learning to Work

In many respects perestroika can be compared to Western Europe’s Reformation. The medieval church and the Communist Party both gave ethical meaning to immobile societies. Both saw capitalism as destructive of a natural order where everyone knew his place. Both failed.

The difference is that the church had to make way for an ethic of thrift and personal advancement that reflected the realities of an expanding commercial society. The Reformation took place in a society in which individualism was already the prevailing philosophy. In contemporary Russia, on the other hand, the old regime collapsed of its own accord, unable to compete with the outside world. It did not, unfortunately, succumb to pressure from upwardly mobile workers or an ambitious middle class.

Consolidation of a “civil society”—rule of law, privatization, an effective banking and credit system, progressive taxation—will be able to revive a productive work ethic and harness Russian talent. It can confidently be expected that political stability, significant Western investment and a well-managed transfer of technology will quickly do wonders for Russia’s rusting smokestack industries, dangerous nuclear power stations and polluted environment.

But institutional change alone will not suffice to extricate millions of Russian workers from the mind-set created by many years of subordination to communalism and command systems. That will take time. Painfully, Russian society will have to accommodate a commercial and consumption culture for which it is ill prepared. Real paychecks and social justice will certainly transform the scene, but they will not speedily improve a work ethic based on the principle that “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.” Revival of a healthy, skilled and motivated work force will require prolonged exposure to an enterprise culture in which pay and position are tied directly to effort and the quality of work.