1929 was an important year in Russia. In fact, it was known as the “Year of Great Change,” which was the title of an article by Stalin written to commemorate the twelfth anniversary of the October Manifesto. This article helped outline a “manifesto for the First Five-Year Plan that already was in its second year” (Siegelbaum). The First Five-Year Plan was an enormous undertaking in terms of centralized state planning, and it was optimistic that Russia could catch up to other, more industrialized and capitalist countries. This plan created an all new level of demands on Soviet workers, especially since there was little incentive for workers to work harder. Thus, the government needed to inspire workers to keep up their good work. The term ‘shock workers,’ or udarniki, was used during the revolution to refer to workers who had to perform particularly back-breaking labor. Now, however, the term applied to every worker who went ‘above and beyond’ what was typically required of them. This was a strategy by the government to ‘inspire’ workers to go the extra mile in service to their country. According to Siegelbaum, “Official statistics indicate that by the end of 1929, 29 percent of all workers in industry were participating; a year later, the proportion was 65 percent.” This goes to show how effective the shock worker campaign was. Originally, the term was used to show great esteem and were given special priorities; Siegelbaum says shock workers “were lauded on public honor boards, in newspapers and at meetings, and received privileged treatment in dining facilities and the allocation of scarce goods, accommodation, and vacation vouchers.” All of these privileges seem like shiny gold stars in Soviet Russia, but it was not all rock’n’roll for these shock workers.
There were absolute downsides to this campaign to get workers more motivated. The more shock workers there were, the less valuable the term itself and the campaign as a whole was. In addition to this, the idea of “false shock work,” or lzheudarnichestvo, became a huge part of the Soviet workforce, even though the government disapproved of it. This phenomenon occurred when people would reap the benefits of shock workers without actually doing the extra work. Furthermore, the increased efforts by these workers damaged the workers themselves, along with much of the machinery and means of production. Often, this led to machine breakdowns and even death.
While there were pros and cons to the idea of shock workers no matter which way you view the situation, it is highly unlikely that the Soviet Union would have been able to have a chance at catching up with the more-industrialized West without their hard, often tireless work.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.