Plagued by famine, revolution, war, and backwardness, Russia had fallen behind the leading powers of the world in almost every aspect of development. Stalin, well aware of this constant game of catch-up, understood that they were slipping further behind with each passing day and that if they did not close in soon, it might become impossible to stand against these powers. The Soviet Union needed to catch up, and quickly, if socialism, or more accurately Stalinism, were to gain the foothold needed to survive in the rapidly evolving anti-socialist world. But how? What could be done to bring about such an abrupt change in such a short period of time? It was from these simple, yet not easily answered, questions that Stalin developed the first Five Year Plan. Impossible goals for increases in investments were written up and a date was set, by which these unrealistic aims would be achieved. But simply publishing objectives is not enough to bring them into fruition; the workers that will become the force that brings them about must actually reach the heightened levels of productivity required to meet such demands. It was here that a second major problem presented itself. Socialism is not known for providing incentives, especially in terms of raises, to encourage workers to excel and exceed expectations, which was paramount if the extreme goals of the first Five Year Plan were to be met. So what could be done in place of these monetary incentives that were used to propel capitalism? The answer was shock workers.
In order to spur workers to increase productivity and exceed their planned quotas, the civil war term udarniki, or shock workers, was revived. Workers who went above and beyond the call of duty were rewarded with the title, shock worker. This was a term of great esteem initially and functioned as a sort of “gold star” system. Shock workers received a pat on the back and were acknowledged publically at meetings or in newspapers and in some cases “received privileged treatment in dining facilities and the allocation of scarce goods, accommodation, and vacation vouchers.” (Siegelbaum, 1929: Shock Workers) Workers who surpassed their coworkers and raised the bar were essentially given a gold star, which looks nice and distinguishes you from those around you, yet does not really provide any tangible incentive. Yes, workers did get to cut in line at dining facilities and they were given access to scare goods and vacation time, but these are all things that should be mandatory requirements for all workers. It is just the government taking away natural rights from everyone and then using them as a “reward” to encourage productivity without having to actually make any real concessions. This was a glorified example of the sticker chart you had in elementary school to encourage you to clean your room and take out the trash. But in any event, this system was successful initially as many workers took it upon themselves to be the best they could be and to outshine their colleagues. The number of shock workers greatly increased which led to the development of shock brigades and competitions of productivity between different groups. These competitions, which were initially brought about by the workers themselves or in some cases the heads of two factories, gained structure from Lenin’s “How to Organize Competition” . In this document, Lenin defended socialism and aimed to disprove western capitalist claims that socialism smothers competition and even goes so far as to say that competition thrives under socialism. Lenin discusses how competition will arise from the removal of the bourgeois, or kulaks, because it will free up the average worker and allow him to show his true talents and live up to his full potential. He essentially claimed that the workers had been overshadowed and repressed by the wealthy landowners and it simply required their removal to spark the economy and propel Russia into rapid industrialization. And it was in these ideas that political and economic measures used in collectivization and industrialization seen under Stalin were able to take root and flourish. This was bolstered by the fact that the shock workers could relate to these arguments, as was demonstrated by a speech given by G. B. Gel’man at the First Congress of Shock Brigades. He argued that it was the kulaks who work among the workers that were the enemy and called for workers to use all means necessary in the battle against them. The shock workers latched onto this, and despite the atrocities that surrounded this era in Russia under Stalin, they continued to give 110% towards increasing efficiency and productivity not only in the factories but in their daily lives. The entire lives of the shock workers, who were drastically growing in number, began to revolve around being the best, most-efficient workers, to the extent that health clinics, cafeterias, and showers became available at work to encourage workers to stick around and keep at it rather than head home. This is highlighted in a short video from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History that depicts a mine with established living quarters for the workers.
Despite the success of the shock workers early on in the industrialization efforts of the Soviet Union, the overall number of workers with this title quickly inflated, taking away from its significance. Additionally, the increased efforts took their toll on the workers and the machinery which led to issues with breakdowns, injuries, and even death. This coupled with the appearance of false shock workers, who reaped the limited benefits of the real shock workers without doing the work, and Stakhanovites, who were essentially the shock workers of the shock workers, minimized the prestige of the shock worker title and led to its demise. But even though the shock workers died out, they were integral to the ability of the Soviet Union to catch up with the industrialization of the West. Without their efforts, it is extremely unlikely that socialism would have been able to survive the capitalist efforts to eradicate it.
As an interesting side piece, there is an intriguing example of the extension of the shock worker mentality into scientific research. Beginning in the mid 1920’s, a Russian scientist named Sergei Bryukhonenko began to push the boundaries of medical research, much as the factory shock workers had pushed the boundaries of productivity and efficiency. He began doing studies on the reanimation of living organisms that had passed away using a machine he developed, known as the autojektor. His work began with various organs and the reanimation of the head of a deceased dog. However, other scientists began to catch wind of his work and sought to develop their own methods of reanimation. As a result, Bryukhonenko, with the shock worker mentality he brought to his work, decided to go above what would be expected at this stage of research and began studies on the reanimation of humans. In 1934, after years of extensive testing on animals and organs, Bryukhonenko, with the help of Sergeo I. Spasokukotey, attempted to bring back to life a man who had committed suicide. They received the body just three hours after death and proceeded to attach it to the autojektor which pumped in warm oxygenated blood. After several hours of waiting, a faint heartbeat developed and the gurgle came from the man’s throat. Shortly afterward, the scientists claim that the eyes of the man fluttered open and he stared at them for two minutes before they became too horrified and turned off the pump allowing the man to return to death. There is some debate as to the reported results of Bryukhonenko’s experiments, namely this one example in which a human was involved; however, his research on the reanimation of organs is well documented and won him several awards, as well as set the stage for open-heart surgeries in Russia.(Swain, Russians Who Raised the Dead)
There are a series of videos and images online that depict the experiments of Bryukhonenko, which may or may not be dramatizations of his actual work, that I suggest looking into if you are at all interested in this sort of scientific research because, whether they are actual footage or reenactments that stretch the truth, they do present an idea of the thought process of Russian science at the time. Just as factory workers raced to catch up with industrialization, Russian scientists strove to catch up with, and even surpass, western science.
As a forewarning, the videos do depict some fairly disturbing scenes.
Siegelbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “1929: Shock Workers.” Last modified 2013. Accessed October 6, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1929udarnik&Year=1929&navi=byYear.
The Free Dictionary By Farlex, “Shock-Worker Movement.” Last modified 1979. Accessed October 6, 2013. http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Shock-Worker Movement.
V. I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), Vol. XXVI, pp. 404-415.
Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov, eds., Stalinism as a Way of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 32-33.
Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk. 2000.
Swain, Frank. Salon, “Russians Who Raised the Dead.” Last modified June 14, 2013. Accessed October 6, 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/06/14/russians_who_raised_the_dead/.