Even the retail sector became part of the second Five Year Plan imposed on the Soviet Union by Stalin.
On 3 August 1935 Aleksei Stakhanov mined a record-breaking 102 tonnes of coal in six hours. He became an overnight celebrity. Towns were renamed in his honour, his face graced the covers of international magazines, including Time, and a movement was created in his name: Stakhanovism. At the dawn of Stalin’s second Five Year Plan, new levels of productivity and efficiency were deemed imperative in order to catch up with the West. Stakhanovism, the proverbial carrot, rewarded workers who broke new ground in skill and technical ability. The Communist Party Central Committee, which met in March 1937, branded sceptics of the movement ‘Trotskyist saboteurs’, many of whom were sent to labour camps at the height of Stalin’s terror. Inculcated with images of Stakhanov – exuding strength, dexterity and all the expected impressions of manual labour – workers were to be led by example. While prevalent, however, these hypermasculine images do not capture the breadth of the Stakhanovite ideology and its participants.
Far from the grit of Stakhanov’s coal mine, Serafima Borisova was fastidiously practising the craft of selling women’s clothing. She was meticulous and had a keen aesthetic eye, crucial attributes in her line of work. Like Stakhanov, her unique skills in dressing windows, advising customers and procuring desirable fabrics earned her national acclaim, as well as rewards in the form of a gramophone and a 1,000-rouble bonus. Elevated to the Presidium of the General Moscow Meeting of Exemplary Workers, she was a paragon of retail excellence, renowned not only for her productivity but her courteous service.
Seeking to replicate her efforts and standardise the metric of good customer service, the Soviet state developed an infrastructure of Stakhanovite training in retail. The historian Amy E. Randall argues that these changes were intended to be both cultural and practical. They were enacted through trade unions who employed Stakhanovite specialists to oversee work, hosted conferences and facilitated the establishment of Stakhanovite stores. Retail culture was to be modernised, both in the behaviour of staff and in the products stocked. Emphasis was placed on offering customers a cultured (Kul’turnost) experience, which meant refining shoppers’ taste towards new, and often more luxurious, items. For Stakhanovite workers to succeed, they had to pre-empt consumer trends, organise the store into easily navigated displays and educate shoppers in the use of their products. This included teaching consumers how to prepare foods or maintain garments, but also meant instructing them in the use of new electrical equipment, such as radios. Adhering to its roots, Stakhanovism in retail also focused on mechanisation, which was manifested via the products sold – intended to automate the domestic sphere – but also in working practices, such as the development of conveyor belts for packaging. This was part of a broader Stakhanovite emphasis on productivity in retail: sales, the mastery of new technologies and working techniques.
Bringing Stakhanovism to retail was intended to solve a host of practical issues. On a basic level, it aimed to expand the parameters of socialism and to assimilate a new demographic of workers as model Soviet citizens. At the same time, Randall argues that expanding the retail sector was integral to Stalin’s agenda of rapid modernisation, which demanded a successful retail industry that could service new workers in cities and cultivate a shared sense of Soviet culture. It was an attempt to cast off, at least superficially, communism’s frugal, anachronistic associations, showing the world that it too could be metropolitan and cutting-edge. In Stalin’s own words: ‘It would be stupid to think that socialism could be built on the basis of destitution and deprivation ... this would not be socialism, but a caricature of socialism.’
Yet retail and communism make an unlikely pairing: even more so when that retail caters to people’s desires rather than their needs. Without branding, advertising and a plethora of options, the idea of window-shopping in a state-controlled economy was a sterile one, and moves to re-energise the industry were met with scepticism from many Soviet citizens. In the 1930s, retail workers were hindered by their association with bourgeois Nepmen, who exploited early Soviet policy in their own interests. Attempts were made at revolutionising their reputation through educational and social programmes – workers’ clubs and literacy circles – but the same question haunted the trade: was Stakhanovism in retail a genuine manifestation of worker pride or merely a concession to capitalism?
For the critic, Stakhanovism could be likened to an ‘employee of the month’-type system of favouritism. Evoking the familiarity of tipping or employee bonuses, Stakhanovites were motivated by the prospect of better working conditions, material gains and the potential of fame. At the same time, lauding certain employees over others splintered the workforce, fuelling, at best, a culture of culpability and, at worst, blame. This stacked the decks against individual workers when they were held accountable for shortfalls in sales and distributions, even when the fault lay in the production process.
Yet one should not overlook the culture that Stakhanovism fostered, Randall argues: ‘Admittedly, members of the Soviet elite benefited more from the new trade system than the average citizen because of their greater purchasing power … However … the narrative of “retreat” and embourgeoisement has obscured aspects of the campaign for Soviet trade that helped to extend the Soviet revolutionary project.’ It would certainly be wrong to overlook the sheer numbers of retail workers participating in the Stakhanovite cause. When officially surveyed in 1936, it was found that at least seven per cent of the 1.5 million trade workers identified as Stakhanovites. The proportion was far greater in the retail sector, which boasted figures over 30 per cent in several cities. This movement offered workers not only a collective purpose but also an identity: no longer suspect shop clerks, they could now be considered ‘retail heroes’, at the forefront of a national agenda.
While some argued that Stakhanovism marked a concession to the right, an equivalent compromise might be seen on the other side of the aisle. Indeed, the idea of motivating employees through pride instead of monetary incentives is far from alien to capitalist workplaces. Bureaucratised into team building exercises, employee socials and leadership training, it is part of the ethos of ‘company culture’. Both Amazon and Walmart have touted their ‘retail heroes’ in response to the pandemic. Such workers have been elevated, praised for their diligence and put to the fore of a national plight. In this sense, a more benign Stakhanovism might be said to live on, at least rhetorically, beyond the Soviet Union’s defunct borders.
Dolly Church is an editor and freelance writer.