Shabashniki (USSR, Russia)

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Shabashniki 🇷🇺
USSR map.png
Location: USSR, Russia
Definition: Moonlighting brigades undertaking short, illegal or semi-legal contracts in the Soviet Union
Keywords: Russia FSU USSR Employment Work Moonlighting Migration
Author: Nikolay Erofeev
Affiliation: Faculty of History, University of Oxford, UK

By Nikolay Erofeev, Faculty of History, University of Oxford, UK

Shabashniki (literally, ‘Sabbath workers,’ from shabash, meaning work done on the side and referring to the Sabbath, the seventh day set aside by God in the Hebrew Bible as a day of rest) is a Russian term used to describe moonlighting brigades who undertook short, illegal or semi-legal contracts in the Soviet Union. Brigades of shabashniki were widespread in the spheres of construction, flat-renovation and decoration. The practice was known as shabashnichestvo and the form of work as shabashka. Most often the term was used to describe collective brigades, but it was also used to denote individuals working illegally in consumer services such as shoe- or car-repairs. Shabashniki were forced to work informally since they were engaged in free-market employment that was illegal under the USSR’s command economy. This meant, of course, that their work was not officially reported or taxed. Under Soviet law, individual entrepreneurship was defined as a crime, and workers who took money for informal services could be prosecuted for ‘private entrepreneurial activity’ (Shelly 1990: 17). These official prohibitions notwithstanding, shabashnichestvo was extremely widespread in the late USSR. Because the activity, while officially illegal, was both widespread and essential for getting work done, the Soviet authorities had to turn a blind eye to shabashniki, whose activities were considered ‘morally questionable’ yet economically necessary. For some practitioners, shabashnichestvo was an informal side-job (also known as levak) – a way to earn additional money on the side. For others, it was a full-time job. Seasonal short-term contracts provoked seasonal migration of shabashniki from the labour-rich republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus to other parts of the USSR. In Armenia, as many as 25,000 shabashniki travelled to urban areas and collective farms in Siberia for contracts in the construction sphere each year (Otsu and Ramzes 1992: 367). Migrating brigades of shabashniki were also called ‘wild’ or ‘seasonal’ brigades or migrant workers (otkhodniki) in the USSR (Shabanova 1991).

Shabashnichestvo had its origins in the practices of arteli – independent, subcontracted gangs that had been working in Russia since the pre-revolutionary period (Valetov 2010: 254) – but the practice was further shaped by the particular circumstances of the Soviet labour market. Following the Marxist doctrine that labour is not a commodity, the Soviet authorities strictly controlled wages in an attempt to suppress competition on the labour market and ruled that workers could not normally have side jobs (Clarke 1999: 13). Out of necessity, however, enterprise and collective-farm directors were allowed to contract work collectives for seasonal short-term contracts. In contrast to these officially approved temporary guest workers (limitchiki), shabashniki were motivated by higher wages, which were paid informally (see also alga aploksnē). The ban on individual entrepreneurship pushed the practice into the grey zone but never put an end to it (Shelly 1990: 11-26). Subcontracting teams were also found in other Communist states such as ‘autonomous groups’ in Poland or ‘rogue construction’ in Yugoslavia (Łoś 1990: 49; Le Normand 2014: 148).

Shabashnichestvo grew in importance in the late-Soviet period in response to the shortcomings of the centralised system of manufacture and distribution, when state construction companies were unable to keep their workers, encountered difficulties in acquiring materials, and rendered services with great delay and at a low-quality level. (Valetov 2010: 253). While there are no exact statistics on the scope of the practice, available data indicate that shabashnichestvo was widespread. According to some estimates, in the 1970s shabashniki accounted for more than half of the construction workers in some regions of the USSR (Otsu and Ramzes 1992: 267; Shelly 1990: 16). Shabashniki were also estimated to provide half of all consumer services overall, up to as much as 98 percent of housing repairs in the Caucasus (O'Hearn 1980: 225; Miller 2017: 89). These extremely high estimates testify to the strong dependence of the Soviet economy on the informal sector. In contrast to other informal practices, shabashniki were not just a marginal phenomenon. They played major macroeconomic role, ‘wholeheartedly integrated into Soviet society, while located underground’ (Otsu and Ramzes 1992: 367). Shabashniki tended also to be more productive and cost-effective for their employers than workers employed on official contracts. Unable to devise a legal framework for this practice, the Soviet authorities largely tolerated it, turning a blind eye to the non-socialist methods employed by their citizens to improve their personal well-being (Millar 1985).

The author’s fieldwork (conducted in 2017) revealed that official and informal practices were intertwined in many state-promoted ideological construction projects. Komsomol-led housing construction (Youth Residential Complexes) brought together the benefits of ‘formal’ architecture (an expertise in large-slab prefabricated construction) with those of ‘informal’ practices of shabashniki. Officially-sanctioned Komsomol construction brigades (stroiotryadi) enabled their participants to employ their skills later in the unofficial sector. This amounted, in the words of some practitioners, to a school for learning ‘how to get things done’ in unofficial or semi-official spheres (Erofeev 2020). Shabashniki operated through a network of informal contacts, in acquiring materials, making use of svyazi (connections) or ‘borrowing’ equipment through the practice of kalym (Otsu and Ramzes 1992: 369-70; Valetov 2010: 260). Often they were able to obtain scarce and high-quality building materials and equipment as the result of secret commercial transactions, otherwise unavailable to state enterprises. Serving as mediators for official enterprises, they facilitated their access to the informal sector. The practice testifies to the fact that the official and unofficial spheres strongly complemented each other in the USSR (Ledeneva 2018: 3).

In construction, shabashnichestvo was an explicitly male practice (Shelly 1990: 16), seen by men as a way to earn money to support their families (Morris 2013: 98). Another particular feature of Soviet brigades was that many participants were highly skilled specialists. One such worker, A. Zolotov, who was also a scientist at a research institute at the time, recalled his brigade in 1985:

There were six of us ... all with higher education, two of them candidates of science, aged between 27 and 33. For five years, we took off to work in the Vologda and Arkhangelsk regions. We were engaged in construction and the overhaul of timber and paneled houses. We over-fulfilled the norms five or six times, working seven days a week for 20 - 25 days in a row. Daily earnings fluctuated over these years from 48 to 73 rubles. Our brigade was typical in my opinion. (Kruglianskaia 1985)

According to the memoirs of other practitioners, unofficial salaries could exceed the ‘normative’ wage by as much as 18 times (Valetov 2010: 259). Shabashniki were often criticised for receiving high wages and other ‘anti-socialist’ benefits seen as contradicting Marxist morality. Although performing services required for the official economy, they were frequently fined for violating passport regulations and prosecuted for ‘private entrepreneurial activity’ (Shelly 1990: 16-17). Directors of the enterprises who hired shabashki often took the risk of a ‘suspended punishment’ (Ledeneva 2006: 13). They could easily be prosecuted due to some law violation, and the punishment could be enforced at any time (Otsu and Ramzes 1992: 364-65). Yet in spite of that, the Soviet authorities often showed a more benevolent attitude towards shabashniki than toward others engaged in the unofficial economy, such as black-market dealers or illegal land ‘grabbers’ (Arnot 1988: 369, also see samozakhvat). In other cases, Soviet economists suggested that shabashniki should even be encouraged as highly skilled and enterprising workers (O'Hearn 1980: 225). Legislation on individual labour activity enacted in 1986 attempted to legalise the practice of shabashnichestvo, yet never fully did so (Valetov 2008: 220). Shabashniki also appeared in popular culture; they were depicted in several films including ‘Let's Meet at the Fountain’ (dir. Oleg Nikolaevskii, 1976), ‘Cat in a Bag’ (dir. Georgii Shchukin, 1978) and ‘Love and Doves’ (dir. Vladimir Menʹshov, 1984).

Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, some people with previous experience as shabashniki moved into profitable business as the scale of construction projects increased. By 2015, as much as 24 percent of Russian billionaires made their wealth in the emergent post-Soviet real estate and construction sectors (Treisman 2016: 240). Continuities of Soviet informal practices could also be seen in contemporary Russian labour market. Employment of moonlighting brigades in an informal sector is widespread in Russia today, it similarly involves labour migration from former Soviet republics in form of gastarbaitery and chelnoki (Lazareva 2015). These practices testify to the intricacy between the official, semi- and un-official spheres, their co-dependency and symbiotic relationship in contemporary Russia, when authorities tend to restrict legal migration (i.e. do not give the residence and labour rights) and yet are dependent on the presence of informal migrant labour.


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