From my days as a Russian major I was familiar with the term субботник, borrowed into English as subbotnik (what do you mean, it’s not English? It’s in the OED!) in the meaning “the practice or an act of working voluntarily on a Saturday, for the benefit of the collective”—that’s how the OED defines it, anyway; for real-world truth substitute “without pay” for “voluntarily” and replace “for the benefit of the collective” with “at the insistence of the Communist Party.” (The Wikipedia article says “The tradition is continued in modern Russia”; can this be true?) I note that the OED also includes an anglicized equivalent Saturdaying that seems to have had some currency in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution:
1920 Manch. Guardian 5 Feb. 9/7 In Moscow it has been found worth while to set up a special bureau for ‘Saturdayings’.
1920 Contemp. Rev. Oct. 504 For members of the Bolshevik party, ‘Saturdaying’ had become compulsory.
In the course of reading The Icon and the Axe, James Billington’s superb (and perennially influential) “interpretive history of Russian culture,” I have run across an earlier sense of the word:

The idea of a new church unifying Christians and Jews was gaining grass roots support in the Orel-Voronezh region with the sudden appearance of the sabbatarian (subbotniki) sect. They added to the usual rejection of Orthodox forms of worship opposition to the doctrine of the trinity, celebration of Saturday as the sabbath, and the rite of circumcision. The sect made its first appearance in the second half of Alexander‘s reign [i.e., in the years around 1820].

It turns out the sect is not only still around, Bill Aldacushion (“a descendant of Subbotniki and Molokan parents in America”) has an admirably thorough website devoted to it.

(I wonder how Morton Subotnick‘s family got their name?)


  1. Well, the subbotniki aren’t voluntary-compulsory and wide-scale the way they were during the Soviet period, but the spring clean-up subbotnik is still practiced. These days groups — everything from ecology NGOs to churches to military divisions to political parties to school classes — go out into the parks and clean them up. That’s in addition to the work around the courtyards, when neighbors clean up the winter’s worth of dog droppings, garbage, dead animals and other yuck that accumulated and was hidden under the snow. The idea of voluntary work for the collective good was rather discredited during Soviet times, and today it seems that most people are concentrating on redoing their apartments, building something onto their dacha, or working like dogs to make ends meet (at least here in Moscow) — but I think in the last few years there have been more glimmerings of volunteerism.

  2. The subbotnik turned up in The Economist the other week, in the context of immigrants demonstrating their Russian-ness. Opening sentences:
    ‘A FEW days before Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the nation address on May 10th, a strange, seemingly unrelated apparition presented itself in a Moscow park: some 50 Africans, plus the odd Afghan and Iraqi, carrying rakes. They came to perform a subbotnik—an old Soviet tradition of voluntary civic work. They headed for a wooded glade favoured by barbecuing Muscovites, and began clearing leaves and rubbish. “Good on them,” said an elderly Russian park cleaner. “Friendship between the nations is very important.”
    ‘Unfortunately, the idea of international friendship, like the near-defunct tradition of the subbotnik, is less popular in Russia than it was…’
    They italicise “subbotnik”, so it seems they’re not with you and the OED on this one. The full story’s at

  3. I’ve heard subbotnik used to refer to the work that unregistered prostitutes (from eg. Ukraine) perform when picked up by the police in eg. Moscow so as to avoid deportations etc.
    Could just be an ironic usage though.

  4. All of my family and friends, including those still in Russia, now use “subbotnik” to refer to a day devoted to any work other than the usual office work, whether it is our own house or a spring-cleaning at school/office/etc. Obviously, this meaning does not imply that it is a community effort, a confirmed live-alone bachelor in our family still has his “subbotnik”‘s.
    However, when we’re talking about the USSR, we use “subbotnik” to refer exclusively to at least semi-official collective work, not spring-cleaning your flat or anything.

  5. In Slovakia, a similar term “sobotári” (standard Slovak) or “sobotare” (dialect) is used for the members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I even heard it in reference to some other protestant churches (other than the traditional Lutherans and Reformed) like Presbyterians, even as another term for Jehova’s Witnesses.

  6. Yes, subbotnik is cop slang for prostitutes servicing the militia. I once made a terrible pun — unintentionally — when discussing “voluntary labor” with a cop friend. Took me awhile to figure out what was so funny.

  7. Всесоюзный Ленинский коммунистический субботник is what I think the next saturday after Lenin’s birthday (April 24) was called. According to the Soviet canon, Lenin took part in the first subbotnik in Moscow, carrying the legendary log (see Lenin jokes). It’s true that once the snow has melted, the filth and trash it once covered is out and Russian cities become dirtier than usual. Back in the pre-Petrine 17th century, the Czar’s court would move out of the Kremlin to one of the crown’s “suburban” estates in spring — so unbearable was the smell. There’s a lovely police term, подснежники (primroses): corpses that are found in parks and other secluded places, or rise to the surface when the snow and the ice are gone.
    Regarding субботники the sect, the Czarist government preferred to refer to them as жидовствующие (“doing as Jews do” so to say — жид was probably not yet a slur in the early 19th century). One shouldn’t confuse them with the жидовствующие of the 15th century, an influential heresy originating in Novgorod.

  8. John Emerson says

    Jehovah Witnesses also are Saturday-worshippers, but how the Presbyterians got in there I couldn’t guess.
    While Jan Hus remains my favorite heretic, the Russian heretics seem to have been the most vivid of them all. There still remain Old Believers and Doukhobors in the Pacific NW and BC.
    Mort Subotnik’s “Silver Apples of the Moon” is the rockingest electronic music I’ve ever heard.
    The French Revolution instituted a ten-day week, getting away from the Babylonian seven-day week with that superstitious, non-decimal 7.
    As a result they got 31 extra workdays out of people, since the weekend was still 2 days. The Soviets outdid them by 21.
    Liberation works in mysterious ways! Arbeit macht frei!

  9. The Old Believers, generally speaking, should not be described as heretics. The popovtsy (those with priests and thus regular liturgy) have been doctrinally and practically orthodox as far as I know. The bespopovtsy evolved in different unorthodox directions. There is no direct connection between the original Old Believers and the Molokans and Dukhobors. S.V. Bulgakov (not to be confused with the theologian S.N. Bulgakov — both were Orthodox priests though) distinguished between the “Subbotniks and Voskresniks” — “sectarians of the Molokan persuasion” — and the “Subbotniks, or Judaics” (жидовствующие), who await the Messiah and weep for Palestine.

  10. The Wikipedia article says “The tradition is continued in modern Russia”; can this be true?

    Not sure about Russia, but here, in Belarus, they’re still being practiced and are rather compulsory.

  11. Well, that’s some coincidence: the word just showed up on, of all places! I wonder if those German guys read LH.
    “Shirt-Story is a young, urban t-shirt-label with small awesome stories for underdogs, subbotnics, stereozacs, lolapaloozas, poneys, sodasonars, superlovers, instanttronics, aesthetomaten, clubdigglers, skatervionics, nerds, modeaddicts, electrosonics, alleycats, tocomaniacs, lifeperformers, greeds & supermodels.”
    They probably meant the sect, if anything.

  12. in Belarus, they’re still being practiced and are rather compulsory.
    Belarus: the last hurrah of the USSR.

  13. Aha – this could useful. My employers want to send me to our Paris office on Saturday (which I don’t work) for a day of fun and games with our French colleages as some sort of reward, but my line manager won’t give me the next working day off. I am now going to quote ‘Subbotnik’ at her and send her to this site.

  14. Glad to be of service!

  15. My feeling is that the word “subbotnik” in today’s usage goes away from the Soviet work-holiday, or indeed James Billington’s “Christian-Judaist unification sects” (such as Molokan Subbotniks), and is narrowly used for the originally Orthodox people historically converted into sects of Judaism (but with hardly any significant trace of Christianity in their belief systems).

    There were tens of thousands of them before the Revolution, attested in Southern Russia and Eastern Siberia, with some Subbotnik villages already describing their faith as “ancient” in response to Czarist inquiries as early as in the beginning of the XIX c. Since the Subbotniks lived outside of the Pale of Settlements, in the villages, their contact with the Jewish world were quite limited. They are broadly divided into Subbotniks proper (self-taught, often with the intent to reinterpret or improve upon Judaism), and “talmudists” or “Gers” who sought to fully emulate, rather than creatively modify, the Jewish tradition, and often invited Jewish teachers.

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