Soviet “Subbotnik” or Saturdayer is alive and well in Kazakhstan

Yesterday I featured a piece from someone newly arrived to Astana, Kazakshtan.  This British chap wrote a very funny piece (I had several LOLs anyway) about a tradition Subbotnik that has firm roots in the Soviet Union era.  You will now know what he does for a living during his “day job” and it is definitely NOT planting trees!

The Saturdayer – Think spring-cleaning made national and you are halfway there to understanding the Subbotnik.

The University staff were under strictest instructions to be ready and tooled up at the University front door at 10.30, so dutifully we all trepsed in at ten past eleven or thereabouts last Saturday. We were to dress in work clothes. One of the sweet aspects of the event was that the cleaning staff and other functionaries took full advantage of the role reversal to start issuing orders and just generally taking charge of the situation. Well, for some unknown reason the male librarians were assigned to tree planting and the female members to sweeping a muddy patch of soil.

Male librarians come in all shapes and sizes, but none of us can honestly be described as athletic. In our own way we all set about digging seriously impressive foundation pits for what turned out to be a twig. The first foot or so of the soil had the consistency of honey and the next two feet that of concrete, and it was in a pique of exasperation at this infuriating mud that I finally managed to earn a University-wide reputation for myself, by breaking not one, not two, but three whole spades. The final one was my piece de resistance, snapping down the length of the shaft and entailing one final back-saving walk to the storeroom. Not quite enough to earn me a Hero of Socialist Labour medal, but not too far off it.

The girls meanwhile continued sweeping the soil, making nice neat bundles of loose (dirty?) soil for collection into bags.

At this point, the trees turned up. A canvas covered truck reversed worryingly in our direction, and after coming to rest, became our focal point for the next fifteen minutes as we stood and inspected and identified the trees and signed paperwork and gripped about the size of them and generally made the unappreciative gardeners’ lives miserable. This is an art form to be mastered for all occasions when you are acquiring goods, however well made. The next vehicle to turn up was the size of a petrol tanker, which, it turned out, contained the water via a firehose for watering our twigs.

At this point we refilled our foundation pits and pushed the twigs into (admittedly loosened) soil. I was informed that the water-retaining wall around my twig would not be tall enough to cope with the coming deluge, so I duly rearranged the loose soil around the twig into a mini Hadrian’s Wall, with my fourth spade in hand, and with an audience this time.

The big attraction of the day was a free lunch at one o’clock, which as the time approached, was marked by a momentarily avaristic scramble for the dining room.

The Saturdayer is a legacy of the Soviet Union, a form of communistic corporate team-building outing. Genuinely, the event leaves a good taste in the mouth, and I would be loathe to leave you with any other impression. Getting office workers digging soil for a day for the general good of the town or city is not such a bad thing, as long as you don’t obsess about it being free labour and all that. Actually all public areas get a good spring clean at this time.

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    I wonder how effective it would be to arrange these outings on a voluntary basis? It could be a great team building experience regardless.

  2. 2

    […] Kazakhstan in a humorous light. Read his other pieces I have featured on this blog here, here and here. If you are an expat who lives in Kazakhstan, you will be able to relate to the following ten […]


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