On April 12, in 1919, fifteen workers from the Moskva-Sortirovochnaya rail yard repaired three steam locomotives in one Saturday night without any compensation. Their deed appealed to Vladimir Lenin and he called this concept a "great initiative". Since then, a "Subbotnik" or "Communist Subbotnik" (derived from the Russian word for Saturday - Subbota) became a frequent day for voluntary work in Soviet life.
Lenin wrote in an article, describing the "communist subbotnik" as being of huge historical importance because it demonstrates the conscious and voluntary initiative of workers in transition to a new type of labor discipline. The article states “All these are the sprouts of communism, and it is our public and foremost responsibility to care for these sprouts”.
On May 1, 1920, in accordance with a resolution of the Communist Party, the first all-Russian subbotnik took place. More than 15 million people took part in the "holiday of labor" throughout the country. Lenin participated also, removing building rubble in the Moscow Kremlin. He was photographed carrying a log, and later this picture was used on communist propaganda posters.
Subbotnik took place all over the country as an annual event, sometimes even more frequently. They were timed to coincide with holidays or the anniversary of the first subbotnik or Lenin’s birthday (22 April). This event was staged in a holiday atmosphere with flags, speeches, music and singing. Subbotniki were generally held at the work place, where employees carried out their routine tasks. But at times they were conducted where people resided and at the initiative of local councils. This is when people worked on improving their district, completed various construction projects, building and painting fences, renovations, and landscaping.
Subbotnik became a custom attributed to the socialist way of life. They were usually followed by newspaper reports about the great benefits they bring to the economy with slogans like “Voluntary work for the good of communism – powerful tools for spiritual human companionship!” “Lenin’s work is alive and prospering!”
Industry administrators often used the voluntary work in their own interests to save money on wages and the initiative usually came from them, rather than employees. Eluding this day could bring public criticism or even administrative pressure, and not participating was seen as treasonous.
At one stage, the country crossed to a six-day work week and subbotnik became a Voskresnik (from the Russian word for Sunday - Voskresenie) held on Sunday. The work week changed back to five days in the 1960’s and along with it returned the Subbotnik.
Today in modern Russia subbotniki are no longer compulsory nor as wide-scale as they were during the Soviet period. But occasional days to clean up the city are held during spring time and headed by volunteers.