This story was originally published in 2018 in the “Utopias” issue of Eye on Design magazine.
What’s a week anyway?
By the numbers, it’s seven days, 168 hours, or 10,080 minutes tidily packaged into a set amount of time that is agreed on by most everyone. However, for one brief but disorienting moment, a week meant something entirely different to people living in the former Soviet Union.
In 1929, the Soviet government launched the nepreryvka, a new plan that completely upended the structure of the work week as we know it today. Colloquially called the “continuous working week,” the plan dictated that the week would become five days long. Then, less than two years later, the government changed it to six days (called the shestidnevka). Eventually, they returned the week to its original seven days, but only after thoroughly shattering people’s mental model of time.
Under the nepreryvka, the government divided workers—primarily those in factories and offices—into five groups. Laborers worked seven hours a day for four days in a row with one day off. These free days were scattered throughout the week, which meant 80% of the labor force worked at the factory while 20% remained at home at any given time. This new work week ensured that the machines never stopped running.
This period, between 1929 and 1940, was part of Joseph Stalin’s radical economic overhaul that aimed to turn the Soviet Union into a ceaseless machine of productivity and its people into tireless cogs. When the nepreryvka took effect on October 1, 1929, the Soviet government was in the middle of a spirited attempt to transform itself into a modern industrial powerhouse on par with the more developed nations of the world. In the years after the October Revolution of 1917, workers already reduced their workload, going from ten- or twelve-hour shifts six days a week to eight-hour shifts. By the late 1920s, however, Stalin felt the pressure to modernize the country even quicker.
A year prior to the nepreryvka, Stalin announced his first Five-Year Plan: a multipronged effort to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union and maximize its output. “In 1929, it was ‘all hands on deck,’ ” says Robert Bird, a historian at the University of Chicago whose 2017 exhibition Revolution Every Day explored the everyday life of Russian citizens—particularly women—after the 1917 revolution through posters. “They needed the factories to be working constantly.”
The nepreryvka was a means to that end. Yuri Larin, a Soviet economist, originally proposed the nepreryvka in May 1929 in a document titled “Three Hundred or Three Hundred and Sixty,” a cleverly worded dig at the Soviet workforce’s productivity. Stalin and his cabinet were initially skeptical of the idea, but the nepreryvka caught on in the press where they heralded it as the “great socialist idea.” By August 1929, the Soviet government approved the plan and was ready to roll it out to workers.
Throughout history, efforts to restructure time often accompany social upheavals. The way we arrange our days, weeks, and months is a reflection of how we aspire to live our lives. The week, in particular, is rooted in cultural norms and attitudes about work. It’s a barometer of productivity—e.g. “this week is busy”—and a consistent marker of time. Change the days of the week, and you effectively alter a person’s priorities. This is exactly what the Soviet government was trying to do with the nepreryvka; they wanted to bring shift work to a national scale.
While the nepreryvka was a disruptive temporal shift, it didn’t abolish the seven-day week altogether. Rather, it used the staggered five-day work schedule to render the original days of the week meaningless. With the weekend gone, labor became the framework around which people built their lives. The days themselves ceased to matter. In his book, The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week, sociologist Eviatar Zerubavell explains that the intent of the nepreryvka was to retain the original names of the weekdays or give them new revolutionary names such as, “Trade Union, Soviet, Lenin, Komsolol, Party, Hammer, and Sickle.” Yet very soon the days were consumed by work patterns and became known only as “first day,” “second day,” and so forth.
Recognizing that the nepreryvka could potentially lead to productivity-killing disorientation, the government created a new calendar system that employers distributed to their workers. These calendars were designed around a grid, and most included the names of weekdays and months. Because workers were divided into one of five groups, a color-coded symbol came to represent their work and free days on the calendar. In addition, work schedules were laid out in full years, creating a colorful lattice that looked, perhaps intentionally, like a chore chart. “The chart itself is an interesting information design solution,” says Alexander Tochilovsky, curator at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at Cooper Union, who grew up in the former Soviet Union. “Though I’m not sure how successful it was.”
It’s not entirely clear who designed the calendars, but Tochilovsky says it was most likely someone at the state-owned printer who were following a mandate themselves from a higher power. Most calendars proudly featured symbols of industrialization, and each had its own way to designate work days and rest days. Often, instructions printed in block type explained how to decipher the gridded rows of colors and symbols. “Memorize your color, and you will always know your day of rest,” reads a calendar from 1930 with jewel-colored diamonds that correspond to different worker groups.
Another calendar from the Russian town of Sverdlovsk features an off-white grid filled with symbols like a wheatsheaf, book, and sickle. The background is a collage of industrial imagery including smoke stacks and gears. The calendars, which hung in homes and factories, were essentially pieces of pro-socialist propaganda that glorified the notion of collectivist work. And their implications were clear: People no longer needed to know what day it was because they could simply reference this colorful piece of paper to know exactly where they were supposed to be. “The calendars were essentially a tactic of mass control,” Tochilovsky says.
In just a year’s time, the strains of continuous shift work started to wear on the Soviet people who quickly realized that staggering rest days meant they rarely got to spend time with family and friends. A letter published in the communist newspaper Pravda on the day the nepreryvka took effect succinctly summed up the problem: “What is there for us to do at home if our wives are in the factory, our children at school, and nobody can visit us …? It is no holiday if you have to have it alone.” The nepreryvka appeared to also erase days of worship for most people since Sundays were now a work day for 80% of the population. The nepreryvka might have been designed as a tool for increasing productivity, but it was ultimately most successful at preventing people from organizing around anything other than labor.
Ninety years and a technological revolution separate the nepreryvka from today’s world, but it’s not hard to make the connection between Stalin’s push for relentless productivity and our contemporary always-on mentality. The current obsession with “getting shit done” isn’t government mandated, but it is the product of a culture that encourages and rewards the monetization of time over pretty much everything else.
Among many other factors, technology shifted productivity from a collectivist, nationalist pursuit to one that’s far more individualistic, but the underlying motivation is the same even if the medium has changed. The nepreryvka calendar is a great example of this. In the same way the calendar made it easier for people to mindlessly ease into their new life-as-shiftwork mentality, we now have new tools—notifications, reminders, calendar events—to help us maintain a one-track mind. These are tools of momentum, and they tell us: Don’t think, just follow.
For all time’s inherent malleability, people want it to be consistent, and more importantly, they want it to be theirs.
By the end of 1931, the Soviet government realized that giving people one day of rest for every four days they worked ultimately wasn’t the brilliant plan for productivity they originally assumed. They switched the work week from five to six days and instituted a common day off for workers. In 1940, the Soviet Union abandoned the idea of a truncated work week altogether and reinstituted a seven-day week with six consecutive eight-hour work days and one common day of rest.
The explanation for why the Soviet Union’s time control experiment failed is simply that the government’s hypothesis didn’t work when tested on its citizens. Productivity dropped, machines broke down under the stress of constant use, and workers became unmotivated. “It was just the arrogance of absolute power—of someone saying, ‘Let’s just try this,’ ” says Bird. But most crucially, the Soviet government ignored an important fact: People and not machines ultimately powered its policy. Stalin implemented the nepreryvka with little thought as to how the creep of discontent can eat away at even the most structured plans for productivity. For all time’s inherent malleability, people want it to be consistent, and more importantly, they want it to be theirs.
In the end, bending time to a political will never works, nor does translating it into sheer monetary value for that matter. It’s not an overstatement to say many people are experiencing their own form of nepreryvka today, and they’re just beginning to explore how to deprogram their brains from the expectations of constant connectivity. The fallout from this will look different—productivity might rise, computers rarely fail, and there will always be a new, hungrier person to take a jaded worker’s place—but in the end, the same underlying dissatisfaction will remain.