Don’t feel good enough? Blame HR and a Russian miner from Stalin’s era

In 1935 a Russian miner extracted 1,400 per cent more coal in one shift than was expected of him. How does this man’s achievement affect the performance and mental health of modern-day workers? Bogdan Costea and Peter Watt explain

Sunday 18 July 2021 00:01 BST
Stakhanov’s use of the drill over the pick raised his productivity
Stakhanov’s use of the drill over the pick raised his productivity (Eleazar Langman via Library of Congress)

One summer night in August 1935, a young Soviet miner named Alexei Stakhanov managed to extract 102 tonnes of coal in a single shift. This was nothing short of extraordinary – according to Soviet planning the official average for a single shift was seven tonnes. Stakhanov shattered this norm by a staggering 1,400 per cent. But the sheer quantity involved was not the whole story. It was Stakhanov’s achievement as an individual that became the most meaningful aspect of this episode. And the work ethic he embodied then – which spread all over the USSR – has been invoked by managers in the west ever since.

Stakhanov’s personal striving, commitment, potential and passion led to the emergence of a new ideal figure in the imagination of Stalin’s Communist Party. He even made the cover of Time magazine in 1935 as the figurehead of a new workers movement dedicated to increasing production. Stakhanov became the embodiment of a new human type and the beginning of a new social and political trend known as Stakhanovism.

That trend still holds sway in the workplaces of today – what are human resources, after all? Management language is replete with the same rhetoric used in the 1930s by the Communist Party. It could even be argued that the atmosphere of Stakhanovite enthusiasm is even more intense today than it was in Soviet Russia. It thrives in the jargon of Human Resources (HR), with its constant calls to express our passion, individual creativity, innovation and talents echo down through management structures.

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