The Soviet Union was not immune to what was emerging as a global cult of celebrity, or notoriety, focused on athletes, aviators, boxers, film-stars, gangsters, mountaineers and, as we have seen, dictators. Already, the commissar for heavy industry, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, had launched the search for ‘new people’, saying, ‘In capitalist countries, nothing can compare with the popularity of gangsters like Al Capone. In our country, under socialism, heroes of labour, our Izotovites, must become the most famous,’ a reference to Nikita Izotov, a miner whom colleagues described rather sourly as ‘the human cutting machine’. But Izotov was destined to be eclipsed, along with the new hybrid Marx, Aristotle and Goethe.
In 1931 Pravda ran features under the slogan ‘The Country Needs to Know its Heroes’, consisting of photographs of aviators, collective farmers, shock-workers and the like. The concept of the exemplary elite was primarily associated with Aleksei Stakhanov, a thirty-year-old Donbass coalminer, who in August 1935 managed to cut 102 tons of coal (or fourteen times his norm) in a single shift—moreover, with the aid of a trusty Soviet-produced pneumatic pick. Stakhanov had migrated from a village in Orel, working his way up from pony-brakeman to manual pick operative, before getting his hands on the air-powered pick that brought him fame and fortune. Of course the work was done at night, enabling Stakhanov to maximise his labours as compressed air went to his pick alone, and his six-hour continuous stint was facilitated by a lengthy logistical chain beginning with the men installing timber props behind him. Nonetheless, the anonymous battalions of shock-workers were thenceforth superseded by a Soviet Hercules with a human face. ‘Recordmania’ spread like a feverish sickness, with managers and foremen sweating too lest they be denounced as ‘bigwigs’, ‘windbags’, ‘routiners’, ‘wreckers’, or ‘saboteurs’ for failing to make these ‘Stakhanovite’ feats feasible, rendering them liable to what the Kremlin’s own Al Capone sinisterly called ‘straightening out’ or ‘a tap on the jaw’. It mattered not that these epic episodes tended to deplete machinery and leave ‘Stakhanovites’ spent, or that some workers resented the diversion of resources, the subsequent lifting of their own norms, or the rich rewards such Promethean heroics brought. Schadenfreude best describes those who said of a young female Stakhanovite, who had been rewarded (one hopes she was grateful) with the selected works of Lenin: ‘That’s what the whore deserves!’ Resentment towards Stakhanovites bestriding the factory floors ‘like gods’ was compounded when they became fixtures of the factory ‘production courts’.
Much of the time of stellar Stakhanovites was increasingly spent on tour, whether visiting the Kremlin, addressing other workers or venturing confidently into places—such as the opera or theatre—where workers already did not comfortably go. Even society pages in the newspapers included such gems as ‘The brigadier-welder Vl. Baranov (28), the best Stakhanovite at Elektrozavod, glided across the floor in a slow tango with Shura Ovchinnovka (20), the best Stakhanovite at TsAGI. He was dressed in a black Boston suit that fully accentuated his solidly built figure; she was in a crepe de chine dress and black shoes with white trimming.’
In other words, although they talked incessantly about work, Stakhanovites did less and less of it, recalling it, like millionaire footballers or pop stars from humble origins, as something that took on roseate hues in memory of things past. Of course, Stakhanovites had a role to play within a wider myth-in-the-making. As an explicitly hierarchical society replaced one allegedly based on fraternity, they had to acknowledge the crucial guiding role of the nation’s father-figure, whose speeches had allegedly originally inspired them to break through artificial barriers while using technology almost as an extension of their own brain. Stakhanovites, who were often not members of the Party, were also model citizens in respects other than dutiful sons and daughters of the ultimate patriarch. Their lifestyle was supposed to exemplify the theme that ‘life is joyous, comrades’, and since they were showered with official munificence while simultaneously enjoying very high wages, the joyous life seemed like an idyllic shopping spree, for clothes, clocks, furniture, motorbikes, perfume, phonographs and so forth. Thus adorned and kitted out, Stakhanovites appeared having their leisurely breakfasts, reading the papers, lunching with friends, playing a little volleyball, tea and a game of checkers, while their wives undertook charitable work as ‘housewife-activists’ and their children were exhorted to their own heroics at school.