Witold Rybczynski
Waiting for the Weekend

The French Revolution produced an entirely revised calendar, whose object was to divorce the months, days, and weeks from their traditional Christian associations and, at the same time, to rationalize (that is, decimalize) timekeeping. To begin with, the republican calendar did away with Anno Domini; henceforth dates were to be reckoned from the proclamation of the republic—1792, or Year I. The solar year was maintained, and the extra day of the leap year was consecrated to a festival of the Revolution, the four-year period being called a Franciade. The months, too, were renamed. This task was entrusted to Philippe-Francois-Nazaire Fabre d'Eglantine, a poet, who concocted a sort of twelve seasons—the winter months, for example, were called nivose (snowy), pluviose (rainy), and ventose (windy). There were still twelve months, but, as in the civil Egyptian calendar, they were all of equal thirty-day length. The five days left over were devoted to an end-of-the-year public festival.

Under this system the week fared badly—it was done away with altogether. Instead, each month was now divided into three ten-day periods. The days of the revolutionary week, or decade, were given numerical designations: primidi, duodi, tridi, and so on. The tenth day—decadi—was a holiday.

Voltaire wrote that 'if you wish to destroy the Christian religion you must first destroy the Christian Sunday,' and that was precisely what the secular week set out to do. Since the vast majority of peasants remained believers, one must imagine that celebrations of the Lord's Day, and hence the seven-day count, continued, albeit in secret. The same must have been true for the Jewish Sabbath, especially since the 'universal' rights of the revolution did not extend to Jews. But even among confirmed sans-culottes, the new week cannot have been popular; it deprived them of sixteen public holidays for which the five festival days did not make adequate recompense. In any event, the ten-day week lasted only until Year XIV, when Bonaparte restored the traditional Gregorian calendar in France.

The French revolutionaries underestimated the potency of the week. This was largely because they misjudged the extent of the religious sentiments of most of the population, for whom the seven-day week and Christianity were inseparable. But they also failed to understand that the week was a deeply held social convention. Ordinary people were prepared to put up with ten-hour days, and hundred-minute hours—in any case, few owned timepieces. The ten-day count, however, was lackluster and mechanical, and had none of the mystery and individual richness of the planetary week. Grounded in an intellectual idea, the new week had no cultural roots, and even had the Jacobins survived, it is unlikely that the decade would have persisted.

The most recent attempt to undo the seven-day week occurred in the Soviet Union. In the autumn of 1929, the regime of Joseph Stalin completely restructured the Soviet calendar. The new scheme resembled the French republican calendar in many respects; it, too, had twelve months of thirty days each, the extra days being public holidays. Unlike the French, the Bolsheviks retained the traditional names of the months, for the main target of the reform was the week itself. Henceforth, factories would operate continuously, without a break. There would be no more universal rest day—in fact, no more week at all; workers labored four days, on staggered shifts, and had every fifth day on.' This increased the annual number of nonworking days from fifty-two to seventy-two.

The four-day shift may have been less onerous than its six-day Tsarist predecessor but it was unpopular. Since everyone worked on a different schedule, families and friends could seldom enjoy the same day off. Supervisors and managers were obliged to work on many of their free days, so that committee and board meetings could take place. Schools, banks, and administrative offices became disorganized—staff members were never present at the same time. Machinery and equipment were neglected, since no one was personally responsible for their operation. Of course, the abolition of the traditional week was also unpopular with the deeply religious peasants, as well as with the large urban Jewish minority.

The stated purpose of the new calendar was to increase industrial and agricultural production. After less than three years, it became clear that the four-day shift was having the opposite effect, and the five-day week was canceled. Now each month was divided into five weeks of six days each, with every sixth day a common holiday. This arrangement lasted for nine years, when it, too, was abandoned. In June 1940, the Soviet Union returned to the Gregorian calendar and the seven-day week. The official reason given was that a longer week would permit an improvement in factory production, and a reduction of staff. Unofficially, the Bolsheviks would have had to admit their defeat; their campaign to undo the traditional week, the mainstay of the Russian Orthodox Church, had failed.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.