“People will split into” parties “over the issue of a new giant channel or distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will also exist), about regulation of the weather and climate, over a new theater, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing trends in music and over a best sports system. ”
– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution
By the early twentieth century, sports had not flourished in Russia to the same extent as in countries such as Britain. The majority of the Russian population were peasants who spent hours each day on repayable agricultural work. Leisure was difficult to come by and even then people were often exhausted from their work. Of course, people still played and participated in traditional games such as lapta (similar to baseball) and gorodki (a bowl game). There was a crush on sports clubs in the larger cities, but they were still the preserve of the wealthier members of the community. Ice hockey began to grow in popularity and the top leaders of the community were excited about fencing and rowing using expensive equipment most people would never have been able to afford.
In 1917, the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfillment of human needs. In the process, it unleashed an explosion of creativity in the arts, music, poetry and literature. It affected all areas of people’s lives, including the games they played. However, sports were far from a priority. The Bolsheviks who had led the revolution were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhoid epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day. In the early 1920s, before the dream of the revolution was crushed by Stalin, the debate over a “best sports system”, as Trotsky had predicted, actually took place. Two of the groups to tackle the “physical culture” issue were the hygienists and the proletists.
As the name suggests, the hygienists were a gathering of doctors and health professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. In general, they were critical of sports, and worried that its emphasis on competition put participants at risk of injury. They were equally despicable with the West’s admission of running faster, throwing longer or jumping higher than ever before. “It’s completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Moscow Cultural Institute, “that someone sets a new world or Russian record.” Instead, the hygienists nurtured non-competitive physical pursuits – such as gymnastics and swimming – as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.
For a period of time, hygienists influenced Soviet politics in matters of physical culture. It was on their advice that certain sports were banned, and football, boxing and weightlifting were all excluded from the program’s events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. But hygiene was far from unanimous in their condemnation of the sport. V. V. Gorinevsky, for example, was a proponent of playing tennis, which he saw as an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a physician and the People’s Commissioner for Health, went much further, arguing that sport was “the open gateway to physical culture”, which “develops the kind of willpower, strength and skill to separate Soviet people.”
Unlike the hygienists, the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘civil’ sports. In fact, they condemned something that slammed the old society, be it in the arts, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against each other, dividing people according to tribal and national identity, while the physicality of the games puts unnatural loads on players’ bodies.
Instead of sports, proletarian cultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play based on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often, these new games were huge pieces of theater that looked more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Competitions were avoided on the grounds that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Attendance replaced spectators, and each event contained a distinct political message, as evidenced by some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling revolutionary literature across the border; and help the proletarians.
It would be easy to characterize the Bolsheviks as anti-sports. Leading members of the party were friends and peers with those most critical of sports during the debates over physical culture. Some of the leading hygienists were close to Leon Trotsky, while Anotoli Lunacharsky, the information commissioner, shared many views with Proletkult. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is usually given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the games with arguments that they “divert workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Still, the Bolsheviks’ attitudes to sport were somewhat more complicated.
It is clear that they viewed participation in the new physical culture as very important, a life-affirming activity that allowed people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Young people in particular need a life and be in a good mood. Healthy sports – gymnastics, swimming, walking in all kinds of physical training – should be combined as much as possible with a range of intellectual interests, study, analysis and study … Healthy bodies, healthy minds! “
Not surprisingly, during the Revolution, sport would play a political role for the Bolsheviks. They faced internal and external threats that would break down the working class so that they sport as a means of improving the health and fitness of the population. As early as 1918, they issued a decree on compulsory military arts teaching that introduced physical training into the education system.
This tension between the ideals of a future physical culture and today’s urgent concerns was evident in a resolution passed by the Russian Young Communist League’s Third Congress throughout Russia:
“The younger generation’s physical culture is an essential element of the overall system of communist upbringing of young people, aiming to create harmoniously developed people, creative citizens of communist society. Today, physical culture also has direct practical goals: (1) young people to work, and (2) prepare them for military defense of Soviet power. “
Sport would also play a role in other areas of political work. Before the Revolution, Liberal educationist Peter Lesgaft noted that “social servitude has left its degrading mark on women. Our task is to liberate the female body from its chains”. Now the Bolsheviks tried to put their ideas into practice. The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalization of abortion and divorce, but sport could also play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It’s our urgent task to draw women into the sport,” Lenin said. “If we can achieve it and make full use of the sun, water and fresh air to fortify themselves, we must bring a whole revolution in the Russian way of life.”
And sport became another way of communicating the ideals of the revolution to the European working classes. The worker-sports movement stretched across the continent, and millions of workers were members of sports clubs, mainly run by reformist organizations. Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with these workers. Over the following decade, the RSI (and the reformist socialist worker Sports International) held a series of Spartakiads and the Workers’ Olympics as opposed to the official Olympic Games. Worker-athletes from all over the world would meet to attend a host of events, including processions, poetry, art and competitive sports. There was none of the discrimination that embarrassed the ‘real’ Olympics. Men and women of all colors were eligible to participate regardless of ability. The results were of much secondary importance.
So were the Bolsheviks anti-sports? They certainly did not seem to go as far as Proletkult’s heartfelt ideological opposition and, as we have seen, were prepared to use sports in pursuit of major political goals. No doubt there were many individual Bolsheviks who despised sports. Likewise, many will have greatly benefited from them. As British secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart noted, Lenin himself was an avid sportsman: “From a boy’s age he had been passionate about shooting and skating. He was always a great hiker, an avid mountaineer, a lively cyclist and an impatient fisherman . ”Despite his association with Proletkult, Lunacharsky expanded the virtues of both rugby union and boxing, hardly the most benign in modern sports.
This is not to say that the party was uncritical of ‘civil’ sports. It is clear that they tackled the worst excesses of sports under capitalism. The emphasis on competition was removed, competition risking serious harm to participants was banned, the flag-waving nationalist traps that were endemic to modern sports disappeared and the games people played were no longer treated as raw materials. But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like.
The position of the Bolsheviks in these early days is perhaps best summarized by Trotsky in the quotation which opens this chapter. It was not for the party to decide what constituted the “best sports system” or produce the right line for the working class to follow. Rather, it was for the mass of people to discuss and discuss, experiment and innovate and in the process create their own sports and games. No one could predict exactly how the play of a future socialist society would be, but no one could doubt that the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The longing for entertainment, distraction, vision and laughter is the most legitimate of human nature.”
The hopes of the revolution died along with thousands of old Bolsheviks with the rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by exploitation and brutal oppression. Internationalism was imprisoned in favor of “socialism in a country”. As society’s values and imperatives changed, so did the nature of the country’s physical culture. By 1925, the Bolsheviks had already turned to a more elite sports model. Around this time it is reported that Stalin has said: “We compete with the bourgeoisie economically, politically and not without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sports?” Team sports reappeared, complete with capitalist league and cup structures. Successful sportsmen were hailed as heroes in the Soviet Union and the pursuit of records resumed. Many of the hygienists and proletarian cultists who had dared to dream of new forms of physical culture perished in the cleansing.
Eventually, sports became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952, the Soviet Union was integrated into the Olympic movement, ensuring that the medal table at each game became a measure of the relative strength between East and West. As the country was undoubtedly forced into economic, political and military competition on the international scene, it also found itself drawn into sporting competition with the West.
Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution after the horror of Stalinism, so we should not let the last days of Soviet sport conceal the remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Sports in Russia may have ended up as a steroid-enhanced caricature, but how far removed it was from Lenin’s vision when he said: “Young men and women in the Soviet country should live life beautifully and fully in public and private life. Wrestling, working, studying, sports, joy, singing, dreaming – these are things young people should get the most out of. “