Sport and the Russian Revolution

People will divide into ‘parties’ on the topic of a new giant canal, or the distribution of oases in the desert (such a question also exists), on the regulation of time and climate, in a new stage, on chemical hypotheses, on two competing trends in music and the best system for sport. ”
Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

At the beginning of the 20th century, the sport had not flourished as much in Russia as in countries like Great Britain. Most of the Russian population were peasants, who spent hours every day in heavy agricultural work. Free time was hard to come by, and even then people were exhausted from their work. Of course, people still play, participating in traditional games like lapta (similar to baseball) and gorodki (bowling). There were few gyms in the big cities, but they were still the exclusive property of the wealthiest members of society. Ice hockey began to gain popularity and the upper classes of society were fond of fencing and rowing, using expensive equipment that most people could not 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 satisfaction of human needs. During this process he unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry, and literature. It has influenced all areas of people’s lives, including the games they played. However, sport was not a priority. The Bolsheviks, who led the revolution, faced civil war, invading armies, widespread famine, and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not entertainment, was the order of the day. However, during the early part of the 1920s, before Stalin crushed the dreams of revolution, there was debate over the “best mathematical system” that Trotsky had anticipated. Two of the groups that addressed the issue of “body culture” were hygienists and proletkultists.

Hygiene experts
As their name suggests, hygienists were a group of physicians and healthcare professionals whose positions were informed by their medical knowledge. In general, they were critical of the sport, concerned that its focus on competition would put participants at risk of injury. They also disdained West, busy running faster, throwing farther, or jumping higher than ever. “This is totally unnecessary and unimportant,” said A. Zikmond, director of the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture, “that no one set a new world record or Russia.” Instead, hygienists have advocated non-competitive physical activities, such as gymnastics and swimming, as ways to stay healthy and relax.

For a period of time, hygienists influenced Soviet policy on physical culture. On his advice, some sports were banned, soccer, boxing and weightlifting were removed from the program of events at the first union games in 1925. However, the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of the sport. to. Gorenovsky, for example, was a defender of tennis who considered it an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a physician and People’s Health Commissioner, went further, arguing that sport was the “open door of physical culture” that “developed the kind of willpower, strength and skill that should characterize the Soviet people. “.


Sport and the Russian Revolution


Unlike the hygiene experts, the Proletkult movement was clear in its rejection of “bourgeois” sport. In fact, they denounced everything that afflicted ancient society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sports. Its competitiveness pits workers against each other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physique of the game puts unnatural strain on the players’ bodies.

Instead of sport, the proletarians advocated new forms of proletarian play based on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were gigantic shows or parades similar to those of a carnival that the sports we see today. The contests were avoided because they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced the clock, and each event contained a different political message, as can be seen from some of their names: rescue the imperialists; Smuggling of revolutionary literature across borders; And it helps the proletarians.

It would be easy to describe the Bolsheviks as unsportsmanlike. The protagonists of the game were friends and colleagues of those who were most critical of the sport during the discussions on physical culture. Some of the leading hygienists were close to Leon Trotsky, while Anutoly Lunacharsky, commissioner of the Enlightenment, shared Proletault in many opinions. Furthermore, the position of the party at the Olympics is generally presented as evidence in support of this unsportsmanlike claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games, arguing that they “distract the workers from the class struggle and train them in imperialist wars.” But, in reality, the attitudes of the Bolsheviks towards sport were somewhat more complex.

They clearly saw participation in the new body culture as crucial, a life-affirming activity that allows people to experience the freedom and movement of their bodies. Lenin was convinced that leisure and exercise were an integral part of an inclusive life. “Young people in particular need to enjoy a good moral life. Healthy sports – gymnastics, swimming, hiking, all kinds of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and research … healthy bodies and healthy minds! ”

Not surprisingly, after the revolution, sport played a political role for the Bolsheviks. Faced with internal and external threats that would eliminate the working class, they saw sport as a means to improve the health and fitness of the population. As early as 1918 they issued a decree on compulsory education in martial arts, to introduce physical training into the educational system.

This tension between the ideals of future physical culture and the pressing concerns of the day was demonstrated in a resolution passed by the Third All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist Youth League in October 1920:

“The physical culture of the younger generation is an essential component of the overall communist youth education system, which aims to create harmoniously developed human beings and creative citizens in communist society. Today’s physical culture also has direct practical goals: ( 1) prepare young people for work and (2) prepare them for military defense over Soviet power. ”

Sport also plays a role in other areas of politics. Before the revolution, liberal educator Peter Lesgaft noted that “social slavery has left a humiliating mark on women. Our mission is to free the female body from its chains.” Now the Bolsheviks tried to put their ideas into practice. Indeed, the position of women in society has been vastly improved thanks to the legalization of abortion and divorce, but sport can play a role in increasing the participation of women in public life. Lenin said: “Our urgent task is to attract women to sport.” “If we can achieve this and make the most of the sun, water and fresh air to immunize, then we will make a complete revolution in the Russian way of life.”

Sport became another way of transmitting the ideals of the revolution to the working classes in Europe. The workers’ sports movement spread across the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run primarily by correctional organizations. Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the explicit intention of communicating with these workers. Over the next decade, the RSI (and the reformist Socialist International Athletic Worker) held a series of Spartacians and Workers’ Olympics in opposition to the formal Olympics. Sports workers from around the world come together to participate in a host of events including parades, poetry, art, and competitive sports. There was no distinction marred by the “proper” Olympics. Men and women of all colors were eligible to participate regardless of ability. The results were of extremely secondary importance.

So the Bolsheviks were unsportsmanlike? They certainly did not go beyond Proletolt’s strong ideological opposition and, as we have seen, they were willing to use sport for broader political goals. To be sure, there were many Bolsheviks who despised sport. Both will be enjoyed by many. Indeed, as British secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart observed, Lenin himself was a passionate athlete: “From his childhood he was fond of archery and snowboarding. He was always a great walker, became an avid mountaineer, cyclist and impatient hunter. ”Lunacharsky, though associated with Proletkult, has praised the virtues of both rugby and boxing, which are not the most benign modern sports.

This does not mean that the party has not criticized “bourgeois” sport. It is clear that they have dealt with the worst excesses of sport under capitalism. The emphasis on competition has been removed, competition that had a risk of serious injury to participants has been banned, nationalist motifs waved with endemic flags have disappeared in modern sport, and games played by people are no longer treated as merchandise. . But the Bolsheviks were not overly directive in their analysis of what physical culture should be like.

Perhaps the best summary of the position of the Bolsheviks in those early days is Trotsky in the quotation that opens this chapter. The party could not decide what constituted the “best system for sport” or establish the correct line for the working class to follow. Instead, the audience had to discuss, debate, experiment and create, and in the process create their own sports and games. No one can predict exactly what the game of the future socialist society will be, but no one doubts so much that the need to play will prevail. As Trotsky said, “the longing for fun, distraction, gaze and laughter is the most legitimate human nature.”

Hopes of revolution died, along with thousands of old Bolsheviks, with the rise of Joseph Stalin. The collective ideals of 1917 were buried and replaced by brutal exploitation and oppression. Internationalism was abandoned in favor of “socialism in one country.” With the changing values ​​and imperatives of society, so has the nature of the country’s material culture. By 1925, the Bolsheviks had already moved towards a more elitist mathematical model. At the time Stalin is said to have said: “We are competing with the bourgeoisie economically and politically, and not without success. We compete in every possible place. Why not compete in sports?” Team sports are making a comeback, with capital cup and league structures. Successful athletes were considered heroes in the Soviet Union and the search for records was resumed. Many hygiene experts and proletkultists who dared to dream of new forms of physical culture died in purges.

In the end, the sport became a substitute for the Cold War. In 1952, the Soviet Union rejoined the Olympic movement to ensure that the medal table for each Games became a measure of the relative strength of East and West. As the country was relentlessly forced into economic, political and military competition on the international stage, it was also drawn into sporting competition with the West.

Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution by the horrors of Stalinism, neither should we allow the last days of Soviet sport to hide those wonderful early experiences in physical culture. Sports in Russia may have ended up like cartoons on steroids, but how far was that from Lenin’s vision when he said: “Young men and women in Soviet lands should live a beautiful and full life in public and private life? Fight, work, study, sport, fun, sing, dream: these are things that young people should make the most of. “