Sport and the Russian Revolution

“People will divide into “parties” in the question of the new gigantic canal, or even the distribution of oases inside Sahara (this kind of question will exist too), above the regulation of weather and the climate, on the new theatre, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and on the best system of sports.”
– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

At the start of the 20 th century sport hadn’t flourished in Russia for the same extent as with countries for example Britain. The majority on the Russian population were peasants, spening too much time each day on back-breaking agricultural labour. Leisure time was tricky to come by and in many cases then everyone was often exhausted off their work. Of course people did still play, involved in such traditional games as lapta (just like baseball) and gorodki (a bowling game). A smattering of sports clubs existed within the larger cities nevertheless they remained the preserve in the richer folks society. Ice hockey was start to grow in popularity, along with the upper echelons of society were partial to fencing and rowing, using expensive equipment many people would never have already been able to afford.

In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the entire world upside down, inspiring lots of people with its vision of the society built on solidarity as well as the fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed a blast at the of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched all areas of people’s lives, for example the games they played. Sport, however, was not even close to being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were facing civil war, invading armies, widespread famine along with a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order on the day. However, over the early part with the 1920s, prior to a dreams with the revolution were crushed by Stalin, the debate more than a “best system of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did indeed come about. Two from the groups to tackle the question of “physical culture” were the hygienists plus the Proletkultists.

As have got it the hygienists were an amount of doctors and medical researchers whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking we were holding critical of sport, concerned the reason is emphasis on competition placed participants prone to injury. They were equally disdainful from the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping above ever before. “It is totally unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head from the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a whole new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits – like gymnastics and swimming -as methods for people to stay healthy and relax.

For time the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It was on the advice that you sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted on the programme of events with the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However the hygienists were far away from unanimous of their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, as an example, was an advocate of playing tennis that he saw to be an ideal work out. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and also the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the will-power, strength and skill which will distinguish Soviet people.”

In contrast for the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal rolling around in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed they denounced any situation that smacked from the old society, whether in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven in the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against the other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, whilst the physicality from the games put unnatural strains about the bodies from the players.

In place of sport Proletkultists argued for brand new, proletarian varieties of play, founded around the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking much more carnivals or parades as opposed to sports we percieve today. Contests were shunned within the basis that these folks were ideologically incompatible while using new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and every event contained a distinct political message, along with apparent from a selection of their names: Rescue in the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.

It can be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks to anti-sports. Leading members from the party were friends and comrades with people that were most essential of sport over the debates on physical culture. Some on the leading hygienists were near to Leon Trotsky, while Anotoli Lunacharsky, the Commissar for that Enlightenment, shared many views with Proletkult. In addition, the party’s attitude to your Olympics is often given as evidence to guide this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games arguing they “deflect workers in the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet the truth is the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more advanced.

It you can see that they regarded participation from the new physical culture to highly important, a life-affirming activity allowing website visitors to experience the freedom and movement of their very own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and workout were integral parts of an well-rounded life. “Young people especially require a zest for life and become in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of exercising – must be combined if you can , with a assortment of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

Unsurprisingly, inside the aftermath in the revolution, sport would play a political role for that Bolsheviks. Facing bodily and mental threats which will decimate the functional class, they saw sport as a technique by which the medical and fitness in the population could possibly be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction inside the Military Art, introducing physical training towards the education system.

This tension between your ideals of an future physical culture and also the pressing concerns with the day were evident in the resolution passed with the Third All-Russia Congress on the Russian Young Communist League in October 1920:

“The physical culture with the younger generation is an important element within the overall system of communist upbringing of younger people, targeted at creating harmoniously developed humans, creative citizens of communist society. Today physical culture also offers direct practical aims: (1) preparing younger people for work; and (2) preparing them for military defence of Soviet power.”

Sport would also are likely involved in the areas of political work. Prior on the revolution the liberal educationalist Peter Lesgaft noted that “social servitude has left its degrading imprint on women. Our task is always to free the female body of their fetters”. Now the Bolsheviks tried to put his ideas into practice. The position of ladies in society had been recently greatly improved from the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport could also may play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw in women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can easily achieve that and acquire them to make full use with the sun, water and outside for fortifying themselves, we shall bring a complete revolution inside Russian way of living.”

And sport became one way of conveying the ideals in the revolution to your working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched throughout the continent and countless workers were people sports clubs run usually by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 together with the express goal of connecting with one of these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (as well as the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held many Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to your official Olympic Games. Worker-athletes from throughout the globe will come together to participate in a very whole selection of events including processions, poetry, art and competitive sport. There was none on the discrimination that marred the ‘proper’ Olympics. Men and women of the colours were allowed to take part no matter ability. The results were greatly of secondary importance.

So, were the Bolsheviks anti-sport? They certainly wouldn’t seem to go so far as Proletkult’s fervent ideological opposition and, when we have seen, were ready to utilise sport from the pursuit of wider political goals. No doubt there was clearly many individual Bolsheviks who despised sports. Equally a few will have greatly enjoyed them. Indeed, as being the British secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart observed, Lenin himself became a keen sportsman: “From boyhood he been keen on shooting and skating. Always an excellent walker, he became a keen mountaineer, a lively cyclist, with an impatient fisherman.” Lunacharsky, despite his association with Proletkult, extolled the virtues of both rugby union and boxing, hardly essentially the most benign of contemporary sports.

This will not be to say that this party was uncritical of ‘bourgeois’ sport. It is clear how they tackled the worst excesses of sport under capitalism. The increased exposure of competition was removed, contest that risked serious injury for the participants was banned, the flag-waving nationalist trappings endemic to modern sport disappeared, along with the games people played were no more treated as commodities. But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive within their analysis products physical culture need to look like.

The position with the Bolsheviks in those start is perhaps best summarised by Trotsky inside quote that opens this chapter. It was not for your party to determine what constituted the “best system of sports” or produce the proper line with the working class to check out. Rather it was to the mass of individuals discuss and debate, experiment and innovate, along with that process create their unique sports and games. Nobody could foresee precisely what the play of any future socialist society could well be like, but equally no-one could doubt how the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The desiring amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and laughter is by far the most legitimate of man’s instinct.”

The hopes on the revolution died, alongside a huge number of old Bolsheviks, while using rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by exploitation and brutal repression. Internationalism was jettisoned to be replaced by “socialism in a single country”. As the values and imperatives with the society changed so too did the character from the country’s physical culture. By 1925 the Bolsheviks had already turned towards a far more elitist type of sport. Around this time Stalin is reported to get said: “We compete while using bourgeoisie economically, politically, and never without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” Team sports reappeared, detailed with capitalist style league and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were delayed as heroes inside Soviet Union along with the quest for records resumed. Many on the hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream about new varieties of physical culture perished within the purges.

Eventually sport became a proxy for your Cold War. In 1952 the Soviet Union was re-integrated in the Olympic movement ensuring the medal table at intervals of Games became a measure in the relative strength of East and West. As the country was inexorably compelled into economic, political and military competition about the international stage, therefore it also found itself drawn into sporting competition using the West.

Just as it could well be a mistake to guage the ideals with the Russian Revolution because of the horrors of Stalinism, and then we should not encourage the latter events of Soviet sport to obscure those remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Sport in Russia could possibly have ended as being a steroid-enhanced caricature, but exactly how far removed that was in the vision of Lenin when he stated: “Young men and women with the Soviet land should enjoy life beautifully and for the full in public places and private life. Wrestling, work, study, sport, making merry, singing, dreaming – they are things the younger generation should make one of the most of.”