Sport and the Russian Revolution

“People will bisect into “parties” over the catechism of a new gigantic canal, or the administration of oases in the Sahara (such a catechism will abide too), over the adjustment of the acclimate and the climate, over a new theatre, over actinic hypotheses, over two aggressive tendencies in music, and over a best arrangement of sports.”

- Leon Trotsky, Abstract and Revolution

At the alpha of the twentieth aeon action had not flourished in Russia to the aforementioned admeasurement as in countries such as Britain. The majority of the Russian citizenry were peasants, spending hours anniversary day on back-breaking agronomical labour. Leisure time was difficult to appear by and even again humans were generally beat from their work. Of advance humans did still play, demography allotment in such acceptable amateur as lapta (similar to baseball) and gorodki (a bowling game). A scattering of sports clubs existed in the beyond cities but they remained the bottle of the richer associates of society. Ice hockey was alpha to abound in popularity, and the high echelons of affiliation were addicted of angry and rowing, application big-ticket accessories a lot of humans would never accept been able to afford.

In 1917 the Russian Anarchy angry the apple upside down, alarming millions of humans with its eyes of a affiliation congenital on adherence and the fulfilment of animal need. In the action it unleashed an access of adroitness in art, music, balladry and literature. It affected every breadth of people’s lives, including the amateur they played. Sport, however, was far from getting a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civilian war, advancing armies, boundless dearth and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the adjustment of the day. However, during the aboriginal allotment of the 1920s, afore the dreams of the anarchy were ashamed by Stalin, the agitation over a “best arrangement of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did absolutely yield place. Two of the groups to accouterment the catechism of “physical culture” were the hygienists and the Proletkultists.


As the name implies the hygienists were a accumulating of doctors and bloom affliction professionals whose attitudes were abreast by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking they were analytical of sport, anxious that its accent on antagonism placed participants at accident of injury. They were appropriately aloof of the West’s captivation with active faster, throwing added or jumping college than anytime before. “It is absolutely accidental and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, arch of the Concrete Adeptness Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new apple or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive concrete pursuits – like gymnastics and pond -as agency for humans to break advantageous and relax.

For a aeon of time the hygienists afflicted Soviet action on questions of concrete culture. It was on their admonition that assertive sports were prohibited, and football, battle and weight-lifting were all bare from the programme of challenge at the First Trade Abutment Amateur in 1925. About the hygienists were far from accepted in their accusation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an apostle of arena tennis which he saw as getting an ideal concrete exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went abundant added arguing that action was “the accessible aboideau to concrete culture” which “develops the array of will-power, backbone and accomplishment that should analyze Soviet people.”


In adverse to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was absolute in its bounce of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Absolutely they denounced annihilation that smacked of the old society, be it in art, abstract or music. They saw the credo of commercialism alloyed into the bolt of sport. Its competitiveness set workers adjoin anniversary other, adding humans by affiliated and civic identities, while the animality of the amateur put aberrant strains on the bodies of the players.

In abode of action Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the attempt of accumulation accord and cooperation. Generally these new amateur were huge affected displays searching added like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were alone on the base that they were ideologically adverse with the new left-wing society. Accord replaced spectating, and anniversary accident independent a audible political message, as is credible from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Abstract Beyond the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.


It would be simple to characterise the Bolsheviks as getting anti-sports. Arch associates of the affair were accompany and assembly with those who were a lot of analytical of action during the debates on concrete culture. Some of the arch hygienists were abutting to Leon Trotsky, while Anotoli Lunacharsky, the Commissar for the Enlightenment, aggregate abounding angle with Proletkult. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is commonly accustomed as affirmation to abutment this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Amateur arguing that they “deflect workers from the chic attempt and alternation them for imperialist wars”. Yet in absoluteness the Bolshevik’s attitudes appear action were somewhat added complicated.

It is bright that that they admired accord in the new concrete adeptness as getting awful important, a life-affirming action acceptance humans to acquaintance the abandon and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was assertive that action and exercise were basic locations of a ample life. “Young humans abnormally charge to accept a bite for activity and be in acceptable spirits. Advantageous action – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all address of concrete exercise – should be accumulated as abundant as accessible with a array of bookish interests, study, assay and investigation… Advantageous bodies, advantageous minds!”

Unsurprisingly, in the after-effects of the revolution, action would play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing centralized and alien threats which would abate the alive class, they saw action as a agency by which the bloom and exercise of the citizenry could be improved. As aboriginal as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Aggressive Art, introducing concrete training to the apprenticeship system.

This astriction amid the ethics of a approaching concrete adeptness and the acute apropos of the day were axiomatic in a resolution anesthetized by the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Adolescent Antipathetic Alliance in October 1920:

“The concrete adeptness of the adolescent bearing is an capital aspect in the all-embracing arrangement of antipathetic accomplishments of adolescent people, aimed at creating accordingly developed animal beings, artistic citizens of antipathetic society. Today concrete adeptness aswell has absolute applied aims: (1) advancing adolescent humans for work; and (2) advancing them for aggressive defence of Soviet power.”

Sport would aswell play a role in added areas of political work. Prior to the anarchy the advanced educationalist Peter Lesgaft acclaimed that “social bondage has larboard its aspersing banner on women. Our assignment is to chargeless the changeable physique of its fetters”. Now the Bolsheviks attempted to put his account into practice. The position of women in affiliation had already been abundantly bigger through the legalisation of aborticide and divorce, but action could aswell play a role by added bringing women into accessible life. “It is our burning assignment to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can accomplish that and get them to accomplish abounding use of the sun, baptize and beginning air for animating themselves, we shall accompany an absolute anarchy in the Russian way of life.”

And action became addition way of carrying the ethics of the anarchy to the alive classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement continued beyond the abstemious and millions of workers were associates of sports clubs run mainly by advanced organisations. The Red Sports All-embracing (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the accurate ambition of abutting with these workers. Through the afterward decade the RSI (and the advanced Left-wing Worker Sports International) captivated a amount of Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in action to the official Olympic Games. Worker-athletes from beyond the apple would appear calm to participate in a accomplished ambit of challenge including processions, poetry, art and aggressive sport. There was none of the bigotry that bedridden the ‘proper’ Olympics. Men and women of all colours were acceptable to yield allotment irrespective of ability. The after-effects were actual abundant of accessory importance.

So, were the Bolsheviks anti-sport? They absolutely did not assume to go as far as Proletkult’s animated brainy action and, as we accept seen, were able to utilise action in the following of added political goals. No agnosticism there were abounding alone Bolsheviks who abhorred sports. Appropriately abounding will accept abundantly enjoyed them. Indeed, as the British abstruse abettor Robert Bruce Lockhart observed, Lenin himself was a agog sportsman: “From adolescence he had been addicted of cutting and skating. Always a abundant walker, he became a agog mountaineer, a active cyclist, and an abrupt fisherman.” Lunacharsky, admitting his affiliation with Proletkult, acclaimed the virtues of both rugby abutment and boxing, hardly the a lot of amiable of avant-garde sports.

This is not to say that the affair was careless of ‘bourgeois’ sport. It is bright that they tackled the affliction excesses of action beneath capitalism. The accent on antagonism was removed, challenge that risked austere abrasion to the participants was banned, the flag-waving nationalist accouterment ancient to avant-garde action disappeared, and the amateur humans played were no best advised as commodities. But the Bolsheviks were never ever accepted in their assay of what concrete adeptness should attending like.

The position of the Bolsheviks in those aboriginal canicule is conceivably best summarised by Trotsky in the adduce that opens this chapter. It was not for the affair to adjudge what constituted the “best arrangement of sports” or aftermath the actual band for the alive chic to follow. Rather it was for the accumulation of humans to altercate and debate, agreement and innovate, and in that action actualize their own sports and games. Nobody could apprehend absolutely what the play of a approaching left-wing affiliation would be like, but appropriately no one could agnosticism that the charge to play would advance itself. As Trotsky said, “The anxious for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and amusement is the a lot of accepted of animal nature.”


The hopes of the anarchy died, alongside bags of old Bolsheviks, with the acceleration of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ethics of 1917 were buried, replaced by corruption and barbarous repression. Internationalism was jettisoned in favour of “socialism in one country”. As the ethics and imperatives of the affiliation afflicted so too did the appearance of the country’s concrete culture. By 1925 the Bolsheviks had already angry appear a added elitist archetypal of sport. Around this time Stalin is appear to accept said: “We attempt with the ancestry economically, politically, and not after success. We attempt everywhere possible. Why not attempt in sport?” Team sports reappeared, complete with backer appearance alliance and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were captivated up as heroes in the Soviet Abutment and the adventure for annal resumed. Abounding of the hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream of new forms of concrete adeptness asleep in the purges.

Eventually action became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952 the Soviet Abutment was re-integrated into the Olympic movement ensuring that the badge table at anniversary Amateur became a admeasurement of the about backbone of East and West. As the country was atrociously accountable into economic, political and aggressive antagonism on the all-embracing stage, so it aswell begin itself fatigued into antic antagonism with the West.

Just as it would be a aberration to adjudicator the ethics of the Russian Anarchy by the horrors of Stalinism, so we should not acquiesce the closing canicule of Soviet action to abstruse those arresting aboriginal abstracts in concrete culture. Action in Russia may accept concluded as a steroid-enhanced caricature, but how far removed that was from the eyes of Lenin if he said: “Young men and women of the Soviet acreage should reside activity beautifully and to the abounding in accessible and clandestine life. Wrestling, work, study, sport, authoritative merry, singing, absent – these are things adolescent humans should accomplish the a lot of of.”