“People will divide into “parties” on the question of a fresh gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (this type of question will exist too), on the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a fresh theatre, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports.”
– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution
At the start of the twentieth century sport hadn’t flourished in Russia to exactly the same extent as in countries sites like firstrowsports such as Britain. The majority of the Russian population were peasants, spending hours each day on back-breaking agricultural labour. Leisure time was difficult ahead by and even then people were often exhausted from their work. Needless to say people did still play, taking part in such traditional games as lapta (similar to baseball) and gorodki (a bowling game). A smattering of sports clubs existed in the bigger cities but they remained the preserve of the richer members of society. Ice hockey was starting to grow in popularity, and top of the echelons of society were keen on fencing and rowing, using expensive equipment a lot of 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 fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was definately not being truly a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were met with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of your day. However, during the early the main 1920s, prior to the dreams of the revolution were crushed by Stalin, the debate over a “best system of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did indeed happen. Two of the groups to tackle the question of “physical culture” were the hygienists and the Proletkultists.
Because the name implies the hygienists were a collection of doctors and healthcare professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. In most cases they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. These were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping greater than ever before. “It really is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits – like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.
For a period of time the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It had been on their advice that one sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the initial Trade Union Games in 1925. Nevertheless the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis which he saw to be an ideal physical activity. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.”
In contrast to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed they denounced anything that smacked of the old society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against one another, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players.
In place of sport Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking similar to carnivals or parades compared to the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from a few of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Over the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.
It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks to be anti-sports. Leading members of the party were friends and comrades with those that were most significant of sport during the debates on physical culture. A number of the leading hygienists were close to Leon Trotsky, while Anotoli Lunacharsky, the Commissar for the Enlightenment, shared many views with Proletkult. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is generally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games arguing they “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet in reality the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated.
It is clear that that they regarded participation in the brand new physical culture as being very important, a life-affirming activity allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of these own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Teenagers especially need to have a zest for life and become in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – ought to be combined whenever you can with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”
Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the revolution, sport would play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which would decimate the working class, they saw sport as a means by which the health and fitness of the populace could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the training system.
This tension between the ideals of a future physical culture and the pressing concerns of the day were evident in a resolution passed by the 3rd All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League in October 1920:
“The physical culture of the younger generation is an essential aspect in the entire system of communist upbringing of teenagers, aimed at creating harmoniously developed humans, creative citizens of communist society. Today physical culture also has direct practical aims: (1) preparing teenagers 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 to the revolution the liberal educationalist Peter Lesgaft noted that “social servitude has left its degrading imprint on women. Our task would be to free the female body of its fetters”. Now the Bolsheviks attempted to put his ideas into practice. The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport may possibly also are likely involved by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and obtain them to make full use of the sun, water and oxygen for fortifying themselves, we will bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”
And sport became another method of conveying the ideals of the revolution to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched over the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with one of these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held many Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games. Worker-athletes from around the world would come together to participate in a whole selection of events including processions, poetry, art and competitive sport. There was none of the discrimination that marred the ‘proper’ Olympics. Males and females of all colours were permitted take part irrespective of ability. The results were quite definitely of secondary importance.