Sport and the Russian Revolution

“People will split in “parties” over the question of a new gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will exist too), over the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a new theatre, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports.”
– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

In the early 20th century, sport was not thriving in Russia in the same manner like in other countries like Britain. The majority of Russian populace was peasants who worked for long hours every day doing laboring in the fields. The leisure time was hard to be found and the people would often be exhausted from their job. However, people still take part in traditional games such like lapta (similar to baseball) and gorodki (a bowling game). There were a few sports clubs that existed in cities of greater size but they were reserved for the wealthier people in society. Ice hockey was beginning gain popularity and the top echelons of society enjoyed rowing and fencing, which required expensive equipment that most people could not have to afford.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, enthralling millions of people by their visions of world that was based on cooperation and the fulfillment of human needs. It also triggered an explosion of creativeness in music, art poetry, literature and even poetry. It affected every aspect of people’s lives, even their games. Sports, however, were far from being the main focus. The Bolsheviks who led the wap spbo revolution, had to contend by the civil war, invasion armies as well as widespread famine and a typhus outbreak. In the 1920s, survival, not leisure was the rule in the world of. But, in the early period of the 1920s prior to the time when the dreams of revolutions were smashed by Stalin the discussion over the “best system of sports” that Trotsky predicted did occur. Two of the groups who address the issue about “physical culture” were the Hygienists as well as the Proletkultists.

The name suggests that Hygienists were doctors and health professionals whose opinions were shaped by their knowledge of medicine. They were generally critical of sports, worried with the fact that its focus on competition put athletes at risk of injuries. They also resented the Western obsession with speeding up and throwing farther or leaping more than they have ever. “It 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 activities that are not competitive – such as swimming and gymnastics as ways to keep fit and relaxed.

For a time, the hygienists had an influence on Soviet policy regarding questions regarding physical fitness. Their advice was to make certain sporting activities banned and boxing, football and weight-lifting were all excluded from the schedule of the First Trade Union Games in 1925. But the hygienists weren’t not all-inclusive in their stance against sports. V.V. Gorinevsky For instance, V.V. Gorinevsky was a fan of playing tennis , which he believed was the ideal exercise for physical fitness. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further, claiming that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” that “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.”

Contrary to the hygienists they were a distinct group. Proletkult movement was unambiguous in its opposition to “bourgeois” sports. In fact, they rebuked any form of sport that was reminiscent of the old social order whether it was in literature, art or music. They saw the ideals of capitalism embedded in the sports’s fabric. The competition between players put people against one another, dissociating individuals by national and tribal identity, while the physical nature of the sport caused unnatural strains to the bodies of the athletes.

Instead of sports, Proletkultists advocated different, proletarian ways of playing, based on the notion of cooperation and mass participation. The new games of the time were often massive theatrical spectacles that looked more like parades or carnivals as opposed to the sporting events we enjoy in the present. The games were resisted because they were not compatible with the socialist system of. Participation replaced watching and every event had specific political messages, such as can be seen from the names of some such as: Recovering from the Imperialists and Smuggling Revolutionary Literature across the Frontier and helping the Proletarians.

It is easy to label the Bolsheviks as anti-sports. Many of the most influential members of the group were friends and allies along with the people who were the most anti-sports during discussions on the physical culture. Many of the most prominent Hygienists were friends with Leon Trotsky, while Anotoli Lunacharsky who was the Commissar of the Enlightenment shared several opinions with Proletkult. Furthermore the political party’s attitude towards the Olympics is usually used as evidence for the anti-sports argument. The Bolsheviks were against the Games by claiming it was to “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. But in reality, Bolshevik’s attitudes toward sport were a little more complex.

It is evident the people who participated in the new culture of physical fitness as extremely important and a way to live a more fulfilling life, allowing people to feel the freedom and freedom of their bodies. Lenin believed that physical and mental exercise were essential to an overall healthy lifestyle. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

It is not surprising that in the aftermath of revolution sports was a key factor in the politics in the hands of the Bolsheviks. In the face of external and internal threats that would destroy workers, the Bolsheviks saw sports as a way to ensure the fitness and health of the people would be enhanced. In 1918, the government issued an order on compulsory instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training into the system of education.

The tension between ideals of the future physical culture and the urgent issues of the present were clear in a resolution that was passed at the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League in October 1920.

“The physical culture of the younger generation is an essential element in the overall system of communist upbringing of young people, aimed at creating harmoniously developed human beings, creative citizens of communist society. Today physical culture also has direct practical aims: (1) preparing young people for work; and (2) preparing them for military defence of Soviet power.”

It is also possible that sport plays an important role in other aspects of work. Before the revolution, the liberal educator Peter Lesgaft noted that “social servitude has left its degrading imprint on women. Our task is to free the female body of its fetters”. In the present, the Bolsheviks were determined to put his theories into action. Women’s status in the society was already substantially improved with the legalization of divorce and abortion However, sports could contribute to including women into the public sphere. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” stated Lenin. “If we can achieve that and get them to make full use of the sun, water and fresh air for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”