At the start of the twentieth century sport had not flourished in Russia to the same extent as in countries such as Britain. The majority of the Russian population were peasants, spending hours each day on back-breaking agricultural labour. Leisure time was difficult to come by and even then people were often exhausted from their work. Of course 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 larger cities but they remained the preserve of the richer members of society. Ice hockey was beginning to grow in popularity, and the upper echelons of society were fond of fencing and rowing, using expensive equipment most 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 far from being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day. However, during the early part of the 1920s, before the dreams of the revolution were crushed by Stalin, the debate over a “best system of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did indeed take place. Two of the groups to tackle the question of “physical culture” were the hygienists and the Proletkultists.
As the name implies the hygienists were a collection of doctors and health care professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping higher than ever before. “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 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 was on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However 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 as being an ideal physical exercise. 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 each other, 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 more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.
It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading members of the party were friends and comrades with those who were most critical of sport during the debates on physical culture. Some 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 normally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games arguing that 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 new physical culture as being highly important, a life-affirming activity allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “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!”
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 population could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the education 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 Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League in October 1920.