Physical Culture

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Physical culture, the hygiene and discipline of the bodies of socialist citizens, was an object of paramount concern to Soviet authorities. Although it was indisputable that socialist physical culture would be different from the capitalist variety, there was a continuous debate about its nature that began in 1920 and received its final solution only in 1934. Pre-revolutionary sports clubs had been accessible only to the privileged social classes, and had carried ideologies alien to the Bolsheviks. The Sokols, or Hawks, had promoted Slavic national identities, while the YMCA pursued the ideal of muscular Christianity. Both were closed down by the Bolsheviks. In their place, the Soviet state promoted organizations that encouraged physical hygiene while eschewing the unhealthy competition that embodied the spirit of capitalism. Calisthenics, eurythmics, workplace exercise, track and field were alloted much of the meager state funding.

The role of the state in the regimentation of the body was a striking feature of the 1930s. That generation was healthier than any other before, and their healthy bodies stood as a metaphor for their healthy minds, unsullied by the psychoses and depravities that plagued their western peers. Physical culture, the disciplining and training of the socialist body, home to the socialist mind, was the popular movement of the decade. No longer was individual accomplishment deemed unsocialist. Just as the workplace produced hero workers such as Aleksei Stakhanov, a growing network of elite sports clubs trained outstanding athletes who brought glory to the socialist homeland. Their anthem, The Sportsman’s March (from the 1935 movie Goalkeeper), sang of their vitality and uncomplicated joy. This healthy generation valued its collective bonds. Togetherness and discipline did not mark for them a lack of individuality, but signaled a healthy sense of self based in community. Every year young physical-culturalists from all over the Soviet Union would march through Red Square on May Day and salute their leaders, saluting themselves as they did and declaring their allegiance.

Although the totalitarian tilt of Soviet society was evident in physical culture, other developments that took place under the same slogan undermined the grim social discipline. Spectator sports boomed in the mid-1930s, focused above all on the competitive international sport of soccer. Teams sponsored by factories and state organizations commanded the throbbing hearts of mostly male fans, who watched their heroes from the seats of large new stadiums, and whose wild antics suggested anything but disciplined socialist bodies. Fan favorites included Dinamo, sponsored by the NKVD, Lokomotiv, sponsored by the Ministry of Transportation, Torpedo (AMO automobile factory), Central Army Sports Club, and the beloved Spartak Club, sponsored by the meat packers and forever fighting the uphill battle against hated and better-funded Dinamo. Led by the magnificent Starostin brothers (Nikolai, Andrei, Petr and Aleksandr), they won the USSR Cup (introduced in 1936) twice before the war. Eventually the success of the Starostins ran afoul of Dinamo’s main fan, NKVD chief Lavrentii Beria, who had them sent to the labor camps on trumped-up charges in 1942.

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