Sport and the Russian Revolution

“People will divide into “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 the best system of sports.”

– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

At the start of the twentieth century, the sport had not flourished in Russia to the same extent as in countries such as Britain. Most of the Russian population were peasants, spending hours daily on back-breaking agricultural labor. Leisure time was difficult, and even then, people were often exhausted from their work. Of course, people still played traditional games like the laptop (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.


1917, the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions with its vision of a society built on solidarity and fulfilling human needs. In the process, it unleashed 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 Stalin crushed the dreams of the revolution, the debate over the “best system of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did indeed take place. Two groups to tackle the “physical culture” question were the hygienists and the Proletkultists.



As the name implies, the hygienists were a collection of doctors and healthcare professionals whose medical knowledge informed attitudes. 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. “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 some time, the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. On their advice, certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing, and weight-lifting were all omitted from the program 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 an ideal form of physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health argued that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” that “develops the sort of willpower, 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 the old society, such as art, literature, or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of the 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 players’ bodies.

Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play founded on mass participation and cooperation principles in place of sport. Often, these new games were huge theatrical displays that looked more like carnivals or parades than today’s sports. Contests were shunned because they were ideologically incompatible with the contemporary 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 characterize the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading party members were friends and comrades with those most critical of the sport during the debates on physical culture. Some of the leading hygienists were close to Leon Trotsky, while Anatoli 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, the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated.

They regarded participation in the new physical culture as highly important, a life-affirming activity allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral to a well-rounded life. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sports – gymnastics, swimming, hiking, and all physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with various intellectual interests, study, analysis, and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

Unsurprisingly, the sport would play a political role for the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the revolution. Facing internal and external threats that 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 Military Art, introducing physical training to the education system.

This tension between the ideals of future physical culture and the pressing concerns of the day was evident in a resolution passed by 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 the 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 defense of Soviet power.”

The sport would also play a role in other areas of political work. Before the revolution, the liberal educationalist Peter Lesgaft noted that “social servitude has left its degrading imprint on women. Our task is to free the female body of its fetters”. Now, the Bolsheviks attempted to put his ideas into practice. The position of women in society has already been greatly improved through the legalization of abortion and divorce. Still, the sport could also play a role 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 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.”

Sport became another way of conveying the revolution’s ideals to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched across the continent, and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organizations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 to connect with these workers. Through the following decade, the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held several Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games. Worker-athletes from across the globe would come together to participate in a whole range of events, including processions, poetry, art, and competitive sports. There was none of the discrimination that marred the ‘proper’ Olympics. Men and women of all colors could participate, irrespective of ability. The results were very much of secondary importance.

So, were the Bolsheviks anti-sport? They certainly did not seem to go as far as Proletkult’s fervent ideological opposition and, as we have seen, were prepared to utilize sport to pursue wider political goals. No doubt, many individual Bolsheviks despised sports. Equally, many will have greatly enjoyed them. Indeed, as the British secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart observed, Lenin was a keen sportsman: “From boyhood, he had been fond of shooting and skating. Always a great walker, he became a keen mountaineer, a lively cyclist, and an impatient fisherman.” Lunacharsky, despite his association with Proletkult, extolled the virtues of rugby union and boxing, hardly the most benign of modern sports.

This is not to say that the party was uncritical of ‘bourgeois’ sport. But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like. They tackled the worst excesses of sport under capitalism. The emphasis on competition was removed, a contest that risked serious injury to the participants was banned, the flag-waving nationalist trappings endemic to modern sport disappeared, and the games people played were no longer treated as commodities.

The position of the Bolsheviks in those early days is perhaps best summarized by Trotsky in the quote that opens this chapter. It was not for the party to decide what constituted the “best system of sports” or produce the correct line for the working class to follow. Rather, it was for the masses to discuss and debate, experiment and innovate, and create their sports and games in that process. Nobody could foresee exactly what the play of a future socialist society would be like, but equally, no one could doubt that the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The longing for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing, and laughter is the most legitimate of human nature.”


The hopes of the revolution died, alongside thousands of old Bolsheviks, with the rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by exploitation and brutal repression. Internationalism was scrapped in favor of “socialism in one country.” As the values and imperatives of the society changed, so too did the character of the country’s physical culture. By 1925, the Bolsheviks had already turned towards a more elitistr model of the sport. Around this time, Stalin reportedly said: “We compete with the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and not without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” Team sports reappeared, complete with the capitalist-style league and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were held up as heroes in the Soviet Union, and the quest for records resumed. Many hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream of new forms of physical culture perished in the purges.

Eventually, sport became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952, the Soviet Union was re-integrated into the Olympic movement, ensuring that the medal table at each game became a measure of the relative strength of East and West. The country was inexorably compelled into economic, political, and military competition on the international stage; it also found itself drawn into sporting competition with the West.

Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution by the horrors of Stalinism, we should not allow the latter days of Soviet sport to obscure those remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Sport in Russia may have ended as a steroid-enhanced caricature, but how far removed that was from the vision of Lenin when he said: “Young men and women of the Soviet land should live life beautifully and to the full in public and private life. Wrestling, work, study, sport, making merry, singing, dreaming – these are things young people should make the most of.”


Alcohol scholar. Bacon fan. Internetaholic. Beer geek. Thinker. Coffee advocate. Reader. Have a strong interest in consulting about teddy bears in Nigeria. Spent 2001-2004 promoting glue in Pensacola, FL. My current pet project is testing the market for salsa in Las Vegas, NV. In 2008 I was getting to know birdhouses worldwide. Spent 2002-2008 buying and selling easy-bake-ovens in Bethesda, MD. Spent 2002-2009 marketing country music in the financial sector.