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Reassessing Russia

19 October 2006

How representations of sport and physical culture revealed some of the Soviet state's major anxieties.

Think Soviet Union and think sport; what images immediately come to mind?  For me and, I would think, many others, it will be a team of devoted and extremely precise Olympic female gymnasts that have been trained under a regime similar to that of the Soviet’s most notorious dictators.  Either that or a towering seven-foot, machine-like shot putter.  As with most stereotypical impressions, if we were to look a little closer, we would find that there is a lot more to the subject matter than first thought, and that our views are somewhat mistaken.

The Soviet state and its population were very serious about sport, which played a major role in many aspects of visual culture.  In Mike O’Mahony’s newly published book Sport in the USSR: Physical Culture – Visual Culture, the author sets out not only to explore the cultural representations of sport, but also the relationship between sport as a state-approved social practice and as a popular activity.  Such an in-depth analysis of this fascinating subject provides evidence and conclusions that provoke us to reform our initial perceptions of Soviet ideology.

During the pre-revolutionary period, sports and sports clubs were seen as a preserve of the middle class: the state soon realised that would have to change

We are all aware of the benefits of sport.  Either as a means to keep physically and mentally fit, or just as a pastime, its effect on the individual are often reflected in society.  Naturally the Soviet state was also aware of this and utilised it throughout its rule.  During the early pre-revolutionary period, sports and sports clubs were seen as a sign of social prestige – a preserve of the middle class.  The state soon realised that this needed to be changed in order for their plans to take shape, so it began to take control of all sports clubs.  Participation in sport was now encouraged; it needed to become more of a civic duty, yet still needed to keep its leisurely and recreational aspects.  Coming from the Russian for ‘physical culture’, the new term fizkultura was coined.

A healthy strong population would be better equipped to carry out state tasks such as contributing to large scale industrialisation or defending Soviet borders.  During the time of the Civil War, fizkultura programmes were organised solely by military organisations yet when Soviet control became more stable, its attentions were turned back to the more leisurely side of things.  The mid 1930s brought with it the looming threat of fascism and fizkultura was once again seen primarily as a means to encourage military development.  O’Mahony draws upon a selection of cultural representations to throw light upon many of these shifts in social and ideological priorities.

Dictatorships rarely stick to strictly predetermined plans, but modify some policies according to mass opinion 

The author examines both avant-garde and state sponsored artists as well as public events such as the sports parade.  One of the many paintings focused upon is Girl with a Shot Put by Aleksandr Samokhvalov.  Painted in 1933, it represents an elegant yet muscular female holding a shot put.  O’Mahony suggests that the painting is a reworking of the pre-revolutionary icon tradition.  It thus represents a very modern figure that functions ideologically to bring together traditional and contemporary cultural and sporting outlooks.

Common western perceptions of totalitarian dictators are also tackled in O’Mahony’s work.  He theorises that dictatorships rarely stick to strictly predetermined plans, but necessarily modify some policies according to mass opinion.  The highly popular sport of football is used here to illustrate this point.  In functional terms, football as a sport for encouraging health was poor.  As with most contact sports it brought injuries, which potentially hindered labour practices and military training.

The Olympic Games in 1952 meant sporting success became a key aspect of foreign policy

Spectatorship, a huge part of sport, and a chapter in O’Mahony’s book, is something that in football is almost as big as the game itself. But as a means for improving individual fitness is not of much use to the state. The Soviet public however, loved the sport and loved to watch it.  The state, aware of this, did not ban football, despite the wishes of some hard-line Soviet theorists, and even embraced the fans and spectatorship.  Here the state took the view that whilst sports spectatorship in itself did not constitute fizkultura practice, it was one of the strongest means for promoting it.  Soccer tours and sports parades were massively attended public and state approved events.  Not only did they entertain, but carried with them important political messages.

Another painting by Aleksandr Samokhvalov, Kirov at the Fizkultura parade, details a banner of Lenin in the background.  O’Mahony has observed that this was in fact a later addition to the painting, made because of political and social anxieties.  The image in the background of the picture originally represented Stalin, but this was re-worked after Khrushchev’s denunciation of the now-deceased Soviet leader in 1956.

O’Mahony’s research also details other events during Soviet history, from the use of sporting images in the design of the Moscow metro system to Soviet entry into the Olympic Games in 1952, when sporting success became a key aspect of foreign policy.  It finishes with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the author’s discovery of a key public monument, Iosif Chaikov’s Football Players, left cast aside and covered in bird excrement outside the back of a museum in 1996.

Official Soviet art is rarely seen in Western museums, largely as a consequence of both aesthetic and political differences and many previous studies have focussed exclusively on the post revolutionary avant-garde.  With this study, O’Mahony marks a further contribution to an on-going reassessment of Soviet culture and opens the field for other scholars to develop this further.  His overall suggestion is not that there was total freedom under Soviet rule but that negotiation between the state and the masses did exist and that the cultural products of an epoch can provide revealing documents regarding such negotiations. 

Sport in the USSR: Physical Culture – Visual Culture is published by Reaktion Books.

Mike O’Mahony/Department of History of Art

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