James von Geldern describes physical culture as “the hygiene and discipline of the bodies of socialist citizens” (von Geldern). This phenomenon was of fundamental importance to the Soviets in the 1920s and 1930s for several reasons. Prior to the revolution, sports clubs and teams were not available to everyone, only the elite. There were also different religious groups that supported sport, such as the YMCA (yes, you read that correctly) that promoted Christianity; it is already well-known that the Bolsheviks strongly disliked religion and got rid of religion in many regards, including shutting down the YMCA and its programs. With this being said, there would have to be some major overhauling done to sports clubs to promote the new Soviet ideal of government-regulated physical culture.
Now, thanks to the Bolsheviks, organizations were created that promoted physical well-being and hygiene, all the while “eschewing the unhealthy competition that embodied the spirit of capitalism” (von Geldern). While there was not much state funding to go around for these programs, the country was able to support Calisthenics, eurythmics, workplace exercise, [and] track and field” (von Geldern).
A major factor in the state’s control of the hygiene and, essentially, the bodies of its citizens was that the state wanted a healthier, leaner, stronger military to protect against its capitalist foes. Furthermore, the state desired healthy young people to bring the motherland glory in international sporting events. Von Geldern points out that “[p]hysical 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” (Von Geldern). A healthy body meant that someone worked hard to be physically fit and to belong to the physical culture. This celebrated the individual at some level, contrary to what most people think of when they picture the socialist Soviet.
Each year, a parade of young people was held in the Red Square on May Day. In a firsthand account published in 1949 entitled The Long Road, Aleksei Gorchakov remembers his experiences at the parade: “I rose early on November 7th and put on my uniform. Then I noticed my torn shoes. I plugged the holes with cotton to keep my socks from showing. When I got out into the street, I saw the cotton creeping out through the holes…. I climbed under a truck, smeared it with grease, and blackened the bulging cotton so it wouldn’t show. It looked pretty good” (Gorchakov).
Further along in his account, Gorchakov describes his feelings as he approached the leaders: “My heart beat at a terrific speed and a lump came into my throat. Soon we were marching past the reviewing stand. As we went by, I looked closely at the men assembled there. Instead of joyful and happy expressions, I saw the sleepy and indifferent faces of the Party leaders. It made a disappointing picture. Could they be unfamiliar with the notes of our cheerful march? Didn’t the valiant fliers bring out their enthusiasm? Weren’t they glad to see the blue lapels on the pilots’ uniforms? I wondered” (Gorchakov).
Gorchakov’s account of his experiences at the parade definitely contrast the bright, enthusiastic, healthy, young attitudes that the physical culture movement was supposed to (and, to an extent, did) bring to the forefront of Soviet culture.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.