The image of a bare-chested president Vladimir Putin sitting astride his horse or speeding down ski slopes is by now a familiar one. Not since Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself has Russia had such a sports enthusiast as head of state. Putin’s passion for physical culture and sport is well publicised. And his zeal stands in stark contrast to the gerontocracy that preceded him.
While Soviet leaders promoted mass participation in sport through the “Get Ready for Labour and Defence” scheme, sport in the 1980s and 1990s lost its lustre. A lack of will and funding marred its development. In more recent times a sense of national pride has returned to Russian sport, with success in ice hockey and football injecting a new confidence and patriotism into Russian sporting life. The awarding of the Sochi Olympics and the 2018 World Cup reaffirmed Russia’s return to the international sporting stage and it is hardly surprising that Putin is seizing the opportunity to promote Russia.
Displays of unity
Physical culture and sport was a keystone of Soviet life. Mass participation was promoted with schemes and competitions that encouraged healthy, collective activity. Showcase events such as parades were used to demonstrate the strength and vitality of the Soviet Union before domestic and international audiences.
Public sporting events also served Soviet nationalist ends. They became a way of cementing the “fraternity” of the Soviet republics (with Russians foremost among nations). The Soviet Union was, after all, “national in form, socialist in content”. But has this legacy of physical culture as a type of national glue been transposed onto Russia today?
While Russia has many hangovers from its Soviet past, physical culture and sport is not one of these. Today, physical culture and sport bear little resemblance to Soviet physical culture of the 1920s and beyond. This is largely because Russia itself has transformed in the past decade as it has come to embrace capitalism, globalisation and mass consumerism.
The Bolshevik project of the earlier era encapsulated a utopian vision of mass, collective participation in physical activity that was free of “negative” western competition and record-breaking. A concern for health and well-being spearheaded early physical culture campaigns. While this idealised interpretation was soon adjusted to incorporate sporting competition, the ideological baggage remained.
Record-breaking and competition was more than acceptable in the political context of the 1930s, but sport still had to conform to the ideology of collectivism. Physical culture parades and sport were also used to celebrate the Soviet Union’s diverse ethnic makeup. The different races of the empire marched alongside each other and the state’s broader socialist identity was celebrated.
Sport also allowed for greater militarisation in the 1930s. This aspect was strongly pursued as war with Nazi Germany loomed. Soviet patriots were readied to defend their socialist motherland against a fascist foe. By the post-war era, the Soviet Union, by now an emerging superpower, finally entered the international sporting arena proper through its participation in the Olympic Games in 1952. In the context of the Cold War its citizens had a new ideological enemy – the United States.
Soviet participation in the Olympic Games provided an ideal international arena to demonstrate Soviet superiority. The government could rally citizens behind an increasingly fractured union (the Hungarian and Czechoslovak uprisings in 1956 and 1968 being examples of this). In terms of inspiring a sense of unity and national cohesion, sport was and is again now important in Russia.
Pride on the line
Individual as well as national pride is at stake at international sporting events. Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire and 2012 presidential candidate, also happens to be Russian biathlon federation president. Wealthy Russians and the state have been pouring money into these Olympics, making them the most expensive Games in history.
After Russia’s dismal performance in the Vancouver games, which saw Russia take its lowest-ever haul of medals, the pressure to do well is on. And, with the competition now underway, people are no doubt behind their national team. As with Soviet physical culture and sport, Russia will be keen to portray a positive image to the world on the snow and ice, as well as off it.
Some in Russia have hopes of topping the medals table at Sochi. The success of the Russian team will play an important role in continuing to restore feelings of national sporting pride among Russians who have, like their sports athletes, endured their fair share of difficulties since the fall of the Soviet Union.