Sports to help Soviet defence

In my previous post on Sochi, I mentioned that in Russia athletes are often seen as soldiers defending the honor of their country, and treated as such. If they fail, they let the whole country down and should publicly tear their hair off and repent. If they win, the President invites them to the Kremlin to decorate them with Medals and Orders. The 15-yo figure skater who rocked Sochi in team tournament was immediately nominated for a government medal by the governor of her home region, as if her Olympic Gold were not enough. A friend of mine/offline asked me about the origins of this attitude to something that should be more about joy, celebration, and spending time in a great way than a mortal fight.

Sports have had a twisted history in the Soviet Union. After the revolution in 1917, physical culture (phyzkultura, in Russian) was seen primarily as a means to growing an army of healthy workers and strong soldiers.

Grenade Throwing was a sport taught at school.

Soviet posters leave no doubt as to what purpose people were pushed into sports. It was not about joy. It was about taking the fun out of it.

Physical Culture is the servant of the defence of the USSR! 1927 Poster promoting fitness.

Yes, the monstrosity above a peaceful poster promoting “the summer fete of physical culture”.

Some sports (like boxing, skiing, shooting, and grenade throwing) were “militarised”, that is meant to grow good soldiers, and others were meant to clone strong (weightlifting) or happy (cycling) workers.

This weightlifter is shown against the background of factories and the text says, “On to the new victories in sports and labour!”


Soviet leaders thought athletes were also nice to watch at parades, and to bed, occasionally.

Some really, really foul-mouthed agents of the global Imperialist forces believe this tradition of occasional bedding is still in use in contemporary Russia.

Alina Kabaeva, a former gymnastics champion, rumoured to be now the Official Clandestine First Lady.

But, as a popular counter-argument in Russia goes, “Bah! What have YOU done to make your girlfriend happy?!”

At some point Commie rulers understood that delusions of grandeur alone did not help to win sports races (unlike delirium of persecution).

So, sports factories churning out professional athletes were set up (this is what they do in China now, except that it is even more industrial there).

On paper all professional athletes were workers, engineers, and peasants, getting salaries from factories and farms they had never been to, Publicly, the Soviet Union was vehemently opposed to professional sports, seeing it as an attribute of capitalistic lifestyle.

Again, even in the absence of immediate danger to Soviet borders, the logic was that if athletes were being spent money on, given free uniform, pills, coaches, doctors, and increased rations, they should die, but pay back the bill.

And then the Soviet Union collapsed.

But the “win-or-die” attitude to athletes stayed.


  1. I can’t get enough of those posters! Having lived like you “before and after”, also “here and there”, I have come to the conclusion that big international competitions/tournaments and the Olympics in particular have always been a cynical political circus where the athletes are the circus animals – yes they are showered with cash and privileges but pay dearly for that.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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