Artistic exercise: sport and art in the Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union, sport was a vital component of state policy

25 May 2017

“Good morning, comrades! Let’s begin our daily exercises. Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart…” These words marked the start of every day in the life of a Soviet citizen. Instructions on keeping fit were given out not only on national radio, but in nurseries, schools and factories too. There was even a specific term — “production gymnastics” — to describe the range of physical exercises you were supposed to do while at work. Not only was sport a favourite way to spend free time, it was also a vital component of state policy.

Now, since the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and with the World Cup arriving next year, sport has returned to the top of the agenda in Russia. And it’s not just sportsmen and women who have been preparing — Russia’s major art spaces have too. One of many exhibitions in recent years was The Cult of Sport (2014) at Proun Gallery in Moscow’s Winzavod cluster, organised together with the Moscow Design Museum. The show gathered together sport-themed works from avant-garde luminaries such as Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and Gustav Klucis, as well as masters of socialist realism like Alexander Deyneka, and documented the birth of mass sport in the USSR through its representation in art.

The cult of the healthy body and the accompanying love for exercise celebrated by these works was an important part of state ideology; the country needed healthy workers: after all, a person in good shape could spend longer in the factory, meaning the radiant communist future could be built in even quicker time.

The Soviet Union even organised its own equivalent of, and rival to, the Olympics — the Spartakiad. The name recalls Spartacus, the legendary leader of a Roman slave revolt who remains connected with sport in the Russian popular imagination, for instance in the name of football club Spartak Moscow. Originating in competitions in the Red Army, the Spartakiad were intended as a statement of international proletarian unity and a counterpoint to the allegedly aristocratic Olympics. More than 3.5m people participated in the mass events building up to the first All-Union Spartakiad in Moscow in 1928, and the games were held summer and winter every four years or so up until 1991.

The 1928 Spartakiad (with commentary in Russian)

“The Olympics were intended as a surrogate to warfare: a country would be invaded by sporting rivals, not armies”

In the vacuum of sporting infrastructure left by the revolution and Civil War, the Soviet sport industry had to develop rapidly. It wasn’t long before physical activity became accessible to the masses: nearly every home in the Soviet Union would have a basic set of sporting equipment — chest expanders, dumbbells, wall bars. Mass cycle tours were held (the most grandiose of which was a trip along the 30,000 km-long borders of the Soviet Union, at a rate of 100km a day) in order both to set world records and to test out new models of bicycle.

The Soviet Union’s biggest fitness initiative, however, was the so-called Ready for Labour and Defence programme (called GTO in Russian). The title was an open statement of the aims of the physical education system: citizens were trained up not only to work hard, but also to defend the motherland if necessary. Participants were given a special GTO badge if they could pass a number of tests: in 1972, to receive a gold award, a 28-year-old-man would, among many other challenges have to be able to jump run a 100m in 13s, bench press 85kg and be skilled at light-arm shooting. The award system allowed the authorities to calculate how many people could theoretically be mobilised in case of war: by the spring of 1935 GTO badges had been awarded to 1.2m people.

In the USSR sport was a way of shaping the New Man — today’s ideal worker and tomorrow’s ideal soldier. This was very different from the way sport was perceived in Europe, where the dominant event, the Olympics, was created in the name of peace and unity. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the games, praised their pacific power in his famous Ode to Sport: “O Sport, tu es la paix”. The Olympics were intended as a surrogate to warfare: a country would be invaded by sporting rivals, not armies. It’s no coincidence that the USSR only started participating in the Olympics after WWII, at a time when its reserves of militaristic energy were severely depleted.

The Soviet culture of physical exercise ignored any potential for eroticism and encouraged an asexual look

De Coubertin was not only a proponent of the common cause of sport and peace, but also of uniting sport and art. “Sport should be seen as a source and a reason for art. And art should be linked with practicing sport,” he said at the 1906 Olympic Congress in Paris. This principle would become fundamental to the early Olympics, to such an extent that medals were even awarded for sculpture, painting, music, literature and architecture.

The USSR also made their own attempts at uniting sport and art, but they looked somewhat different. Art was one of the most important tools of propaganda, a persuasive tool that could do much more than any committee. The Austrian art historian Angela Völker writes that one of the characteristics of Soviet art was the “significant influence of the artist on such large masses of people … a phenomenon never seen before.”

Constructivist artists, sculptors, photographers and graphic designers not only established the propaganda of sport as an organic part of their time, but also transmitted these ideas in their work. In part, it was ideological propaganda which gave constructivism inspiration, enormous historical scale and, consequently, global recognition.

Throughout history artists have taken inspiration from sport and the movement of the human body in sport. But it was only in the 1930s that Soviet artists and sculptors managed to resurrect the classical cult of the body. But, unlike the Ancient Greek cult of the athlete, the Soviet culture of physical exercise ignored any potential for eroticism and encouraged an asexual look with identical shorts and T-shirts. Soviet artists did not hymn the beauty of the body, but its ability to perform feats of physicality. This is most evident in Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs of the Spartakiads and of parades. Even his camera angles — always from below — aggrandise the new Soviet citizen, showing the new people of socialism as giants. And the faces of Rodchenko’s sportsmen and women are always happy, full of optimism and belief.

“The Russian state no longer feels a need for Russian artists”

Later artists were inspired not only by the human element, but by the phenomenon of sport in itself, giving rise to a whole new compositional language. The socialist realist artist Alexander Deyneka said of his painting Football: “I loved this game, I knew it, like thousands of my peers, like tens of thousands of excited spectators. A match always gave me the urge to paint a picture. I did dozens of sketches and, while drawing one of my many unsuccessful drafts, I realised that the sketch went beyond the compositional norms of the pictures I knew. I was putting together a new plastic phenomenon and I needed to work without reference to the past. I had come across a way of painting something that excited and interested many people. It was a success. The game pushed me to find its own language.”

Despite such a rich history, this mutually beneficial interaction between art, sport and government seems very distant now. When Russian creative input has been sought for the look of recent sporting projects, the results have been mixed at best: there was some harsh press criticism for Sochi's sputtering Olympic Torch, derivative Mascots and vaguely Nazi-inspired advertising. The upcoming World Cup, undoubtedly an even bigger international affair, has been dogged since the beginning by claims of corruption, overspending, architecturally unappealing stadia and fan violence.

For its part, the Russian state no longer feels a need for Russian artists, either to promulgate sport or to promote their own ideology: first, in a globalised world less complicated and more biddable clients can be found. What is more, as the coverage of the games shows, television is a more easily controlled and more widely disseminated tool of ideological influence.

More important still, however, is the unwillingness of artists and designers to work hand in glove with the state and its sporting ambitions. It would be wrong to assume that the Soviet authorities manipulated and strong-armed artists to promote its values. Very often artists believed passionately in the Soviet project and did all they could to convey these values to the public. Fölkler is right to point out that “the most important difference between Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and the designers of today is these high moral ambitions, which now seem naïve.” It may well be that it is this same committed sincerity which has given such longevity to the art of the 1920s and 1930s, creating art forms which still talk to us today in a clear and simple language, without a hint of falsity. A sincerity which is impossible today.

Text: Anya Filippova

A larger selection of images from the exhibition can be seen here

The Future Remains: Revisiting Revolution runs until December 2017 at the Calvert 22 Foundation