The Soviet Sporting Revolution

It is hard for me to think of popular culture without the inclusion of popular sport. Passionate fandom for our favorite teams is a key component to how many American individuals form their identity. It also has served as an effective platform for political, social, and cultural change. Stalinist Russia was noticeably absent of large scale athletic competition that had taken hold in the 1st world states. The Russian people had not participated in the Olympics since prior to WWI and the subsequent revolutions. Stalin decided to participate in 1952 Summer Olympics taking place in Helsinki.

The decision was a curious one given the Soviet Union’s history. Sporting was deemed useful for health and comradeship, but the professional sports were viewed as a bourgeois practice that catered to elitists and required leisure time that simply did not exist for most working class people. Stalin saw the 1952 Olympics as the scene for ideological warfare where they could display.

Jesse Owens
The Olympics has frequently been the scene of international tension. African American Jesse Owens dominated the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to the disgust of Adolf Hitler (Source)








Soviet involvement in the 55th Olympiad heightened the stakes and certainly elevated the status of the games. The Soviet participants requested that they receive separate lodgings so as to not interact with non-communist nations and to avoid potential defections. The American Press and even President Truman weighed in on the necessity of defeating the Soviets in Helsinki. In what was an extremely competitive Olympics, the USA edged the USSR 76-71 in total medals, and 41-22 in golds.

While not 1st place finishers at the Olympics, the International athletics programs after the passing of Stalin accelerated at an insane pace, developing into one of greatest international sports rivalries in history. The USSR invested massive funds into national programs for athletics which allowed them to train on a full-time basis. These programs challenged and eventually ended the amateurism policies that the Olympics had implemented. Projects like the Luzhniki sports complex highlighted mass investments into the Soviet sporting world.

Maria Gorokhovskaya competing for the Soviet Union in the uneven bars. Gorokhovskaya won 7 Medals, 2 Gold and 5 Silver, at the 1952 Olympics, the most ever for a woman at a single Olympic Games. (Source)

The Soviet approach to Olympics is part of the trend of removal the cultural “thaw” from Stalinism into a new identity. Urbanization and the spread of mass media allowed for large scale events like the Olympics and the space race to facilitate cultural pride. Non-proletarian figures in the eastern bloc became icons with political influence, such as Vera Caslavska, who used her platform at the Mexico City Olympics to protest Soviet style communism in Czechoslovakia.

The Soviet investment into sports enhanced a cultural component that we take for granted. The highest level of sports in the Stalinist Soviet Union were usually friendly competitions between workers unions (Interestingly, the 2018 Russian Representatives in the UEFA Champions League are Lokomotiv Moscow and CSKA Moscow, which were historically the Moscow railroad union and Red Army club teams). The Soviet presence and success at the Olympic Games was part of this great cultural shift from the brutal Communism of Stalin to a sports culture that more closely resembled western nations.


Ehrenburg in “Красная звезда”

During the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army newspaper “Красная звезда” (Red Star) provided one of the main modes of communication from writers on the war front to those laboring on the home front. As with the other nations engaged in the war, the paper became on of the most effective mediums for developing a narrative for those behind the war effort to rally behind.

“Kill”, as it appears in the July 24, 1942 edition of the Red Star


In 1942,  A Красная звезда  journalist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote an article simply titled “Kill”. This article was intriguing to me due to extreme bluntness with which it is written, considering the credentials that Ehrenburg had as a voice for socialism in western Europe, and his experience as a journalist from the Spanish Civil War. Ehrenburg’s article comes across as a warning of the immorality and the backwardness of Hitler’s forces, going as far as to say that they are not “human beings”, ending with this warning:

“The Germans are not human beings. From now on the word German means to use the most terrible oath. From now on the word German strikes us to the quick. We shall not speak any more. We shall not get excited. We shall kill. If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day … If you cannot kill your German with a bullet, kill him with your bayonet. If there is calm on your part of the front, or if you are waiting for the fighting, kill a German in the meantime. If you leave a German alive, the German will hang a Russian and rape a Russian woman. If you kill one German, kill another — there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses. Do not count days, do not count kilometers. Count only the number of Germans killed by you. Kill the German — that is your grandmother’s request. Kill the German — that is your child’s prayer. Kill the German — that is your motherland’s loud request. Do not miss. Do not let through. Kill.”

(Krasnaya Zvezda (No173 [5236]) 24 July 1942)

In 1942, Ehrenburg also gave a speech in Moscow that commanded the same vengeful spirit that was evident in his newspaper article. This speech (In Mass Culture in Soviet Russia pp. 401-405) defends the morality of the Soviet people while aggressively utilizing dehumanizing language against the “Hitlerites”, as he compares the actions of the Nazi’s on the front to those of wolves. The speech invokes the names of Dostoevsky and Chaikovsky of he rants about the cultural desecration and physical destruction of the Soviets at the hands of the German army.

These snippets of anti-Fascist vengefulness and anger that Ehrenburg shows in his wartime works emerge in force when the tides of war eventually shift, and the Soviets take the war to the Nazis. Accounts from the Eastern front show the viciousness that the Soviets leveraged against the Nazis as they made their way to Berlin.


From Rogue to Reformed: Socialist Realism for Proletarian Inspiration

The History of the Construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal emerged in 1934 as a collection of personal and historical narratives that create an image of how the construction project to bridge the White and Baltic Seas contributed to the mission of Stalin’s government. The project was led by the Union of Soviet Writers, a collection of accredited Soviet writers whose talents were utilized by the Soviet State. 

White-Baltic Sea Map
A Soviet map of the White-Baltic sea canal. which spans 141 miles to connect these 2 bodies of water.

Chapter 12 of this book, found in Mass Culture in Soviet Russia (pp.190-201), provides a great example of Socialist Realism, a concept which the writer’s union required its content creators to follow. This chapter follows the development of Abram Isaakovich Rothenburg, who hails from Georgia. Prior to the revolution, Rothenburg struggled to find employment, resorting to thievery to make ends meet. After an initial sentence of six months, he was sentenced to eight years hard labor for dodging the draft, and failing to salute a military officer. His sentence ended with the February Revolution, when he and his cellmates liberated themselves. Nine years later, Rothenburg was caught stealing yet again, but this time he was eventually sentenced to 3 years hard labor, a sentence that took him to construction of the canal. He failed to see the need to work, and ended up in a meeting with “reform instructor “Varlamov”.

maxim gorky
Maxim Gorky, editor of History of the Construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. A 5-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was a leading Soviet writer and member of the Union of Soviet Writers.

This meeting is a turning point for him, as he begins his transformation into the idealized proletarian. There would no longer be a need to steal, since there are no capitalists or property owners. He worked hard, producing 50% more than what was expected of him. He was nominated as a member of the production committee, and was appointed assistant reform supervisor. Rothenburg, once slave of the bourgeois institutions, was now the leader of a proletarian colony of reforming individuals.

These sorts of stories are emblematic of Socialist Realist writing. An individual struggling with his role within the capitalist world, having an epiphany revealing the superior nature of the commune, and becoming a leader in promoting this vision for the world.  Proletarian protagonists like Rothenburg are useful as icons for those who have doubt about the new government to look up to. The writing ignores the general nature of the work and the casualties of the canal project (more info here), but this writing creates an image for what the average Soviet should aspire to be.

Allegiance and Art

The Bolshevik Revolution was  a period of upheaval for the Russian government, and this contention for power and ideology translated into a variety of popular art forms. While Futurism and Avant Garde artwork of the pre-revolution highlighted the optimism that many for the future of a modernized Russia, the Revolution  saw some art utilized in a manner that would mobilize the proletariat that would hopefully progress the worker’s revolution.

A good example of this is Solemn Promise, illustrated by satirical journalist and cartoonist Dmitry Moor, was published in 1919.The artwork is captured  alongside the  oath of commitment to the Red Army:


The imagery utilized by Moor is extremely simple and practical. There is an obvious central object within the image, with limited extraneous elements that would distract from the message of unity of all the workers under the Communists. Very little room for interpretation in this work.

The transcript from the original poster can be found on pp. 14-15 of Mass Culture in Soviet Russia:

1. I, son of the laboring people, citizen of the Soviet Republic, assume the title of warrior in the Worker-Peasant Army.

2. Before the laboring classes of Russia and the entire world, I accept the obligation to carry this title with honor, to study the art of war conscientiously, and to guard national and military property from spoil and plunder as if it were the apple of my eye.

3. I accept the obligation to observe revolutionary discipline and unquestioningly carry out all orders of my commanders, who have been invested with their rank by the power of the Worker-Peasant government.

4. I accept the obligation to restrain myself and my comrades from all conduct that might debase the dignity of citizens of the Soviet Republic, and to direct all my thoughts and actions to the great cause of liberating the laboring masses.

5. I accept the obligation to answer every summons of the Worker-Peasant government to defend the Soviet Republic from all danger and the threats of all enemies, and to spare neither my strength nor my very life in the battle for the Russian Soviet Republic, for the cause of socialism and the brotherhood of peoples.

6. If I should with malicious intent go back on this my solemn vow, then let my fate be universal contempt and let the righteous hand of Revolutionary law chastise me.

This oath would hold similar form with slight modifications through Stalin’s rule until at least the outbreak of WWII in Europe.

I find that one of the oath’s intriguing aspects is its self-designation as being a “solemn” statement of allegiance. It reads as if someone joining the  Worker-Peasant army  would not be an immediate beneficiary of the new regime, but would become a martyr for the  empowered working classes of the future . While a bold and ambitious statement, it was probably effective due to the hope that it provided a recently oppressed and war ravaged working party.

Also notable is that the subject is swearing allegiance directly to the laboring people, and not the Worker-Peasant government. This contrasts greatly with German and Italian Fascist statements of allegiance, which are directed towards the leaders of the Fascist Regime, and the American Pledge of Allegiance that is directly toward an inanimate flag (and thusly, “to the republic for which it stands”). This is an authentic communist belief, but this concept could potentially leaves the worker-peasant government extremely vulnerable and unstable if the workers become unhappy with their leadership.



The Cook in a Messy Kitchen

Nikolai Leskov’s “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” leaves the readers head spinning with the complexities and calamities of the Izmailov household. While the focus of my attention on my first readthrough  was wrapped up in an inter-class romance that eventually spurred a series of irrational decisions, I found one of the less prominent characters to have an intriguing role within the Leskov’s story.

While the plot of the story is driven by a couple unsatisfied with their social standing, Aksinya the cook stands out as one of the few characters that seemed to embrace the role that she had within the household and community. Social and familial relationships within Russian merchant families was a common theme among 19th century artists, and this theme emerges strongly within this piece. Aksinya seems to be complacent with her social position, taking on an advisor role to Katarina.

When Katarina recalls her experience with the cat, she turns to the cook for advice. While it is obvious that Aksinya is aware of the affair that she is having with Sergei, she doesn’t respond as critically to this, instead appearing sympathetic to Katarina’s issues. My first thought was that Aksinya thought her lower social position meant it was not her place to comment on it. After further analysis, I would argue that perhaps the cook feels a connection to Katarina’s situation.

In fact, there is a case to be made that Aksinya may have made the same series of mistakes that Katarina Lvovna proceeds to make throughout the story. In this context, there is a scene that stands out where the house cook seems to be aware of the story that is about to transpire. In the scene where Katarina meets the newly hired Sergei out by the family storehouses, it is revealed by Sergei that Aksinya has a child, and that the child she has came out of “fooling around” and that  “whenever (children) are not wanted, they live”. While there is a limited sample size of dialogue to gauge the cook’s past on, it seems that these rather brief interaction strongly foreshadow Katarina’s events that occur later in the plot.

As a literary device, Leskov provides Aksinya as what seems to be a rather neutral character within this tale of woe, and her nuanced role as an advisor to the mistress of the household is easy to overlook. Where most everyone in Leskov’s story is unhappy with their social position, Aksinya is at peace with her role, but there is an untold backstory that perhaps resembles that of Katarina Lvovna.