“People will divide into “parties” over the World Update Reviews question of a new gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will exist too), over the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a new theatre, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and the best system of sports.”

– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

At the start of the twentieth century, the sport had not flourished in Russia to the same extent as in countries such as Britain. The majority of the Russian population were peasants, spending hours each day on back-breaking agricultural labor. Leisure time was difficult, and even then, people were often exhausted from their work. Of course, people still played, taking part in such traditional games as laps (similar to baseball) and gorodki (a bowling game).


A smattering of sports clubs existed in the larger cities, but they remained the preserve of the richer members of society. Ice hockey was beginning to grow in popularity, and the upper echelons of society were fond of fencing and rowing, using expensive equipment most people would never have been able to afford.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfillment of human needs. In the process, it unleashed creativity in art, music, poetry, and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being a

priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine, and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day. However, during the early part of the 1920s, before Stalin crushed the dreams of the revolution, the debate over the “best system of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did indeed take place. Two groups to tackle the question of “physical culture” were the hygienists and the Proletkultists.


As the name implies, the hygienists were a collection of doctors and healthcare professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking, they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing

further, or jumping higher than ever. “It is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead, the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits – like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.

For some time, the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. On their advice, certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing, and weight-lifting were all omitted from the program of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However, the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V.

Gordievsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis, which he saw as an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health went much further, arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength, and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.