Spectacles, Sport and Soviet ideology in the 1930s
After the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks embarked on an extensive, long-lasting, and very successful campaign to encourage the population of the Soviet Union to engage with sport and physical culture. The initial impetus was military, but the propagandising of sport and physical culture (fizkul’tura) rapidly developed into a nexus for a complex web of discourses, not just on ensuring Soviet military strength, but also with regard to health, ideological soundness, women’s emancipation, eugenics, and increased productivity - both in the industrial and procreational sense. Two significant threads linking these discourses were, I suggest, on the one hand, the heritage of nineteenth-century Russian Darwinism, and on the other hand, the interlinked belief that the Revolution would call forth a new genus of humanity – the New Person. Even before the imposition of state control over the arts, signified by the institution in 1934 of Socialist Realism as the sole mode of cultural production, Soviet visual culture contributed to the propaganda effort regarding sport and physical culture. After 1934 this was continued in a more codified way, with particular but not exclusive focus on the sports parade, an orchestrated and staged mass spectacle which, as Aleksandr Zaharov has pointed out, had only tenuous connections with sport. This paper focuses on imagery of the sports parade, particularly in the photography of Aleksandr Rodchenko and the work of the painter Aleksandr Samokhvalov in the 1930s, and explores the ways in which the images related back to the above mentioned mesh of discourses. Ultimately, the paper proposes that the images may be seen as alluring, aspirational exhortations to self-evolutionise into the prophesised New Person.