Revival of Soviet Sport

Socialism is nothing without the collective discipline of its people

In conjunction with the push for education, infrastructure, and equality movements of the late 1920’s came the state-sponsored physical, pro-sport culture in the 1930’s. Physical attractiveness and a healthy lifestyle were only side benefits of a campaign that believed exercise of the body would benefit the socialist mind. Specifically, in a state striving for socialism, the shared discipline of sports propelled the physical accomplishments of collective society as well as the individual. The ideology that the Soviet state preached through sport also carried practical uses: “(1) preparing young people for work; and (2) preparing them for military defense of Soviet power” (O’Mahony, 2006, p. 15). Ultimately, physical culture personally helped citizens as much as it politically legitimized the leaders and economy.

Soviet women training

Aside from the domestic improvements physical culture brought, another main aim was showcasing the ability of the Soviet masses on a competitive international stage. In the 1930’s, sports matches became avenues for international respect, and the 1920’s Soviet view that Western sports culture was driven by capitalism was left behind in the midst of the Great Depression. The rule-bound events created an economy of their own,”as major stars developed international reputations, coaches and trainers traded expertise and innovations, and the best teams and athletes ranked their achievements by international standards” (Keys, 2003, p. 414). These athletic reputations filled stadiums, and brought the excitement of Western sport to Russia.

Acceptance of Westernized physical culture at the state level led to the establishment of spectator sports, which desired international audiences, Soviet support of domestic teams, and promoted sports as entertainment. This change created the Soviet “sports fan” as well as a link between state organizations and public entertainment. For example, the Dinamo Football Club was sponsored by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the secret police force, but remained a well-supported club throughout the era. To differentiate themselves from the exact Western model, “the Soviet Union attempted to build an alternative international system based on a distinctly ‘proletarian’ brand of sport and physical culture that eschewed individualism and record seeking” (Keys, 2003, p. 414). However, with the nature of competition, the phenomenon of crowd favorites and statistics can never truly be avoided. Commercialization of teams resulted in a predominately masculine stadium culture that encouraged fierce crowd participation, and fostered an undisciplined view of fans that proved to threaten socialist identity. The differences between fan and player suggested that perhaps the Soviet campaign for spectator sports inevitably backfired, creating once again an indirect sense of capitalism in a state that had only recently defeated the tremors of NEP. The physical culture that surrounded Soviet sports put their physical ability as a state on the map, but the following promotion of sport as entertainment undermined the collective discipline of the populous that socialism desired.

dynamo stadium
1936 Soviet Cup Final, Dinamo Stadium

redstarThis post received a “Red Star” award from the editorial team


Keys, B. (2003). Soviet Sport and Transnational Mass Culture in the 1930s. Journal of Contemporary History, 38(3), 413–434. Retrieved from



11 thoughts on “Revival of Soviet Sport

  1. First of all I really enjoyed your blog topic, very interesting! While I was reading this post I couldn’t help but think about the 19th and early 20th century Protestant Christian doctrine of Muscular Christianity. The idea that physical fitness will help people achieve more in every aspect of their lives is an interesting one and also something that we saw in Nazi Germany.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting topic. I find it interesting how they attempted to avoid the commercialization of sport while attempting to keep many of the same characteristics that western sports industries had. In particular I really enjoyed your point about the creation of a more masculine environment in the stadiums, which one would think would go against the encouraged equality of the sexes. This masculine environment was especially something taken from western sports culture, as I believe Western soccer stadiums were predominantly male places until the 1980’s. Great post

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  3. Mitch and Nick both offer important insight here, and I’ll just add that I really appreciate the nuances of your analytical framework, which suggests why physical culture and organized sport was so important — culturally as well as politically in the 30s and beyond. Also, that image of the men yelling on Red Square is only slightly less cool than the women on the monkey bars. There’s a great book you might like on Spartak, Dinamo’s main rivals:


  4. This is a good post. The Soviets needed to legitimize their nation on the international stage and winning athletic competitions is a great way to do so. I don’t understand why they thought athletic culture was inherently pro-capitalist at first. Was it because it was so emphasized by western nations?


  5. This was a great post. I found it interesting while reading your post that the Soviet Union would encourage sports to begin with among the people. I understand that sports have a significant role on the international stage that tends to be overlooked sometimes and that western countries emphasized the importance of sports making the Soviet Union feel the need to catch up. My only question is that if Stalin and the Soviet Union wanted a unified ‘soviet identity’ then sports would undermine this idea. When looking at sports today and even in the past people identified with specific teams more than others which to men would cause a nation to divide into ‘sub-nations’.


  6. Great post this week! You make a really good point on how just a few short years after the abolition of the NEP, the Socialist government more or less facilitated the development of a distinctly western cultural norm, spectator sports. I find it interesting that despite doing everything the government could to prevent individual statistic keeping, the practice still developed naturally. You have some great images that go far to detail the mindset of the era.


  7. Very interesting topic you wrote about! I find it very interesting that Stalin wanted to have sports in the Soviet Union. For someone who wanted a socialist society and wanted everyone to be similar it is interesting that sports would be something he would pick because usually sports creates a lot of competition in a country and that is a lot more of a capitalistic idea. I would understand if he just implemented one team for the whole country because than it would show how well they work together especially if they won and that would be great for the country to show how well they are doing.


  8. I really enjoyed this post. I appreciate how you analyzed the state-sponsored pro-sport culture from a domestic and international level. I also like how you mentioned that a physical population had practical benefits for the state such as preparing youth for work and the military. As Mitch mentioned above, the unexpected rise of masculinity in the stadium’s crowds does contradict with the push toward gender equality the USSR initiated. This predominance of masculinity was also seen in the Komsomol years earlier during Lenin’s rule. I am curious as to what kinds of sports the Soviet’s played, aside from soccer around this time?


  9. This is a really interesting topic. I find it strange to see a state that had ostensibly geared itself towards social and economic equality advocate social stratification on the basis of masculinity and talent. It makes me wonder whether the Soviets saw inconsistencies such as this and ignored them, or whether they didn’t realize. Cool post!


  10. The point you make regarding Soviets not wanting to stoop to the Western level of self-achievement is interesting. Rather than focusing on ‘records’ the goal was to become better as a people, which, if genuine, is great.


  11. great post, it was really interesting to see how the people related sport at physical activity to the socialist mindset. i had never thought about the positive effects of having a physically fit country on things such as production and efficiency.


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