Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Back In The USSR, Part One: Propaganda And The Soviet Sports Program


"Take our warning:
If you want to keep your health,
Don't you ever,
Wait for doctors, act yourself.
Bathe in cold water every morning
If you want to keep your health."

- Soviet health and sport propaganda blasted over loudspeakers at the Central Stadium, Spartakiad, 1956

Back in April of last year, we took a look at the first skating club in Russia and some of Russia's first skaters of note. In today's blog, I want to return to the region and explore just how figure skating began its sickeningly slow rise to prominence under the Soviet state. Let's start by taking a look at some of the problems facing figure skating in the period leading up to the December 29, 1922 formation of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Prior to the formation of the Soviet Union, many athletes competing winter sports received little to no funding, which greatly impacted their ability to travel to international competitions. In fact, seeing as Nikolay Panin-Kolomenkin competed at the 1903 World Championships and Lidia Popova and A.L. Fischer at the 1908 World Championships in their home country, the only Russian skaters between 1900 and 1922 who competed ABROAD at a World Championships were Fedor Datlin, Ivan Malinin, Sergei Wanderfliet and Xenia Caesar. In fact, winter sports funding on the whole during this period was so bad that in 1912, European and World speed skating champion Nikolai Strunnikov left the sport when he was refused financial support for his trips to compete abroad.

Russian Studies lecturer James Riordan explained in his 1977 book "Sport In Soviet Society: Development Of Sport And Physical Education In Russia And The USSR" that this period of scant international representation in Russia was moreso "a busy time for the organized sports movement, with tentative government backing and overall control. More and more clubs were formed, schools and courses of physical training were established in the larger cities." We also learn from Riordan that from 1917 to 1920, skating became a sport which gained more focus. "The existing Vsevobuch training programme was extended from 96 hours to 576 hours in urban areas and to 436 hours in rural localities, spread over two years... The new programme also made provision for lectures in hygiene, anatomy and physiology." As you can tell by the years, this increased focus on developing skating as a sport predated the official start of the Soviet Union. Although during the period of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Sports Program was already rearing up.

Soviet figurine of female figure skater, twentieth century

The first official championships of the Soviet Union may have been held in Moscow in 1923 and won by Yuri Zeldovich but why did it take so long for the Soviet Union to start pumping out champion after champion? Yuri Brokhin's book "The Big Red Machine The Rise And Fall Of Soviet Olympic Champions" may provide an important clue that held true for several decades in the Soviet Union: "To be admitted to a skating school is more difficult than to pass the entrance exams at Moscow University. First, there are few such schools. Most of these, located in Moscow and Leningrad, enjoy a cachet comparable to that of the most exclusive of Connecticut's country clubs. Even the bureaucrats admit that the mass approach seen in other Soviet sports is absent in figure skating, if only because of the limited availability of artificial ice. More important, countless hours of work with a large group of specialists are demanded for every pair of world-class youngsters."

Lynn Copley-Graves' book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On The Ice" noted that during the mid fifties, "Walter Powell asked the Soviet delegates why a country so interested in the arts did not send skaters to Worlds. [Nikolai] Panin, still alive in Leningrad, had been the last prominent Soviet skater half a century earlier. Walter asked to visit Moscow during the World Speed Skating Championships in February. The USSR Sports Section issued Walter, ISU President James Koch, and Secretary Georg Hasler an official invitation. Inside Russia, the three visitors witnessed a 'renaissance of figure skating'. Panin had written the Russian rulebook on skating, about 200 pages long, illustrated with photos of skaters doing some of the 41 official figures recognized by the ISU and its member associations. Three new artificial rinks were planned in Moscow, and the USSR was about to hold its first exclusive national figure skating championships. Previously the country had hosted international meets, but none just for Soviet skaters. The three visitors left with the sense that they would welcome Soviet skaters into the world figure skating community at large."

Now that we've touched somewhat on the development of figure skating as a bona fide sport under the Soviet Sports Program, I want to go back to the quote from the very beginning of today's blog and explore the role propaganda played in luring in youth athletes. The 1951 poster heading today's blog translates to "if you want to be like me - just train!" The "Pionerskaya Pravda" and "Izvestiia" newspapers were widely considered to be under the government's thumb and the Soviet Sports Program's own newspaper, "Sovetskii Sport", periodically ran pieces on its top figure skaters. "Les Nouvelles de Moscou" (The Moscow News) sponsored the annual skating competition of the same name and the propaganda machine was in full swing there too. Barukh Hazan's 1982 book "Soviet Impregnational Propaganda" noted that skaters from the Soviet Union were "asked to make public semi-political statements which are consequently amplified by Moscow's other instruments of propaganda."

Stay tuned! Part two of this three part series on Soviet skating history will venture a bit forth in time and explore what can be discerned of training conditions behind the Iron Curtain. You don't want to miss it!

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2 comments:

  1. You're giving me flashbacks! I read "The Big Red Machine" when I was doing research for my novel (most of which is set in the Soviet Union). I'm looking forward to the next installments.

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    1. It's certainly an eye-opening read! I first discovered it when I was putting together a piece on Stanislav Zhuk and I've revisited it a few times since then. Second part (a look at training in the USSR) will be up tomorrow and part three (a look at early Soviet ice dancing) goes up Saturday.

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