This piece is the sequel to an article on the origins of modern physical culture in West, which explored how the body became a calculable object for capital. Together, these writings explore questions of bodily calculation and physical culture under capitalism. Broadly speaking, the interests of physical culturists in bodybuilding and nutrition from the late 1800s through World War I were tied to the industrial development of capitalism. Above all, this entailed state management of public health, as bodies were churned through factories or packed indoors for a life of domestic servitude. The present essay examines the adoption of physical culture and public health by the Soviet Union in order to understand how bodily calculation was negotiated during and immediately after the October Revolution.
Beginning in Western Europe in the late 1800s, the modern era of physical culture stands out as a unique period for understanding the relationship between the body and capitalism. After nearly a century of industrial development, the body became the center of two divergent sets of practices at the level of culture and the capitalist state. Physical culture emerged among the petite-bourgeoise through the practices of bodybuilding, dieting and self-development, often modeled off circus performers. These practices relied on a fascination with Greek antiquity and prelapsarian tales of man unburdened by the realities of factory and city life which sapped him of his natural, physical strength. For the state it was alimentation science and social hygiene, both precursors to nutrition science and modern public health, respectively, that served capital by figuring out how to keep the working class healthy enough to continually sell its labor power.
However, this burgeoning physical culture movement would be temporarily crushed by World War I, with many physical culturists sent to the trenches. But across the fields of chemical gas and rotting flesh, the Bolsheviks came to power, breathing air into the collapsed lungs of workers around the world, waiting frantically for a more reliable source of oxygen. The October Revolution of 1917 ushered in a vision of a New Soviet Person that embodied the human potential of communism through selflessness, rational thinking, moral purity, and physical vitality. This utopian vision was born from the immense depravity of the human body under industrial capitalism as it was brutally dragged through the 19th century. But these visions were up against a stark material reality of famine, disease, and premature death.
The bodily regime of the Soviet Union was to create the New Soviet Person through programs centered on work, public health, and mass sport. The regime was the vision that required a regimen of implementation, which operated through existing social institutions such as working groups of physicians practicing social hygiene, unions, and workers’ sporting clubs. The diet, or mode of living, filled the space between the stated goals of the regimen and the lived experience of Soviet citizens. By understanding how the early Soviet Union dealt with the health and physical wellbeing of their population, we can begin to see the historical context in which the New Soviet Person developed. These regimes, regimens, and diets show us the gaps between what was desired, what transpired, and how it felt.
The focus on this early period of Soviet history serves to clarify two points. The first is to show how the health and physical capacity of a population is not simply an outcome of other material, social relations, but is itself a material force that limits and affords possibility. Bringing the body into the equation as a force that shapes, and is shaped by, political economic conditions, enriches questions of historical contingency. In other words, our best guesses around what could or could not have been different in the period surrounding the October Revolution should consider the role of the body.
Second, the body is not a unified material force. Any understanding of a physical culture is always about a series of competing physical cultures that operate within existing material conditions. Although European physical culture arose in the late 19th century as a self-aware movement, this was not the beginning of physical culture per se, but rather a movement that highlighted the body’s role. While all cultural movements involve the body, only some explicitly center it. The regime of the New Soviet Person was one of those movements, but it failed to compete against other, implicit physical cultures developed before, and because of, the October Revolution. Drastic changes to the health and strength of the Soviet body did take place after WWII, but this largely occurred despite the abandonment of the most radical and utopian aspects of the New Soviet Person, not because of it.
Health, Strength, and the Pursuit of Fitzkul’tura
Capitalist social relations imply the separation of life into constituent parts such as work, leisure, and social reproduction. Each part relies heavily on the other without formal acknowledgement. Capitalism measures health not through subjective measures of quality of life and bodily function, or quantitative measures of hydration and nutrient levels, but rather through consecutive days clocking in at work. What it takes to do this, to produce or distribute value day in and day out, is of no concern to the capitalist and is traditionally left up to the family and state which try to manage the damage done to the body through work. The regime of the Soviet Union was an attempt to bring these spheres together by coordinating them toward specific state goals, which at the time involved making industrial workers. The Soviets strove to incorporate all spheres of life previously divided under capitalist social relations, including physical culture, or fitzkul’tura, which meant the development of the body as well as hygiene, health, education, and national defense.1Susan Grant, “The Fizkul’tura Generation: Modernizing Lifestyles in Early Soviet Russia,” The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 37, no. 2 (January 1, 2010): 142–65, https://doi.org/10.1163/187633210X536870.
The drive to bring everything under control and organize all aspects of life preceded the October Revolution through thinkers such as Alexander Bogdanov. Bogdanov emphasized the need for communist world-building in his work on empiriomonism.2David Graeme Rowley, “Millenarian Bolshevism: Empiriomonism, God-Building, Proletarian Culture” (Ph.D., United States — Michigan, University of Michigan, 1982), http://www.proquest.com/docview/303236000/abstract/9BBE307CF003411BPQ/1 This approach affirmed the use of human senses and the scientific method to develop hypotheses about material conditions (empiricism) but rejected the claim that these conditions were real outside of human perception. The physical world and the psychical perception of that world were unified (monism).3V.A Barazov, “Bogdanov as a Thinker,” in Empiriomonism: Essays in Philosophy, Bogdanov Library (Brill, 2018), http://brill.com/view/book/9789004300323/front-8.xml. This vision was channeled through the independent cultural organization, Proletkult, that focused on the holistic cultural development of proletarians through party schools, newsletters, and regular meetings. Proletkult’s vice co-chair, Aleksei Mashirov-Samobytnik, summarized the group’s mission as such: “Class struggle is a temporary phenomenon; there remains the constant struggle with nature. All techniques and sciences of the future must be directed toward the struggle with nature.”4Quoted in: David Graeme Rowley, “Millenarian Bolshevism: Empiriomonism, God-Building, Proletarian Culture” (Ph.D., United States — Michigan, University of Michigan, 1982), http://www.proquest.com/docview/303236000/abstract/9BBE307CF003411BPQ/1.
This strong belief in scientific positivism and technological development saw the alignment of the body with the machine as a precursor for the replacement of the body in the production process inevitably freeing up more time for leisure. With Russia relatively un-industrialized compared to Western Europe, the Bolsheviks envied industrial development, despite the horror stories about working and living conditions during the industrial revolution in Europe. Relatively few Bolsheviks even knew how to build factories, which resulted in hiring Americans to build factories modeled after those in Gary, Indiana. Construction was paid for through selling jewelry, paintings, silver, and rare books that were seized from the aristocracy during the revolution.5Half of the funding for the massive iron and steel factory at Magnitogorsk came from the sale of Raphael’s Alba Madonna to US robber-baron Andrew Mellon. Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2000). The proposed solution to the industrial problems of Europe was a rationally planned socialist economy that embraced elements of capitalist production, such as Fordism and Taylorism. This resulted in fitzkul’tura not carrying the same anti-industrial sentiments of Western physical culture, but rather integrating industrial production into the ethos of the New Soviet Person.
The investment in physical culture after the October Revolution and civil war was both an ideological effort to make the body communist while also a pragmatic necessity to heal a social body ravaged by war. In response to the carnage of WWI, social hygienists slowly made their way into the public policy of liberal democracies. These theorists saw the origins of disease and epidemics as having less to do with individual choices or morality, and more to do with improper state management of the population. Since the late 19th century, doctors and scientists in Russia had been practicing social hygiene regionally through local governmental organizations known as zemstvos, without the support of the Tsarist regime. After the revolution, this organizational form scaffolded public health programs that embraced social hygiene. The approach to physical culture was similar in the sense that it was mostly organized locally with little state interest, but early success in sports on the international stage, such as wrestling and weightlifting, increasingly drew support from government officials.
The organizational form of the zemstvos and their political distance from the Tsarist state were both important precursors for the development of Soviet public health after the revolution. As with much of the social scientific thought of the era, there was a heavy reliance on gathering social statistics to understand and manage populations.6It was through scientists working in these zemstvos that western European thinkers, such as Adolf Quetelet, who invented the equation used to measure Body Mass Index, were first translated into Russian. David L Hoffmann, Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914–1939 (Cornell University Press, 2011). Local zemstvos performed important public health research and statistical analysis about disease and epidemics outlining incredibly dire circumstances. When Lenin declared in 1919 that “either the lice will defeat socialism or socialism will defeat the lice,” he was speaking to the typhus epidemic, a disease carried by lice, that resulted in roughly 3 million deaths between 1918 and 1920.7Hoffmann. To have any idea about how many people were dying and from which diseases, the Bolsheviks relied on the expertise and organizational structures of the scientists working within the zemstvos who had been collecting population-level data for decades. After the revolution, the Soviets established the Supreme Council of Physical Culture and the Commissariat of Health (Narkomzdrav) which absorbed many of those previously working in the zemstvos.
The Fast and the Furious: Resistance and Repetition under Bolshevik Taylorism
Many forms of bodily calculation in western Europe at the turn of the 20th century appeared in the Soviet Union after the revolution but for different purposes. For example, Narkomzdrav attempted to calculate how many calories workers needed to survive, but instead of serving the purpose of forcing proletarians to labor as it did in England, it served a more dire pursuit of preventing mass starvation. Even before Stalin’s disastrous collectivization efforts, the food supply had been greatly damaged by WWI, the revolution, and the civil war. Fordism, as well as Fredrick Taylor’s Scientific Management, were hotly debated among party leaders but eventually embraced by Lenin under the banner of the Scientific Organization of Labor.8Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe. The importation of these ideas and practices existed in Russia before 1917, but their role in social life after the revolution was expressed through a number of organizations, one of which was Aleksei Gastev’s Central Institute of Labor.
Known for coining the term “social engineering,” Gastev, a life-long factory worker, poet, and revolutionary followed closely in the Taylorist tradition by forming cells and laboratories that would teach workers how to move in harmony with factory machines. He advanced visions of a world where human labor would be totally managed by machines, with the social aims of labor decided upon by workers councils. In the workshops held by the Central Institute of Labor, which lasted between 3-6 months, workers would all perform the same set of movements, such as a hammer strike, with their hand strapped to a machine to guide them through the perfect movement. The workshops would progress from simple to complex movements until the attendees could perform the movements correctly without guidance from the machine.
At the level of diet, or how these initiatives were experienced by those it impacted, the regime was not uniformly received. On the one hand, there was a popular criticism of this rationalization of work process as an extension of capitalist domination. The most notable protests came from the Kronstradt Commune who, in their bill of indictment against the Bolsheviks in 1921, criticized the party for embracing Taylorist work practices. On the other hand, there were very few meaningful incentives for workers to adopt any of these initiatives, making their existence in the lives of workers mainly a nuisance. Even though Gastev’s goal, as a factory worker himself, was to reduce the labor time of human tasks, this rarely translated into less work. Being more productive often did not lead to significantly better wages or living conditions, with workers left to run on the fumes of revolutionary willpower–which, although powerful, never last forever.
Given the conditions of constant food insecurity and disease, the number of people willing to engage in these efforts was significant. In 1919, the estimated energy intake for a worker in Petrograd was only 1600 calories, roughly equivalent to one Big Mac, McFlurry, and large fries per day. Further, this likely represented the higher end of caloric consumption for Russians on average because state policy prioritized feeding soldiers and factory workers. Nevertheless, between 1921 and 1938 there were over 1700 Institutes of Labor that taught over half a million workers the principles of the Scientific Organization of Labor.9Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). However, with between 5-6 million factory workers throughout the Soviet Union at that time, only 10% of factory workers had exposure to these workplace training programs, with likely an even smaller amount adopting them consistently. Further, by 1926, these factory workers only made up 2.7% of the income-earning population.10Diane P. Koenker, Club Red: Vacation Travel and the Soviet Dream (Cornell University Press, 2013). While the Scientific Organization of Labor certainly influenced the intelligentsia and statesmen of the early Soviet period, the impact it had on the lives of most workers is questionable. By the late 1930s, the Institute of Labor was disbanded by Stalin and replaced by the frenzied bull-rush of shock work and Stakhanovism.
Aside from rationalizing the process of work itself, there were also efforts to rationalize exercise in the workplace to make break time as regenerative to the production process as possible. The Council of Physical Culture worked with the Institute of Labor to focus specifically on physical exercise for increasing work productivity. In many cases, this took the form of workplace gymnastics, a 15-minute stretching and calisthenics routine once or twice a day that would hopefully reduce overuse injuries in the workplace and discourage smoking. Ironically, these workplace gymnastics programs were implemented to prevent the types of injuries common not among work in general, but the specific form of work under the Scientific Organization of Labor.11As Harry Braverman notes, the push toward the specialization of work can increase the prevalence of overuse injuries by decreasing movement variety and increasing movement volume. While workplace gymnastics were certainly beneficial, many of the issues they were meant to solve could have been avoided through a differently organized labor process. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York, London: Monthly Review Press, 1974).
Better Red than Bed: Soviet Intervention in Leisure and Social Reproduction
Rest and recuperation were ideologically important to the Soviet regime and were expressed through limiting work via decrees against child labor,12A child in this case was anyone under 14. Adolescents between 14-18 could work on limited time schedules. an eight-hour workday, and an annual, paid, two-week vacation for all industrial workers.13Michael Huberman and Chris Minns, “The Times They Are Not Changin’: Days and Hours of Work in Old and New Worlds, 1870–2000,” Explorations in Economic History 44, no. 4 (October 1, 2007): 538–67, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eeh.2007.03.002. These efforts prioritized reducing the physical strain of industrialization on the body and creating a sustainable working environment. This reduction in exposure to work was a major reason why industrialization in Moscow did not look like industrialization in Manchester. These policies around work played an equal, if not greater, role in promoting health than many of the Soviet Union’s explicit public health interventions. One example is the efforts to reduce the prevalence of rickets.
Rickets, caused by deficient consumption and absorption of Vitamin D and Calcium in children, became known as the English Disease for how quickly it proliferated during the Industrial Revolution. This growth was not due to industrialization itself, but the conditions and outcomes of industrial work under capitalism. With little to no maternity leave, new mothers spent less time breastfeeding and more time working, which reduced infant consumption of Vitamin D and Calcium through breastmilk which was often replaced by whole foods such as grains or meat (when available). This was further exacerbated by children being put to work in factories at a young age, reducing their exposure to the sun,14Humans can synthesize Vitamin D through exposure of the skin to sunlight at sufficient UV levels. which was already largely blocked by high levels of air pollution.
Public health interventions to prevent rickets encouraged breastfeeding and opening apartment windows to increase sunlight exposure. Posters detailed optimal breastfeeding protocols for mothers, covering duration (20 minutes), frequency (every 3 hours), and proper technique (cradle the head).15Tricia Starks, The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene, and the Revolutionary State (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008). As with the labor process, there was a drive to scientifically rationalize motherhood away from its folk and community traditions, but like many of these attempts in the Soviet Union, how much they mattered depends on what one measures. In the case of rickets, the explicit public health interventions by Narkomzdrav took such a regimented and focused approach that their impact was likely minimal compared to the base conditions afforded by restricting exposure to work in general. Mothers simply having more time with their children away from work, allowing for the possibility of regular breastfeeding and sun exposure, likely conferred a greater prophylactic benefit at the population level than Narkomzdrav’s strict breastfeeding protocols.
Another major intervention by Narkomzdrav were vacations. Although commendable for being one of the first nations to codify the right to vacation into law, Narkomzdrav was interested in making vacation a means to learn proper social hygiene. The vehicle for these efforts would be the Houses of Leisure. Located in the confiscated mansions and vacation homes of the old aristocracy, Houses of Leisure were the Soviet version of a cruise ship vacation with more rules. Seeing an opportunity to have control over all aspects of social life during vacation, Narkomzdrav built in a strict vacation schedule for workers during their stay. This included organized physical activity such as group walks and calisthenics, mud baths, sauna, and sun exposure, as well as political education lectures and lessons in social hygiene regarding washing, home cleanliness, diet, and exercise.
As one might imagine, the lifestyle encouraged at the Houses of Leisure was drastically different than those desired by or accessible to most workers. Many urban apartment complexes only had one washroom per building, making daily bathing impossible. Smoking, drinking, fighting, and extramarital sex were all strictly prohibited on vacation, despite their regular appearance in workers’ everyday lives.16Drunkenness, brawls, and incessant spitting on the floor were so common that House of Leisure employees developed lecture material reminding guests that fighting before bedtime decreased sleep quality and would reduce energy levels the following day. The lasting impact on lifestyle changes was also questionable, with surveys suggesting that around a quarter of participants self-reported making some change to their daily hygiene but only 9% engaging in daily calisthenics. Despite these challenges, the House of Leisure program expanded quickly, going from serving 240 Muscovites in 1920 to over 350,000 workers across the Soviet Union by 1925, with 60,000 located in Moscow alone.17Starks. P.68
These examples suggest that explicit state efforts to regulate the social body through public health interventions paled in comparison to other non-health policies. The rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union had a more meaningful impact on the body and health of workers than the Supreme Council on Physical Culture and Narkomzdrav ever could. These choices sparked continued proletarianization of the working population, subjecting their bodies to the repetitive motions of the factory and forcing them to live in tightly packed apartments. While public health campaigns helped to mitigate risk, we must also consider the prophylactic impact of policies outside Narkomzdrav such as restrictions on the working day.
If You Can’t Join ’Em, Beat ’Em: The Real Subsumption of Soviet Athletics
Immediately after the revolution, the Soviet Union’s position on sports and athletic development was quite clear. There would be no competition with capitalists, as their system bred elite athletes at the expense of promoting sports for the masses. At first, this exclusively meant competitions between workers sports clubs in the Soviet Union as well as those from neighboring countries with the Soviet Union hosting its first multi-sport international competition, First Workers’ Spartikad, in 1928. Officially, fitzkul’tura was for everyone, and there were real efforts toward this goal. The Council of Physical Culture spent their time making posters and magazines about the benefits of physical activity, while also organizing sports leagues through major hubs of employment such as factories and public transportation.
Women, who had been traditionally excluded from most sporting activities, were now officially encouraged to engage in sport and athletics. Despite the reduction of formal barriers from the Council of Physical Culture, there were still real impediments to women’s sport participation. Public creches and dining halls meant to reduce the burden of social reproduction that disproportionately fell on women were few and far between. This labor reduced the amount of time women could spend playing sports or engaging in mass physical activity.
The vision of an imminent automated future in both production and social reproduction played a direct role in this indifference to women’s double burden, as the primarily male government officials felt it was only a matter of time before machines figured it all out. There were also barriers at the level of the sports and activities themselves with few women coaches and harassment or discouragement from men. Nonetheless, women excelled in many physical activities including shooting, aviation, parachute jumping, and chess with some even becoming national heroes like Polina Osipenko, Valentina Grisodubova, Marina Raskova, Muza Malinovskaia, and Nona Gaprindashvili.
Sport was to serve the development of the New Soviet Person through healing the wounds of revolution and civil war, as well as developing a strong line of national defense. In many instances, competitive games were sidelined for more collaborative physical activities such as mass runs in the forest and gymnastics. There was even an initial decree to not keep national records for sports deemed bourgeois such as weightlifting, boxing, wrestling, and fencing.18Bryce, “Weightlifting in the Ussr and Cis 1917-1992.” P.41 The suppression of record keeping was a window into a unique understanding of sport which aimed to disincentivize high levels of sport specialization required to continually break new records.
This window, however, was quickly slammed shut. By 1931, the Council of Physical Culture enacted the Ready for Labor and Defense of the USSR program (GTO) that further oriented exercise regimens toward worker and military development. Eventually, organized sport became a way to conduct international politics and conflict through other means, with the Soviet Union deciding that abstaining from professional competition was no longer an option. This choice eventually led to the de facto professionalization of Soviet athletes as they needed to dedicate more time to training than was allowed with an otherwise full work schedule. Competing with capitalist countries signaled the real subsumption of sport in the Soviet Union, not by inherent tendency, as is the case for commodity production under capitalism, but by choice.19While subsumption is in both cases motivated by competition, the Soviet Union did not need to professionalize their sporting apparatus simply because professionalized, capitalist sport existed elsewhere. This should be seen as fundamentally different than debates around the inevitability of industrially subsumed commodity production in efforts to make socialism in one country.
The utopian goals of the New Soviet Person, seen through Bogdanov’s empiriomonism, sought to unify the body divided under capitalism, coordinating the expenditure of energy in all aspects of life toward human flourishing. The success of this project came by way of introducing real state programs at the level of public health, physical culture and leisure that attempted to provide resources and support with some acknowledgement of the total amount of stressors each body was exposed to. Leisure and physical activity were not simply the things one did when not at work but were instead intended to be activities that to some degree corresponded to the work performed. Rather than ignoring this relationship between work and the rest of life, like capitalist countries, the Soviet Union tried to explicitly integrate it through state programs.
At the level of the regime, the early Soviet Union aligned the production of the body with rapid industrialization which was seen as the only route to eventual human flourishing. Although there are valuable debates around the degree to which the USSR was or was not a form of capitalist development, the side one picks is less important than recognizing that relative work speed, total work time, and the nature of work activities, were in most cases not determined by those performing the work. While the pressures put on the body through this process of industrialization were similar, the expression of physical culture took on a different character in the Soviet Union than it did in Western Europe. With the industrial worker as revolutionary subject, fitzkul’tura explicitly sought to reinforce the physical capacities of the human body needed to support industrial work. As discussed in part one, the physical culture of Western Europe was critical of how industrial labor impacted the body and sought not to reinforce the body for work, but return it to its pre-industrial, pastoral strength. Where they both overlapped was in their shared interest to defend the nation-state.
The regimen enacted by the Soviet Union in the post-revolutionary era consisted of progressive public health policies from the zemstvos, but the lack of total state resources and the choice of their distribution sequestered most interventions to a core of urban industrial workers. The investment and development of mass sport quickly shifted toward para-military training and athletic professionalization. This is not to ignore the very real differences in sport development between western capitalist countries and the Soviet Union in the post-WWII era, but simply to acknowledge that the differences primarily centered around how best to professionalize athletes. Mass sport continued to exist alongside its professional counterpart but was supported through volunteers and sport enthusiasts with relatively little state funding.
The diet, or daily experience of the regimen, reflected both a true revolutionary engagement and sober indifference. The rapid growth of labor groups such as the Central Institute of Labor cannot be explained without accepting that some people were open and willing to find new ways to experiment with their relationship to work and the world. For every dozen people that wanted to spend their vacation drinking themselves to sleep, there was someone at the House of Leisure kindly suggesting they refrain from spitting on the floor.
The example of fitzkul’tura in the early Soviet Union offers several insights into how physical culture and bodily calculation operate. The first is to accept a certain degree of monism from Bogdanov and recognize all culture as physical culture, because we cannot do anything without our bodies. This doesn’t mean that everything is physical in the same way, but instead provides a caution that trying to categorize activities as non-physical often reflects the physical ability of those making the categories more than anything else. From this, the question is not about whether to engage in physical culture, but rather how to assess and evaluate the engagement that already exists. The broad definition of fitzkul’tura as well as the attempt to re-unite the separated spheres of social life under capitalism are all examples of this despite their shortcomings. At the level of state policy, this framing allows us to see restrictions on the exposure to work, in the form of limiting the working day and restricting child labor, as meaningful interventions in public health and physical culture.
Once investments in physical culture are not seen as separate from other investments of time and energy, the discussion of how to organize physical culture begins. Bogdanov’s voluntarism, in this sense, is not a disengaged stream of complaints about all the things people should be doing, nor is it a utopian discussion of how things could be without current constraints. The point is to emphasize that physical culture is already there, and it can always be manipulated regardless of current constraints. The lesson of fitzkul‘tura in the early Soviet period isn’t that it failed to produce a generalized New Soviet Person in the absence of an existing physical culture, but rather that it couldn’t successfully compete against pre-existing forms of physical culture inherited both from the pre-revolutionary period and the Soviet Union’s own policies. While the later achievements in public health and athletics in the post-WWII era have little to do with the regime of early fitzkul’tura, they do signal a regimen able to out-compete pre-existing forms of physical culture ultimately creating a different, rather than new, Soviet person.