Ideology of Soviet Sport

Created by Ian Blau in the Spring of 2013 at Boston University.


“The physical education of the rising generation is one of the necessary elements of the system of communist education of youth”

Vladimir Lenin
(Addressing the Third Congress of the Komosomol, October 1920)

Propaganda posters:
“Second anniversary of Vsevobuch.//Develop and learn to protect our freedom!”
– 1920 (LEFT)
USSR is a mighty sports power! – 1962 (RIGHT)


During the Cold War, between 1952 to 1988, the Soviet Union dominated athletics. Outpacing the United States, the USSR’s Olympic performance shined on the international stage and was promoted as a success for the Communist Party. However, finding a definitive guide on the history leading up to the Soviet’s athletic dominance, along with its history and context proves difficult. Works by famed Soviet sport historians such as James Riordan and Susan Grant helped develop the framework for this guide, however a complete, varied source introduction to the Soviet’s Olympic success, sports academies, performance-enhancing drugs, and its political sports rivalry with the United States could not be found.

The goal of this Guided History is to create a list of resources that dissect the precursors and building blocks that led to the growth and success of Soviet sports; and to answer the questions in regards to Soviet sports’ creation of: “why?” and “how?”.

One of the strongest reasoning behind the Soviet Union’s success outlined in this Guided History came from the Soviet’s dedicated athletes that developed under the government’s sports institutions and their intersection between politics and sports.

Created during the growth of Soviet Russia, programs such as the Vsevobuch, Red Star International and All-Union Sports Committee helped push the emerging nation toward political autonomy, military readiness and athletic dominance. The political, military and civilian sectors of society melded together for the promotion of the idea that historian Susan Grant calls, “the physical culture.” Physical culture meant physical health for purposes of sport, work and leisure; however, it also meant, mental, political and military control. This page provides varying resources that combined create a foundation to the definition, context, reasoning and effectiveness of Soviet “physical culture” and its programs.

Additionally, listed below each source is a recommended usage of the resource in regards to understanding the ideology of Soviet sport.


Service, Robert. A History of Modern Russia:  From Tsarism to the Twenty-first Century. United Kingdom: Penguin, 2009.

Robert Service’s history of Russia, the main resource for Professor Rabinovitch’s class, provides one of the strongest, in depth, and manageable history’s of Late Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union. With chapters dedicated to each major time period in Russia’s recent history, Service creates a definitive representation of the region’s history. Each resource on sport and physical culture listed below should be related back to Service’s book as a way to place context to the accounts of Soviet sport ideology. Service writes in a historical, professional manner and creates a strong backbone of Russian history to build off of with the other resources.

Recommended for: Russian/Soviet history.

Luke, Timothy. “The Proletarian Ethic and Soviet Industrialization.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 588-601.

Timothy Luke’s journal piece examines work ethic in post-Tsarism Russia. Luke writes about the growth of a modern work ethic in Russia and the ways that the Bolshevik party’s beliefs of Marxism helped facilitate that growth. Further, the article provides historical evidence in regards to Marxism, industrialization, and a detailed look into Russian politics after 1917. The piece also compares Soviet industrialization to the United States’ industrialization as well as socialist industrialization and western Europe’s capitalistic industrialization. Timothy Luke’s piece was published in 1983 in the American Political Science Review and is written in a professional, political and historical manner. However, it is a dense read for the general Soviet history enthusiast, but nonetheless an excellent resource for research.

Recommended for: Soviet political science, industrialization, post-tsarist Russia, growth of Soviet Russia.

von Hagen, Mark. “Civil-Military Relations and the Evolution of the Soviet Socialist State.” Slavic Review, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer, 1991), pp. 268-276.

Mark von Hagen’s piece focuses on the reasoning behind the rise of Stalinism, political elites and the rise of “militarized socialism.” In particular, von Hagen writes about the Red Army as an institution, its decline after the Russian Civil War and the ways to bring it back to prominence. Socializing the military into school systems and civilian life was a key technique used by the Soviet party. Overall, von Hagen’s piece helps construct a context into the growth of military sport programs as the rise of militarized socialism grew in Soviet Russia. von Hagen writes in an structured, historical manner, utilizing many varying resources in his piece.

Recommended for: context into the Red Army, socialism, and the role of the military in socialist civilian life.


1939 Soviet Athletic Parade

Edelman, Robert. Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the USSR. New York: Oxford, 1993.

Robert Edelman brings a historical outlook to the political influence and reasoning behind public viewings of sports and their significance within the USSR. Serious Fun provides detailed background to many events that were merely mentioned in other books, in particular, the Spartikiad and early Athletic parades. Going into specific detail, Edelman crafts an insightful and engaging look at spectator sports and the battle of the USSR in adopting “bourgeoise” sports into their society. Edelman writes in a professional, academic manner while still providing an easy to read and entertaining piece of Soviet history.

Recommended for: Soviet sport history, pre-Olympics Soviet sports history, general spectator sports, context behind behaviors of Soviets and their engagement with sport.

Grant, Susan. Physical Culture and Sport in Soviet Society: Propaganda, Acculturation, and Transformation in the 1920s and 1930s. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Susan Grant’s history of early Soviet physical culture and sport is a distinctive resource into Soviet ideology in culture, society and politics. Throughout the book, Grant connects sport, politics and power to create an easy to process relationship between the three. Grant also utilizes the idea of physical culture, a much broader ideal, as well as sport on society and how political ideals effected sports and the other way around. Most effectively, Grant focuses heavily on the history and context of the creation of Soviet physical ideology and institutions. Writing in a knowledgeable and reference-heavy manner, Susan Grant’s book provides one of the strongest resources for a historical look at the Soviet ideology of physical culture and sport.

Recommended for: inner-Soviet history, context and history of regimented sport and physical culture, historical diagrams, Soviet sport propaganda, and political history.

Louis, Victor & Jennifer. Sport in the Soviet Union. New York: Pergamon, 1964.

Victor and Jennifer Louis’ book presents an interesting Cold War look at the history of Soviet sport by two American expats in Moscow. As such, they are able to look further into Russia’s history, touching upon reforms by Peter the Great and how the Crimean War of 1854 effected physical actively in sport. The pair explains Russia’s background with physical training and the popularity of individual “militaristic” sports, such as: skiing, swimming, wrestling and hunting. There are also “recent” figures pulled directly from Soviet sources. The authors then break down each of the Soviet Union’s most popular sports and their histories, popularity and significance in politics and the military within the Union. The Louis’ write in a straightforward academic matter, relying heavily on statistics and the Soviet context.

Recommended for: individual history of sport as well as non-Olympic-centric Soviet sport history.

Riordan, James. Sport in Soviet Society. New York: Cambridge University, 1977.

Regarded as the top historian in Soviet sport, James Riordan’s Sport in Soviet Society acts as the Western textbook for Soviet athletics. Building upon Victor and Jennifer Louis’ book, James Riordan provides histories of individual sports in Russia and Soviet society. He also writes extensively about sports being used in foreign policy, social routine and industrialization in lead-up to World War Two. Riordan writes appropriately for a history professor, in a structured, historical manner.

Recommended for: general historical background into Soviet sport and its role in Soviet politics.

Steinberg, David. “The Workers’ Sport Internationals 1920-28.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April, 1978), pp. 233-251.

David Steinberg’s entry on communist sport ideals, brings the Soviet ideology into a larger, international communist context. Ideology similar to the Soviet’s was being pushed for implementation across Europe, specifically in pre-Nazi Germany. Steinberg criticizes the Soviet’s ideology of sport, arguing that the sport movement was not implemented enough as a civilian revolutionary device, but rather as a military device. Steinberg’s article provides many varying perspectives in the Soviet’s sports movement after 1917. Utilizing direct quotations, Steinberg creates a strong resource for understanding the politics and international communist beliefs in sports. Additionally, the article provides a greater outlook on communist ideals regarding athletics.

Recommended for: Communist sport ideology, Soviet sport ideology 1920-28, primary sources.

To work, to build and not to whine! – 1933



Raiport, Grigori. Red Gold: Peak Performance Techniques of the Russian and East German Olympic Victors. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1988.

Motivational psychologist for the USSR Olympic team, Grigori Raiport, presents an interesting look at the psychological practices used by the Soviet Union in conditioning their athletes. The book focuses on the techniques used by both athletes and politicians and how their ideologies mix in the Soviet Union’s political environment. Most importantly, Raiport goes into detail the relationship between the physical culture, sport and Marxist-Stalinist ideology.  Using direct language from his teachings, Raiport provides a detail-oriented and Soviet view of their sports programs in regards to purpose, politics, cultural ideology and history.

Recommended for: sport psychology in the Soviet Union, the history of sport ideology and analysis of the aforementioned.

Thomas, Damion. Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2012.

Damion Thomas’ book stands out among the other resources used for Soviet sport ideology. Globetrotting acts as a strong outsider perspective to both Soviet sports and the United States’ reaction to it. African-Americans played a key role in post-World War Two athletics and therefore dealt with the USSR in the athletic arena. Thomas’ unique perspective towards the Soviet Union and his ability to relate the Soviet Union to the plight of African-American athletes during the Cold War makes this book such an important resource. His in-depth historical writing style and ability to relate the Soviet Union to the book’s overarching thesis provides a lot of useful information.

Recommended for: United States/minority perspective on the Soviet Union and reaction to the Soviet Union’s sport culture.

We will meet at competition with new victories in labor and sports! – 1956