In 2017, Brunel University released the findings of a unique study regarding the political views of regular gym goers. The basic conclusions drawn from this is that there does appear to exist a correlation between gym attendance and having certain lifestyles, and certain political dispositions. Firstly, physically fit men were generally more financially stable than those who are not. Secondly and more importantly for this article, the men who were in shape irregardless of wealth were also more likely to hold right-wing beliefs, including the rejection of redistribution of wealth.
This research was later used by Fox owned Vice News under the headline “Gym Bros More Likely to be Right-Wing Assholes, Science Confirms”, in which the author(s) lazily demonise those who hold those beliefs. In a similar fashion, The Guardian published an article in its opinion section entitled “Do you boast about your fitness? Watch out- you’ll unavoidably become rightwing”. Columnists, feeding their opinion to a readership of millions, and a resulting impact on public debate, have taken it upon themselves to apostrophise unknown people in gyms as ‘right-wing assholes’. Let’s ignore how both these publications, despite their apparent posturing as ‘progressive’ media, are more than enthusiastic to give moral defence to Western, neoliberal hegemony, when push comes to shove. The above drivel is, obviously, ludicrous drivel. But it did make me wonder about the interplay of politics and physical fitness.
‘Leftists’ in the Western world have a reputation for being inept both physically and financially. It is unfortunately becoming increasingly harder not to agree with this and the genre of smug articles celebrating this certainly don’t help. Excluding communists from impoverished countries where activities like bodybuilding might be the least of their worries, too many leftists are, quite simply, lacking physically, and instead focusing their energy to theoretical and philosophical matters. Doing so is like attempting to walk on one foot. There exists, however, an antidote to this. As we look back at the Soviet Union and its fitness programmes among all age groups, we can see that it wasn’t always like this. As such, this essay will examine how the Marxist-Leninist Soviet government promoted healthy lifestyles for its people, how it compares to the UK and USA today, and what we can learn from this to improve ourselves.
To give the readers a simplified idea of the history of physical exercise in the USSR: at the beginning of the 1920s, the newly-founded Soviet government had already made clear that organized sports would be brought under central administration. It was also hoped that sports would become available to the masses in contrast to the Russian Empire, where only members of middle and upper classes had the time and money to join a sports collective and develop their skills. In these early years, the committee overseeing the development of sporting centres and activities was named: “The High Council of Physical Culture”- later renamed to “Committee for Physical Culture”.
Due to the instability and threat of foreign invasion at the time, “physical culture” was a loose term for all physical activities, from light stretching to full-on weightlifting. The term was of course highly politicized to encourage citizens to get involved in fitness for the sake of the country as opposed to their individual wellbeing- although good health and strength was naturally a positive byproduct of this push. Momentum was lost in the early 1930s as a result of the widespread famines, when the Union’s priority was survival.
However, the latter half of the 1930s saw the rise of the USSR’s most comprehensive national training programme- Ready for Labour and Defence of the USSR (also known simply as the GTO). Continuing the precedent of the 1920s, and given the geopolitical climate of the time, the programme itself was focused on patriotic physical activities and preparing for the inevitable invasion. It was also at this time that early morning exercises more commonly known as “zaryadki”, became popular. This routine became so ingrained in the Soviet lifestyle, factories and schools provided exercise breaks for workers/students.
P.E. lessons were delivered in schools for 10 years of every pupil’s education. Exceptionally-talented students could transfer to specialist sports schools free of charge; it was hoped that their attendance would be repaid by participating in international games. By 1976, there was a total of 5,400 sports schools, including 100 specialist schools for the top 1% of young athletes. Though we could say that this is similar to the UK today, it is also important to note that the majority of specialist sports schools in the UK and USA are independent and the ability to pay is a major factor unless a child has won a highly competitive scholarship. This wasn’t the case in Soviet schools, where the only important factor was talent.
In the aftermath of Nazi Germany’s defeat in WWII, the USSR once more started to pour resources and money into building (or re-building) sports facilities, including football stadiums, swimming pools, athletic tracks and gymnasiums. It’s worth remembering is that these were not concentrated exclusively to ‘privileged’ major cities within the Russian Soviet Republic. The smaller republics and the ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union enjoyed the same sporting culture. Indeed, if we take a close look at the USSR’s least populous republic– the Estonian SSR, as an example: there existed a total of 393 professional sporting facilities, as well as 1694 functioning sports collectives.
Another key aspect of sports and exercise in the Soviet Union was an emphasis on competition and achievement. International sporting events were one of the few spheres in which the USSR sought to compete fiercely with other countries. It is, after all, only a game, and only the most sedentary ultraleftist would pretend a bit of healthy sporting competition is some fatal contradiction of internationalism. Despite the notion that people were expected to workout regularly for health reasons, government propaganda was dedicated to promoting physical activity as a path to international glory for the USSR in the Olympic games. To that end, the government set up training programs and academies to identify and develop talented young athletes, and provided them with extensive resources and support to help them reach their full potential.
The USSR, as well as other Eastern Bloc states, achieved notable success in international competitions, where their athletes frequently won medals in a range of sports. There were a few curious set backs, where our modern opinion may diverge from the Soviet authorities. Professional bodybuilding, for instance, was considered ‘not real sport’ but a hobby and a distasteful one at that, receiving no recognition from the centrally-run fitness collective, effectively banning it. Nevertheless, bodybuilders still existed privately and it’s not like the police were going around sending people to the gulag for possessing a protein shake.
Following its collapse in 1991, the capitalist way of life infiltrated post-Soviet states. In Russia, a 2020 survey found that the number of people participating in sports is now only half of what it was in the USSR on average. Most frightening is the highly decreased number of young people involved in exercise. Articles like this remain important to mention as some might say that cultural differences could be a driving aspect of whether or not a society trains. Culture can indeed be a factor behind certain differences, but this proves at least in part that ideology is just as important if not more, for Russians now are on average better off financially than in the Soviet Union while simultaneously training far less than older generations did.
While on the topic of physical exercise, it is necessary to remember that the Soviet diet also played a massive role in maintaining a healthy body. Planned diets were much less common for most of the 20s and 30s in part due to limited food supply, and so it would be more productive to discuss the post-war Soviet diet in this article. Declassified CIA documents can help determine a more detailed overview with this. As per a 1984 research paper, the nutritional contents eaten by the average citizen was similar to those eaten by Americans with some slight differences: Soviets consumed more carbohydrates and Americans more fat.
In the countryside and most towns, locals would more often than not cook food with either butter or lard (both of which were readily available) instead of vegetable or sunflower oils. One of the ways in which health issues were tackled in a more professional fashion was through the use of health resorts. From the late 1940s onwards, the USSR as well as its socialist neighbours began to expand health resorts across the country. Citizens could buy a short stay at a health resort to rest and recuperate from work and improve any health problems they are experiencing. These resorts employed medical professionals to care for the “patients” and prescribe them a diet available at the resort. Certain people could also be eligible for a free stay if their occupation had inherent health risks, such as miners or steel plant workers.
Were someone to walk into an A&E waiting room in the USA or UK, the only food option is a vending machine selling chocolates, crisps, and other highly processed sugary or fried foods. Even in hospital cafeterias, there is almost always a selection of cakes and fried items, which should be a little concerning. British people often enjoy pointing out that the United States has a ~40% obesity rate, but it is evident that the UK government is also doing very little to combat its own ~26% obesity rate, with the exception of anaemic regulations such as the sugar tax. More importantly, companies simply bypass this by promoting their “sugar-free” alternatives whereby they use artificial sweeteners as a substitute for sugar. Many of these sweeteners have been proven to have multiple negative side effects, including hormonal imbalance as per Syvetsky’s 2016 findings featured below.
If this wasn’t enough, certain international organisations are now proposing that we should be continuing to decrease meat and other sources of animal proteins: “A planetary health plate should consist of approximately half a plate of vegetables and fruits; the other half should consist of primarily whole grains, plant protein sources, unsaturated plant oils, and (optionally) modest amounts of animal sources of protein.” In other words, instead of researching sustainable alternatives such as vertical farming, globalists will keep on pushing for their own so-called “solutions” for solving world hunger by slowly eliminating nutrient rich foods such as beef and increasing simple foods like grains. Unsurprisingly, I am one to think that – if implemented – this planetary diet will not be followed by the elites! Moving onwards, It would be a lie to say that filling yourself with cheap, quick meals from fast food joints is less convenient than buying from a local bakery or deciding to cook yourself. This entire situation begs the question as to why the governments aren’t doing much to stop this. The short answer- like with most of capitalism’s faults- is profit. NHS and American hospital administration much rather prefer to fill their vending machines or cafeterias with cheap and oily foods and indeed raise the risk of illness for visitors, than to provide genuinely healthy food and drink.
What can we learn from the Soviet model?
The problems that we are faced with today in terms of physical wellbeing are truly great, but solving these will not only benefit society as a whole by boosting health, but will also improve our position as a force that is seen as a champion of physical wellbeing. As said before, people on the right often mock the physical state of the left, as it’s claimed that communists are either obese or malnourished, and that fascists, conservatives, and so on are the ones in shape. The easy way out would be to dismiss this and continue living the way you were previously living. In my opinion, this is wholly the wrong option to choose. If the left wants to dream big, the movement cannot allow itself to be sluggish in any way for any reason. Those dreams will not go far if this continues to be the case. Though no studies on this topic have been conducted, it is not preposterous to assume that a large proportion of people in the western world are not serious about their health. There are those who will continue to eat what corporations give them, stay well away from any consistent exercise, and still go on to quote articles from the mainstream media as another excuse to be the way they are. It is the perfect time to change this. The second issue is more dependent on the government’s actions in relation to healthy food and drink. While a possibility that the food industry will change its ways exists, this scenario will not be achieved under a bourgeois government which is in turn controlled in turn by lobbyists from industrial giants such as Nestle or Kraft. While the former issue can be solved via mass participation in fitness and is down to the individual, our fate regarding the latter will require potentially years of struggle against the establishment and MNCs to save younger generations from a dangerous and uncertain future.
Mateusz Naglik, is a member of the YCL’s Kent branch