Putin resurrects another Soviet tradition

The Bell

Last week, Vladimir Putin called for the return of sporting parades on Moscow’s Red Square. This long-forgotten Soviet ritual, beloved of the Stalin era, represents the latest staging point on Russia’s rose-tinted march into its Soviet past.

  • The first such sporting parades, which involved the so-called “Vsevobuchs” (men taking part in compulsory military training), took place on Red Square in 1919, less than two years after the Bolshevik revolution and in front of the first Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin. But they reached their peak under Josef Stalin when they started to be held annually throughout the 1930s. In 1936, every single republic of the USSR sent representatives to Moscow to join the parade. By 1938, it had been elevated into a typical Soviet grandiose spectacle, with thousands of people, clad in sportswear, carrying portraits of Stalin through Red Square while performing acrobatic feats (video). Director Alexander Medvedkin shot one of the first ever Soviet color films at the 1939 parade.
  • In 1945, Red Square hosted a parade to celebrate victory in the Second World War. As the Soviet Union moved to mark its victory over Nazi Germany in what it calls the “Great Patriotic War” through large-scale Red Square parades, the sporting marches were moved to Dynamo stadium in the north of Moscow. After Stalin’s death, they fizzled out, with only two more held after 1953 and athletes being merged into May 1 celebrations of Soviet labour.
  • Last week, at a conference dedicated to Russian sport, the head of the International Boxing Association (IBA) Umar Kremlev, urged Putin to consider bringing the parades back. Putin said he liked the idea. “Today, one of the leading tasks facing the Russian authorities is to get 70% of Russia’s population involved in organized sports,” the president said. Putin also appeared unhappy that so few Russians had taken up table tennis. “A table might not fit in every apartment, but could certainly appear in every stairwell,” he said, in comments that quickly triggered a string of memes on the Russian-language internet.

Why the world should care:

Russia’s steady return to the Soviet era is a popular narrative which has been extensively discussed in society and across Russian media. Persecution of dissidents, mass denunciations, propaganda, and unanimous votes in parliament are just a few of the Soviet traditions that have found a second life in Putin’s Russia. Sport is not exempt from this trend, with many Soviet-era initiatives — like the Komsomol’s “Ready for labor and defense” physical education initiative — being brought back. Russian universities already award several “bonus” credits to new students based on their sporting achievements. The next step seems to be a revival of Stalinist sporting parades.


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