Liberation and Containment: Re-visualizing the Eugenic and Evolutionary Ideal of the Fizkul’turnitsa in 1944

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Soviet newspaper articles indicate that one way in which the liberation of Soviet territory was celebrated in 1944 was through sporting events, such as cross-country races in Ukraine – one of the territories most severely affected by the invasion - and parades of physical culturists in Moscow. In Soviet visual culture, this response was not only recorded in the mass-media through photographs in Pravda and Krasnyi sport of the parade celebrating the re-opening of the Dinamo stadium in Moscow in July 1944, but was also celebrated and endorsed by Aleksandr Deineka’s large Socialist Realist painting Razdol’e [meaning liberation/expanse] 1944. These pictures foregrounded images of the female physical culturalist (fizkul’turnitsa), as a multi-layered symbol of emancipation and hope for the future, an idea further reinforced by a quotation from Gorkii on the masthead of Krasnyi sport. Why should images of young sporting women be particularly important in popular celebratory imagery referring to personal and national liberation, and what underlying implications might they have? This paper seeks to suggest that the idea of liberation conveyed by such images, also embodied connotations of containment and constraint for Soviet women, rooted in a complex historical web of ideas about the engineering of the New Soviet Person – and in particular the New Soviet Woman – that can be partly traced back to trajectories of evolutionary, physiological, psychological and ‘social hygienist’ thought connected to Soviet eugenics discourse of the 1920s.

On one level, the choice of female imagery per se to symbolise liberation, can be linked to dominant themes in Soviet wartime propaganda which located Hitler as ‘the evil enemy of all women’, and designated the ‘Motherland’ – the organic territory of the USSR, often symbolised by images of a peasant mother – as the object of defence in the Great Patriotic (in Russian, literally ‘Fatherland’) War. Not only was there, thus, a real, historical connection between celebration of liberation and athletic/sporting events, but also a certain logic in the gendering of the images. These linkages, while important, are not sufficient, however, to explain the choice and potential significations of the images.

Albeit in a new context of encouraging the ‘will to victory’ through fizkul’tura, the images can also be seen to constitute a return to a propaganda theme exemplified in the work of Deineka, Samokhvalov and Rodchenko from the late 1920s to the late 1930s, concerning the state imperative for girls and young women (as well as men) to engage in fizkul’tura. While this imperative was a practical attempt to increase the health, hygiene and physical strength of the population for ‘labour and defence’, it was also perceived as a pathway to the evolution of the New Person, a eugenic ideal of a new human species that was believed to be achievable through body discipline, habit and training. Such Lamarckian-style beliefs were nourished in the 1920s by the ideas of Kammerer, and by aspects of pre-revolutionary Russian Darwinism, for example the ideas of Kliment Timiriazev and particularly Ivan Sechenov, which fed into the psycho-physiological theories of Vladimir Bekhterev and Ivan Pavlov that in turn fuelled the bio-mechanistic constructs of the New Person generated by Gastev and Meierkhol’d.

In the 1930s-1940s, although reference to eugenics was banned, and the environmental determinism and bio-mechanical emphases became tempered by a new stress on voluntarism, these beliefs in the evolutionary potential of body training endured. So too, did the accompanying notion, deriving equally from the discourses of eugenics and ‘social hygiene’, that body discipline for women was an important means to attain successful and hygienic motherhood, which, alongside engagement in paid employment was part of the Constitutional definition, reiterated in 1936, of emancipated Soviet women’s social role.

In relation to this, I argue, the fizkul’turnitsa image can be seen as an implicit model of the disciplined, hygienic – and what Foucault would call ‘docile’ - body of the future New Woman who was destined to repopulate the USSR with ‘New People’. Its reassertion in 1944 to celebrate liberation from the occupation, can be seen to revisit and underscore the Soviet notion of freedom for women as determined by containment within appropriate body disciplines, and constrained by the dual burden of paid work and motherhood. That motherhood was a primary emphasis from 1944 onwards is corroborated by the institution in 1944 of the Motherhood Medal for super-productive mothers, and the accompaniment to the 1946 Party statement relating to International Women’s Day in Sovetskoe iskussstvo, of a poster by Nina Vatolina focused on an image of a mother and baby.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 6 Sept 2008
EventDFG Research Project: ‘Social and Cultural History of Sport and Physical Culture in the Soviet Union’, Workshop, Helmut Schmidt Universität, Universität der Bundsewehr - Hamburg, Germany
Duration: 5 Sept 20086 Sept 2008


ConferenceDFG Research Project: ‘Social and Cultural History of Sport and Physical Culture in the Soviet Union’, Workshop, Helmut Schmidt Universität, Universität der Bundsewehr


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