The Olympics Got Political (Again)

“Soviet Political Cartoon, ‘Passing the Baton’,” 1980, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Krokodil, 1980.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics were supposed to be the Soviet Union’s chance to show off their culture and athletic prowess on the international stage. An article in Pravda stated that the organizers intended for Muscovites to engage with visitors and “familiarize the Olympic guests… with the most noteworthy aspects of our life,” while at the same time wanted to keep the “toxic gases taken from the storehouses of the cold war” from intruding on the sport. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 caused the United States and 55 other countries to boycott the games in protest.

Soviet newspapers condemned the boycott as “a strictly political” move and an attack on the Olympic movement. They blamed the Americans for “disrupting the process of detente by any means.” They paid a lot of attention to how unfair the boycott was for the athletes being denied a trip to the Olympics, a complaint that, interestingly, is now a very common complaint of the boycott in the US as well.

This was hardly the first time that the Olympics had become political. Since the Soviets rejoined the Olympic movement in 1952, the Olympics had served as a non-violent proxy war between the two rival superpowers. Possibly most emblematic of this dynamic was the “Miracle on Ice” ice hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Also tied to the invasion of Afghanistan, the triumph of the American team over the feared Soviet Red Army team (so-called because the members were ostensibly members of the military, but spent all of their time training for hockey. Igor Larionov gives a great account of the Soviet training system here) prompted a phone call from the president and rejoicing across the country.

The games were still well-attended by Soviet citizens and tourists from non-boycotting countries; so in that sense, they were a success. The Soviets indeed declared the games a success and a “serious moral and political defeat for Washington.” But relations between the US and the USSR were clearly deteriorating. The Soviet government was angry enough about the slight that they boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles in return. The boycott is also not remembered favorably in the US; there were enough bad feelings about it that President Carter was kept out of the planning for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the capital of his home state.


This post received a “Red Star” from the editorial team

Czechoslovakia Flirts with the West

CIA, “During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning tank in Prague.” (1968). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek took office as First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Throughout the spring and summer, he instituted a series of reforms that loosened up restrictions on information and expression. These reforms, as seen in the Action Program of the Communist Party, were not intended to turn Czechoslovakia into a liberal democracy. The system would still be socialist, but would loosen the Party’s monopoly on power and empower the people. Many Czechs and Slovaks, mostly intellectuals and students, embraced these ideas and held peaceful demonstrations throughout the summer of 1968.

Their fellow Warsaw Pact countries were not so enamored with the reforms. Some hardliners in the Czechoslovak CP sent a letter to Leonid Brezhnev requesting intervention. Despite demands that he do so, Dubček was unable and unwilling to back off his reforms, and the Prague Spring continued. So, on the night of August 20-21, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in order to bring it back in line with its fellow communist countries.

Brezhnev justified the invasion in a statement in Pravda by arguing that the health of the socialist movement worldwide was more important than an individual state’s sovereignty. Therefore, communist countries must intervene to prevent “antisocialist degeneration.” In typical Soviet propaganda fashion, he described the invasion as “assistance given to the working people of the CSSR by the other socialist countries, which prevented the export of counterrevolution from the outside.” This statement and the policy of intervening to prevent antisocialist revolution became known as the Brezhnev doctrine.

The footage and photos of the invasion made headlines throughout the West, and the image of unarmed students facing off against tanks provoked much outrage. Western governments condemned the invasion, but did not act to stop it as Czechoslovakia was far too unimportant to risk a nuclear war over. The Prague Spring, with its attempt to reform a communist system from within while keeping the ideology, would be echoed in the Soviet Union twenty years later, with disastrous results for the communists.


Stalin’s Best Generals

S. N. Prisekin: Zhukov Triumphant (1945). From 17 Moment in Soviet History

The purges of the Red Army’s officer corps in the late 1930’s were both a major reason for the USSR’s dismal performance against the Nazi invasion and a major reason for their ultimate success. At the outbreak of war in 1941, the Red Army leadership was mostly comprised of old Russian Civil War heroes unprepared for blitzkrieg and mobile warfare. However, the Soviets made up for this leadership deficiency as the war went on by bringing up younger and better generals to take the place of the purged.

Two of the most brilliant of these generals, Georgy Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovsky, are depicted in the painting above. The positioning of the two is quite telling: Rokossovsky, despite his accomplishments, was always in Zhukov’s shadow. Rokossovsky was an early proponent and developer of mobile warfare. He actually was arrested and tortured during the Great Purge, but was released in 1940. He advanced through the ranks of the Army quickly and played major roles in several significant engagements, including the Battles of Kursk and Stalingrad as well as masterminding Operation Bagration. An interesting side note: he had several steel teeth as a result of his torture during the Purge.

Marshal Zhukov is much more well-known in the West, probably due to him being the Soviet representative at most meetings of Allied commanders. Also a military genius, Zhukov was in command of Soviet forces during the defense of Moscow and at Kursk, as well as other major victories. The Soviet people revered him enough that Stalin viewed him as a threat after the war and kept him in less prestigious commands away from Moscow.

Fortunately for the Soviet war effort, Stalin recognized the talent leading his army and actually listened to them without interfering; something that Hitler did not do. The Purges clearly and significantly weakened the Red Army in the early months of the war, but by the end of the war Stalin had highly capable and even brilliant commanders at his disposal.

Soviet Football Rivalries Got Very Serious

‘Monument to the Starostin Brothers at Okrytie Arena.” From

Though the early Soviet government promoted sport and physical fitness (a healthy population was considered reflective of a healthy society), they generally considered organized competition to be against socialist ideals of cooperation. International competition especially was avoided; the Soviet government refused to take part in the ‘capitalist’ Olympics until the 1950s. Instead they held the Spartakiad, an event only for communist states. Internally, however, spectator sports were very popular, especially football. Sports Clubs were founded all over the country, with one of the most popular being Spartak Moscow.

Spartak was known as “the People’s Team” largely due to it not being associated with any government agencies. In the late 30s, Spartak was led by an excellent footballer named Nikolai Starostin and sponsored by Alexander Kosarev, head of the Komsomol youth organization. Spartak was very successful in the early days of the Soviet football leagues, winning a couple of championships under Starostin. They also developed a fierce rivalry with the sport club giant Dinamo, which had many teams in several different cities. Unfortunately for Starostin and his three brothers, Dinamo was headed by Levrentii Beria; a man who was also chief of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.

‘Lavrentii Beria’. c. 1920. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Beria, angered by Spartak defeating his favorite team, had all four Starostins arrested in 1942 and sent off to labor camps after a stay in the Lubyanka. Luckily for Nickolai, many of the camp overseers were football fans and had him coach local teams, making his punishment far more bearable. He was later requested by none other than Stalin’s own son to coach an Air Force team. After Stalin’s death, Starostin was pardoned and Beria ended  up on the wrong side of a Kremlin power struggle. Starostin returned to be the president of Spartak Moscow, remaining with the club until his death in 1992. More details of the story can be found here.

The story of the Starostin brothers is so interesting to me not just because it involves the ridiculousness of the head of the NKVD using his powers against a rival football team, but also because it contains so many of the same contradictions present in Soviet society as a whole. Sport clubs and leagues are such a lucrative (read: capitalist) feature of our own society, and they were not only present in the USSR, but they were extremely popular. Sport and top athletes became symbols of national pride (certainly later on), but they were also subject to the petty machinations of Soviet elites. It’s fascinating to see the familiar sports team rvalry played out in the early USSR- complete with secret police and gulags.

The New Economic Policy: Not Very Socialist, but Effective

“Lenin in his Kremlin office reading Pravda newspaper.” 16th October 1918. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Due to Vladimir Lenin’s strong association with socialism/communism, early Soviet economic policy can be a bit jarring, especially the New Economic Policy of 1922. The NEP, in fact, was strangely capitalist. The NEP allowed for something of a free market, though it was still tightly controlled by the government. It allowed for investment in industry and finance. The NEP also featured remarkable protections for private property, which would seem to be counter to traditional Marxist ideals.

The reasoning behind the oddly capitalist policy was practical: the government needed to jumpstart an economy ruined by eight years of war. World War I and the subsequent Russian Civil War had damaged the economy greatly by requisitioning huge amounts of material and money to support the war effort. During the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had nationalized and tightly controlled industry in a policy known as War Communism. But even with the defeat of the Whites, Russia was far from stable with continued unrest and full-blown rebellions. In short, the Bolshevik government had a fairly tenuous hold on power. Lenin instituted the NEP to allow market forces to help heal the crippled economy. Though it wasn’t particularly socialist, the policy worked. By 1927, the Russian economy was back on its feet.

These seeming contradictions between ideology and policy show that far from being a pure ideologue, Lenin was foremost a very savvy and pragmatic politician. The NEP was not particularly socialist, but it was effective at restoring the economy and helped secure the Bolshevik’s hold on power.

The New Economic Policy

Gregory L. Freeze, Russia: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009) 300-340

Bloody Sunday: Did the Tsar Shoot Himself in the Foot?

“St. Petersburg, Militär vor Winterpalast,” Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S01260 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On January 22, 1905 (January 9 in the old calendar) crowds of unarmed demonstrators marched toward the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Mostly industrial workers and their families led by Orthodox priest Father Georgii Gapon, the demonstrators intended to bring a petition before Tsar Nicholas II. The petition called for extensive change; asking for wage regulation, expanded rights for workers, a tax system overhaul, an end to the ongoing (and disastrous) war with Japan, rule of law, and other demands. The workers’ ire was directed not at the Tsar at this point, but at “the bureaucrats.” The Tsar was still seen as a “champion of the people” with a divine right to rule. The crowds carried icons, crosses, and pictures of the Tsar. The demonstrators were not met by the Tsar, but rather by Imperial Guards who opened fire on them as they approached. Over a hundred were killed and many were wounded in what became known as the Bloody Sunday Massacre.

The massacre proved to be a major blow to the Tsar’s relationship with his people and ultimately, his legitimacy. In a New York Times report the next day, Russian novelist Maxim Gorky was quoted as saying that the Tsar “has forever alienated himself from the people.” Even more seriously, a member of the Imperial Household said that “Russia will have a constitution or Emperor Nicholas will lose his head.” The article indicates that Russia was on the brink of civil war in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. Across the country, previously peaceful strikes turned into “outright acts of revolution,” spreading across the country via the newly-developed railroad system (Freeze, 252).


The Tsar did manage to survive the ensuing Revolution of 1905; finally conceding to many of the popular demands with the October Manifesto. The Manifesto and further, more detailed, laws established the elected Duma and granted some liberties to citizens. It satisfied enough of the revolutionaries to take the spine out of the revolution (though uprisings continued for over a year). The Manifesto was still not a constitution, and autocracy was still mostly in place. But in the eyes of many, the Tsar was no longer a “champion of the people.” His position as a symbolic Father to the nation was tenuous. Cracks were showing in the Romanov’s hold on power, and when revolution broke out again in 1917, the Tsar would not be so fortunate.

The photo: the photo is from the German Federal Archives (Deutches Bundesarchiv), with another in the St. Petersburg Archive, and appears to depict Russian cavalrymen defending the Winter Palace on January 9, 1905. The photographer is unknown.


“Civil War Threatened: Workmen Have Lost Faith in Czar, and Now Mean to Fight,” New York Times (1857-1922), Jan 23, 1905, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, p. 1

Gregory L. Freeze, Russia: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009) 234-268.

Manifesto of October 17th, 1905, Documents in Russian History, Seaton Hall University

Worker’s Petition, January 9th, 1905 (Bloody Sunday), Documents in Russian History, Seaton Hall University


Russia Chugs Toward Modernity

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, “Railroad Bridge across the Onda River” (1915). Permanent record:

Despite being a major military power, the Russian Empire lagged behind Western Europe economically for much of the 19th Century. Though many factors contributed to its poor growth, including regressive business laws and the continuing presence of serfdom, one major problem was a severe lack of transportation infrastructure. Prior to 1855, there was only one railway in the Empire, making it very difficult to transport resources to markets. The vast size of the empire made the problem especially serious. This began to change during the period of reform under Tsar Alexander II in the 1860s and 70s. By 1887, the amount of laid track was 13 times what had been present in 1861. Russian industrialist Sergei Witte was put in charge of the railroads in 1889. Under his oversight, the Trans-Siberian Railway was planned and constructed, finally connecting the Far Eastern part of the empire to the West. Coinciding with the massive increase in railways was massive economic growth. Disparate and remote parts of the empire were now connected, allowing for resources such as coal, iron, and oil to reach the industrial markets.

Despite these improvements, the Russian rail system remained underdeveloped. Russia still used primarily foreign railroad equipment, and it was mostly outdated. Additionally, though the Trans-Siberian Railroad provided a connection between the western parts of the empire and the Far East, the vast majority of rail lines were concentrated in the west, leaving the east underdeveloped. Even with denser networks in the west, the sheer size of Russian territory meant that the length of track was still inadequate for a fully industrialized economy. This would prove to be a major problem for the military during the First World War. Russia had only thirteen tracks leading to their borders with Germany and Austria-Hungary at the outbreak of war, severely slowing down their mobilization time. Lack of capacity on the railroads also led to infamous equipment and weapons shortages on the front lines. Military useage of the railways also lowered capacity for civilian and commercial traffic, harming the economy. Industrial growth had brought workers to the cities in large numbers, and economic hardship brewed discontent among the urban workers in the years leading to the Revolution.

The railway depicted in the above photograph was constructed later, during the First World War, to connect St. Petersburg and Romanov-on-Murman. Now known as Murmansk, the city is of great strategic importance due to remaining ice-free the whole year; providing Russia year-round access to Arctic shipping lanes. The photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii was hired by the Tsar to photograph the Russian Empire in the early 20th Century.


Gregory L. Freeze, “Reform and Counter-Reform,” in Russia: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009) 199-233.

Roland Cvetkovski, “Railways (Russian Empire),” 1914-1918 Online,

“Russian industrialization,” AlphaHistory,