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A New Look at the Soviet Union
On the pages following, a picture window is opened on a facet of life in the Soviet Union never before revealed in such detail. Photographer Jerry Cooke, a man uniquely qualified by intimate knowledge of the Russian language and character, melted into the great melting pot of the U.S.S.R. last summer and returned with a story of extraordinary dimensions—a documentary not only of the vast Soviet physical culture program, but also an intimate record of the average citizen in his leisure time
We were charging down the Moscow- Leningrad highway at 75 miles per hour, scaring chickens, old babushkas with kerchiefs around their heads, and occasionally ourselves, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the driver stopped the car. Out he got and lit a cigaret. Soviet chauffeurs can be very temperamental, so my inquiry was cautious: "What's happening?" He pointed up the hill ahead. "Bicycles," he said. Sure enough, there came some 20 young men and women, pedaling toward us, preceded by a police motorcycle and followed by more policemen in two vintage touring cars of the type one sees in Capri with a load of tourists in large straw hats. The 1957 championship tour of the eastern U.S.S.R.—a Soviet equivalent of the famous Tour de France—was due to start in a few weeks, and The People were out practicing. And when The People practice, traffic stops, even on the most heavily traveled highways.
The incident impressed something on me—an impression which became very clear in the course of my stay in the Soviet Union:
Sports are a very big thing in the U.S.S.R. today.
In fact, sports are everywhere. The ideal of physical fitness is symbolized in the countless statues of sports figures seen in every Soviet park, alternating with intimate glimpses of Lenin and Stalin in white marble conferring behind a rosebush. To the average youth or sports-minded citizen, the statues are beautiful—certainly the female ones are the sexiest thing on public view in the otherwise rather prudish Soviet Union. More practically, the physical fitness ideal is evident in the huge stadiums and sports fields of the big cities, and the numberless more modest but thoroughly efficient installations in smaller towns. And they are not only there—they are used, constantly.
Even those who have no particular sport are drawn into the over-all physical fitness program. I carried a small portable radio with me, and everywhere I went I could listen to the setting-up exercises which start every Soviet day. Factory and office workers do their gymnastics, spurred on by posters which tell them how they can produce more for the Five Year Plan if they are in prime condition. Television, still available only on one channel, is full of sports, whether the viewers like it or not. Sports surround the Soviet citizen on his vacation and form a major part of any festival. Children start their first exercises in nursery school, with teachers telling them old Russian fables with a new physical fitness twist. The first collective activity in the sanatoriums and rest homes of the big Black Sea resorts is the 7 o'clock round of gymnastics, followed by a dip in the sea—before breakfast. Sports even enter into the business of production norms and industrial or agricultural achievements, which are presented in sporting terms and with the enthusiasm which the Western World usually reserves for the Olympic Games or the discovery of a new four-minute miler.
What prompts all this activity? There are many reasons. First, and most important: the government is behind it—a single, solid fact which in the U.S.S.R. obviously means a great deal. Combine this with the considerable amount of leisure time resulting from a universal eight-hour day, a passion for mass activity, and excellent facilities available at no cost, and you have more of the answer. The rest is a day-by-day barrage of propaganda extolling the advantages of physical fitness, plus an almost deliberate, certainly conscious, withdrawal by the average citizen from the complex problems of politics and economics in the Soviet Union. Put it all together and you have a sports and physical fitness boom with an importance in Soviet life which is unparalleled anywhere in the world today.
The boom in spectator sports is no less impressive. Moscow's Lenin Stadium, for example, a 100,000-seat structure, is filled easily and often by enthusiastic fans of the nation's most popular game, soccer. Basketball draws great crowds; track meets, gymnastics, hockey (on ice or grass), horse racing, steeplechasing, even tennis, a relatively new sport in the U.S.S.R.—all these have their highly partisan and vocal followings.
This is the story which I brought back from a summer spent in the Soviet Union this year, and it is shown in the 16 pages of color pictures which follow. The tremendous sports boom is everywhere evident in them; but as I took these pictures I realized, with a growing fascination, that they also showed something more: an entirely new look at the Soviet Union. Here is the U.S.S.R. in its leisure time, at play. It is perhaps not play in the sense that we understand it, for the Soviet citizen, by his very nature, tackles even his play with a certain grimness, somewhat like a big-time American football team tackles a difficult season; but it is play nonetheless, play directed single-mindedly at improving his own physical fitness and his sporting prowess, and thereby that of the entire Soviet Union.