Bryant on Roubal, 'Spartakiads: The Politics and Aesthetics of Physical Culture in Communist Czechoslovakia'

Author: 
Petr Roubal
Reviewer: 
Chad Bryant

Petr Roubal. Spartakiads: The Politics and Aesthetics of Physical Culture in Communist Czechoslovakia. Karolinum Press, 2018. 350 pp. $23.00 (paper), ISBN 978-80-246-3851-5

Reviewed by Chad Bryant (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Published on H-Urban (September, 2021) Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55080

Communist Czechoslovakia relied upon a host of rituals such as May Day parades and phony elections for its legitimacy, but no ritual, Petr Roubal argues in this impressive book, was more important than the Spartakiad. Prague hosted this massive event every five years from 1955 to 1985, except in 1970, two years after the Warsaw Pact invasion interrupted planning and set the stage for a new political order. During the Spartakiad, two hundred thousand spectators filled the largest concrete stadium in the world, Strahov Stadium, on a hill not far from Prague Castle to watch tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen perform synchronized gymnastics movements. In the years leading up to the event, organizers carefully planned routines and tackled a host of logistical questions, such as how to house and feed so many visitors to the city. Performers spent many months training and learning their routines. The Spartakiad, as Roubal writes, was “meant to answer the fundamental question of state socialism: What is a socialist people and what is their will?” (p. 11). The Spartakiad, as he also shows, forces us to question some basic assumptions about Communist bureaucracy while rethinking the relationship between Czechoslovaks and Communist rule.

Four questions frame the book’s structure. The first question traces out the origins of the Spartakiad, taking the reader back to the nineteenth century and the emergence of various gymnastics organizations created by German nationalists in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Gymnastics were then appropriated by Slavic nationalists, such as Miroslav Tyrš, who founded the Czech Sokol movement. The Sokol proved immensely popular, growing to include thousands of local clubs across the Bohemian Lands within the multinational Habsburg monarchy before World War I. After the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy and the creation of Czechoslovakia, the Sokol played a key role in supporting President Tomáš Masaryk’s interwar First Republic. Throughout, Sokolist displays of healthy, coordinated, vibrant bodies were meant to symbolize a healthy, coordinated, vibrant nation, both in local performances but also at major gatherings called slets. During the interwar period, Sokolists moved from the fields of Letná plain in Prague to Strahov Stadium, which they built with the help of funds from the city government. So meaningful, and powerful, was the political symbolism of the slet, Roubal argues, that Communist leaders decided to go ahead with the June-July 1948 slet, even though Communists had seized power earlier that year. The slet, Czechoslovak President Klement Gottwald told Sokol members after the event, proved that “our new order is filled with Tyrš’s ideas, progress, democracy, and Slavic solidarity” (p. 118).

The 1948 slet, however, proved to be an uncomfortable affair for Communist leaders, in part because many Sokolists openly protested Communist rule that summer in Prague. The challenge for Czechoslovak Communists, then, was to appropriate the slet for their own purposes and to endow it with their own political meanings. These efforts take up the second part of the book, which draws upon a Clifford Geertzian-style interpretation of the six Spartakiad performances held in Prague before the end of Communist rule in 1989. The 1955 Spartakiad, which took place two years after the death of Gottwald and Josef Stalin, contained echoes of the Stalinist era, with performers organized around social classes and performances having a mechanical character. Following the end of the 1960s reform movement, and especially after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, the performances took on a more organic character that, as Roubal argues, suggested notions of timelessness embraced by the regime more broadly. Gender, and traditional gender roles, became the key organizing principle for performers and performances. Family values became paramount. As Roubal writes suggestively, “By visualizing the public sphere as the private sphere, as family, the alienation of political power” from society at large was concealed (p. 228). Indeed, throughout the era, he writes, the Spartakiad’s symbolic, mass movement of Czechoslovak bodies could, albeit fleetingly, bridge the gap between ideological claims and experienced reality. It was through the Spartakiad that Communist leaders could visualize for themselves and others a people that was paradoxically obedient and sovereign.

Throughout, however, the ghosts of the Sokol movement remained, as a third bundle of questions related to the organization of the Spartakiad reveals. Not only had Communists appropriated the Sokolists’ main performance venue, Strahov Stadium, but they also they inherited infrastructural improvements to the city made in advance of interwar slets—a renovated train station, new tram lines, and electric tracks for the funicular up Petřin Hill, from whence spectators could easily walk to the performance. After the 1948 slet, Communist leaders worked hard to dissolve Sokol associations and persecute outspoken leaders, but they soon realized that they needed Sokol expertise in order to pull off the event—and to transform Sokol aesthetics into Communist-friendly aesthetics. What Roubal calls the Gesamtkunstwerk spirit that combined artistic genres—music and choreography, film and architecture, design and celebratory literature—relied upon the creative efforts of many former Sokolists. After 1955, and consonant with the regime’s turn from revolutionary rule to a reliance on experts, many former Sokolists working within the Faculty of Physical Education and Sports at Charles University were central in planning an event that required an extraordinary amount of coordination. In 1960, for example, organizers successfully provided more than five million meals to participants. There were, of course, hiccups. That same year, participant protests forced organizers to remove high-calorie butter cakes with cheese curd in favor of traditional meals such as beef goulash.

The fourth and final set of questions revolves about popular participation and popular attitudes. Throughout the Communist era, thousands of “everyday” Czechoslovaks, and especially women, spent many months training for the Spartakiad—evidence, Roubal writes, that participants were anything but unwilling cogs in a state-designed propaganda show. Small protests and mocking satires characterized each Spartakiad gathering. Polling, letters to the organizers, and other reminiscences reveal that many participants enjoyed the escape from the drudgery of their daily lives that the practices offered. They traveled to Prague, which took on a festival-type atmosphere during the Spartakiad days. They experienced adrenaline rushes as they entered through the Gate of Athletes into Strahov Stadium and shared a generally positive experience that often inspired them to sign up for the next performance. Following the collapse of the Communist regime, the decision to cancel the 1990 Spartakiad provoked much disgruntlement among performers. In the early years of post-Communism, Sokol leaders attempted to revive their organization, but with little success. Individualism and consumerism, Roubal suggests, ruled the day. The forces of modernity, papered over by Spartakiad symbolism, could no longer be ignored.

The original Czech-language version of Spartakiads has justly won much praise, including the 2017 Magnesia Litera Prize for nonfiction, perhaps the most prestigious book award of its kind in the Czech Republic. This fine English-language translation by Dan Morgan should ensure that Roubal’s impressive work finds an even wider audience. Drawing from a large array of methodological tools as well as an impressive assortment of primary sources created by publishers, planning committees, and others, Spartakiads fluently combines a number of methodological approaches. The book is also peppered with telling insights that challenge many assumptions about Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. In the Spartakiad, for example, we see neither a totalitarian state nor one marked by inevitable inefficiencies and corruption. Instead, we see, in this single, crucial ritual, several things: a moral economy in which state and society interacted; a state keen to forge for itself a sense of popular legitimacy; and the regime’s ability to realize one massive, multifaceted project. The Spartakiad was not, of course, the typical Communist experience or endeavor, and it is important to note that Roubal makes no such claim.

Roubal’s well-argued book also inspires a host of questions for future researchers. All of the Spartakiads took place in Prague, which is significant. One wonders if organizers ever considered holding the event in Bratislava, or if Czech-centric tendencies or even the simple desire to make use of the massive Strahov Stadium precluded such discussions. The simple fact that Prague was the capital of Czechoslovakia—the real and symbolic center of Communist power—no doubt played a role in this decision as well. In addition to ritualizing Communist ideology, did the Spartakiad not also perform the function of allowing Communist leaders to claim Prague as their own, and to present their regime as the rightful successor to Czechoslovak rule? It would be interesting to consider how Spartakiads complemented urban planners’ efforts to ring Prague’s historic center with structures, such as concrete panel apartment complexes, that were decidedly socialist in form. For spectators and performers who lived outside the Prague, the Spartakiad may have offered a chance to reimagine their respective relationships to the city and its built environment.

One wonders, too, how Roubal’s story might have changed if he focused more on Bohemia’s pre-World War I Social Democratic gymnastics association as well as the interwar Czechoslovak Communist Party’s own gymnastics organization—one of the party’s most popular associations, whose early leaders included future Communist leaders such as Gottwald. Pre-1955 leftist efforts to reconcile political visions with national belonging, as well as homegrown leftist expertise, feel diminished by Roubal’s determination to highlight the role of the Sokolists. While the book argues that annual May Day parades lacked the symbolic power and enthusiasm of the Spartakiads, this argument is stated but not demonstrated. It might be interesting to consider how the regime’s May Day parades, and the May Day protests that predated them, represent a ritualized form of collective bodily movement that has survived Communist rule, in the lands of Czechoslovakia and beyond. The protest march’s endurance stands in contrast to the individualism and consumerism that Roubal sees as triumphant after 1989. Here, the popular protests in Prague and beyond organized by Million Moments of Democracy in recent years come to mind.

Spartakiads is a truly remarkable work of scholarship that challenges readers to see Communist rule in Czechoslovakia from a different perspective. More broadly, it points to how scholars might read state-sponsored performances, whether they be parades, independence-day celebrations, or mass gymnastics spectacles, in creative, thought-provoking ways. Roubal’s book will be of great interest to urban historians and historians of Communist Eastern Europe, as well as anyone interested in how regimes seek legitimacy thorough mass rituals and carefully crafted symbolism.

Citation: Chad Bryant. Review of Roubal, Petr, Spartakiads: The Politics and Aesthetics of Physical Culture in Communist Czechoslovakia. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55080

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