Playing Past is delighted to be publishing on Open Access –Sports and Coaching: Pasts and Futures [ISBN 978-1-905476-77-0]  – This wide-ranging collection of papers, which highlight the richness and diversity of studies into sport and coaching, has its origins in a symposium hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Institute for Performance Research in June 2011. The contributors come from different disciplines and include some of Britain’s leading scholars together with a number of early career researchers.


Please cite this article as:

Akyildiz, S. Soviet Physical Culture in Uzbekistan: Implementation and Social Impact, In Day, D. (ed), Sport and Coaching: Pasts and Futures (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2012), 105-122.






Soviet Physical Culture in Uzbekistan: Implementation and Social Impact

Sevket Akyildiz



Soviet culture was part of the radical social transformation of society and was designed to transmit a new ideological consciousness. Physical culture as part of Soviet culture was a project that constructed and propagated sports and associated public events. Mass sports provision was designed to create healthy and proactive citizens for the union-wide economy and for military conscription, and the implementation of a universal physical culture and institutions of sport became after the late 1920s part of a Sovietization process to inculcate amongst all citizens specific socialist civic values. Centrally planned physical culture was deliberately used to engage young people and adults in Sovietised Western-style sports at school, youth movements and in wider society. In this paper I will investigate the relationship of Soviet culture and sport, and the implementation, construction and impact of physical culture in the Central Asian republic with the largest population of the modern era: Uzbekistan. I will clarify how Sovietisation embedded and internalised Soviet culture, sport and identity in society. Lastly, I argue that contemporary modern sports in Uzbekistan are a direct legacy of Soviet physical culture.


Recreation and physical culture was a constitutional right in the Soviet Union (Article 41 1936, 1977 Soviet Constitution). This paper addresses the implementation, impact and legacy of this vision on Uzbekistan. The introduction of a modern Sovietised modern sports culture was a progressive tool intended to help the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU, established in 1925) transform society and influence mass consciousness. I will show how Soviet physical culture was part of citizenship socialisation and nation-state building. Physical culture and mass education, when nurtured in a controlled environment, fostered the building of a communist society. Citizens were to be healthy in body and spirit, and imbued with a moral outlook. Indeed, physical culture was conflated with duties and responsibilities. In the Soviet model of social transformation, citizenship education was undertaken in schools, colleges, universities, youth movements, and physical culture. Multi-ethnic Soviet citizens were exposed to explicit moral and political education (citizenship education) through several channels including a culture of fitness and health. Soviet physical culture was planned, organised and funded, at the regional, republic and national levels. Physical culture (both in its modern and folk forms) was incorporated into an array of integration processes, including the construction of state-civic and national identities. The relationship between state sponsored sport and Sovietisation processes within the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, established in 1922) is the focus of this paper. With this in mind, I emphasise sports culture for elite athletes and the masses. This paper is a study on Soviet Central Asian history, and addresses an historical subject and a former Soviet republic thus far largely set aside in Western literature. I show how physical culture worked as a Sovietisation channel, and argue that it was generally a viable project, and how this led to a developed Western-style sports culture in Uzbekistan that continues today.

Below I will highlight the general features of Soviet physical culture in Uzbekistan; however, the point I want to emphasise here is that citizens in Uzbekistan, from all nationalities, would have been influenced by union-wide policies. Citizens in Uzbekistan would have participated in Soviet sports societies and clubs and would have been exposed and mobilised by the institutions and agencies of the Soviet sporting culture. Accordingly, all citizens would have experienced the reinforcement of state-civic values and norms through participation in physical education. Equally, all citizens would have been expected to conform to civic norms at sports ceremonies and, whilst undertaking recreational pastimes, citizens would consciously and unconsciously have been involved in collective activities. Sports are used in the modern world by governments to assist in building national consciousness and solidarity (within multicultural federations): an important issue in the USSR with a total population of approximately 276 million people in 1985, almost half of whom were non-Russians (Kozlov 1988: 38).

James Riordan (1974, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1988b, 1991) and  N. N. Shneidman (1979) have extensively researched Soviet physical culture. I will repeat their ideas below, but I will expand on their work by investigating the Uzbek story. Riordan talks about Soviet physical culture in the Soviet Union, and I build upon his work and show that it is just as important to understand the sports story that relates to Uzbekistan – a peripheral region of the Soviet Union. I would like to add that Barbara Keys (2006) discusses the Sovietisation of competitive sport (in the USSR) and the ‘Westernisation’ of Soviet physical culture (through participation in the Olympic Games) (Keys 2006: 180). However my focus is upon the former point and implementation of Western-style sports within Uzbek society.

My paper is thematically structured. In section one I summarise the history of CPSU management of Uzbekistan. I follow this with a definition of the general Soviet concept: ‘Sovietisation’ (political identity, culture and civic values). I then will discuss the historical use of ‘physical culture’ as a Sovietisation channel. I will examine the implementation of Soviet physical culture within Uzbekistan in section two – and investigate the first mass sports spectacles of 1920 to 1940, and the building of sports facilities, physical education and youth movements. In section three I detail the social impact and effect of Soviet physical culture in Uzbekistan and I will focus upon the themes of football (for the masses) and Olympic athletes, and social integration. I will include a summary of the legacy of Soviet physical culture in post-Soviet Uzbekistan. ‘Soviet culture’ refers to the ideological values, norms, education, arts and leisure of the USSR (Hoffmann 2003: 6). ‘Soviet physical culture’ encompasses social and educational sciences and practices. It involves ideologically planned physical activity and recreation, athletics training, education, hygiene, general leisure, children’s play, and fitness and sporting competitions (Riordan 1991: 28; Shneidman 1979: 4). ‘Socialisation’ means the transmission of Soviet values, norms, culture, and consciousness. Primarily this was achieved through the state managed and intensive Soviet form of youth upbringing (vospitanie).

Section one: Historical context

Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the region of Turkestan was renamed the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Political mechanisations by the Bolsheviks in the region have been examined by Western authors such as Pipes (1997). In brief, Lenin encouraged indigenous liberal nationalists to resist both the native Muslim elites and the White Russians. Manipulation of the political and military situation resulted in the Central Asian (Turkestan) liberal nationalists and Russian settlers inviting (in 1920) the Red Army (and the Communist Party) into their nominally independent region. In the early 1920s socio-political integration and control was advanced when local communist groups were fused with the Russian Communist Party. Secondly, purges eliminated liberal nationalists and Muslim leaders. Thirdly, the local economic networks were fused with the economy of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). This was followed by a delimitation processes within Central Asia that established the Soviet Socialist Republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan (1924), Tajikistan (1929), Kyrgyzstan (1936), and Kazakhstan (1936). Soviet nation-state building was based upon language, economics, history, culture and ethnicity. Soviet nationalities policies (the planning and administration of more than 100 Soviet nations) fostered (i) state-civic institutions and identity and (ii) national republic identities and interests (cultural nationalism). The creation of the fifteen national republics was part of Soviet ‘multiculturalism’ policies and the management of ethnic diversity and pluralism. Uzbekistan exemplifies the multicultural nature of Soviet society. Uzbeks constituted almost 70 per cent of the total population of Uzbekistan, others, notably Russians, Tatars and Tajiks, constituted the other 30 per cent of the total. Between 1917 and 1985 the population of Uzbekistan increased from approximately 5 million to 18 million people (and is approximately 28 million people today) (Akiner 1989: 100-17).

The second part of this section will analyse the Soviet concept that shaped the building of society, and the construction and production of Soviet culture. The core general Soviet concept under discussion is Sovietisation. This concept explains the ideas and processes of state-civic identification and the promotion and values of Soviet culture. Once I clarify the concept, I will then describe the modern historical use of sport and physical culture – as a core Sovietisation channel to transmit Soviet culture.

Identity and culture

‘Sovietisation’ (political identity, civic culture and values) was central to constructing a political identity and union-wide civic consciousness. State-civic socialisation was infused with Soviet historiography, heroes, and secular ceremony and intended to replace religious and communal values. The engendering of sblizhenie (the coming together of nations) and sliyanie (the merging of nations around Soviet culture) required a universal Soviet culture and shared values. The modernisation of Uzbekistan included the dissemination of Soviet culture advancing socialist values associated with collectivism, social progress and interventionism, rationalism, and gender and ethnic equality. Core socialist state-civic values were patriotism (defence of the Motherland and conscientious labour), internationalism, scientific atheism, socialist morality, Marxism-Leninism, public activism, and self-development for the collective good (Collias 1990: 74). These values were fostered in all Sovietisation channels. The manufactured (uniform) Soviet culture was ambitious and represented an attempt to create and influence consciousness and behaviour. Soviet state-civic identity was fostered through education channels to unite all Soviet nations. Urbanisation was advanced for economic reasons and to expose citizens to the array of Sovietisation channels; thereby shifting an individual’s allegiance and identity from family, tribe and region toward civic locale and city (Akiner 1989: 107). In addition a programme of ‘Russification’ involved the promotion of the Russian language and the Cyrillic alphabet, arts and culture, and Western-style education, across all national groups. Patriotic upbringing and Russian language assisted common purpose (Collias 1990: 79-85). Stalinism in the period 1924 to 1941 meant coercive social transformation; during this period Russification was evident amongst the Uzbek masses, especially amongst active and senior Party members, but was often interwoven with everyday unofficial Islam and native culture (Akiner, 2007). In fact during Soviet rule a unique interpretation of Soviet identity and acculturation evolved in Uzbekistan as a hybrid identity (Collias 1990: 79-84).

Sovietisation channel: physical culture

Sport in the modern world has a functional and emotional role: it stimulates empathies with athletes and national prestige, and reflects social norms and values, and attitudes to gender, class, and race. International championships are vital for national prestige for modern and developing states. Physical education imparts social skills such as cooperation and teamwork – and offers social mobility. Concurrently health awareness and education assists workplace attendance and productivity. Issues of cultural change, the waning of Christianity in the West, industrialisation and urbanisation are contributory factors in the rise of sport (Vanderzwaag 1972: 101).

Sports were used in European citizenship-building during the 19th century. Sport, for the upper middle classes in mid-19th century Imperial Russia proved popular and expanded in the industrialised-Europeanised urban towns. Private clubs and sports associations opened for those with time and spare money to pursue yachting, tennis, ice-skating, fencing, gymnastics, and cricket. Large-scale commercial and gambling enterprises operated horse-racing, boxing, football, and cycling events. Circuses also were popular. Sporting clubs and facilities were open in Ukraine, Byelorussia and amongst the excluded Jewish communities. In 1912, the Russian government established a quasi-military Physical Fitness Committee; a healthy reserve of young men was deemed appropriate to maintain internal order and combat external threats. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks benefited and utilised these comprehensive and centralised mass sports associations and groups. From early on the Bolsheviks functionalised sport for social change. First, the Universal Military Training Board (Vsevobuch, 1918) seized all sporting clubs and facilities and coordinated the sporting, educational and health ministries to help train Red Army conscripts for the Russian Civil War 1918-1922. Second, health education was instructed to raise national standards and educate the benefits of hygiene, nutrition, sleep, rest and exercise. A clean natural environment, access to sunlight, fresh air and water were said to boost the human immune system. Physical activity in this case is a form of preventative medicine. Third, competitive sports, despite reservations, were re-introduced into society, with an emphasis on mass amateur involvement. Peasants constituted about eighty per cent of the population living in the territory held by the Bolsheviks; for peasants, both physical culture and socialism were new experiences. Fourth, sport was used to integrate multi-ethnic Soviet society (Riordan 1978b: 14-22; Shneidman 1979: 19-17).

Sovietisation in this project meant the use of sports and sporting institutions and culture to create compliant and proactive citizens. The model of social transformation in the USSR was radical and attempted recast all social and cultural spheres including the replacement or marginalisation of traditional leisure and sports (folk games) and associated events. The implementation of Western-style sports onto Uzbek society changed physical space and the built landscape. Soviet identity building through general education and physical education included the fostering of values and norms supportive of the socialist revolution. Again to repeat my point, what is remarkable about the CPSU physical culture project was its breadth and depth in terms of vision and planning. In this case, physical culture mirrors the wider communist building project.

Section two: Implementation

In section two I will explain the implementation of physical culture as a Sovietisation channel and its importance. I will commence with a description of the first mass sport spectacle in the region, as this shows the long-term intention of Moscow. Second I will examine the building of local sports facilities as spaces of exercise, health and civic values and norms.

The first mass spectacles 1920 to 1940

The exposure of Central Asians to mass sports and spectacle commenced prior to the national delimitation process. The first Central Asian ‘Olympics’ was held in Tashkent (July 1920) with simultaneous events in Omsk and Yekaterinburg – thus, linking Central Asia with the emerging union-wide physical culture. Lasting for ten days, it was ethnically inclusive, with almost 3,000 athletes from Soviet Turkestan, including Russians, competing in folk and modern games. At the final ceremony, 1,500 athletes participated, displaying gymnastics and folk games. A second Central Asian Olympics (1921) included many of the Western sports that would shortly dominate Uzbek leisure. A Soviet Turkestan Olympics was held in 1924 and the first All-Uzbekistan Spartakiad was in 1927. Approximately 26,000 citizens of Uzbekistan joined sports clubs by the end of 1926 (Riordan 1977: 80). (The evidence in Western sources concerning the ethnic origin of these athletes is ambiguous.)

Implementing local physical culture

From a minimal starting point in the 1930s and 1940s the building of a Soviet physical culture became part of the lived experience for the Soviet people. The union-wide body responsible for physical culture was the Physical Culture and Sports Committee (established in 1930). The Uzbek public was catered for by the building of sports facilities and by both the Labour and Defence programme (est. 1931-34) and paramilitary training programmes. The union-wide physical culture department was represented on the ground by local governmental branches, trade unions, and sports organisations. (Russian and European loan words relating to sport became part of the Uzbek lexicon.) As noted above thousands of sports clubs and societies were established across the USSR, primarily in urban centres, but also in some rural districts (Gerlitsyn 1987: 19-21; Shneidman 1979: 16).

New facilities

Sports facilities were part of this project. Though provision of facilities was imperfect in the 1930s by the 1940s they were free and open to all ethnic communities. As modern educational institutions were established a cohort of trained sports staff and coaches became available too. Such a coordinated mass approach successfully fostered popular participation in sports and leisure and helped to integrate the first generations of young citizens into the emerging socialist society (see below). Between the 1930s and 1950s those with access to sports facilities began to emerge as indigenous sports amateurs. Their pathway to sporting success was the local school or college sports club. Furthermore, local sports competitions were organised; these allowed for mass entertainment, propaganda, and state-civic ceremonial ritual (Abazov 2007 p. 248).

Urbanisation across the USSR during the post-1945 era resulted in the government opening sports centres and stadiums to meet the growing interest and demand for participatory and spectator sports. The Pakhtakor F.C. Stadium (Tashkent) was built in 1955-56. Soviet sources available in English translation describe that in 1958 approximately 80,000 citizens of Tashkent were members of sports sections and trained regularly. They had access to nine stadiums, sixty-two gymnasia, and seven swimming pools. By 1958 Tashkent had ninety-four Masters of Sports of the USSR (specialist athletes) and a further 20,000 sports-people categorised by the Labour and Defence programme. Two beaches were constructed within the parks of Tashkent – the Komsomol Lake, and the Forest Park-Lake Pobeda (Goslitizdat 1958: 181-84). Sports buildings were apparently numerous: 175 ‘stadiums’, 3,000 gyms, fifty swimming pools, 2,400 shooting ranges and galleries, and 40,000 football pitches. Twenty thousand sports-educated specialists and 642,000 volunteer coaches worked at approximately 12,000 physical fitness and sports collectives (Gerlitsyn 1987: 58).

An ice hockey arena and training facilities existed in Tashkent (a city with a substantial population of Russians who enjoyed this sport). Experimental sports were introduced into Central Asia. Four new rugby teams were formed in Uzbekistan in 1962 and proved popular (Louis 1980: 39). Young Pioneer Palaces and Houses (organised spaces for members of the Young Pioneers youth movement for students aged 10 to 14) supplemented the provision of sports facilities for children and teenagers (Morton 1974: 5). Attempts were made to inculcate physical culture amongst the masses of Uzbekistan and approximately 4,000 qualified sports instructors worked in Uzbekistan by 1970. In addition, the sporting and cultural authorities built a State Institute of Physical Culture in Tashkent, and physical culture faculties in Andijan and Bukhara; and established more than 30 physical education departments in educational institutes; and started four sports boarding schools (more than in most other republics) (Riordan 1977: 308). Sporting boarding schools provided the premier youth schooling for sports in the USSR. Only 26 were operational by 1979, rising to 40 by 1990. For experimental reasons, the first sports boarding school was opened in Tashkent in 1962 – and replicated the sports boarding schools built in East Germany circa 1949. They followed the union-wide curriculum plus intensive physical education. Entrance was for pupils aged seven to 12 and they studied there until they were aged 18. Standards were high in coaching, sports psychology, diet and medical care (Riordan in Brown et al. 1994: 499). By late 1988 there were 30 baseball clubs in the USSR; a special children’s baseball school existed in Tashkent (Riordan 1988b: 38). As noted above, when contrasted with sports facilities in rich Western countries the USSR had fewer sports resources available. Indeed, in 1991 the USSR had only eight stadiums with a seating capacity of more than 50,000 – these stadiums were found at Moscow (two sites), Leningrad, Tbilisi, Erevan, Tashkent, Kiev and Minsk (Edelman 1993: 160). The establishment of sport in Uzbekistan was supported by published literature (infused with ideological content). Republican publications were produced for national audiences, for example, the Fizkul’turnik Uzbekistana (The Uzbekistan Athlete) had a circulation of 101,000 (1973) (Shneidman 1979: 166-67).

Physical education

The building of a universal and free education system was fundamental if the population was to acquire knowledge, skills training and an ideological mind-set. On October 1920 Lenin said physical education should cater to the mental, creative and physical development of young people (Gerlitsyn 1987: 15). For example, participation in gymnastics and swimming, to name a few sports, and attendance at mass sporting events were recommended. As discussed above, adult and youth sports were state organised and gender inclusive. School-based physical education was part of the union-wide curriculum and was used to promote a sense of well-being, strengthen human physiology, and improve dietary awareness. As a student progressed through school his or her involvement in sport increased. If they had the appropriate skills and capabilities their sports training became more specialised. By the ages of 15-17 elite teenage athletes appeared at international competitions (Kondratyeva 1979: 53-67; Louis 1980: 9-12).

Youth movements

Youth movements were partners with the education system and similarly offered sport-for-all. The CPSU in April 1932 issued On the Work of the Young Pioneer Organisation stipulating that the Young Pioneer youth movement had a responsibility to provide sporting facilities and contests. Pioneer sites, including clubs, Houses and Palaces, offered all the sports available in the school curriculum plus more besides, including football, hockey, tennis and ice hockey (and were co-ordinated with the union-wide Labour and Defence programme). Students and Pioneers could achieve a ‘Junior Tourist’ programme and badge. Furthermore, Pioneers organised military-influenced games and basic training such as Zarnitsa (Summer Lightening). The Summer Lightening simulated games involving various ethnic groups marching together in ceremonial parades expressing in public their patriotism (Louis 1980: 238; Shneidman 1979: 90). Pioneer membership was popular in Uzbekistan. The Tashkent Pioneer Palace, Marx Street (the N. K. Romanov Palace) provided a sports section and offered members volleyball, dance, basketball, football and chess. It is also suggested that its members had access to a swimming pool (Morton 1974: 5). The Komsomol (a youth movement for young people aged 15-28) were active in propagating moral education amongst young citizens and athletes. New members were sponsored by existing members and this made it an elite institution (and provided the CPSU with a pool of cadres). This movement was involved in the operation of the Labour and Defence programme (alongside the trade unions, and the union-wide Committee on Physical Culture and Sport). A network of Komsomol groups often operated within local, national, and union-wide sports clubs, societies, federations, summer Pioneer camps (on the Black Sea), and within local and national teams. They also functioned at an operational level to help infuse sports culture with patriotic upbringing (Riordan 1977: 145; 1987: 136-60).

The implementation of Sovietised Western-style sports culture in Central Asian society and the spaces and places constructed within the local urban cities and towns was all part of a deliberate policy to educate, indoctrinate and bring-up healthy citizens. Modern sports were a cultural product and import that could transcend local culture, identity and offer new social opportunities. Implementation of physical culture was ideologically driven to effect and shape gender, ethnicity and class relations. Folk games were tolerated as part of cultural nationalism. As noted in the introduction, modern sports in the USSR was a core element of the radical social transformation of Soviet society.

Section three: Social impact and effects

In this section I will explain the impact and effect of Soviet physical culture on Uzbek society, with reference to football, Olympic athletes, heroes and integration. The rationale of these themes is to explain how the CPSU used physical culture to mould the population of Uzbekistan. By reviewing these themes we can see how the planned and comprehensive use of sport influenced social integration, and the overall results of this Sovietisation channel. I would add that we can see here how Western-style sports were successfully implemented into the social fabric and mass consciousness of a Muslim majority society in a relatively short time (1924 to 1960 C.E.).


A sport such as football, considered by Edelman to be more popular than Soviet Olympic sports for many men in the USSR (Edelman 2006: 158), can function as an event that brings different social and ethnic groups together within a communal setting, allowing them to release emotions and feelings suppressed by social codes of behaviour. Such emotional release was encouraged provided it reflected Soviet values and patriotism. Sugden says that both local and national football had a wider social and political significance: ‘football…animates the discourse of citizenship’ (Sugden 2002: 78).

Football in many developing countries has become a popular mass sport because at its most basic it only requires a ball and the rules are relatively simple to follow. The profile of football in Uzbekistan developed during the 1970s when the Tashkent team Pakhtakor F.C. (Cotton Workers) became the only Uzbek team to regularly play in the top of the union-wide league. Pakhtakor F.C. was the defeated finalist in the 1968 Soviet Cup; their best union-wide Upper National League finish was sixth place, which they achieved twice, in 1962 and 1982. In 1974 they finished 12th out of 16 top teams. In 1979 the team was killed in an air-plane collision – creating a myth of fallen sporting heroes reminiscent of the Busby Babies of Manchester United who died in the 1958 air crash (Murray 1996: 192).

Olympic athletes

The relationship between the citizen and state-ideology is reflected in the mirror of sport: ‘Sport in the modern era, particularly as national and international spectacles, is a referendum on the nation, and political leaders are particularly explicit about the stakes involved in such competition’ (Kugelmass 2007: 38). Following membership of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) in 1951, the CPSU sought and achieved domination in the medals table. This they did as a metaphor of success of the socialist system vis-à-vis the ‘West’ and as part of a new foreign policy strategy (Edelman 2006: 159). However, this resulted in servicing the needs of elite Soviet athletes at the expense of the masses. Full-time sports men and women and teams were given state funding. To maintain some semblance of semi-amateurism such athletes were officially employed by the security services and as blue-collar workers (Brokhin 1978: 99-131).


Linked to Soviet people-building was the use of sports heroes in society to help inspire all generations of citizens and galvanise the population in times of war and peace (Morton 1974: 55). Due to the egalitarian ethos of Marxism-Leninism, and for pragmatic reasons to win hearts and minds, local Uzbek and Russian youths, regardless of family, tribe, religion, gender, and ethnicity were able, if they had the ability and mental strength, to train for international competitions and progress to become Soviet heroes. Heroes achieved cult-like status across the USSR – a policy promoted by Moscow to create state-civic role models for the young and give Soviet citizens a sense of collective achievement. Abazov writes that heroes would travel extensively across the USSR and perhaps meet top politicians, celebrities and journalists: ‘semi-professional sport was a ticket from dusty village streets to national and international glory and fame’ (Abazov 2007: 249).

Social integration

Rywkin once asserted that ‘Unlike American blacks or former French and British colonial subjects, Central Asian Muslims have never aspired to social integration with those who held power over them’ (Rywkin 1990: 113). Evidence below disputes this claim and could be used as the anti-thesis to Western Cold War argumentation that claimed that Uzbeks resisted Moscow’s social integration and nation-state building projects. The story behind each Uzbek athlete is a team of coaches, teachers, Komsomol activists, family members and friends – all of whom supported the physical and psychological health of elite athletes. The participation of Uzbek athletes alongside non-Uzbek citizens of Uzbekistan and other Soviet citizens would have required a degree of empathy with the goals and values of the CPSU. Notably, patriotic upbringing had emphasised the values of duty and ideological struggle. In addition, the lifestyle offered by sports culture attracted young people, and offered them social recognition. For the high achievers, it offered prestige, foreign travel and material goods. In the Soviet model of social integration two key factors need to be emphasised concerning the everyday life of Soviet elite athletes. First, was the intensity of coaching experienced (often commencing when the athlete was a youth, as discussed above). Complimenting this process was the inculcation of citizenship values and norms. Second was the constant surveillance by Soviet agents of athletes during their foreign trips. Listings of Soviet Uzbek athletes from 1952 to 1992 are available in the websites: International Olympic Committee (2009), and the National Olympic Committee of Uzbekistan (2009). For example, two Uzbek residents participated in the Helsinki Olympic Games (1952): Galina Shamray (women’s rhythmic gymnastics) and Sergey Popov (athletics). At the Moscow Olympic Games (1980) Erkin Shagaev (water polo) won gold and Rustam Yambulatov (shooting) won silver. These Soviet Olympic heroes and many other athletes based in Uzbekistan show that a working relationship was possible between the citizen and the CPSU, and that common purpose could be generated in the peripheral regions of the USSR. Indeed, I will explain below how this legacy of Soviet physical culture echoes in contemporary Uzbekistan.


In the following I will discuss the legacy of Soviet physical culture and summarise some of the core issues related to sport and society in contemporary Uzbekistan. Due to the implementation post-1991 of a new, less radical model of sport usage in society I will no longer use the term of physical culture. Instead I will refer to the current model as ‘sports culture’. The approximately 28 million citizens of Uzbekistan today are members of a marginal state, many of whom have experienced a significant reduction in their income during the 1990s (Sievers 2003: 1). Current sports provision is affected by restricted national budgets, and dependent upon charities and benefactors. Still, as noted below the condition of elite sports funding and investment in professional football in recent years appears to be improving. As part of a worldwide trend, sport is a growing economy, and many developing countries seek to participate and benefit socially from this sector. Furthermore, investment in sports within Uzbekistan has been affected by privatisation policies and mass consumerism. In the 2000s private sponsorship and entrepreneurs became more active in sports investment. Commercialisation has meant that many former state-managed sports clubs have closed, especially in rural locations. Some rural villages have few modern leisure amenities. This is problematic and hinders attempts to reach out to young people through sport and youth movements. Conversely, private sports, health and recreation clubs have opened in urban centres to cater for the beneficiaries of the new politico-economic realities of Uzbekistan (Abazov 2007: 248-49).

A particular form of Uzbek political nationalism and national identity since 1991 is being keenly propagated to replace the Soviet paradigm and historiography. Mythologising of historical figures and of national sports heroes (mirroring CPSU policies) is being undertaken to represent contemporary social interests, narratives and values. Furthermore, as was the case under CPSU rule, the contemporary Uzbek Olympic team represents the multicultural mix of the republic. In the oft forgotten region of Central Asia success in international sport gives prestige to Uzbekistan (Melvin 2000: 43-52). Since the Barcelona Summer Olympics of 1992, the performance of the Uzbek Olympic team has incrementally improved – winning two medals at the Atlanta Games of 1996, four medals at the Sydney Games of 2000, five medals at the Athens Games of 2004, and then six medals at the Beijing Games of 2008. Similar quantities of medals had been won by athletes from Uzbekistan during Soviet rule. The Uzbek team still reflects the multicultural ethos initiated by Soviet internationalism. For instance, Artur Taymazov won a gold medal in wrestling at the Beijing Olympics and is of North Ossetian origin; Anton Fokin, won a bronze medal in men’s parallel bars at the Beijing Olympics, and is of Slavic origin. Lastly, football, a legacy of Soviet social interventionism, has become a popular mass sport in Uzbekistan. The top championship teams and the national youth and adult teams are encouraged by Tashkent to play at international competitions. Again this adds to the prestige of the Uzbek republic within the world of international football. This is a common strategy used by many developing countries who seek to use sport as a tool in nation-state building and to foster shared emotional experiences amongst their masses (BBC 2009; National Olympic Committee of Uzbekistan 2009; Uzbekistan National News Agency 2011a).

In summary, a number of themes regarding sports in post-Soviet Uzbekistan can be observed relating to nation-state building, education, funding, elite sports, youth sport, and women. Investment from government and private groups is directed towards elite and professional athletes, and less so to the masses. However, in recent years government and independent news agencies report that sports-for-all programmes are being implemented with the support of new civic building projects, for example, the Fund Forum (2011) and the Youth Sports Games (Uzbekistan National News Agency 2011b). The key issue here is how policy is implemented on the ground, and whether the poor, the young, women, the disabled and ethnic minorities are encouraged to participate in sports regularly and in significant numbers. International sports organisations (and non-governmental organisations) will actively monitor progress in sports provision and make observations and recommendations. Evidence has shown that the prestige of international sports and the creation of ‘national heroes’ are currently being emphasised by Tashkent. This means that efforts will be made by Tashkent to integrate its domestic sporting federations into the plethora of non-political international sporting organisations and federations. International sports federations, ‘present themselves as above politics, guardians of sport’s “moral purity”’ (Keys 2006: 61). This means the government of Uzbekistan is acknowledging the universal values and norms which international sporting committees expect of their member countries (Burrell 2011: 41; Killanin. 1983: 9-23).


The core focus of this paper was the implementation and impact of a Sovietised Western-style physical culture on a ‘traditional Muslim’ society and how it was used to create healthy and civic-minded citizens amongst the peoples of Soviet Uzbekistan. I have looked at what happened under CPSU rule, how this Sovietisation channel affected the locals (both the masses and the elite athletes) and the general outcome of physical culture amongst the peoples of Uzbekistan. To repeat the point I have argued above, sport can be used to influence social transformation in the context of the built environment, mass participation and in the promotion of elite athletes. However, sport is but one tool of social transformation amongst several including economic, education, and social factors. The social and emotional interaction between athletes, society and spectators has wider implications in the forging of a political community. It includes identification with the political community based upon shared interests. This is where sport enters the stage as a device that can be deployed to create healthy citizens, for work purposes and military conscription – and to help generate a common purpose and reference points amongst citizens. A multicultural society such as the USSR found sport and the establishment of an ideological physical culture served this purpose adequately. Indeed physical culture is suitable for ideological penetration, propaganda and manipulation by elite political actors. Physical culture was embedded within the broader concept of Soviet culture – and was co-ordinated with youth state-civic upbringing. For this to occur, it required a centralised sports administration co-ordinated with Sovietisation channels. The goal was to get the numerous ethnic communities that constituted Uzbekistan to cooperate and befriend their Slavic colleagues within the state team and for masses to wish the team well.

Yet, a gulf existed between theory, policy and implementation in this supposedly egalitarian social project. The implementation of physical culture and the building of sports facilities were not perfected by Moscow. The urban centres within Uzbekistan had the sports clubs and Pioneer Houses available to supply the quota of Labour and Defence programme badge holders that Moscow demanded. Yet some rural villages were inadequately serviced by the utilities let alone health and fitness centres. The health condition of the masses and their participation in everyday sports is unclear. Nevertheless, sport created opportunities for young Uzbek youths of both genders – and exposed them to socialist values and norms. Soviet physical culture within Uzbekistan recast traditional-folk and leisure culture amongst the Uzbeks. By the 1950s and 1960s Uzbeks and others were very much participants within the international arena of sports competitions. In doing so the CPSU renegotiated family relations between children and their parents, mobilising schools, colleges and youth movements to propagate a socialist way of life and ideological consciousness. Sporting events and competitions encouraged mass participation, and involved state-civic rituals and pageants. Government policies distributed resources to assist sporting institutions with the spotting and coaching of young sporting talent.

My research suggests that physical culture achieved an effective coming together of Soviet citizens in the Soviet national leagues and in the Soviet Olympic team. The social interactions between Uzbeks and comrades from different socio-ethnic groups and the state were complex and influenced by education, propaganda, social opportunities, and shared interests. In this case, sport was partially successful in promoting shared state-civic values and mass integration. Still, after a short period of twenty-five years (from 1924 to 1951-2) the people of Uzbekistan had acquired Sovietised Western-style leisure pursuits – and actively participated in a system of state-civic mobilisation (in national and union-wide sports federations and championships). Indeed, the Olympic Games were an alien concept in Central Asia pre-1924 – yet, by 1952 the Uzbeks were winning Gold Olympic medals. Compare this with the neo-liberal intervention in Afghanistan (2002-2012), at best the flying of kites has been reintroduced and a national cricket team has been established. Though Soviet physical culture produced several moral issues it also fostered a healthier Uzbek society, show-cased the republic of Uzbekistan in international sport, and has left a legacy of modern sports culture in the region.




Abazov, R. (2007). Culture and customs of the Central Asian republics. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood: Oxford.

Akiner, S. (1989). Postgraduate seminar class. SOAS, University of London. 22 January 2007.

Akiner, S. (1989). Uzbekistan: Republic of Many Tongues. In J M Kirkwood (ed.), Language Planning in the Soviet Union. London: Macmillan in association with the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, 100-17.

BBC (2011). ‘Scolari moves to Uzbek champions’, <>, accessed 11 July.

Brokhin, Y. (1978). The big red machine. New York: Random House.

Brown, A., Kaser, M. & Smith, G. S. (eds.) (1994). The Cambridge encyclopedia of Russia and the former Soviet Union (2nd ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burrell, I. (2011). ‘Why TV Coverage of the Olympics may not reflect our global city’, “I” Independent, 24 October,  p. 41.

Collias, K. A. (1990). Striving for Homo sovieticus: Making Soviet Citizens: Patriotic and Internationalist Education in the Formation of a Soviet State Identity. In D. E. Huttenbach (ed.), Soviet Nationalities Policies / Ruling Ethnic Groups in the U.S.S.R. London: Mansell, 73-93.

Edelman, Robert (1993) Serious fun: a history of spectator sports in the U.S.S.R. [online text], Oxford University Press <>

— (2006), ‘Moscow 1980: Stalinism or Good, Clean Fun?’, in Alan Tomlinson (ed.), National identity and global sports events: culture, politics, and spectacle in the Olympics and the football World Cup (New York: State University of New York), 149-62.

Gerlitsyn, V. (1987), Soviet Sport – The Success Story (Moscow: USSR Raduga Publishers).

Goslitizdat, Publishing (1958), Cultural Establishments of Tashkent: A Brief Reference Book on Theatrical, Scientific and Cultural Instructive Establishments (Uzbek SSR: Goslitizdak).

Hoffmann, D.L. (2003). Stalinist values: Cultural norms of Soviet modernity 1917-1941. USA: Cornell University.

International Olympic Committee (2009). ‘The Olympic Movement’, <>, accessed 19 June.

Keys, B.J. (2006). Globalizing sport – National rivalry and international community in the 1930s. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press.

Killanin., R.J. (ed.) (1983). The Olympic Games 1984.London: Willow Books.

Kondratyeva, M. (1979). Children and sport in the U.S.S.R. Moscow: Moscow Progress Publishers.

Kozlov, V. (1988). The peoples of the Soviet Union. London: Hutchinson.

Kugelmass, J. (2007). Jews, sports and the rites of citizenship. USA: University of Illinois.

Louis, V. (1980). Sport in the Soviet Union (2nd rev edn). London: Pergamon.

Melvin, N. (2000). Uzbekistan – transition to authoritarianism on the silk road. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.

Morton, M. (1974). The making of champions: soviet sports for children and teenagers (1st edn). New York,: Atheneum.

Murray, W. J. (1996). The world’s game: a history of soccer. Illinois history of sports; Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

National Olympic Committee of Uzbekistan (2009), <>, accessed 8 June.

Organization, Fund Forum (2011), ‘Fund Forum ‘, <www//>, accessed 30 August.

Pipes, R. (1997). The formation of the Soviet Union: communism and nationalism 1917-1923. Harvard: Cambridge.

Riordan, J. (1974). Soviet sport and Soviet foreign policy. Soviet Studies, 26(3), 322 – 43.

— (1977). Sport in Soviet Society: development of sport and physical education in Russia and the U.S.S.R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

— (1978). Soviet Sport and Soviet Foreign Policy. In B Lowe (ed.), Sport and International Relations. USA Illinois: Stipes Publishing, 326.

— (1978b). Sport under communism: the U.S.S.R., Czechoslovakia, the G.D.R., China, Cuba. London: C.Hurst.

— (1980). Soviet sport: background to the Olympics. Oxford: Blackwell.

— (1987). The Role of Youth Organizations in Communist Upbringing in the Soviet School. In George Avis (ed.), The Making of the Soviet citizen: Character formation and civic training in Soviet education. London: Croom Helm, 136-60.

— (1988b). Sport and Perestroika. In K Hardman (ed.), Physical education and sport under communism. Manchester: Centre for Physical Education, University of Manchester.

— (1991). Sport, politics and communism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Rywkin, M. (1990). Moscow’s muslim challenge: Soviet Central Asia (Rev. edn).Armonk, N.J.; London: Sharpe.

Shneidman, N.N. (1979). The Soviet road to Olympus: theory and practice of Soviet physical culture and sport. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sievers, E.W. (2003). The Post-Soviet decline of Central Asia – Sustainable development and comprehensive capital. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Sugden, J. (2002). Network Football. In J. Sugden, Tomlinson, A. (ed.), Power games: A critical sociology of sport. London: Routledge, 61-79

Uzbekistan National News Agency (2011), ‘President: Children’s Sport is the Future of Uzbek Sports’, <>, accessed 13 July

— (2011), ‘Barkamol Avlod 2011 Sports Games End’, <>, accessed 15 July

Vanderzwaag, H. (1972). Toward a philosophy of sport. Reading, Mass. USA: Addison-Wesley.