Spartakiady: mass events that exercised the Czechoslovak Communist regime
Spartakiads, or Spartakiady, mass gymnastic exercises, were a unique event of their kind in Czechoslovakia under the Communist regime. Historian Petr Roubal has put the phenomenon under the spotlight and the result is an award winning book looking at the various events and how they evolved over time. I asked him how much did the first Spartakiad in 1955 differ the similar mass events or Slets, organised previously by the Czech Sokol movement.
ʺAnd then again in 1948, after the Communists had already taken over power, there was another Sokol gathering with Klement Gottwald already the president. There was a lot of tension there. But the 1955 Spartakiad really used this tradition very effectively. It used the organisational skills of the Sokols – they were practically the same people as they were in the previous slets – and the participants were the Sokols themselves. The composers were the same and the choreography was done by the same people.
ʺThey spoke about this artificial Soviet influence."
ʺBut at the same time again there were Soviet influences. One thing we don’t find in later Spartakiads is the involvement of the avant-garde artists from the inter-war period. So there was this attempt to give it the flavour of mass theatre which was very popular in avant-garde theatrical circles. Also the colour compositions were very much under the Soviet influences, which was later on criticized by the Sokols which were shocked by some of the colours, for example, soldiers performing in pink. They spoke about this artificial Soviet influence, of course, only in internal discussions which were not intended for the broader public. This was seen as something outside the national tradition and was later removed from the Spartakiad.
ʺOf course, the symbolism of the 1955 Spartakiad was very explicitly political. People formed five pointed stars with their bodies in the stadium. They wrote slogans with their bodies and so on. It was explicit symbolism, but you can find that in Sokol slets as well so it is not something that is completely new."
"Yes, absolutely. The focus of the next Spartakiad was the sheer amount of performances and participants. It was later on criticized by the organisers that it was focused too much just on the scale of the event. Also, it was terribly expensive. The next one was much more modest. Also, this was 1960 and so this was the high point of optimism of the Communist government in management of society and the economy. In 1961 the real shock comes when they realise that the Five Year Plan does not work and they scrap it and also have to do some really drastic cuts, which also affects the next Spartakiad.ʺ
The Spartakiad in 1965 was downsized quite considerably from the previous two and the tone was also different…
ʺYes, absolutely. This was a very different event. First of all it was around half the size of the previous event. But it also echoes the culture of the 1960s. You have a much more relaxed atmosphere there and the performances and the choreography try to find some common ground with the spectators and the participants, especially the young ones. There was the Cha-Cha performance of the teenage boys and girls who performed this dance in the Strahov stadium in swimsuits. Especially with the overgrown teenage boys, this looks somewhat weird. But it was an attempt to give it a more human dimension. Also, one change, which became very apparent later but is already visible now, is the change in the perception of the human body. In 1955-1960, it was a more explicit political symbol that these bodies were creating symbols and letters and so on. They wore uniforms and carried weapons and agricultural tools. Also the movements were symbolic, emphasizing something else…"
"The main message of these Spartakiads was stability.ʺ
"Absolutely, whereas this is now a new model where the body is taken as a more implicit symbol and there is the focus on the aesthetics of the so-called natural body.ʺ
What surprised me was that in 1970, when there should have been the next Spartakiad, there was not one. It was cancelled and the reason for that was that the Communist authorities were not sure if they could adequately control what sort of show would be put on. This was quite surprising, no?
But they decided later to renew the Spartakiad but under the so-called Normalisation. What did the Spartakiad look like under Normalisation?
ʺIn terms of scale nothing like that was done anywhere else."
"They inherited this view of the body as inherently beautiful and strong and so on and used this natural power of its symbolism. That is the progressive part. At the same time, they took from the Sokol tradition this stress on rather conservative values, especially family values. Any sort of dynamism is lost from that. Also, the three Normalisation Spartakiads look very similar to each other,. Even as an expert, I have difficulty to recognise the pictures from the Spartakiads because they really look identical and there are few clues to guide yourself.
More generally, how unique were the Czechoslovak Spartakiads in the form that they were as a massive public show and participatory event?
"The Spartakiads are Sokol slets, there is no way around that.ʺ
ʺThey were unique in many senses. First of all they were organised for the biggest stadium in the world so in terms of scale nothing like that was done anywhere else. They were also unique in that they were a follow up on the Sokol traditions. This genre of synchronised exercises is not particular to Czechs, it was also popular in the Soviet Union as well and other socialist countries. But it was always as an introduction or conclusion as the opening or closing ceremony to something else, usually some sort of competitive sport or political ritual. But here the synchronized movement is the event itself. For several hours people watch how other people move in synchronized fashion. That actually was not done in the Soviet Union. It was usually quite a short performance of synchronised movement as the opening to something else, such as the opening of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 has this performance but only as a prelude to something else. "
How much was there real enthusiasm for these events and how much were people forced or pushed to take part, is it possible to say?
"Then, of course, the school kids were always sort of forced to do it. It was possible to refuse to take part in Spartakiads. At least officially there were not supposed to be any consequences but at the same time the peer pressure, the pressure from the school, the whole environment was quite big. And then of course, you have army recruits who simply had to follow orders and there was no voluntary element. But then you have groups, adult men and women who did it nearly entirely voluntarily. In the later Spartakiads, especially under Normalisation and among women, there were many more people wanting to take part than were able to do so because of the capacity of the stadium.ʺ
I read that enthusiasm in Slovakia was not the same as what is now the Czech Republic because it was perceived as something that was more Czech and something that was imposed from Prague?
ʺThat is absolutely the case. The Spartakiads are Sokol slets, there is no way around that. Of course that means that the tradition of Sokols is missing in Slovakia plus, not only is it missing, but it also has completely the wrong association which is of Czechoslovakism, which was not popular in Slovakia."