Physical Culture and the Embodied Soviet Subject, 1921-1939: Surveillance, Aesthetics, Spectatorship

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Goff, Samuel Alec 

My thesis examines visual and written culture of the interwar Soviet Union dealing with the body as an object of public observation, appreciation, and critique. It explores how the need to construct new Soviet subjectivities was realised through the figure of the body. I explore the representation of ‘physical culture’ (fizkul’tura), with reference to newspapers, specialist fizkul’tura and medical journals, and Party debates. This textual discourse is considered alongside visual primary sources – documentary and non-fiction film and photography, painting and sculpture, and feature films. In my analysis of these visual primary sources I identify three ‘categories of looking’ – surveillance, aesthetics, and spectatorship – that I claim structure representations of the embodied Soviet subject.

My introduction incorporates a brief history of early Soviet social psychological conceptualisations of the body, outlining the coercive renovative project of Soviet subjectification and introducing the notion of surveillance. My first and second chapters explore bodily aesthetics. The first focuses on non-fiction media from the mid- to late-1920s that capture the sporting body in action; this chapter introduces the notion of spectatorship and begins to unpack the ideological function of how bodies are observed. The second further explores questions of bodily aesthetics, now in relation to fizkul’tura painting and Abram Room’s 1936 film, Strogii iunosha. My third chapter looks at fizkul’tura feature films from the mid- 1930s to explore how bodies were related to social questions of gender and sexuality, including marriage and pregnancy. My final chapter focuses on cinematic representations of football from the late 1930s and the relationship between bodies on display and onlooking crowds. These two chapters together indicate how the dynamic between the body and its spectator (whether individual or in a group) was reimagined in the late interwar years; the body’s aesthetic appeal is now of little importance compared to its ability to constitute a public subjectivity through the manipulation of emotion, trauma, and pathos.

Widdis, Emma
Soviet culture, Soviet history, Soviet film, Soviet art, Cinema, History of Art, Physical culture, Sport, Aesthetics, Spectatorship, Surveillance, Cultural history, Subjectivity, Biopolitics
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
This research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam College, and the Santander Mobility Fund.