WORLD SPORTS SCENE / RANDY HARVEY : Sports in Former Soviet Union: 'Serious Fun'

Robert Edelman is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton who earned a Ph.D in Russian history from Columbia and has been teaching that subject at UC San Diego since 1972.

But since his early days in academia, he has hidden a "dirty secret" from other scholars. He is a sports fan, almost as interested in the Kings as in the Czars, in March Madness as in May Day.

It has not been easy for him to reconcile such traditionally disparate pursuits, just as it was not for a fellow, long-haired campus radical from the '60s who once told him: "No one can be a true revolutionary until Willie Mays retires."

Sharing his neighborhood as a child with Ebbets Field, Edelman's hero was Jackie Robinson.

"My parents were very progressive, and anti-racism was a big part of that," Edelman said during a recent interview. "As the first black player in the major leagues, Jackie Robinson was the combination of my political and sports fantasies."

Edelman, 47, also has been able to combine his two interests in a recently published book. His first two books, "Proletariat Peasants" and "Gentry Politics on the Eve of the Russian Revolution," cannot be found in the sports section of bookstores. His third one can. Entitled "Serious Fun," it is a history of spectator sports in the former Soviet Union.

Question: What is serious fun?

Answer: Basically, what I tried to do was look at the relationship between popular culture and the Soviet version of Marxism and to try to understand whether spectator sport either supported the government or undermined it.

The serious part was that the state had this idea of using popular culture in general, and spectator sport in specific, to instill discipline and consent for the regime so that that they wouldn't have to gain all acceptance by the use of oppression and force.

This is the idea of cultural hegemony. You don't have to have a policeman in every corner and a KGB guy behind every telephone. You also have propaganda that gains enthusiasm and makes people think they live in the best of all possible worlds.

The fun part, of course, is the way the people did or did not receive it. They went to a game or they went to a movie or read a science fiction book or a detective novel to have pleasure.

Q: Did that undermine the government?

A: We're not talking about principled opposition or people in dissent. But it was a way in which the intentions of the state were not fulfilled.

They wanted people to watch these sports and be inspired to exercise, which they weren't. They wanted the athletes to be role models of discipline and order--brave, clean, thrifty and reverent--who the people could look up to, like model workers, which they sometimes were and sometimes weren't.

Q: In your book, you write that, despite the success of the Soviet Union in the Olympics, sports fans there weren't any more interested in most of those sports than they are in the United States. Why did the government place so much emphasis on Olympic sports?

A: If you look at the Olympic sports system, it was designed for the state's goals of instilling values and gaining prestige for both the country and the system. One way of doing this was to win the most medals, and the way you win the most medals is to have people trying every sport across the board rather than the sports that are necessarily popular.

It was like the steel mills and the dams and the rocket ships and the military power and the factories that built the turbines. They built all these things for this industrial giant, but they weren't things that people wanted or needed.

The public wasn't interested in luge. They were interested in a very narrow range of sports that have been popular throughout the rest of the world, soccer in particular but also ice hockey, basketball and, maybe, volleyball.

It was a small microcosm of the failure of the system to meet the needs of the consumer section. And it actually undermined their ability to be good in soccer because they spread their talent pool so thin. I'm sure, as far as the Soviet public is concerned, one victory in the World Cup would have been worth 10 Olympic championships.

Q: You write that fans in the Soviet Union, in general, do not "bleed Dynamo blue." Is that due to a different value system than we have here or lack of marketing?

A: Both. No, sports is not as important there. People aren't patriotic or chauvinistic about their towns or their schools the way they are here. They like their team, but they don't lose their sense of identity. That's when things become distorted, when you commit suicide because your team loses. I never felt that psychic borderline got transgressed.

But, also, sports doesn't take up the cultural space. There's no 24-hour sports channels. Even if you are a sports nut, there's no possibility of your wife becoming a soccer widow because there's not enough soccer on television.

Q: Now that there is no Soviet Union, no central government to oversee sports in the republics, what is the future for athletes from that part of the world?

A: I predicted more athletes would flow into the commercial sports, those that are more capitalized, which has happened.

Soccer is still coming up with pretty good players. The Russian team made it to the World Cup finals. There were years when soccer was the whole Soviet Union's most important sport, and they didn't make it to the finals.

Hockey players just keep on coming. Russia won the world championship, and the NHL this year drafted as many ex-Soviets as they drafted in the past. Russia also did surprisingly well in the European basketball championships, and their tennis players have had some visibility, and there have been some ex-Soviets looking pretty good in cycling.

But then you heard about Reebok financing the Russian Olympic Committee. I was appalled. Instead of the system eventually eroding, this has kept the entire sports structure in place.

I think the Olympic machine, if you want to call it that, was a product of Stalinism that emerged in the '30s. The values it embraced were order and discipline and acceptance of authority. It continued to exist right up to 1988 in relatively unchanged form, with considerable success.

The idea that, somehow, American business would ride to the rescue of a remnant of Stalinism in a post-Soviet society is not what I predicted.

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