Lenin the Nudist

A lesser known aspect of the Russian Revolution is the flourishing of … nudism. After the revolution, the famous actress, Ida Rubenstein, played naked on stage. The poet Goldschmidt would appear naked on the streets. A movement called ‘Down with shame’ would walk the streets in Soviet cities, catch trams, go about their daily lives wearing nothing but a red sash over their shoulders. A White Army newspaper joked in 1919 that the price of suits must have skyrocketed, since so many people were going around naked. At international nudist conferences in the 1920s, the Soviet delegates far outnumbered those from other countries. Over the summers, rivers, beaches and lakes witnessed millions of old people, children, families, singles in the prime of their life gathered to play games, picnic or enjoy the sun – all naked.

How did it begin? It appears that during his long exile before the Revolution, Lenin visited a nudist beach in Austria and was favourably impressed. It was not so much the naked bodies everywhere, but the emphasis on healthy living. Given that Lenin was – as many noted – a muscular man with a love of outdoor activities, nudism was a natural extension of that passion. Soon enough both he and Krupskaya were regularly tossing their clothes in a corner and diving into the nearest river, lake or sea completely starkers. I’m not sure whether they also hiked and rode their bicycles naked (ice-skating might be a little tricky), but in this light one of Lenin’s favoured phrases, ‘tearing off the fig-leaf’, takes on a whole new meaning.

As do regular observations in the letters concerning swimming. For instance, Krupskaya writes about their stay at Pornic in France in the summer of 1910, ‘He went sea-bathing a lot, cycled a good deal – he loved the sea and the sea breezes – chatted gaily with the Kostitsins on everything under the sun’. Of course, one can enjoy the breeze much more when naked, even while chatting away with all and sundry. It mattered not where they were, for they would swim naked – in Longjumeau or in Pornic on the French coast, or in Stjernsund in Sweden, or in swimming pools in Munich, or in Poronino or in the Vistula River in Krakow. Nor were they alone, for other Bolsheviks were also given to stripping down whenever possible, among them Anatoly Lunacharsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Alexander Bogdanov.

After his return to Russia in 1917, Lenin bemoaned the fact that people still gathered in summer and swam in costumes, so he asked why they couldn’t do so without clothes: ‘We have much work to do for new forms of life, simplified and free’, he observed.

Why? As one of those early communist nudists observed, ‘In nudity class distinctions disappear. Workers, peasants, office workers are suddenly just people’. An image of a classless society, perhaps.

Lenin addressing a nudist convention in the Kremlin.

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2 Thessalonians: The Difference between Lenin and Conservatives

What is the difference between Lenin and conservatives? The key – believe it or not – lies in the interpretation of a biblical verse, 2 Thessalonians 3: 10:

He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

Let us see how they interpret the text. In a speech from 1999, one Tony Abbott (a forgotten Australian politician) opines, ‘Disincentives to work have been recognised at least since the time of St Paul (who said that those who did not work should not eat)’. The speech itself concerned unemployment and the work-for-the-dole programme. For Abbott, of course, those who do not work are those who are at the bottom of the social heap, the unemployed, the riff-raff, the no-hopers. For conservatives like Abbott, they really don’t want to work and must therefore be given incentives to do so, such as cut their benefits or get them to engage in government-designated slave labour, euphemistically called ‘work-for-the-dole’. By contrast, the owners of capital, the multi-billionaires, work hardest of all, for otherwise how would they have become rich?

As for Lenin, it is precisely the rich capitalists, as well as the bourgeoisie who do no work, for they rely upon the labour of others for their obscene profits. During the famine of 1918, brought about not through a shortage of grain but through the destruction of the transport network by the First World War and the White Armies, Lenin addressed a crowd of workers in Petrograd as follows:

The bourgeoisie are disrupting the fixed prices, they are profiteering in grain, they are making a hundred, two hundred and more rubles’ profit on every pood of grain; they are disrupting the grain monopoly and the proper distribution of grain by resorting to bribery and corruption and by deliberately supporting everything tending to destroy the power of the workers, which is endeavouring to put into effect the prime, basic and root principle of socialism: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’. ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’ – every toiler understands that. Every worker, every poor and even middle peasant, everybody who has suffered need in his lifetime, everybody who has ever lived by his own labour, is in agreement with this. Nine-tenths of the population of Russia are in agreement with this truth. In this simple, elementary and perfectly obvious truth lies the basis of socialism, the indefeasible source of its strength, the indestructible pledge of its final victory (Collected Works, volume 27, pp. 391-2).

It looks like this biblical text may well be a shibboleth between reactionary and revolutionary approaches to the Bible.

As an afterword: this slogan was plastered throughout cities, towns and villages during the dire situation of the ‘civil’ war (1917-23). The Metropolitan Vvedensky, a left-leaning priest and a leader of the Renovationist Church that sought to work with the communists, comments on this slogan in a debate with Anatoly Lunacharsky:

When you say you are for the principle of work, I remind you of the slogan, ‘he who does not work shall not eat’. I have seen this in a number of different cities on revolutionary posters. I am just upset that there was no reference to the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Thessalonians, from where the slogan is taken.