Note: This article has a heavy emphasis on history. If you hate reading up on history and are only on this website for the sports content, this article is not for you. But I would recommend the two biographies linked below:
I recently did biographies (linked above this paragraph) on two members of the 1952 Soviet women’s artistic Gymnastics (WAG) team, both of whom were Jewish. To give further context on the difficulties they faced while en route to the 1952 Olympics, I wanted to dedicate an article covering the topic of anti-Semitism in this era of Soviet history. Part I covers anti-Semitism as it relates to the Olympics. Part II covers anti-Semitism as it relates to the USSR as a whole
Prior to the 1952 Olympics the Soviet Union did not compete in the Olympics. The reason the Soviet Union did not participate in the Olympics was that it was too bourgeoisie for them. It was an assertion that the Soviets had a point on. The Olympic movement in the early 1900s had members of the aristocracy and upper class disproportionately represented on athletic teams. It was a staunch supporter of “amateurism” which derived from an attempt to price the poor out of high level sports.
By the late 1940s things were starting to change. The Olympic movement had spent the last few decades making significant progress in moving past its early aristocratic roots. The games had become more focused on the common man. The Soviet Union was also in the early stages of the Cold War and quickly came to see the Olympics as a necessity if it wanted to prove its economic and political systems were superior to its Western counterparts.
But transitioning from a stance staunchly opposing to strongly embracing the Olympic movement was not going to be easy. For decades Soviet propaganda had denounced the Olympics as counter to communist ideals and a way to undermine the success of the October Revolution* which had allowed the Bolsheviks to take power. The Soviet Union for a time had even hosted a type of alternate Olympics called “Spartakiads.”
Getting the general population to essentially do a 180 on the Olympic movement was no easy task. As a consequence people saw it as an attempt to sabotage the country from within by inviting in “capitalist” elements. And in much of the same thinking that dominated Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the rhetoric turned to it being seen as a plot by Jewish people to quietly undermine the strength of the nation.
In an era defined by notorious anti-Semitism, where being Jewish put one in significant danger, being a Jewish Olympian raised the stakes by a considerable margin. It didn’t just bring prominence to a Jewish citizen in the Soviet Union, but directly connected them to the idea that the Jewish population was conspiring to weaken the country.
*Which actually occurred in November because Russia used a different calendar in 1917 and was less a revolution and more a coup against the democratically elected government that had replaced the deposed monarchy.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953. It brought to an end the rule of a terrible leader who had killed millions of his own people. Stalin is widely known for the atrocities he committed in the 1930s. What is not as well known is that he appeared to be on the verge of carrying out a purge against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, but died before that plan could be carried out.
In 1952 the Soviet Union witnessed an event known as the “Doctors’ plot” in which Jewish doctors were accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders. It quickly led to the arrest of hundreds of prominent Jewish citizens and involved a widespread anti-Semitic smear campaign. It coincided with an increase in those with a Jewish background being removed from various positions such as government and military roles. It was a time when the Jewish population within the Soviet Union suffered as maintaining employment became difficult.
This occurred all in an Olympic year while Soviet WAG had a team with two Jewish Olympians. The “Night of the Murdered Poets” in which 13 Jewish intellectuals were murdered occurred just nine days after the 1952 Olympics.
It is not known what precisely Stalin had been planning prior to his death. But various theories involve deportations to Siberia or the Far East, deportations to other countries, and even mass killings. Regimes generally avoid leaving evidence behind of their planned atrocities. The strongest evidence often being the killings themselves which thankfully didn’t occur in this case.
But it most likely was the opening stage of an atrocity of some kind. The Doctors’ Plot and purges of the era was textbook behavior of a regime trying to stir up anti-Semitic sentiment as a precursor and pretext to carry out organized action (such as deportations and/or genocide) on an ethnic group. In this case against its Jewish minority.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Jewish population which had once been seen as an asset by soviet leadership due to its strong opposition to fascism and Nazi Germany were no longer of strategic importance now that Hitler had been defeated. The establishment of Israel which the Soviet Union had initially supported soon became to be seen as problematic. Israel became a staunch ally of the United States and Soviet leaders now came to question whether its Jewish population were more loyal to Israel than the Soviet Union.
This is the environment that Urbanovich and Gorokhovskaya lived in while they competed for the chance to represent the Soviet Union at the Olympics. It can’t be said how close they ever came to having their lives in danger, but it certainly wasn’t a time where Jewish athletes were safe.
Had things been worse and Stalin managed to carry out his wider plan against the Jewish population, Urbanovich and Gorokhovskaya would have been in significant danger. If their Jewish background had been known to the government, their status as Olympians which brought them prominence would have made them top targets. It was and remains a common tactic for the most prominent members of an ethnic group to be targeted first when the ethnic group as a whole becomes targeted.
No matter how tough things were for the Jewish people throughout European history, they always managed to endure. Gymnastics is one of many examples of their endurance in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Jewish gymnasts have always been and would remain well represented in gymnastics. It is symbolic that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish WAGs were strongly represented in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This despite gymnastics being the sport that was among the hardest hit by the Holocaust.
For future Soviet Jewish gymnasts and their families, after Stalin the treatment of the Jewish population would improve. In the ensuing decades and things would get better. Like the early history of the Soviet WAG dynasty, in its final years the team was well represented by Soviet gymnasts of Jewish backgrounds.