Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Iron Slingers of the Soviet Union, Part One - Charles Arthur Smith (1941)


 Thank You to Michael Murphy for this! 

From this Issue (Vol. 4 | No. 1)
Cover image courtesy of




The author, Charles A. Smith of London, England and now at sea in His Majesty's Navy. This photo was taken while he was packing up to go to the Navy.    

American lifters have good reason to be proud of the wonderful advances made by their champions. The heavyweight champion, powerful Steve Stanko, closely challenged by the youthful Louis Abele, the wonderful colored Hercules, John Davis, a menace to both. The peerless Tony Terlazzo and Lil Dynamite John Terry, have done much to mount the enthusiasm and increase the popularity of the sport in the USA, and it would be true to say, are daily by their efforts helping to put weightlifting in the most prominent position in the athletic world of the United States.
But there is one country where Iron Slinging occupies an almost incredibly prominent part in the sporting and social life of its people. The country is the land of the Soviets - Bolshevik Russia. Imagine a country where weightlifting has a special place in the government administration - The State Department for Weightlifting, and the officers of the administration hold the title of "Honored Master of Sports." 
Can you imagine the President of the United States and the Commander of the American Army holding a conference with the leading weightlifters of America and discussing ways and means and methods that would effect an all round improvement in the standard of lifting?  Yet on December 30th, 1935, a delegation visited the Kremlin, the Russian "Capitol" to discuss with Stalin, the Soviet Leader and Klim Voroshilov, Marshal of the Soviet Union and the Red Army's Commander in Chief, the training methods that the heavyweight Ambartsumyan should use in order to beat the world record total held by Manger, the German lifter, and how the immense popularity enjoyed by weightlifting could be still further increased. The fact that the Soviets hold 25 of the 35 worlds records should give the reader some idea of the success that attended decisions taken at that conference.
In this article I will try and give an idea, a general impression, of the weightlifting organization. The most prominent lifters of the USSR and the poundages they hoist will be included, and it is with profound regret that I cannot give a detailed account of their methods of training. Fellow ironslingers must remember that information is unfortunately most difficult to come by (especially with affairs in Europe being in a rather unsettled condition).
Here is the Russian Krylov left arm snatching a new 181-lb. class world record of 201 lbs. The Russians excel at the one arm lifts as well as the other quick lifts. Note the powerful physique. Photos are rather difficult to obtain and this one is rather dim. Photo courtesy of Charles Smith. 

Weightlifting has had its followers in Russia since the year 1885, but it is only since the Revolution that it has made progress, and has become the preeminent sport in the USSR. Its fans number hundreds of thousands, and its development has been most rapid during the past six years. How rapid this development has been can be gauged from the fact that it was not until 1934 that the Soviets gained the first Worlds Record. 
A. Bhukarov, State Inspector for Weightlifting, holder of the title, "Honored Master of Sports," and the USSR's oldest exponent of the sport, gives the following reasons for the Soviets supremacy in weightlifting. He writes in "Pravda," the official government newspaper, as follows: "The success of Soviet Weightlifting dates back to the time when the Trade Union Sports Societies were established. These organizations did much to popularize the sport among workers, and tried their utmost to attract young men physically well endowed. To be a good weightlifter, one must of course be strong, very strong, but the lifting societies have found over 200,000 athletes (THIS IS NOT A MISTAKE - C.A.S.) who specialize upon the Olympics. The results are apparent.
"Fifteen of the best endowed physically hold 25 of the 35 worlds records. Five of our record holders are Jews. This is in contrast to the Nazis who banned the Austrian lifter Fein because he was a Jew. All our Soviet lifters are amateurs, professional sport has no place in the USSR [ah, okay, sure), and we are confident that we could raise a team that would beat a team of the best and finest lifters in the world, outside of Russia."
Attendances at the Russian lifting meets are  very large. And even exhibitions and displays, the mediums through which the lifting authorities recruit iron slingers, attract large audiences. Lukin, a well known Moscow Local Champion, renowned for his perfect style, gave an exhibition in the Moscow Park of Rest and Culture to an audience of 5,000! Over 400 lifters and wrestlers competed in a four day festival of the two sports at Keiv on April 17, 1939. Here in England we thought we were lucky when we had an audience of just over 300 at the last British Amateur Championships. Four new world records were chalked up at the Sports Festival held in the huge Dynamo Stadium at Moscow on August 20th, 1939, in honor of the first world lifting record to be gained by the Soviets in 1934. 
History of the Dynamo Stadium:
Everywhere a lifting display is held, large crowds attend in much the same way and spirit that crowds attend the fights and baseball matches in the USA. The various towns, villages and districts in the USSR all have their own responsible lifting organizations. For instance, in Leningrad the chief lifting organization is the Zenith Sports Society. In Moscow, the Famous Dynamo Sports Society and the Locomotive Sports Society are the principle bodies. But the premier organization is the Moscow Dynamo Sports Society, the State Sports Administration responsible for all organizational work in connection with heavy athletics. It is also interesting to note that all the commercial and industrial concerns have their own athletic clubs, and inter-lifting matches are regular features in Factory and Office social life.
The Iron Slinging season reaches its climax with the famous Youth Day Parade held in the first week of each July. In this parade across the Red Square in Moscow, before the leaders of the Soviet government, various branches of the sports organizations and societies demonstrate each particular sport on huge floats built on equally huge trolleys and motor trucks. About a quarter of the parade is taken up by the lifters and wrestlers. 
The lifts featured are the three Olympic lifts - press, snatch, and clean and jerk - and the one arm jerk and one arm snatches. There is a separate "float" for each specialist or champ on each particular lift. Popov, the featherweight, usually demonstrates the clean and jerk. Novak, the USSR's middleweight champion, shows the crowd how the press is done, and Ambartsumyan, the Soviet's great heavyweight lifter, demonstrates his style in the snatch. 
It might also be of interest to fellow ironslingers who are wrestlers as well to know that the famous old-timer, Ivan Padoubny noted for being the worlds wrestling champ a generation ago - 

 2014 Russian Movie - 
 - is much esteemed and is always to be seen in these parades with his arm around the neck of the reigning champ - not in friendly embrace - but in demonstrating a nifty half nelson and hammer lock with bar. I cannot give any detailed information about the type of bar or the apparatus used. I have had to get all the information concerning platforms, bars, etc., from a study of the photos at my disposal an the films of Russian lifters that I have been lucky enough to see. 
I noticed that that without exception the lifters wore black lifting boots with what appeared to be rope soles. But it may be that the lifting boots were soled with a rough kind of rubber. I can only tell the reader that it appeared to be a rope sole. Incidentally, they all wear wrist tapes or wrist straps when lifting. Another feature too is the waist belt which looks like an ordinary belt in front, narrow with a medium sized buckle and broadening out at the back. This leather belt is very similar to a belt that Ron Walker always wore when lifting. About two inches wide in front and broadening out to nearly six inches where it held the small of the back. 
Another little habit of Walker's that the Russians seem to have acquired is strips of adhesive tapes around the tops of the thumbs. Walker swears that this gives him a surer grip and a stronger pull in the snatch and clean. 
The barbells used are somewhat like the German Berg bar. The same types of collars and plates, but with this difference - the ends of the bell (the parts that the discs are fitted on) were not so thick as those of the Berg Bar, but were only slightly thicker than the regular exercise bar. The barbell used has the appearance of being possessed of a great deal of "whip" or "spring."
The lifters perform each lift without catchers and have a certain custom of lifting within a circle painted on the platform, and this circle appeared to be about three feet wide. The bar was placed so that it lay across the circle and the lifter stood in the center of the circle and clasped the bar. When he made his snatch or clean and jerk, he split the front foot well outside the circle and the rear foot also outside. In recovery, he recovered first with the front foot and when nearly recovered and upright he brought the rear foot alongside the front one, so that he stood in the center of the circle again as at the beginning of the lift. 
Another feature of their training and one that they have in common with the German and Austrian lifting clubs is a band playing tunes as each lifter makes his attempt.

In 1931, when I was 18 years of age, I visited Vienna (in what was then Austria). I was a very keen swimmer in those days and of course knew not a thing about lifting. In fact I thought that a barbell was a good looking girl serving beer in a saloon, and long labored under this impression. I had chanced to fall in with some "lads of the village" at the Municipal Swimming Baths, the "Diana Bad," and they invited me around to some of the lifting clubs. These clubs were usually in the back parlors of beer houses, and they had a practice of playing a piano when a lifter made an assault upon the iron. Each lifter had his particular tune, anything from "Warbling of Spring" to the Toreador's song from Carmen, and this tune was played for him from the time he walked up to the bar, throughout the lift until he set the bell down upon the platform again. The Russians have the same habit or custom, but go one better. Instead of a mere piano they have a band, usually the band from the nearest Red Army barracks.
This custom may be strange to some of you American ironslingers, but it appears positively screwy to most Britishers. In the British Lifting Chanpionships, the lifts are made in complete silence, and if some unfortunate as much as coughs, he is put in his place with dirty looks and loud shushing from all over the hall. 
So far as I'm concerned they can fire guns and drop piles of crockery for all the difference it makes. (I am not a classy lifter and therefore am not temperamental). I guess lots of my American friends must feel the same way I do. 
Continued in Part Two    
Hang on . . . if you've never seen Sergey Bondarchuck's 1966 Russian film "War and Peace" it's one helluvan outstanding movie. 

Five years in the making with a cost of $100,000,000 and a cast of 120,000 all clothed in authentic uniforms, and the Red Army was mobilized to recreate Napoleon's battles exactly (it is claimed) as they happened. The restored version that's broken down into several parts is crazy amazing! Double bill over two or three nights with Abel Gance's groundbreaking 1926 film "Napoleon" if you like. Or not. 
Enjoy Your Lifting! 






















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