The Real Reason Why Putin's Bringing Back This Stalin-Era Fitness Test


Comrades, on your mark!

Putin moved last week to revive a Soviet nationwide fitness program using leftover funds from the Sochi Olympics. Called "Ready for Labor and Defense," or GTO, the program was first introduced by Joseph Stalin in 1931, and fizzled out at the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Back in the day, the mass-fitness program featured group jogging, swimming, push- and pull-ups, rope climbing, shot put and skiing in schools and universities across the Soviet Union. Comrades were also taught proper grenade-throwing techniques, and the regimen was loosely based around basic military training. Beginning for children at age 10 —the new version will start even earlier — the program has several levels designed to strengthen health, physical fitness, labor efficiency and to protect the homeland.

A 1935 competition advertisement says, "All World Records should be Ours!" Watch below as parades of champions, floats with young men and women on pull-up bars and pensioners in hula-hoops demonstrate the scope of the GTO. Some of the more practical warm-ups included hoeing an imaginary field, shooting a target underwater and even preparing children to make their way efficiently through fields of thick Russian snow.

The levels have incredible names and are accompanied by achievement badges and medals. From ages 10 to 17 you can be "brave and clever" or "powerful and courageous," but once you reach 18, you compete in the "physical perfection" bracket. People over 30 stay "fit and healthy" with lighter exercises such as speed-walking and swimming.

What's the motivation behind Putin's throwback? The GTO is actually a predictable move for the Russian president, whose Soviet-era nostalgia and fitness enthusiasm — Putin holds more black belts than Chuck Norris — are legendary. He even insisted on keeping the the program's original name as a "tribute to the traditions of our national history". The Soviet GTO aims at grooming citizens for conscription into the Red Army and fostering a sense of constant preparedness, but it's unlikely that today's fitness regimen will have the same purpose. 

Naturally, the name and nature of the program has raised eyebrows across the Western world. The GTO is designed to promote a fit and healthy population ready to defend themselves, their families and, eventually, their country. With all eyes on Crimea and Ukraine, a training program targeting all Russians from ages 6 to 60 has some worried about a civilian militia with Putin at the helm. However, these fears are largely unfounded. 

Like many industrialized nations, Russia has a weight problem. With 59% of Russians overweight, a mandatory fitness regimen could be a big step towards combating obesity. The Moscow Metro system already gives incentives to exercise by giving a free train ride to people who can complete 30 squats. Furthermore, the Russian military is already one of the largest in the world, second only to the United States in active personnel and not particularly lacking in recruits. 

While nobody knows exactly what the program will look like in the 21st century, it is likely that Russians will pay a small tax — as before — for entrance into the program, which will cover the renovations and revival of sports complexes, organizing fees for competitions, leagues, parades and coaches to run the programs themselves. Success in the GTO may even be considered when applying to Russian universities in the near future. 

It seems that for Vladimir Putin, revival of the "Ready for Labor and Defense" program is a win-win. He will tackle a national health problem by getting the public up and moving, and at the same time spook the plus-size pants off Russia-watchers.