In "The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene and the Revolutionary State," historian Tricia Starks examines the extensive collections of healthcare propaganda and records of medical monitoring institutions to reveal the centrality of public health campaigns in founding the revolutionary state.
By making the personal political, hygienists in the early days of the Soviet Union attempted to improve public health dramatically and played a key role in the establishment of the Soviet state. In The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene and the Revolutionary State, historian Tricia Starks examines the extensive collections of healthcare propaganda and records of medical monitoring institutions to reveal the centrality of public health campaigns in founding the revolutionary state.
“What fascinated me were the broad dreams of the foundations of Soviet health, how far they wished to go and how far they did go,” Starks said. “Creating the body Soviet was integral to the creation of the socialist utopia.”
The Soviet health reformers of 1918 faced great challenges. The population was poorly nourished and unhealthy, with a high infant mortality rate and a short lifespan: The average age of death was 31 for men and 34 for women. After less than a decade of health promotion and work on public infrastructure, more than 10 years were added to the lifespan of Soviet citizens.
From 1919 to 1921, the People’s Commissariat of Public Health published more than 13 million pieces of public health literature. Whether combating tobacco or promoting regular bathing, hygienists linked clean bodies with a healthy state. Dirt signified the past and poor politics, while health, vigor and cleanliness were symbols of “mental acuity, political orthodoxy and modernity.”
“Reformers had greater goals than maintaining clean skin or defeating disease,” Starks wrote. “Hygienists pressed for a complete overhaul of life through the manipulation of habits and made sure that personal choices were also political ones.”
Through personal hygiene and shunning unhealthy habits like tobacco and alcohol, citizens could play an important role in the battle for a new Soviet state and the development of the body Soviet.
“One individual – making the correct choice to brush one’s teeth, wash one’s hands or exercise on the weekend – became not just a healthier person but the embodiment of the future success of the Soviet experiment,” Starks wrote.
Starks places the Soviet hygiene campaign in an international context as the most thorough application of early health reform in the world. Its successes inspired American health reformers of the 1920s and “presaged a European-wide trend” following World War II.
“The prevalence of propaganda and attendant surveillance institutions bring Soviet approaches to public health into line with other contemporary, international state efforts, but Soviet health programs were more thoroughly applied, more intensely monitored, and more radically conceived than anywhere else in the world,” Starks said.
By the 1960s life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in line with Western countries. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a lack of resources and a reorientation of state priorities had severely undercut the gains of the early hygiene movement. Infant mortality had risen and the average age of death had fallen markedly.
“Without investment in social programs, they faltered,” Starks said. “It was tragic to see such promise and progress allowed to fall away.”
The Body Soviet was published by the University of Wisconsin Press. Tricia Starks is associate professor of history in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.