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Down With Shame!
Soviet nudism, Lenin the nudist, and the naked communists of the 1920s
“Taking off clothes is the most radical leveling action that can be taken by mankind. In nudity, class distinctions disappear. Workers, peasants, office workers suddenly become just people.”
That was the impression of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.R. Knickerbocker as he toured the Soviet Union for Time magazine in 1931.1 Whether it was factory workers soaking up the rays in the buff in Crimea or urbanites sunbathing naked just steps from the Kremlin, Knickerbocker concluded that the nude culture he witnessed was a very physical manifestation of the classless future prophesied by Karl Marx—socialism in practice.
Rather than a harbinger of what was to come, though, Knickerbocker was actually experiencing the tail-end of a decade of social and sexual experimentation that was about to close. He thought he was glimpsing the Soviet tomorrow, but the promise of a clothes-free communism would soon be snuffed out by a state eager to enforce what had previously been denounced as outdated bourgeois norms.
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If he had been in the USSR a few years earlier, Knickerbocker would have seen a lot more naked bodies, in quite unexpected places. In the years immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917, an activist form of public nudism in the Soviet Republic set tongues wagging internationally.
In September 1924, Time reported to its U.S. audience: “During the past week, a number of athletes, of both sexes, paraded Moscow streets. Men with bulging biceps and prominent pectorals walked with equally muscular maidens. The sole costume was a red ribbon across the shoulders.”2 A Belgian diplomat notified Brussels: “I personally saw them, dressed as Adam and Eve!”3
The newsworthy occasion prompting such dispatches was the supposed appearance of some 10,000 naked women and men marching through Red Square, adorned with nothing but bright crimson sashes emblazoned with the words, in big white letters, “Долой стыд!” – “Down With Shame!”4
Large banners proclaimed the mission of the nude evangelists: “We have destroyed the sense of shame! Look at us and you will see free men and women, true proletarians who have thrown off the shackles and symbols of bourgeois prejudices!”5
The dramatic scene was repeated in Leningrad, Kharkov, Saratov, Sevastopol, Rostov, Irkutsk, Mineralnye Vody, and other locales on a smaller scale. “Down with philistines, down with priests,” a spokesperson would shout, “We don’t need clothes—We’re children of the sun and air!”6
Conservatives and Orthodox Christians reeled in horror, as did more than a few leaders of the new regime, who feared the cultural and sexual revolution unleashed by the overthrow of capitalism was moving too fast, even for them.7
The tale of the anti-capitalist and nudist Down With Shame Society is one of the forgotten chapters in the histories of both the USSR and nudism.
Vanguard of the naked revolution
Virtually erased from memory during Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship, Down With Shame’s story can be pieced together only via the work of a handful of post-Soviet scholars and contemporary accounts by journalists.
Though Down With Shame’s naked demonstrations must have been visually striking, they were only one aspect of the transformation that swept the former Russian Empire in those heady days.8
In what was long considered the most tradition-steeped and church-dominated of the old European monarchies, the end of capitalism brought about a wave of radical reforms: abortion on demand, legalized divorce, women freed from home-bound servitude thanks to communal kitchens and kindergartens, civil unions rather than church marriages, regulations for polyamorous relationships, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and consensual sexual freedom without legal or religious sanction.9
These social changes were accompanied by far-reaching economic overhauls like the nationalization of most companies, redistribution of large landholdings to peasants, and the beginnings of modern industrialization.
While all these changes had the world talking, the shedding of clothes by nudist communist activists—and the non-nudist average citizens of the Soviet working class—was a trend that continuously captivated foreign observers for several years, even after the mass nude demonstrations had morphed into mass nude recreation.
What was the ideology that inspired Down With Shame? And how far beyond their publicity-generating protests did nudism penetrate Soviet society?
Non-sexual social nudity was of course not something that appeared only after the revolution, but for the most part, getting naked had previously been simply a practical matter. In the rural areas, where running water didn’t exist, bathing and swimming au naturel in rivers and lakes was long the norm. And Czar Nicholas II, the last ruler of imperial Russia, was known to skinny-dip regularly in the company of fellow members of the elite. Inspired by Western naturist societies, a recreational nudist group had even been formed in the early 1900s by poet Maximilian Voloshin, but it was entirely a local and upper-class affair on the shores of the Black Sea.
It was only in the wake of the socialist revolution that nudism—communist nudism, specifically—took on the character of a bona fide sociopolitical movement. For the Down With Shame Society, clothing—like marriage and religion—was a relic of the past. The thinking, as rudimentary as it might have been, was concerned with more than just the freedom of feeling the air and sun on bare skin; their nudity had a purpose.10
The stated goal of the movement: “To get rid of the feeling of shame in people, as a manifestation of hypocrisy, nudity is declared the basis of human equality and the establishment of universal justice.”11
Historian Richard Stites, who extensively researched the spectrum of utopian experiments that took place in the USSR at the time, described Down With Shame as an “almost undocumented episode of the 1920s” and called its push for universal nudity “the most spectacular reform proposal” of all. He wrote:
“Believing that the only democratic and egalitarian apparel was the human skin itself, members demonstrated this belief by exhibiting their nakedness in public. Evenings of the Denuded Body were held in Moscow in 1922. Later there were marches and processions in Moscow and Kharkov and the occupation of trolley cars by the nudists who wore nothing but scarlet sashes bearing their device—to the amazement of onlookers and to the annoyance of the police who arrested them.”12
Lenin, the nudist
But apparently, Down With Shame wasn’t just a rank-and-file affair—it had the support of some top communist leaders. One anti-Bolshevik author alleged that Karl Radek, a close confidant of Leon Trotsky, marched through Red Square at the head of the nude columns.13
Some claim that Alexandra Kollontai, the advocate of revolutionary “free love,” was also affiliated to the society, though no documentation has yet been offered.14 Other party leaders, including Anatoly Lunacharsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and Alexander Bogdanov were apparently also not averse to ditching their clothes, at least for recreational purposes.
But perhaps the most prominent Soviet nudist of all was the architect of the revolution—Vladimir Lenin himself. Biographer Alexander Maysuryan, in his 2006 book The Other Lenin, wrote:
“Among the thousands and thousands of monuments to Lenin, there is probably not a single one that depicts him naked. Meanwhile, the author of such a sculpture would not have sinned much against the truth of history—after all, Vladimir Ilyich was also a supporter of nudism.”15
Lenin first visited a nude beach in Austria while in exile before the Russian Revolution. He came away with a favorable impression and spoke positively to comrades about the “healthy lifestyle” that the nudists of Western Europe advocated. His wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, shared his ideas.
When he returned to Russia in 1917, domestic beaches left Lenin depressed. In the words of Maysuryan, they were mostly “deserted, with lonely bathers embarrassed by their half-dressed bodies and hiding behind the bushes.” Lenin told his personal secretary, Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich, that in Europe, such a state of affairs was already surpassed.
He talked of Germany, where there was “such a colossal need for bathing among the workers” on hot summer days and during vacations that “everyone bathes openly, right at the shore, next to each other—men and women.” Lenin asked, “Isn’t it possible to undress neatly and go for a swim without hooliganism, respecting each other?” Essentially, he advocated non-sexual social nudity as a norm, at least for swimming and recreation.
Observing the conservatism and shame with which social nudity was seen by far too many in Russia at the time, he commented, “We have a lot of work ahead of us for new forms of life, simplified and free, without priestly judgement and the hypocrisy of hidden libertines.”
Lenin never mentioned nudism directly in his own writings, though he apparently ridiculed the moralists who tried to equate nudity with debauchery. He talked to his secretary of a “hysterical old maid, proud of her barren moral purity…who coyly insists on the need for a fig leaf.”
Marxist scholar Tariq Ali affirms, however, that “Lenin was a firm supporter of nudism.” Apart from an opportunity to take in the health benefits of the sun, the founder of the Soviet Union thought nakedness “was the one time when a person’s class origin was completely obscured.”16
It is no surprise then that after the czar was overthrown and the Bolsheviks took power, Russian beaches underwent a transformation. The first explicitly nude beach was established during this time, near the Kremlin on the Moskva River, not far from the Christ the Savior Cathedral.17 In the summer of 1918, the tabloid newspaper Moscow Ringer, in a report titled “Freedom of Bathing,” described a scene in which police confronted nude sunbathers in the capital city. According to the paper, “it was not the puritanical militiaman who won, but the liberated bathers.”
The USSR rapidly became known in naturist circles overseas, according to Maysuryan, as “a country of victorious nudism.” Soviet delegations to international nudist conferences in the 1920s were among the largest. The state, at its “Artek” recreation camps, conducted swimming lessons without bathing costumes.18
This was the context in which Down With Shame merged Marxism and nakedness to formulate their own unique take on social(-ist) nudism. If the Communist Party was the “vanguard of the proletariat,” then Down With Shame was the vanguard of the nude future that the elimination of classes and inequality would bring about.
Nudism meets Stalinism
While the mass naked demonstrations were tolerated by Soviet officials, or even encouraged by some, Down With Shame’s public nudity garnered plenty of opposition.
Contemporary writer Mikhail Bulgakov described a situation in which a group of the shameless ones boarded a public tram and were beaten and kicked off by indignant fellow passengers.19 Outraged Orthodox Christians were still numerous enough in this newly-atheist state to cause a stir, as well. Artist Natalya Severtsova-Gabrichevskaya described the reaction of the religious:
“Someone laughed to tears, someone spat. The old women crossed themselves, saying: ‘Apocalypse! The end of the world!’ And they asked passers-by in bewilderment: ‘What is this? Will they force us to undress?’”20
Following the death of Lenin in January 1924, the tide began to turn against the experimentalism unleashed by the Russian Revolution. From women’s advancement to sexual liberation, the Bolsheviks had constructed social policies along the most progressive lines, something that would not be seen in many Western countries for decades. However, the pace of change and the all-encompassing freedom proved too much for the still largely agricultural, barely urbanized Russian society of the 1920s.
Down With Shame was one of the first targets of a creeping conservative counterrevolution. The exploits of these “earnest propagandists of the nude,” it was reported, “upset the staider Communists, many of whom lead the most rigidly puritanical lives.”21 In September 1924, the People’s Commissar for Health, Nikolai Semashko, issued a decree on nude political demonstrations. “Such behavior must be categorically condemned,” the minister declared. “They are cruelly mistaken when they think that if you go naked…you will be a real ‘revolutionary.’” He questioned whether “this wild innovation contributes to morality.”22
Realizing the extent to which nude recreation had started to take hold among the working people of the USSR, however, Semashko tempered his message. Limiting his critique largely to the political messaging of Down With Shame, he did not condemn social nudity writ large but rather sought to redirect notions about when and where it was appropriate.
“Comrades shall not be hindered from liberating their bodies to air and sunlight,” read Semashko’s final verdict. “But comrades should remember that the dust of the city’s streets is harmful to the skin. Therefore, it is forbidden to appear nude on the streets.”23
Though already banned, the attack on public nudism continued at the 14th Communist Party Congress the following year, where party official Nikolai Bukharin pointed the finger at the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League) for allowing smoking, drinking, and free sex.24 In his speech, he singled out the “decadent and semi-hooligan” Down With Shame movement for apparently encouraging the latter, saying there had to be an “introduction of order where before there was chaos.”25
Rather abruptly, the naked protest marches disappeared from Soviet cities. Down With Shame, as an organized movement, vanished. Channeled into recreational avenues, social nudity in the USSR, however, did maintain some of its political character for several years afterward. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, Time reporter Knickerbocker witnessed that nude swimming, for instance, was still the norm across the country.
“A bathing suit is a curiosity, and the man brave enough to wear one makes himself liable to a barrage of ridiculing glances,” he wrote in one article. And though the Down With Shame marches were gone, their ideological impact was still apparent, even for this Western observer. The Soviet government had good reason, he thought, to not completely dissuade the proponents of nude culture:
“In nudity, class distinctions disappear…. This in a concise form, sets out, but does not yet realize, the main goal of the Soviet revolutionaries. That is why the nude culture movement was so effective, although poorly promoted, in the Soviet Union. Now, this summer, on every river, on the shores of all its lakes and seas, literally millions of men and women were swimming and sunbathing without clothes, as if it could not be otherwise.”26
American humorist Will Rogers, too, got a gander at what he called “bareback bathing” in the USSR. After returning home from a visit to the Land of Soviets, he titled his travelogue There's Not a Bathing Suit in Russia, and Other Bare Facts. After catching a view of the beach near the Kremlin, he said the sight “makes life worth while in Moscow.” Unlike the segregated swimming holes in the U.S., in socialist Russia, Rogers wrote, “They bathe together.... They don’t let race, creed, or sex interfere with them…. They just wade in what you would call the Nude, or altogether.” Lamenting that he didn’t get to tour more of the country, Rogers said, “While I did not get to see all of Russia, I got to see all of some Russians.”27
As Joseph Stalin consolidated his power within the Communist Party in the years after Lenin’s death, however, the move toward more conservative, even “bourgeois,” social norms accelerated.
Social nudity was gradually squeezed out of existence for the most part, even in recreational settings like beaches and workers’ resorts. Soon after, the laws legalizing divorce and abortion were reversed. Homosexuality was once more forbidden, and the heteronormative family again became the foundation of social policy. The Stalinist purges—the “Great Terror” of the 1930s—annihilated the old Bolsheviks who had opened the gates of cultural change.
Thus, the period of revolutionary nudism in the Soviet Union was permanently extinguished. For decades, sexuality and the naked human body were shunned by the Soviet state. Embarrassed by the free-wheeling post-revolutionary years, Stalin and his successors set about rewriting history. According to sexologist Sergei Agarkov:
“The party subsequently had a very negative attitude towards the period when it promoted sexual freedom and promiscuity. Getting photographs, protocols, and documents about the ‘Down with Shame!’ society is more difficult than obtaining some documents of the NKVD [KGB]. Photos of the demonstrations on Red Square—and there are several dozen of them—are so hidden in the archives that it is difficult to get to the bottom of them.”28
Only with the liberalization of the 1990s, after the fall of the Communist Party, did a nudist culture once more begin to emerge in some territories of the former Soviet Union. Naturist organizations and nude beaches appeared once more. In this post-socialist iteration, however, Russian nudism was modeled more on the nude recreation and sunbathing associations common in Western countries; the ideological and political aspirations were gone.
But even this tamer version of nudism has proven a threat in the eyes of the revamped social conservatism that has swept Russia as of late. Periodic news reports throughout the 2010s and ’20s suggest that naturist and nudist organizations have been regularly harangued by the government of Vladimir Putin as it tackles all varieties of “depraved behavior.”29 The historical documents, photographs, and other materials relating to Down With Shame and the flourishing nudism of the 1920s, if they exist, thus have little hope of being released from their archival prisons anytime soon.
Conclusion: Social(-ist) Nudity
By removing the outer trappings of class division and inequality, the naked communists of the 1920s hoped to quicken the pace of capitalism’s demise. Visually, workers and peasants in those days were distinguished sharply from bosses and landlords by the old, dirty, and threadbare clothes with which they covered themselves.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels might have written in The Communist Manifesto that proletarians had “nothing to lose but their chains,” but the members of Down With Shame thought the first thing workers should lose was their clothing. Textile adornment was a clear marker of class status and was therefore targeted for eradication.
In retrospect, their nudist variation of Marxism-Leninism appears narrow and short-sighted. Though claims that they pinned their hopes for a socialist future on the necessity of totally abolishing clothing are probably the exaggerations of anti-communist critics, it is still likely that the confrontational tactics of Down With Shame isolated its members from otherwise like-minded social and economic reformers.
Their idea that nudism could totally eliminate visual manifestations of inequality also failed to account for other indicators of division and/or diversity—be they racial, ethnic, gender, etc. Even class cannot be completely erased in nakedness; the hands and body of a coal miner will always distinguish him from a banker.
Down With Shame did have successors, though the latter almost certainly didn't know of and definitely never acknowledged the founders of socialist nudism. In the 1970s, East Germany—the communist half of the original homeland of Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture - FKK)—saw the revival of a politically-informed nudist practice.30
Though initially suppressed, the grassroots nude culture in the German Democratic Republic eventually gained official endorsement as a socialist antidote to the commercialized sexuality of capitalism.31 As an exhibit in the DDR Museum in Berlin today states, for many East German communists, “nakedness was an expression of classlessness.”32 After the fall of the Berlin Wall, social nudity has remained a hallmark of “ostlagie,” the “East nostalgia” for those who miss life under socialism.33
Regardless of their shortcomings, the activists of Down With Shame sought something noble: a society of free women and men, released from the strictures of an oppressive past. For them, embracing the human body in its natural state was a step toward achieving an egalitarian future. They were the avant-guard of a distinct but now largely extinct socialist trend within nudist culture. 🪐
H.R. Knickerbocker. “Soviet naturism before Stalinism (Reportage of H.R. Knickerbocker, 1931),” Natura 12 (1995). http://www.hymnos.narod.ru/paper.html
“Russia – Down With Shame,” Time. Sept. 22, 1924, p. 11.
Joseph Douillet. Moscou sans Voiles: Neuf ans de travail au pays des Soviets (Moscow Unmasked: A Record of Nine Years Work in Soviet Russia). Paris: Éditions SPES, 1928. p. 129. (French)
“Stupid antics must be stopped,” Evening Moscow (Вечерняя Москва). September 11, 1924, p. 4. (Russian)
“‘Down with shame!’: The sexual revolution in the USSR in the 1920s,” Big Picture. https://bigpicture.ru/doloj-styd-seksualnaya-revolyuciya-v-sssr-20-x-godov/ (Russian)
Alexander Trushnovich. Memoirs of a Kornilovist. Moscow: Posev, 2004. (Russian)
As an example, see: Nikolai Bukharin, “On the regulation of the life of the youth,” Komsomolskaya Pravda (Комсомольская Правда). May 24, 1925, p. 2. (in Russian)
Sherry Wolf. Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009. Chapter 3.
Georgy Manaev and Daniel Chalyan. “How sexual revolution exploded (and imploded) across 1920s Russia,” Russia Beyond. May 14, 2018. https://www.rbth.com/history/328265-russian-sexual-revolution
Caroline Brooke. Moscow: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 77.
“Nudist beach at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior?” Diletant (Дилетант). June 2020, p. 2-3. (Russian)
Richard Stites. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Visions and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 133.
Olga Greig. ‘Down With Shame!’ Sexual International and the Country of Soviets. Moscow: Algorithm Publishing House, 2014. (Russian)
Mikhail Vereshchagin. “‘Down with shame!’ or the communist sexual revolution,” Fakeoff. May 20, 2018. https://fakeoff.org./history/doloy-styd-ili-kommunisticheskaya-seksualnaya-revolyutsiya (Russian)
Alexander Maysuryan. The Other Lenin. Moscow: Vagrius, 2006. p. 329. (Russian)
Tariq Ali. The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. London: Verso Books, 2017. p. 130.
Stasia Budzisz. “In Praise of Nudity: The Nudist Beaces of Central and Eastern Europe,” PRZEKRÓJ. https://przekroj.pl/en/society/in-praise-of-nudity-stasia-budzisz
Maysuryan. Several photos in the archives of the Mulitmedia Art Museum Moscow also confirm this.
Mikhail Bulgakov. “My diary: Under the iron heel,” Index on Censorship 8/1991 (pp. 7-11).
Cited in “‘Down with shame!’: The sexual revolution in the USSR in the 1920s,” Big Picture.
H.R. Knickerbocker. The Red Trade Menace: Progress of the Soviet Five-Year Plan. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1931. p. 173.
Nikolai Semashko. “Culture or ugliness?” Izvestiya (Известия). September 12, 1924. (Russian)
Knickerbocker. The Red Trade Menace. pp. 173-4.
Gregory Carleton. Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. p. 106-7.
Nikolai Bukharin. “About the Komsomol,” Verbatim Report to the XIV Congress of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks). Moscow: Gosizdat, 1926. pp. 816. (Russian)
Knickerbocker. “Soviet naturism before Stalinism.”
Will Rogers. There’s Not a Bathing Suit in Russia, and Other Bare Facts. New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1927. pp. 131-33.
Sergei Agarkov. “Sexual culture of modern Russia,” Materials of the Scientific-Practical Conference, May 27, 2006, Moscow. (Russian)
For an example of typical news coverage, see: Barry Neild. “Moscow nudists targeted in campaign against ‘depravity,’” CNN. August 25, 2015. https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/moscow-nudists-ban/index.html
Dagmar Herzog. “East Germany’s Sexual Evolution,” in Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics, edited by Katherine Pence and Paul Betts. (pp. 71-95). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. p. 83.
Josie McLellan. Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. p. 161.
Exhibit: “Politics Without Swimming Trunks.” DDR Museum, Berlin. Viewed by the author, August 2022.
Josie McLellan. “State Socialist Bodies: East German Nudism from Ban to Boom,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 79, No. 1, March 2007 (pp. 48-79).