Healthy wordsmiths: 8 Russian writers and their favorite sports

January 4, 2017 Daria Aminova, special to RBTH
Many renowned Russian writers, including Chekhov and Tolstoy, were staunch advocates for regular exercise, finding time alongside their literary pursuits for sports ranging from skating to belt wrestling.

1. Alexander Pushkin

Pyotr Konchalovsky. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin, detail. Source: RIA NovostiPyotr Konchalovsky. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin, detail. Source: RIA Novosti

As a boy, Pushkin loved gymnastics, games and wrestling. In one of his early poems, “Sleep”, he made fun of pampered St. Petersburg dandies and extolled the virtues of physical exercise. When living in the country, the poet swam in cold water till late autumn and spent a lot of time riding. Pushkin cherished his reputation as a good dancer and horseman – and was even able to ride bareback.

The poet was also fond of boxing. Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky wrote in his memoirs that “in 1827, Pushkin taught me how to box, and I became very fond of this form of exercise.”

Read more: 10 reasons why Pushkin is so great

2. Mikhail Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov, self-portrait, 1847 from the collection of the State Literary Museum, Moscow. Source: RIA NovostiMikhail Lermontov, self-portrait, 1847 from the collection of the State Literary Museum, Moscow. Source: RIA Novosti

Another famous Russian poet, Mikhail Lermontov, loved holding fist-fighting tournaments among the peasant children in his estate in the village of Tarkhany, awarding generous helpings of gingerbread to the winners. In his poem “The Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov”, Lermontov gave a detailed description of one such tournament that took place on the frozen Moscow River in the 16th century. He also translated into Russian a book he brought from England called Boxiana; Or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism. Lermontov was also fond of skating: as a young man, he quickly learned how to draw “monograms on ice with his skates.”

Like Pushkin, Lermontov was an accomplished horseman. His riding skill once saved his life, when, during his military service in the Caucasus, he was being pursued by armed mountain warriors. Lermontov was also an excellent swordsman and shared a fencing teacher with Pushkin.

Read more: The Scottish roots of renowned Russian poet Lermontov

3. Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy riding a horse in his estate Yasnaya Polyana (Tula Region). Source: RIA NovostiLeo Tolstoy riding a horse in his estate Yasnaya Polyana (Tula Region). Source: RIA Novosti

From his childhood to old age, the renowned author did morning exercises, lifted weights, exercised on a horizontal bar and spent several hours walking. Tolstoy loved skating and could perform the same moves and jumps he ascribes to Konstantin Levin in “Anna Karenina”. During winter he would have a skating rink built at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana.

As an elderly man, Tolstoy learned to ride a bicycle. He was even elected honorary president of the Russian Society of Cyclists. In 1896 the Scientific American magazine reported that “Count Tolstoy … now rides a bicycle to the amazement of peasants in his estate.”

Read more: Leo Tolstoy’s 10 hobbies that prove he was a hipster

4. Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov in Crimea. Source: TASSAnton Chekhov in Crimea. Source: TASS

A doctor by education, Chekhov remarked more than once on the importance of self-improvement, declaring that “everything should be first-rate in a person, his face, clothes, soul and thoughts.” In the summer of 1886, he wrote to the architect Fyodor Schechtel admonishing him for being “flippant about gymnastics” and urging him to leave “stuffy Moscow” and visit Babkino, where the “bathing is superb.” Chekhov was also one of the founders of the Moscow gymnastics society.

Read more: Ten photos and quotes to celebrate Anton Chekhov's birthday

5. Alexei Tolstoy

Writer Alexei Tolstoy in his study. 1941. Source: TASSWriter Alexei Tolstoy in his study. 1941. Source: TASS

Count Alexei Tolstoy was naturally strong and earned himself a reputation as such. He could apparently bend silver spoons, drive nails into a wall with his finger and straighten horseshoes. He would also organize festivals on his estate where contestants would compete in the ancient Russian sport of belt wrestling. Two opponents had to grip each other by the belt, with the aim being to knock the other one to the ground.

Read an excerpt from Tolstoy's story: Sunlit frosts and snowstorms: The Russian winter in literature

6. Maxim Gorky

Soviet writer Maxim Gorky in Italy, 1912. Source: TASSSoviet writer Maxim Gorky in Italy, 1912. Source: TASS

Soviet writer Maxim Gorky was used to physical labor since childhood. From the age of 16, he worked in a bakery, carrying 80kg (176lb) sacks of flour. Gorky later worked on a fishing vessel and at a salt works, where physical dexterity was essential. He stayed in good physical shape when he achieved fame as a writer, and his contemporaries mention his main “circus trick”: slowly crossing himself 10 times with a 16kg (35lb) dumbbell. The writer also loved skiing, rowing and skating.

Read more: Maxim Gorky: 3 must-read books by an iconic Soviet writer

7. Vladimir Mayakovsky

Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (L) in a scene from 'The Lady and the Hooligan film.' Source:  TASSRussian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (L) in a scene from 'The Lady and the Hooligan film.' Source: TASS

The famous Soviet poet was a passionate boxer and often mentioned the sport in his poems. He wrote: “Learn French and English boxing not so as to punch somebody in the cheek, but so as to be able to single-handedly deal with a whole patrol without fear of bayonets or bullets!”

According to his coach, Mayakovsky gave his all to training, once attacking the punch bag with such gusto that he ripped it.

Read more: Mayakovsky on life, love and himself in 10 quotes

8. Vladimir Nabokov

Circa 1975: Portrait of Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977) standing with a butterfly net outdoors in the hills of Switzerland. Source: Getty ImagesCirca 1975: Portrait of Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977) standing with a butterfly net outdoors in the hills of Switzerland. Source: Getty Images

The author of Lolita was both a passionate butterfly collector and a keen boxer, which he took up while serving in the army. His brother recalled an occasion in Berlin when Nabokov knocked down a man who was harassing him in the street with a single punch.

Read more: The joyful exile of Vladimir Nabokov

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