Ethnosport – a Russian anthropologist about traditional folk games

Henning Eichberg
University of Southern Denmark

Alexey Kylasov Ethnosport: The End of Decline 132 pages, paperback. Münster: Lit Verlag 2015 ISBN 978-3-643-90654-0
Alexey Kylasov
Ethnosport: The End of Decline
132 pages, paperback.
Münster: Lit Verlag 2015
ISBN 978-3-643-90654-0

In the Irkutsk region, people gather at ethno-cultural Erdyn games, a traditional festivity of the Siberian nomads. Alongside shamanic prayers, the games include wrestling competitions, stone throwing, archery, and horse races. The competitions are accompanied by dances, songs, and storytelling. The culmination of the festival is a large ritual circle dance called Ehor. Holding hands, the people dance around a mountain.

This is one of the stories that Alexey Kylasov presents in this book about ethnosport, as one part of the rich global diversity of “ethnic sports”. The book casts light on the connections between popular culture – ethnos, folk, people – on the one hand, and body culture – sports, dances, play and games, festivities – on the other. This contrasts the mainstream approaches, which present sport as an abstract concept that is connected with other abstractions like “society”, “modernity”, “individual”, “education”, “technology”, and “function”, but remains unrelated to cultural patterns and lacks the acknowledgement of cultural relativity.

It is at this point that the Russian attempt at an “ethnosport theory” deserves attention. The anthropologist Andrey Kylasov had in 2012 in Moscow published a book, which in 2015 has been edited in English by the German publisher Lit. The book tells about the renaissance of old popular games in Russia among Kalmyk, Tatars, Buryats, Moldavians, Cossacks, and other ethnic groups, but also in other countries all over the world – as an expression of the cultural revival of folk sports. An anthropological attempt underlines cultural diversity, identity, and tradition.

This is a striking contrast to the Anglo-Saxon perspective, which prevails in Western sport theory. Here, one derives the concept of sport from either Ancient Greek Olympics or from English sports and constructs on this basis an abstract universal image of sport as a system beyond time, space, and cultures. Instead, the Russian book opens the view towards a rich world of sports, play, games, competitions, rituals and festivities in their diverse ethnic contexts.

The author places this material in a philosophical framework with references to philosophy and humanist sport research in the West. There is more than the sport of the Anglo Saxon and Olympic type, with its consequences of doping and genetic manipulation – and with its functionalist proponents. Among Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu, Kylasov searches for elements and references for a theory of ethnosport. This quest has a critical edge against the Soviet system with its campaign for “the New Man” and what once was called “anthropomaximology” (Kuznecov, 1979). At the same time, it is critical against liberal capitalism and the current ecological devastation in the North.

Tradition has sometimes been written with a capital T, when following the French esoteric “metaphysician” René Guénon, who had a special appeal in the East and is also among the references of Kylasov.

With its rehabilitation of cultural diversity, the ethnosport theory is in line with certain attempts, which have been undertaken in the framework of UNESCO, to reappraise identity, especially concerning the ethnic minorities in the world and their indigenous cultures. And ethnosport theory connects the cultural question with the question of democracy – as a challenge against those hierarchies, bureaucracies, and oligarchies, which did not disappear with the breakdown of the Soviet system, but are alive and well in international and post-Soviet mainstream sports. Against the sportive cult of the super-human, Kylasov sets the word of Jean-Paul Sartre that “only the man himself is the future of man”.

At the same time, the book has undertones of a certain “traditionalism”, which seems to be particular for certain parts of Russian intellectual life. Tradition has sometimes been written with a capital T, when following the French esoteric “metaphysician” René Guénon, who had a special appeal in the East and is also among the references of Kylasov. This deserves special attention and critical discussion.

Furthermore, it would be enlightening to study the Russian ethnosport theory in the light of the former Soviet ethno research. The research of ethno cultures developed unexpected under the umbrella of Marxist ideology – as part of colonization or as awareness of an actual diversity in the Soviet empire? – but has remained rather unknown or just marginally noted in the West (Liess, 1972; Böttger, 2014).

Finally, one can also critically discuss the concept of “ethnosport” itself. How does the concept of “sport”, which has Western roots in industrial culture, fit to the rich world of Eastern ethnic activities, festivities and games?

And yet, by pointing towards further regions of the world – Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Americas – where similar phenomena of ethnosport awareness have developed, the “ethnosport theory” could create a new dynamic in sport studies. In this perspective, the study can be read as an important contribution to bodily democracy, understood as people’s self-determination in bodily practice.

Copyright © Henning Eichberg 2016


Böttger, C. (2014). Ethnos. Der Nebel um den Volksbegriff [Ethnos. The mist around the concept of folk]. Beltheim-Schnellbach: Lindenbaum
Kuznecov, V.V. (1979) Der Sport – Hauptfaktor für wissenschaftliche Erkenntnis über Reservemöglichkeiten des Menschen [Sport – main factor for scientific knowledge about reserve potentials of the human being]. Theorie und Praxis der Körperkultur, Berlin (DDR), 28: 868-872 (First Moscow 1973)
Liess, O.R. (1972). Sowjetische Nationalitätenstrategie als weltpolitisches Konzept [Soviet strategy of nationalities as world political concept]. (= Ethnos. 12) Wien: Braumüller
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