May 01, 2020

Handshake-Free Zone

Handshake-Free Zone
A lone policeman strolls across a closed and empty Red Square after Moscow was shut down by the quarantine. Maria Plotnikova

Health organizations are advising us to put handshakes on hold. But, as we figure out a way to circumvent that well-established greeting and teach ourselves not to touch our faces, we can also look back at the early Soviet years, a century ago, when the young state made personal hygiene and public sanitation an important part of its ideology, even launching anti-handshake campaigns.

Social campaigns were a large part of early Soviet propaganda, for which some of the best minds were recruited. The country needed to engineer a whole new industrial working class, and for that it had to recruit peasants from the countryside and cram them into dense kommunalkas (communal apartments) and large dormitories.

Hygiene propaganda was just as important as literacy campaigns, and evening radio shows included Evening Hygiene Education Talks (Вечерние беседы Санпросвета). A 1923 issue of the magazine Daily Life and Youth («Быт и молодежь») slammed handshakes as a “criminal invention of priests and the bourgeoisie who wanted to infect the oppressed workers and peasants.” To avoid infection, schoolchildren were advised to use the Pioneer’s greeting (a modification of the Scout salute) rather than shake hands. Anti-handshake pins produced in that era can still be found in antique shops.

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