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On Racism & The Murder of International Master Sergey Nikolaev “Я СВОЙ!” (“Ya Svoy”)

On Racism & The Murder of International Master Sergey Nikolaev “Я СВОЙ!” (“Ya Svoy”)

IzyaslavKoza
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I’ve been translating books, interviews, and articles from Russian to English and in reverse, for a great many years. While there are always words, or phrases that require careful thought or even consultation with the author, absolutely none proved to be as complex as the final ones spoken by International Master Sergey Nikolaev before he was beaten, and stabbed to death by a group of teens in Moscow in 2007.

When tasked to translate them along with the rest of GM Genna Sosonko’s latest book “Genna Remembers”I was actually at a complete loss, and not just because of how close to home, and emotionally charged they were.

The thing is taken by itself translating “Я СВОЙ!” isn’t necessarily a problem as in most cases some variation of “I’m one of your own” will serve. No, the real trouble was that in this context the phrase seemed to make no sense and would, to my mind, just cause confusion among readers.

 

What on earth did IM Sergey Nikolaev mean when he told his killers he was one of them?

 

While I don’t want to get into the specifics of IM Nikolaev’s life, and instead strongly recommend anyone interested purchase and read this truly worthwhile book when it comes out (Nikolaev was a successful businessman and a genuinely good person who helped older generations of chess players survive in a world where they could no longer really compete over the board), I did want to discuss the end of his life because it personally resonated so much with me.

Growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union, I had, even at five years of age, become quite accustomed to hearing anti-Semitic slurs (i.e. “Zhid”) yelled in my direction, and as a child was even attacked and went to the hospital because of it. This did not really stop when my family came to America as on the back of the Crown Heights Riots in Brooklyn in the 90’s, I would dodge rocks with my fellow classmates and hear wonderful things like “Hitler should have finished what he started” from kids in the African American community in Starrett City in New York. At the time I had no idea what any of this meant but as an adult and reading about what began, and perpetuated the Riots I understand that this was a residual effect of the times (much like the Pogroms of the past).

Still this article isn’t about me, and the only reason I mention the above is to explain why this particularly tragic episode made me write this article.

My grandfather survived the Holocaust, he saw the evidence, and horrors of it personally, and after the war as a sergeant in the Red Army he often told me of the time he beat on a fellow soldier for saying “Hitler should have killed you all.”

Things have not, and may never change.

When IM Nikolaev was killed, the authorities and media tried to cover up the fact that the murder was racially, or ethnically motivated. In fact, I have purposefully stopped short of disclosing the details up to this point so that the impression people reading this may get, if they are not familiar with the case, is a Russian chess player with a typically Russian name was killed by a group of Russian teenagers.

The truth is Sergey Nikolaev was born, and lived his entire life in Russia, had Russian citizenship, spoke Russian as fluently as any person can speak it, and was essentially as homegrown as they come. But having been born in Yakutsk, the coldest place in Russia, Nikolaev had typically Asian/Turkic facial features and therein lay his transgression. He was Russian in everything, except his face.

 

It’s almost ironic that at one point during our discussion regarding translating this book GM Sosonko even told me with regard to my approaching a famous anti-Semitic Russian Grandmaster for an interview (whose name I am not mentioning on purpose) “one look at you…” and with that I knew exactly what he meant, and exactly what it is that happened to Sergey Nikolaev.

Many people have varying definitions of what racism actually is, and that accusation of being such, gets tossed around quite a bit online and in our modern society.

Personally, I’ve always held that the standard for determining what racism, (or a racist) is stems from whether a person, or people ever feel the need to apologize or show remorse for an outright belief in the perceived genetic superiority of their identity, or any act of violence (or call to violence) based on hatred, that is related to it.

If they never show remorse, they really won’t care about your accusation, and if they do, it makes sense to keep talking to them so as to reach a common understanding and eventually accept each other. This was perfectly depicted in the film American History X which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand this topic.

Perhaps this is an overly simplistic definition, but a perfectly solid one based on my own experiences.

 

Take for instance, the group of teenagers involved in said crime. As far as I know none of them have ever apologized and have always been proud of what they did.

 All of them were members of a neo-Nazi street gang. While Nikolaev’s murder resonated in the world outside the general radius of where it was committed by no means was it their first, or last, such murder of people of a different ethnicity, or nationality, the murderers, and their fellow gangs having admitted to staging such attacks multiple times before, after, and that very same night as well.

At the trial, all used the traditional Nazi salutes, and glorified Hitler, and his regime, one even stating that when he gets “out” he would like to establish the “Rudolf Hess Brigade” or something. Presumably the rationale being that Hess was unjustly imprisoned (to their mind) and they were political prisoners of a similar nature?

Be that as it may, the irony had always been that Hitler killed more ethnic Russians combined then most every other person in history with the possible exception of Stalin and the communists themselves, so the logic of glorifying such a person and being a Russian nationalist never made any sense whatsoever.

Regardless, every single one of IM Nikolaev’s killers has long been released from jail and hasn’t changed their views. Since all were teenagers at the time of the crime their sentences were fairly light. Some still brag about it on social media to this day.

““Я СВОЙ!” as I understand it referred to Nikolaev’s attempt to convince them not that he was a Neo-Nazi, but that he was Russian, born and raised in the only country he ever knew. Since most of these racist attacks were against foreign migrants from the former Soviet republics in Asia, in his last moments Nikolaev may have felt him telling them he was actually a Russian citizen would save him.

It didn’t, and it didn’t because this sort of baseless hatred is always ignorant, and irrational, so to reason with it makes absolutely no sense.

Sergey Nikolaev was a good man, and truthfully, was much more Russian than the teenagers that killed him. As I found out in the book, he saved the life of more than one ethnically Russian chess player (as well as plenty of none-ethnic ones) which is more than I could say for his killers’ hero Adolf Hitler or them.

We often get caught up in being offended, or insulted, or seeking to find hatred where it really doesn’t exist, thereby forgetting what it actually is at the end of the day.

Lastly, some may ask what any of this has to do with chess, or this website besides the fact that it is about the death of a chess player?

As mentioned above IM Nikolaev tried to quietly take care of long forgotten players whose games were immortalized, and who are routinely discussed in articles, and puzzles on this and other websites but who are otherwise marginalized and forgotten as individuals. He bought medicine, paid for operations, and organized events so they could still feel like they mattered. He was a true benefactor of chess and our little game is forever emptier without him.

Beyond this, chess has the power to bring people from otherwise warring races, ethnicities, countries, and backgrounds together over a small 8x8 board and forget their mostly irrelevant differences. It truly can be the tool which helps combat a darkness which has continued and continues to endure in our “civilized” world to this very day.

 

(Special thanks to my friend Howard Fields for helping in the editing process).

 

Courtesy of GM Sosonko

                                                                           IM Sergey Nikolaev

                                                                                (1961-2007)