Nikolai Krylenko. "The Main Goals of the Chess/Checkers Movement" (1931)

Nikolai Krylenko. "The Main Goals of the Chess/Checkers Movement" (1931)

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Nikolai Krylenko (1885-1938) was a Soviet government official who held various posts throughout his career, including briefly becoming the entire Red Army's supreme commander in 1917. In 1931, when he addressed the crowd with this speech at the 7th USSR chess championship, he was the Justice Minister of the Russian SFSR and, ever the chess enthusiast, the head of the Soviet Chess and Checkers Section and chief editor of the 64 magazine. Krylenko was instrumental in organizing the Moscow tournaments in 1925, 1935 and 1936, he was the one who invited Emanuel Lasker to live in the Soviet Union for a while, and allegedly it was he who came up with a fake Lenin quite "Chess is great exercise for the mind" (Lenin was an amateur chess player, but never said anything to that effect) which proved tremendously useful in spreading interest in chess among the working class in USSR.

Unlike some later Soviet chess officials, Nikolai Krylenko was an active chess player, taking part in both over-the-board and correspondence tournament. Some of his games will be shown below, to break the wall of text somewhat.

The ultimate fate of Krylenko was, sadly, similar to many of the "old Soviet revolutionary guard". He was arrested in early 1938 (the formal excuse was that "he went to alpinist expeditions more often than actually worked") and was soon executed after a sham trial.

This speech (with small omissions) will give the readers some insight into the Soviet chess and political life of the early 1930s. And, while it may sound strange, some of Krylenko's points are relevant for modern times as well: he raises the question whether prominent creative workers (chess players included) should "stick to their work" and abstain from politics.


Chess and Checkers into the Working Masses. Imbue the chess/checkers work with political content

Ever since the conception of our organization, we have our slogan, Chess and Checkers into the Working Masses. We came up with this slogan to combat the theory that chess is pure art, the theory that chess is just art for art's sake. The struggle for masses, the struggle for introduction of chess and checkers to the masses as a weapon of the cultural revolution - this is our first slogan, which we carry out ever since our organization was born.

The comrades who read our political literature, our specialized chess and checkers literature, knew clearly that if we wanted to make our movement, firstly, proletarian, and secondly, truly widespread, then the conclusion should have been obvious: a mass movement, a working-class movement is ought to be a political movement. It's plainly impossible for the working masses, who every day take active part in the country's political life, who every day, every hour are involved in their country's international and internal policy - for those working masses, when they study chess and checkers in clubs, or at home, or wherever, to cease being what they are: being political activists and builders of their own state, arbiters of their country's destiny.

In our epoch, the slogan "Chess and checkers to the masses as a weapon of cultural revolution" has been expanded: "Imbue chess and checkers with political content, make our chess and checkers players into political workers, conscientious fighters, conscientious participants of socialistic building.

There's No Place for Apoliticism in Our Ranks

Are there any tendencies in our organizations to abstain from politics? It's no secret - it was published in the press, in my article Politics and Chess - that such tendencies are still alive and well and will probably stay alive in the future. These tendencies were sharply demonstrated in the formula shown in an anonymous poll in the Shakhmatniy Listok. This formula showed the hidden tendencies, hidden wishes, hidden goals of a certain segment of our chess/checkers organizations: enough politics, we don't need politics, just let us "quietly" play chess.

We wrote, both in our resolutions and articles, that apoliticism was politics too, and struggle against politics was a political struggle, first and foremost. And that's when our slogan came to be. We said: anyone who stated that political questions should be separated from the questions of general cultural work, from the life of our organizations, was deliberately opposing our political position and, therefore, was our class enemy.

In view of that, a very correct question was raised: it was necessary for our organizations, for our ranks to combat such elements, to undertake the work that was undertaken by the party and the government to purge the Soviet apparat, purge the party, identify the class enemies and class opponents in all our organizations. We had to do that work too.

What Do We Demand From the Administrators and Organizers?

The issue of imbuing chess/checkers organizations with politics should be understood in this way: from some, we should demand that they, being organizers, being administrators, being responsible for political issues, pay much attention to political work; and we should get the others more involved in political life, make then conscientious participants of socialistic building.

I can cite a number of examples. Let's look at the question of chess/checkers organizations' participation in udarnik movement and socialistic competition. When you demand that the workers of this factory or that, in addition to being members of chess/checkers team, be udarniks and set high goals for themselves in socialistic competitions, as stevedores of the Lower Volga do - the checkers-playing and chess-playing stevedores - this is the way to couple cultural work with general political work, this is political work.

And there's another form, which we can demand from more mature members of our organization - from administrators, from organizers. We measure the level of fitness for our chess/checkers work not just by purely chess/checkers talent and ability, but also by the ability to perform political and organizational work and the level of clear understanding of general political issues in our life and the imbuing of chess/checkers organizations' work with political content.

Still, on a certain level, for certain groups the question of cultural importance of chess as a leisure activity should not be forgotten as well. Without excesses in this field, without leftist kinks - that's how we should formulate this goal.

Chess and Checkers Became a Truly Mass Movement

The second requirement of the times was to create a mass movement. In the last three years, this requirement was correctly interpreted by the Executive Bureau, was correctly formulated in its political slogans, was correctly transferred to the periphery. Our congress, the principles of its organization, huge mass work in preparation for this congress is the best answer to this second questions. In all the krais and oblasts, with very few exceptions, preparational conferences and competitions were held. Our national chess and checkers championship is a result of a massive preliminary qualification work. We turned our organizations in such a way to make our very art into a method and a way of involving wide masses into chess/checkers work, eschewing the principle of inviting only the strongest players; we made participation in qualifying tournaments necessary for everyone. With this methods, we have managed to stir our entire chess/checkers organization. And we don't have to be ashamed of those results. If we list every checkers and chess player who took part in qualification tournaments, this list will contain more than ten thousand people. More than 50 percent of participants were factory and kolhoz workers. 39 teams took part in our trade union championship, including the biggest organizations such as Krasniy Putilovets, Serp i Molot, Krasniy Profintern, Krasniy Treugolnik. Of 236 players taking part in the trade union championship, 60% were proletarian, 35% were members of the VKP(b) and VLKSM, and 92% were udarniks. This small, but striking example characterizes the current state of things, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. 92% of udarniks and 60% of factory workers - this is what we can show, this is the best answer to the question of what we have done to make our slogan Chess and Checkers into the working masses come true, what we have done to imbue chess and checkers with political content.

We have more data to prove this, based on other facts.

Let's take the last year's checkers championship. What did it give us? It gave 12 masters who were factory workers. An udarnik worker from Baku became the Soviet champion.

If we look at the social class and political line-up of our organizations' members, the numbers show that our slogan and requirements of the time were more than satisfied in the last three years, so there's nothing to be ashamed of. There was a time when we had a slogan - "No reading huts without chess and checkers." And what do we have now? We have a kolhoz Spartakiad in Leningrad, a kolhoz Spartakiad at the Middle Volga, we have other facts as well.

We Have Material Base - And We Have to Use It Wisely

I have given a clear and positive answer to the two main questions - those of chess/checkers movement's class character and political character. Let me now characterize our work; I promise to be ruthless in my self-criticism and call the things the way they actually are.

This year, we have spent 1 million rubles for the chess/checkers work in trade union. Next year, the projected spending is 1.4 million rubles, 40 per cent more. We can say that even this is not enough to fully realize the whole potential of our work. But I have to say directly that we have come a very long way since the time when chess and checkers had very little money, not even close to the current 1.4 million rubles. This is a material base that gives a good foundation for our work. The time when we literally didn't know how would we live tomorrow has gone. The question is, how much weight do we have in the trade unions' cultural work. The stronger and mightier the organization, the more robust it is, the more chance it has to obtain the needed material assets. This is the very basics of all practice of organizational, cultural, political or any other work. That's why these 1.4 million rubles is a good evaluation of the place that the chess/checkers organizations have in the general cultural work of the trade unions.

I'm citing these numbers only to say that the first and second points of the All-Union plenum of the Physical Culture Council's resolution have been realized, and now we cannot and should not say that we lack material base.

The only explanation for the sad state of certain organizations and certain regions, therefore, is the weakness of local organizations, their inability to establish good work culture and pull their weight.

Record Keeping Is Our Weakness

The next point of the plenum's resolution tells us about the organization requirements. One of the foremost requirements is keeping up-to-date lists of all members. I cannot imagine an organization that cannot do such a simple thing as to count the number of its members.

What needs to be done for that? We need to have an overseeing organization, for instance, the Physical Culture Council's chess section, to have local physical culture councils. This has been done. We have chess sections everywhere. We also have paid employees everywhere. This entails that they had to pick up their pencils and count. Some would argue, "they can't do that alone", but who says they should do that alone? Each organization is comprised of several local chess circles. In all circles, we have 10, or 15, or 20, or 60 members. You can count 60 people. Then, you can add 60 people of one circle to 60 people of another circle. This is easy. This is very basics. But still, even now, we do not have exact numbers.

Down With the Myths of Degradation

Yes, in the latest years, there were no spectacular competitions, no international or other tournaments, no feeling of enthusiasm and uplift, like, say, in 1925, but still, we have our organizational backbone, the basic skeleton of our chess/checkers organization. This backbone is ever-present. It is very clearly defined. It forms the basis of our entire chess/checkers work. We have a lot of great chess talents who progressed from the lower reaches of the hierarchy, and, as the recently-ended championship showed us, they have reached equal level with well-established masters - this is also a political fact, and we can't overlook it. It answers the myths of degradation.

Don't we have new, fresh players, don't we have great masses involved in the chess/checkers movement? I have here in my hands a small newspaper, handed to me just now. This is Pionerskaya Pravda. It has a big footer, headed by Comrade Krylenko, give us a word. Give more attention to the youth.

This footer article says that the problem-solving competition in Pionerskaya Pravda attracted 2000 participants. Pionerskaya Pravda even outdid Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose competition involved just 800 participants.

The very fact that the competition attracted 2000 people shows us that we have tremendous untapped reserves. If you remember tens of thousands of participants in the mass competitions, the mass tournaments held by Komsomolskaya Pravda, if you try to count the non-organized mass of chess and checkers players, then it would be ridiculous, politically wrong and harmful to talk about the decay, the degradation of chess/checkers movement.

Concerning women's chess movement: in earlier times, even relatively recently, some said that the women's chess movement is weak, three, four, five strong players, and that's all. The latest championship shows us that we have 20 strong woman players, not just 6 or 8. And how many woman players are still unaccounted for? I can say that the time of women having their separate championships is passing. Perhaps this was the very last women's Soviet chess championship.

All this shows how many hidden, potential forces we have, but, on the other hand, this also shows a certain organizational weakness on our part.

The Reasons for Our Organizational Weaknesses

And now we have to raise the issue of organizational weakness and ways to combat it. We will not see the full extent of this weakness at the lowest levels.

It's more visible higher up. The organizational weakness can be explained with the fact that our chess and our checkers haven't still gotten over many things that harm the mass development of chess work.

I'll speak of chess, first and foremost. To bring the slogan "Chess into working masses" into life and create organizational framework for it, we need organizational workers. Where can we get organizational workers? Only from the true chess enthusiasts. A paid worker won't work as effectively. This, of course, does not mean that all organizational workers should be unpaid - it's ridiculous. But only a real chess enthusiast can move chess forward, but for that, they have to focus their determination in the right direction. Too often those who could become great low-level organizers, at the factories, in the trade unions, as soon as they get slightly above others in their chess abilities, use that to move up the hierarchical ladder, in the old tradition of chess masters - they want to join some kind of elite caste. I cannot say that every talented organizer seeks to do that, but this happens often enough. That's why the main goal of any chess organization is to be able to direct their members' enthusiasm in the right way. And for that, we have to couple chess with politics - chess organizers should be public workers, and public workers should be chess players. And when the chess player becomes a competent public worker, or vice versa, then our work is done. That's why we need to find right leaders and organizers. This is the key to organizing the work.

<...> In the center, the workers of Executive Bureau, our chess/checkers commissions in the Central Trade Union Council, are still aren't pliable and flexible enough to satisfy all the growing demands of the periphery. Our commissions still consists of separate groups of public workers and qualified chess players.

The Executive Bureau doesn't change, there are no new members who ascend from below and who are more flexible in their organizational work. This is what's necessary to correct the organizational weaknesses.

Reorganize the Work of Magazines

One of the points in the Physical Culture Council's resolution says that our press should be organized in such a way that Shakhmaty v SSSR would serve the academic requirements (plus politics), and the 64 would serve the masses (plus politics). In actuality, despite dozens of resolutions, we haven't yet managed to create a special, necessary type of a mass chess magazine. 64 is woefully inadequate in this regard. Both of those magazines end up quite similar, despite all special decisions. The new methods of management, the new methods of writing and publishing magazines should seemingly be created from below, by making the editors' board closer to the lower levels, low-level organizations, casting aside the old traditional ways of magazine publishing. I'll have to admit that the Executive Bureau did pose the problem, but hadn't managed to solve it yet.

Chess Composition as a Way to Bring Chess to Masses

Chess composition, perhaps moreso than all other areas, is afflicted with all the illnesses of our movement. We already talked about chess insularity of our chess masters, but our chess composers are even more insular.

We have countered the calls of Zalkind - a menshevik saboteur and intervent - for our young chess composers to actively publish their works in the bourgeois press. On the other hand, we have countered the leftist kinks, which require full abstinence from bourgeois press and tournaments.

We had to find the right line. And we did find it: we have determined a number of newspapers and magazines where chess composers can publish their work, if approved by Executive Bureau. In addition, we have forbidden individual publications in the bourgeois press and established direct control of the composers' foreign performances. That's the state of things now. And we have to use our slogans differently. We have to use chess problems and studies exclusively as a method of popularizing chess and checkers in the working masses, as a method of teaching chess culture.

The next game is, fittingly, a study-like idea used by Krylenko in a game against a prominent study composer, Mark Liburkin. Play like Krylenko!

We Should Not Fall Behind If We Don't Want to Be Beaten

This policy, stated in the Physical Culture Council's resolution, has guided us until the end.

This is the short general characteristic of the state of our chess/checkers work, and criticism both of our organizations' mistakes at the periphery and the Executive Bureau's mistakes, with solutions that must be implemented if we want to widen our organizational base and strengthen the relationship between our leading organizations and periphery.

What are the conclusions? They follow from what was said above.

Our goal is to deepen and widen the chess/checkers movement.

Our goal is to imbue the chess/checkers work with political content.

Our goal is to create robust links with the international proletarian chess/checkers movement.

Our goal is to reinforce the base and the chess/checkers organizations.

Our general line was proven to be correct. But there is a great danger: if we don't correct our most glaring organizational mistakes in the coming months, we risk our chess/checkers movement becoming disorganized again, and we'll lose even what we have already gained. And in our era, in the era of building, of breakneck tempos, of massive successes, as comrade Stalin said, "if you fall behind, you get beaten".

If we don't want to get beaten, we should not fall behind.