Who saved Alexander Alekhine?


A part of Sergei Tkachenko's extensive article about the master Yakov Vilner.

"...In Odessa, a very strong tournament should have taken place, with Alekhine, Evenson, Bogoljubov, Dus-Chotimirsky, Bohatirchuk and other renowned players.

Alas, the quickly-changing political situation interfered with the chess players' plans. The rule of hetman Skoropadsky, the main sponsor of the tournament, had ended, and the new rulers didn't share his enthusiasm towards the ancient game. And, well, the subsequent kaleidoscopic change of Odessa's rulers made any kinds of chess tournaments impossible. Alekhine, who'd already come to Odessa, had to earn his living with simultaneous displays. And when he didn't play simuls, he played in the chess room of Robin's cafe...

Robin's chess cafe. It's interesting that its owner wanted to bequeath the restaurant to the Odessa chess society. But his heirs shot this idea down.
He continued playing in the cafe even after the Bolsheviks came to Odessa at 6th April 1919. One Odessa historian told me that Alekhine was arrested by the Cheka officers and taken to the jail at the Ekaterininskaya square straight from the cafe: one of the local players, suffering a heavy defeat against Alekhine, denunciated him. This story was told to him by one of the Cheka ex-officers who later became an important official in the Soviet militia. Alas, I couldn't find any evidence for this tale - even the name of the player who wrote the denunciation. Almost all documents concerning the Bolsheviks' second coming to Odessa were burned in August 1919 by the Cheka officers fleeing from Denikin's forces. The Bolshevik comrades destroyed the documents to cover up killings and reprisals. The miraculously saved remains were taken to Romania after Nazis took Odessa in 1941, and the ultimate fate of those documents is still unknown.
Alekhine's stay in the Cheka basements couldn't lead to any good. He was a nobleman, son of the State Duma member and the heir of the Trekhgornaya Manufacture. The very citation of this list caused much hatred among the members of the new power... I strongly recommend you to read Ivan Bunin's diary Cursed Days that tells about the April-August 1919 period in Odessa. The words of someone who'd seen everything with his own eyes are precious! Bunin's diary can be supplemented with the book Red Terror in Russia in 1918-23 by a noted historian S.P. Melgunov. Citing the facts of an international committee, Melgunov tells of mass executions in Odessa in those days. The executors themselves didn't even try to hide their "exploits". The former superintendent of the Ekaterininskaya Square jail N.L. Mer remembered that almost all Cheka officers on night shifts took part in shootings. They would start up a lorry truck's engine, strip the sentenced people naked, bring groups of 10-12 people to the garage, where the commandant squad (mostly Chinese) shot them to the death. Up to 50 people were killed nightly, freeing up the space for new prisoners. Then the bodies were loaded onto the truck, brought to the 2nd Christian cemetary and thrown into a specially prepared pit.
How Alekhine managed to avoid being shot by Cheka? There was a version that the future chess king was saved by the head of Revolutionary Military Council, Lev Trotsky himself, who allegedly visited Alekhine in his cell, played several games with him, lost them all... and let the prisoner go in peace after that! A very touching story, but the facts are a very stubborn thing. It's documentally proved that Trotsky never visited Odessa in 1919, and so he couldn't free Alekhine... Another thing is funny in this story with Trotsky! In the September 1937 issue of the English Chess magazine, the article dedicated to Alekhine's victory over Euwe in the return match again cites this version of a miraculous salvation! The article was published while Alekhine was still alive and well, but Alekhine didn't refute this misinformation. Why, you might ask? It's a theme for another article, and I'll surely return to it in the future, but I'll say shortly: it wasn't exactly advantageous for Alekhine to make all the details public and tell the truth about his life in Odessa after leaving jail...
There is another version that says that Alekhine was helped to avoid execution by Dmitry Zakharovich Manuilsky, a renowned official of the Bolshevik party who worked at Ukraine since April 1918. This variant was considered the most realistic by Yuri Nikolaevich Shaburov, the author of many publications about Alekhine. In his book Alexander Alekhine - The Undefeated Champion he writes, "It was no accident that Alekhine was freed. Aside from his obvious innocence, it's proved by the fact that he came to Odessa with consent of D.Z. Manuilsky, a renowned state and party official. At that time, Manuilsky worked in Kiev and was a member of All-Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee, the People's Comissair of agriculture. The Odessa Cheka members double-checked the suspect's testimony and were convinced that his reputation was beyond doubt. So probably that's why right after leaving jail, in April 1919, Alekhine was immediately given a post in the Odessa Government Executive Committee." Shaburov's version is very good, but... Manuilsky didn't work at Kiev then!! He was given all those post only in January 1920, when Alekhine already moved to Moscow. And while Alekhine resided in the jail's basement, Manuilsky was... also limited in his freedom!

Dmitry Manuilsky is laughing. About what?

In January 1919, Manuilsky, with Inessa Armand and Yakov Davydov, went to Paris with the Russian Red Cross mission, to try and get the soldiers and officers of the Russian Expedition Corps back to the country. But the French government, understanding the ulterior motives of the Bolshevik mission, stalled the talks. Moreover, the Bolshevik delegation was soon arrested and interned in the small French town Dunkirk.
By official information, the members of the Red Cross mission were freed (or rather exchanged!) in June 1919. Only after those misadventures Manuilsky was sent to work in Ukraine, and only in January 1920 he became a member of the Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee. This information isn't secret; it's strange why Shaburov didn't check the dates to confirm Manuilsky's whereabouts in the April-May 1919.

Manuilsky's grave in Kiev

There's also a third version of Alekhine's salvation, in G. Muller and A. Pavelchak's book Alekhine, the Chess Genius. Shaburov mocked this version in his book, saying, "In essense, among the five judges who had to sign Alekhine's death sentence, there was one who refused to sign it out of respect towards the famous chess player, and that's why he was freed. Could such thing happen?" Amazingly, this version is closest to the truth! Yes, such thing could happen!! (Studying the archive documents and memories of the people who took part in those events, I came across even more implausible events and facts that couldn't be explained logically.)
Analyzing the events of those April days and juxtaposing them with witnesses' accounts, the Odessa historians came to conclusion that Alekhine was saved by Yakov Vilner who then worked as a clerk in the "legal branch" of the Revolutionary Tribunal. He was given an execution list with Alekhine's name to sign. Understanding that there's very little time before the execution, Vilner called Christian Rakovsky, the head of Ukrainian Council of the People's Comissairs, and... what transpired then, was related to us by the future International Master Fedor Bohatirchuk:
"Luckily, Rakovsky knew of Alekhine's chess genius and immediately called the Odessa Cheka by direct line. The only thing we know for sure is that Alekhine was freed the same night..." Vilner himself told Bohatirchuk how Alekhine's salvation came about when they met.
By the former Odessa Cheka officers' memories, Rakovsky's order came almost immediately before the execution.
Christian Rakovsky and Lev Trotsky, 1924
In this undoubtedly miraculous salvation of Alekhine, one fact disturbed me: Vilner's direct call to the influential ruler of Ukraine. Was this call just an off-chance? But the archive research (luckily, not all documents of that time were burned or stolen!) dispelled my doubts. Rakovsky indeed knew the Odessa situation well and very actively participated in organizing the work of local Cheka and creating the tribunal. In the unclassified and miraculously surviving documents of Odessa Government Committee I saw Rakovsky's facsimile. By his order (to legitimize the atrocities, it seems), the legal branch of the tribunal published the execution lists in the News of the Odessa Council of Workers' Deputies newspaper. From this very newspaper I learned about Rakovsky's involvement with the Odessa Revolutionary Tribunal. At the end of April 1919, Rakovsky came to Odessa from Kiev in a "private railway car" and brought the "justice commissariate decrees" necessary for the Odessa tribunal's work. Curiously, Rakovsky didn't move to any hotels in Odessa, preferring to stay in that "private car" at the Odessa railway station where he received various delegations and messengers... Perhaps Vilner met Rakovsky during that time, receiving some instructions or directions.
Christian Rakovsky's facsimile on the Odessa Government Committee's documents.
Shaburov, seemingly understanding the inaccuracy of his version of Manuilsky freeing Alekhine, came to Odessa after writing The Undefeated Champion to get access to the Ukrainian Security Services Odessa archives, which "inherited" the old KGB files after USSR dissolved. Alas, the USS couldn't find anything pertaining to those events in their archives (at least, that was the official reason of their refusal). But Yuri Nikolaevich's visit wasn't all in vain! One day, he visited Evgenia Vasilievna Vladimirova - the daughter of one of the founders of Odessa Chess Society, Vasily Modestovich Vladimirov. (There's a photo in her archive of a chess game her father and Nikolai Loran played against Alekhine. The photo was made on 16th April 1916, in the Commercial Assembly building which hosted the chess club at the time.) From her father's words, Evgenia Vasilievna told the Moscow guest about the events of those wild years; about the constant reshuffle of rulers; about the city's chess life; about how her father couldn't accept the "new power" for a long time - and, most importantly, that "the chess player Vilner who worked in the Revolutionary Tribunal at the time" had a major part in saving Alekhine for the chess world. Shaburov copied the photo, with her permission.
First row, left to right: V.M. Vladimirov, N. Loran, Heifitz (publisher of Odessa News newspaper), unknown, A. Alekhine. Second row, right to left: A.A. Khudarsky, the renowned Odessa reporter; F. Shpanir, the organizer of Alekhine's Odessa tour; Boris Verlinsky; three unknown men.