Gone too Soon

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     I know of Elena Donaldson mainly for three reasons-  she was a women's world championship contender(1986); she won the U.S. Women's Chess Championship 3 times: 1990, 1993 (shared) and 1994; she defected from the USSR in 1988 to marry John Donaldson.  
     Sadly, Elena died last November after a protracted bout with brain cancer.  Perversely, her passing inspired me to look at her life more intensely.
     She was born Elena Bronislavovna Akhmilovskaya in the great city on Leningrad (St.Petersburg) in 1957.  When she was 12, she moved with her family 2200 miles east, to  Krasnoyarsk in Siberia.  There her father worked as an engineer.  Her mother became the women's amateur chess champion of that region.  It's easy to see that Elena learned chess from her mother.
     Up until when her mother died, while Elena was a teenager, her life seemed comfortable,  pleasant and uneventful other than for her budding chess talent. In her very first chess tournament at age 11, which her mother had to bribe her to she to join, she won all her games.

Elena, playing at the Young Pioneer Palace, a year after moving to Krasnoyarsk.


Elena, in 1973 at the Young Pioneer Palace.

     She studied Law and Physics at what is now the Sibirskiy federal'nyy Universitet, located in Krasnoyarsk, but, recognizing both her love and talent for chess, she left without a degree to play chess full-time.  At some point she was accepted and attended Botvinnik's Chess School. In spite of having to move and losing her mother,  Elena's life became a whirlwind of traveling and media attention. In the 1978 Olympiad, she played in the reserve section of the USSR team with a rating of 2280.  She won all 10 of her games, a feat never duplicated before or since, with a performance rating of  2715. 

     She also found time to romance and marry a man living in Tbilisi, Georgia.   Because she wanted to be close to him, Elena moved from Krasnoyarsk to Sochi, which is near the Georgian border, in 1979. She started participating in all the available major chess events. After three years of living in Sochi, Elena had a daughter, Donna, making her the only Soviet professional female player who was also a mother, and not too long after that, her marriage must have started dissolving. By 1986, she was a contender for the Women's World Championship (she played in open tournaments as well as women tournaments).  Although losing her match with the powerful Maya Chiburdanidze, 8.5-5.5, she attained a performance rating of 2563 and had scaled the heights of women's chess.




Maya Chiburdanidze. and Elena Akhmilovskaya

     She played in 2 more Olympiads on the Soviet team: In 1986, scoring 8.5/12 and in 1988, scoring 8.5/9.  During the last Olympiad, played in Thessaloniki, Greece, she left abruptly, not finishing her games (even so, she placed 2nd on 2nd board behind Judit Polgar who scored 12.5/13) . She eloped with IM John Donaldson, whom she had known for some time, having met him in Cuba in 1985.  She also defected from the USSR, leaving her 7 year old daughter, as well as all her clothes and belongings, behind. They traveled to Frankfurt, Germany where they stayed until Elena received her US visa. Most sources say Elena divorced her first husband in 1987, but in a 2003 interview in Russia, Elena claimed that she hadn't yet divorced her first husband and that the sudden elopement was meant to avoid potential difficulties attributable to that situation.  They married on November 25 in the Athens town hall and left quickly to avoid the repercussions of the unavoidable scandal.  She defected for love, not for any political reasons.  Although she claimed never to regret her decision, ultimately it had a big effect on her life. 

     Moving to America was a courageous decision and an uphill battle. Elena learned quickly that chess players in America aren't the elite celebrities they can be in Russia, nor do they receive the support and encouragement from the government. Elena's chess career stagnated and never regained its previous momentum. She did play in some events including 5 Olympiads with the USA team (1990, 1992,1994, 1998 and 2002, two of which were in Russia).  Publicity said the Elena had permission from the Soviet government to retreive her daughter (the Salt Lake City "Desert News" of June 16, 1989 announced the couple had traveled to Russia the previous week with permission to retreive her daughter and the 3 were currently in Philadelphia, visiting Donaldson's parents [Mr. Willaim Donaldson was director of the Philadephia Zoo]), but her daughter says she remembers being spirited away in the stealth of the night which, if nothing else, suggests Elena's distrust of the Soviet government.   During her marriage to IM Donaldson, she won the U.S. Women's Championship 3 times (one of those shared).

     The romance that inspired Elena to forsake her country ended after a relatively short time.  She and IM Donalson divorced and in 1995, she married her former coach in Russia, Georgi Orlov, who had emmigrated to Seattle where Elena lived.  IM Orlov opened the Orlov Chess Academy where both he and Elena taught. She and Mr. Orlov produced a son, Nicholas who, according the the academy's site, was partly the inspiration for the chess academy.

Feodor Skripchenko, Elena Ahmylovskaya and Georgi Orlov, Moldova 1989

     Elena had spoken of the difficulties she encounterd when first moving to America, having to work at what she considered menial jobs, on her feet all day, while also running the household and raising a family, having to count pennies for basic necessities, having to learn better English as well as job skills for better employment. She eventually became an accountant and a computer programmer.  In 1995 Mrs. Orlov was hired to edit the chess column, "Chess Studio," for the "Seattle Times." In 2010, she earned the status of FIDE instructor.


    With a settled life, a new family, a new career as a chess instructor, the final curtain fell and 55 year old Elena contracted brain cancer. Nine months later, this women who gave so much of herself to chess, to the pursuit of happiness and to others, passed away.... much too soon

Here is a clever win againtst Maia Chiburdanidze in 1977 at the Paul Keres Memorial Tournament in Tallinn, Estonia:


Elena Akhmilovskaya
March 11, 1957   -   November 18, 2012

Elena participated in 6 USSR women's championships, placing 2nd in 1987. 
She was the Russian Women's Champion in 1980 and champion at the USSR Spartakiade in both 1978 and 1983.

1st place:
Sinai 1976; Sochi 1980, 1982; Lyons 1985; Candidates Tournament in Malmo 1986; at Tapolca 1987; Jajce (Bosna) 1986 and 1987; Hyeres 1987.

Shared 1st:
women's world championship zonals 1975; Roosendaal, 1976; Pyatigorsk 1978; Alicante, 1979; Moscow 1979; Tallinn 1984; Tskhaltubo, 1987; Tapolca, 1987.

2nd place:
women's world championship interzonals 1985; Havana 1985; Budapest 1985; Tbilisi 1987; Sochi 1987

Shared 4th:
Tbilisi 1982