Early Russian Chess - Revisited

Oct 2, 2010, 12:38 PM |

"The more certain any "fact" about the Soviet history seems, the less clear are its causes, consequences and motivatinons.  We have little reason to doubt the "fact," attested by magazines, histories, and other reference books, that the Nazis killed [Alexander] Ilyin-Genevsky.  Yet the more that this account is repeated, the more we notice that he was exactly the kind of party official who was most at risk in the Terror.  Stalin was pitiless in his vendetta against his old comrades.  It would be an irony entirely in keeping with the indeterminate, perverse logic of Soviet communism if the revolution had indeed devoured, among tens of million others, the founder of Soviet Chess."
-White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard  by Daniel Johnson

While I've written about the perversity of early Soviet chess in  Art for Art's Sake - not!  and other places, the subject never fails to fascinate me. Right now I'm reading two books. I quoted from the first one above. The second book is "Why the Allies Won" by Richard Overy.  The second book is an attempt to pinpoint definitive reasons for the Allies' victory in WWII, while examining in detail the more flippant reasons commonly assumed.  Both books are eye-openers to some degree, but the reason I even mention them here together is the striking contrast between the different depictions of the Soviet Union, making the above quote even more poignant.

Once Germany turned its eyes the the East, the USSR was literally fighting for its existence.  By December 1941, the Soviets had lost 4 million men, 8,000 aircraft, 17,000 tanks, half their steel and coal output as well as their entire "breadbasket," Ukraine, and were literally picking up their factories and moving them out of the Nazi reach, all while facing the largest army ever assembled. Yet, these amazing people held fast, recouped their losses through impossibly hard work and sheer determination and actually outproduced, and ultimately, outfought their enemy. Even taking into consideration the threat of gulags - life outside these work camps was possibly just as harsh - or worse, the spirit exhibited by the Russian people during this time was extraordinary and signified a national pride that might seem more than justified.

But let's look at the other side of the coin. The same system, the one that enabled the incredible defense and recovery against the Nazis, in time of peace was just as oppressive, only without the pride of overcoming a formidable enemy. What passed as defensive action and security during a war could only be considered paranoia and insecurity in times of peace and when the same war machine that won battles is turned upon the citizenry, something is indeed amiss.

White King and Red Queen relates the well-known rise of Nikloai Krylenko to power as the first Commander-in-Chief (appointed by Lenin), as Commissar of Justice, as Prosecutor General and most apropos to this article, as director of the Chess, Checkers and Mountain Climbing associations under Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky's office as Chief Commissar of the Supreme Council for Physical Education. It would probably be accurate to consider Krylenko and Ilyin-Genevsky as the founders of so-called Soviet Chess, but while  Ilyin-Genevsky's role, though political in nature, was comparatively benign, Krylenko's was as despicable as it was effective.  

According to David Edmonds and John Eidinow in Bobby Fischer Goes to War:
Around 1920, Lenin's good friend Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky was appointed chief commissar at the General Reservists' Organization in Moscow, which provided young men the physical and military training for the militia. The training included sports and Ilyin-Genevsy, a chess master himself, thought that chess would provide not only the benefits of competition, but additionally would sharpen the mind and instill the elements of good strategy and decision-making.

Krylenko worked with Ilyin-Genevsky to create the Soviet chess juggernaut creating the All-Union Chess Section in 1924. answering to the Supreme Council for Physical Education.  In 1923 there were only about 1,000 registered chess players, by 1929 there were 150,000, by 1951,  1,000,000,  by 1960,  2,000,000 and by 1965,  3,000,000.

Krylenko wielded great power - power over life and death in fact - and never hesitated using that power. Among Krylenko's victims included Lazar Zalkind,  chairman of the rather benign All-Union Association of Chess Problem and Study Lovers. Not only was the chairman persecuted by being sent to a labor camp for a total of 13 years, but the 250 member organization he chaired was forced to denounce him publicly (in 64, the chess periodical founded by Krylenko himself), then the organization itself was shut down. Mikhail Platov was sent to an Arctic prison where he died. He and his brother and problem collaborator, Vasily, back in 1909 had created Lenin's favorite chess problem. One from another famous set of brothers who composed was Arvid Kubbel, brother of Leonid and Evgeny. Arvid was convicted of having some of his endgames problems published in a foreign journal and was sentenced to a Siberian gulag where he died. 

Konstantin Shukevich-Tretyakov, Mikhail Barulin, Pyotr Izmailov, Mikhail Shebarshin, Vladmir Petrov and Nikolai Salmin, all chess players of the highest quality, all imprisoned or executed in the purge. Krylenko himself fell victim, accused of being a traitor, and ironically enough, among other things, of being too pre-occupied with chess, and was imprisoned where he was evidently shot.

This section of White King and Red Queen ends as I've begun, with Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky:
All the official histories agree the he was killed by Nazi shelling while trying to flee from Leningrad across Lake Lagoda in December 1941.  However, the authoritative Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History has a different version:
Ilyin-Genevsky, it states, "was arrested by the secret police during the purges and died in prison in 1941"

The Soviet people defended themselves from the Nazis at great cost in suffering and sacrifice. The Soviet government established the Soviet Chess system at a seemingly similar cost, different only in degree and in the fact that one's own government was the enemy to the people.