Smyslov's childhood years
Moscow in 1920s

Smyslov's childhood years

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When I started working on the book about the early years of Vasily Smyslov, I often asked myself - how did the world look like when he was born, almost a hundred years ago? How did it feel growing up in Moscow in the 1920s?

Of course, I had some basic knowledge of that period from the [Soviet] history lessons and I did some extra reading of my own to get more context for this project.

The opening sentence of the classical novel "The White Guard" by Mikhail Bulgakov is probably the best summary of those turbulent times:

Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second.

Smyslov was born three years later, in 1921. By that time the Russian Civil War was mostly over, and the capital of the country was largely spared the atrocities experienced by the heroes of Bulgakov's novel in Ukraine. However, life was still difficult and people were mostly poor. I found a nice slide show that depicts the daily scenes of Moscow in the year of Vasily Smyslov's birth:

However, the end of the Civil War also led to the first signs of the cultural revival. Many years laters, Maria Knebel, who would go on to become a theater actress and director, wrote in her memoirs:

Moscow of 1921 — poorly dressed, half hungry — was only starting to heal the wounds inflicted by the Civil War. However, the pace of life was unbelievable. Not only us, the young ones, but everyone around us lived an amazingly full, intense lives. Everything was boiling, seething, breaking, emerging. The old world was falling apart, and in the creative destruction the new individualities were suddenly blooming. There was a countless number of creative circles, studios, tiny theaters. Everyone wanted to leave their mark in art, believing that it was their calling. Despite the paper shortages, a lot of poetry collections were published.

This creative energy also spilled over to chess. The tournaments were again organized after several years of absence. In 1924 chess was played on the main square of Leningrad with "live pieces":

Live chess in Leningrad, 1924

In the beginning, chess was mostly advertised as a relatively cheap entertainment for the masses. It was heavily promoted in the factories and in the army:

Red Army soldiers playing chess in gas masks

Next year, Moscow hosted the first international tournament of the Soviet era. It was a massive round robin with 21 players, including 10 Soviet players and 11 foreign masters. The lineup included two World Champions - Emanuel Lasker and José Raúl Capablanca, but the winner turned out to be the reigning Soviet champion, Efim Bogoljubow.  

Capablanca vs Lasker, the 1st round game of Moscow 1925 tournament
Frank Marshall vs Richard Réti, 3rd round of Moscow 1925

The Moscow 1925 tournament led to a veritable chess fever in the Soviet Union. Of course, the most famous illustration of the Soviet Chess Fever is the eponymous silent movie, which skillfully integrated the documentary footage of the masters playing in the Moscow 1925 tournament with the Soviet actors playing out the story and Capablanca himself helping to resolve the main conflict of the movie. There are several versions of this movie on the Internet, with different music soundtracks. Here is the one that I like the most:

This was the background of the first decade of Vasily Smyslov's life. It is not surprising that the future world champion started to learn chess in late 1920s, although in the beginning he was confined to studying the chess books from his father's library and playing offhand games against his father and uncle.

Next article: Smyslov's education at home