Aug 8, 2012, 9:40 AM |

Chess in Gulags? Yes, prisoners in forced labor camps and all other "corrective" institutions have always been playing chess fondly. There are all types of people playing chess as you know: kings and beggars, 1% and 99%, good and bad, saints and sinners, labor camp prisoners and their guards.

What kind of chessmen have Gulag inmates used? Typically ones made of bread crumbs. Put in their mouths to moisten first, then molded and shaped. To chess-season up their miserable Gulag lives. To show us extraordinary examples of human courage and endurance.

Pic. 1 Ostap Vishnya bread-made chess set by the Ukranian writer Pavlo Gubenko who served in Ukhtinsko-Pechorsky labor camp 1933-1943

Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov (1907–82) was one of them. A Russian writer, journalist, poet and Gulag survivor. A political prisoner for many years, he committed an unfathomable act – he survived in the deadliest of Stalin’s camps and preserved an inner strength so great, it enabled him to turn the bottom of life he had hit into an art of the first order.

He served in the Kolyma region in the northeastern part of Siberia, characterized by its subarctic climate and its infamous Gulag forced labor camps. It is estimated that three million people met their end in the Kolyma camps. Shalamov spent 17 years in the camps, 10 of them for daring to describe Ivan Bunin as a “classic Russian writer.” A few years after his release in 1951, he began writing the stories collected as Kolyma Tales, spending the next 19 years working on it, and eventually smuggling it out of the Soviet Union. Stylistically opposite Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov employs an economy of words and emotion to lay bare devastating conditions; his spare writing style serves his stark subject well.

The Chess Set of Doctor Kuzmenko is one of his great pieces.

In this story, "Shalamov" and Dr. Kuzmenko, formerly a camp surgeon are about to play chess using a unique set fashioned out of the prison-ration bread that has been chewed and brought to a moldable condition by the prisoners' saliva. This chess set, whose figures represent historical personages from the Times of Trouble, the period of political turmoil following the death of the czar Boris Godunov, was made by the sculptor Kulagin. Two pieces are missing: the black queen, now lying headless in Dr. Kuzmenko's drawer, and the white rook. Driven to the lethal stage of pellagric dementia, Kulagin started eating his chessmen. It was too late; he died after swallowing the rook and biting off the head of the queen. At this point the surgeon makes the following remark:

"I didn't give the order to get the rook out of his stomach. It could have been done at the post-mortem. Also the head of the queen... Therefore this game, this match, is two figures short. Your turn, maestro."

"No," I said. "I somehow don't feel like it any more."[1]

Pic. 2 Set made of bread crumbs by camp prisoners. Vorkuta Museum

Unfortunately, there's no translation from Russian. Therefore, I beg the readers to help refer to someone who could provide an expert translation Shalamov's work truly deserves.

Link to Russian original: The Chess Set of Doctor Kuzmenko

In few days I'm going to post with a little bit more about Shalamov on my blog at

“I am delighted to see a website like iPlayooChess that makes references to art and culture and is otherwise feeding the intellect as we enjoy the chess.”

–Mark N. Taylor, Assistant Professor in the Department of English Rhetoric and Writing at Berry College

The site brings daily a tactical chess puzzle and piece of chess art for you as well.



1. Leona Toker, Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. xv + 333 pp.