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Vulgar Letters Were Sent To Female Chess Players For Over A Decade
Players at the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss also received letters. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Vulgar Letters Were Sent To Female Chess Players For Over A Decade

PeterDoggers
| 97 | Misc

WARNING: This reporting includes disturbing information of a sexual nature.

Letters with pages from porn magazines and used condoms have been sent to at least 15 female chess players for over a decade. This troubling news was revealed today by the online news service Meduza, which also claims to have discovered the identity of the perpetrator.

In what is an extraordinary piece of research journalism, Meduza authors Kristina Safonova and Lilia Yapparova describe the letters in detail, speak to a large number of players and related personalities involved, and eventually, with the help of an activist hacker, track down the likely perpetrator, who is a Latvian IM.

Mostly sent to young Russian women but sometimes to teenage girls, the letters have been truly disturbing, described in detail in the article:

The envelope usually contains a page from a pornographic magazine with one or more pictures. (...) The sender folds the page in half and puts a condom inside; in the condom—sperm. He uses white envelopes; if the envelope has a transparent window, prudently closes it with a paper patch. He pastes a postage stamp—with the image of blue wildflowers, red poppies, a bright fly agaric, a badger in the grass, or a space satellite. Then he writes the address of the recipient—in uneven, slightly childish handwriting—and throws the letter into a mailbox in Riga.

The letters were sent to at least 15 female chess players, sometimes to their homes, sometimes to their club or university. According to Meduza, five players were under the age of 18 when they received the letters, the rest under 30. The very first letter that could be found was sent in 2009 while the most recent known case occurred during the 2021 FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss (see below).

Among the players who received such letters, as mentioned in the article, are GM Valentina Gunina, IM Bibisara Assaubayeva, IM Alina Bivol, IM Anastasia Bodnaruk, IM Anastasia Savina, WGM Daria Voit, WGM Dina Belenkaya, WIM Irina Utiatskaja, and WIM Anna Styazhkina. 26-year-old Bivol seems to have received more letters than anyone: 15 in total. The first came when she was 17.

Alina Bivol
Alina Bivol received 15 letters. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The sender has used a wide variety of names, sometimes with real addresses, to pretend such persons were behind the letters. For example, Assaubayeva's letter, sent to the Moscow Chess Club with her name on it (which was in 2018 when she was only 14 years old) had the name of former FIDE world champion GM Alexander Khalifman, including his St. Petersburg address, on the back of the envelope.

Liana Tanzharikova, Assaubayeva's mother, contacted the police. She never really believed that Khalifman was behind the letter and published a piece about the incident on the Russian site chess-news.ru.

The players understandably don't like to talk about these matters, which may be one reason it has taken a decade for the scale of the matter to come to light. One player remarked that she did not want to "indulge the sender's pride." Also, not all players were equally affected by it.

Chess.com spoke to Gunina, who received five letters in total, the first back in 2013 when she was 24. "It didn't hurt me much, I guess I was old enough," she said in an online conversation.

Valentina Gunina
Gunina: "It didn't hurt me much, I guess I was old enough." Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

The last time Gunina received a letter was at the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss, in early November in Riga. At least two more players received a letter during that tournament.

"Everyone was so shocked," said Gunina, who was in touch with the other players. Until Riga, she did not know other players were also receiving letters like this. "No one discussed [it], so I thought only me."

After one of the players had opened a letter, the hotel staff immediately contacted the police and started to intercept further letters.

FIDE then acted as an intermediary between the players and the police, while the tournament was still underway. "We asked the police not to disturb the players more than necessary, and they acted very professionally," FIDE Managing Director Dana Reizniece-Ozola told Chess.com, adding: "The players were very cooperative and helpful."

According to Reizniece-Ozola, a police investigation is currently underway in Latvia, which was also communicated by FIDE on Twitter.

Russian police were informed in the fall of 2019, but not much came from it yet. According to a Meduza source who is familiar with the progress of the investigation into the case, the investigators did not see that a crime had taken place and refused to open a case.

Now, Latvian police are involved as well and the Meduza research will surely be of help as the authors seem to have a strong case as to whom they think was the sender of the letters. Helped by handwriting experts, forum owners, an internet provider, and an activist hacker, they strongly suspect a Latvian IM who has been active on Russian forums using the handle Afromeev's Cat. As it turns out, Latvian players also suspect him of having achieved the IM title dishonestly, but there is no proof of that.

Rating graph
The player's rating graph shows a suspicious rating change from 2177 to 2441 between July and October 2008. Source: FIDE.

WGM Anna Burtasova, whose younger sister received one letter in 2012 (also "signed" by Khalifman), spent quite some time trying to figure out who could be the person behind this "Afromeev's Cat." His at times disturbing forum posts had similarities with the letters. On one forum, this person has been using (and still uses) a photo of Burtasova as a profile picture. As Meduza found out, he even used her surname as the answer to his email security question.

кот афромеева
Kot Afromeeva on the Peshka forum, using Burtasova's picture.

Burtasova is pretty sure Meduza has found the perpetrator, and that it is the same person active online as Afromeev's Cat: "I don't know the guy, but the proof they give seems to point to him. I believe Meduza's investigation."

PeterDoggers
Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

Between 2007 and 2013 Peter was running ChessVibes, a major source for chess news and videos acquired by Chess.com in October 2013.

As our Director News & Events, Peter writes many of our news reports. In the summer of 2022, The Guardian’s Leonard Barden described him as “widely regarded as the world’s best chess journalist.”

In October, Peter's first book The Chess Revolution will be published!


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