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Role Of Socialism In The Soviet Chess Hegemony History Essay

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the role of socialism in the Soviet chess hegemony in the twenteeth century, until USSR’s collapse in 1992. But before getting deeper into the subject, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by the word hegemony and why this subject should be considered as important.

Garry Kasparov, who is arguably the greatest chess player of all times and known by millions of people – many of whom have not even played one game of chess – is a Russian, who was born before USSR’s collapse and was taught chess there. His main rival, Anatoly Karpov, with whom he dominated the chess world in 1980s and 1990s is also a Russian whose talent and abilities were cultivated in USSR. If we go back a little further, starting from 1927, all world chess champions were Soviet citizens, except the dutch Max Euwe 1936 and American Bobby Fischer in 1972.

Starting from 1952 –their first participation- USSR team won all of the chess olympiads, except in 1978, in which they came second after Hungary, which was by the way another socialist country. Even after the collapse of USSR in 1992, all of the chess olympiads are won by former Soviet countries. (Russia, 6 times; Armenia, thrice; Ukraine, twice).

As it can be seen from the given examples, there was a noticeable Soviet dominance in the 20th century in the area of chess. But why USSR, what was different in the USSR that led to its success at chess unlike any other country in the world. The answer is definitely not USSR being way bigger than any country in Europe by means of population, which may seem like a possible explanation since bigger population increases the chance that there will be numerous talented people in the country. Such arguments are rejected by the 1945 USSR vs USA radio match, in which the ten leading masters of the United States played the ten leading masters of the Soviet Union, two games each. USSR team crushed the opposition with an overwhelming score of 15½–4½. Fourty six years after this event, in 1991; the top ten positions in the world ranking list was occupied by ten grandmasters, who were all Soviet citizens, indicating that Soviet dominance never diminished in the field of chess. (highbeam economist)

Another aspect of the subject that makes it worth to be analysed is that it was not solely about the game, but it was also about politics. Among many other things, nuclear technology, arming race, space technology and economy; chess was intentionally politicized by the Soviets and transformed into a field of clash between socialism and capitalism, and also a tool of propoganda to demonstrate the Soviet excellence. CITE Therefore, chess itself is an effective instrument to observe the socalism vs capitalism clash; also the weaknesses and strong points of socialism, both before and after the World War II. While this subject is analysed; firstly a brief history of chess in Russia before the revolution will be introduced, then the period after the revolution to the World War II will be investigated, finally the Cold War period which eventually led to the collapse of USSR will be analysed.

Before The Bolsheviks

Many chess historians believe that chess was invented in North West India during the 6th century AD. [1] Then it moved from India into Persia in the late 500s, where it was learnt by the Arabs and renamed as “shatranj” when they conquered Persia. Shatranj reached Western Europe by three pathways; to Spain with the Moor invasion in the 8th century, to Sicily by the Islamic conquerors, and through Byzantine Empire to east.

The spread of chess to Russia (earlier Kingdom of Rus) happened through the Caspian-Volga trade route in the 9th century. The game was carried by the Byzantine Christians ahd Vikings, through the Balcans and the Baltic sea respectively. [2] About 1000, all Europe was introduced to chess.

The modern rules of chess were invented in the Renessaince Italy, after which the movement of some pieces were changed. This new form of chess was carried from the West to Muscovy through the trade routes that were established in the reign of Grand Duke Ivan III in the 16th century. There were periodic attempts to supress chess in Russia, mainly because of the Orthodox Church associating – mistakening – the game with a form of gambling; eventually heresy. However, these efforts never resulted in a long lasting abandoning of the game. [3] 

Chess is widely known as the “game of the kings”, which is not just a romantic figure of speech that was created by the devotees of the game, but rather a true statement about the history of the game. Considering the feudal Europe in the medieval era, people who played chess were aristocrats and nobles. This tradition which lasted for centuries was broken by the rise of bourgeoise in the late 18th century, but still; chess was an intellectual pastime for the members of the upper class. [4] Chess did not go further than the coffee-house culture, especially in France, it was played in nearly every café, but mostly in the famous café de la Régence in Paris, which was used as a rendez-vous point by many famous people including Voltaire, two Rousseous and also Napoleon. [5] It is also where Marx and Engels first met. [6] 

It was the 19th century that became the turning point of chess in Europe. The popularity of the game was increased by the increase in chess clubs, publication of chess books, chess columns in newpapers and international tournaments –first in 1851, London- [7] . [8] But the popularity only increased among the upper class and intellectuals, therefore it was still seen as a sophisticated leisure activity, but by no means a serious pursuit or a profession.3 Many leading chess masters were involved with other professions to earn their livings, Adolf Anderssen was a schoolmaster, Siegbert Tarrasch a doctor, Emanuel Lasker was both a mathematician and a phiolosopher and so on.

The same situation also applied to Russia. There were only a few chess masters, and as in Europe, chess was the courtly pastime of the leisured upper class and intelligentsia.3 The chess revolved around St Petersburg, which hosted three important international tournaments, in 1895, 1909 and 1914. 3 Looking at the chess in the 19th century Russia, which was not any better –if not worse- than any country in the world and regarding the fact that the fellow countries with which they formed the USSR were even worse and unseen in the international scene, the dominance of Soviets in chess that became very clear and obvious fourty years later seems rather unprecedented. However, the course of chess significantly changed in a very short period of time after the October Revolution, which is what this essay is based on.

After The Revolution

It was October 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown and replaced by the socialist government headed by Vladimir Ulyanov –better known as Lenin -. As a socialist state that was managed by central planning conducted by the government, the first things that were promoted when they came to power was the education and literacy campaigns, which were perhaps the most significant achievements of the USSR, considering that 55% illiteracy was fully annihilated in less then 40 years by the state-planned campaigns; such as the one between 1923-1927 called “Down with Illetarcy of Society” with the motto “Literacy is the path to communism”. [9] The literacy and education campaigns were seen as the basis of achieving the modernization and industrilization that were the main targets, and also improving the society’s living standards.

Although chess was in perfect harmony with such campaigns, at first it was denounced in Russia, for it being a bourgeois pastime. [10] The famous chess cafés Dominik and Reiter in Petersburg, Pechkin in Moscow and the Warsaw in Kiev were closed, chess equipment were destroyed and even some chess players that were subscribed to those cafés were killed. 3,24

It was Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky, with whose personal effort was chess reinstated in that environment surrounded by fanatics that were firmly against chess, because of its association with bourgeois culture. Born in 1894, Genevsky was himself a chess player, who was expelled from school at the age of 17 and was sent to Geneva, the name of which he added to his own. (Hooper & Whyld 181) He determined that chess could be perfectly integrated to the education and literacy campaigns to aid the social development. He was recruited by Nikolai Podvoisky, the head of the General Reservists’ Organization which serverd as a military training organization, but also ran sports and other activities. While working there, Genevsky persuaded Podvoisky to be allowed to use state resources to support chess, putting forward the argument that “chess develops in a man boldness, presence of mind, composure, a strong will and something which sport cannot, a sense of strategy” [11] He was able to persuade his chief, and was assigned 100.000 roubles for organizing the first USSR Championship in August 192410, namely the All-Union Chess Olympiad. (Johnnson 26) This was the first time that the state financed –or more appropriately, sponsored- such an organization. He also pioneered the first chess column in USSR, in the General Reservists’ Organization’s newspaper “To the New Army”. Additionally, he was the one who decided the destiny of chess in the future by saying “Chess cannot be apolitical as in capitalist countries”. He was the initiater of the movement that forbade the view “chess for chess’ sake” as art for art’s sake, which was perhaps one of the biggest reasons why chess had become such an important matter, especially in the cold war period.

Saying that what Genevsky had in mind was to dominate the chess world and turn a game that has been the focus of interest of intellectuals into a tool of socialist propoganda and a matter of prestige would be nothing less then an exagguration. His main idea was definitely using chess as a cheap way of providing masses of people with culture, education and character training.11 However, for his successor in the chess movement and everyone else that came after him, chess was intentionally politicised even further to demonstrate the Soviet excellence and mental superiority to the whole world.

The successor was Nikolai Vasilyevich Krylenko, who was born in 1885. Infamous because of his involvement with the illegal communist movement in the tsarist area, Krylenko had serious troubles with the authorities; arrested, imprisoned even exiled numerous times. [12] Having earned the trust of Lenin in the unsuccessfull 1905 revolution, Krylenko was appointed Comissar of War right after the 1917 revolution. Later, he became the head of the Commissariat of Justice –equivalent of ministry of justice- in and the revolutionary tribunals in 1931. 3

His involvement with the chess world started in 1924, when he was appointed as the chairman of the chess section of All-Union Committee on physical culture.10 In the same year, he stated his ideas about the route of chess in Soviet Union with a letter that he sent to the All-Union Congress. Parallel to Genevsky’s ideas, he was also declaring that chess should be adopted by the government as an instrument of increasing the culture. (Johnsson 32) The Congress was also where the well-known slogans of the socialist chess movement originated: “Take chess to the workers!” “Chess is a powerful weapon of intellectual culture!” “Chess must become the feature of every club and every peasant reading room!”(Johnsson 32; The Soviet Chess Machine)

Krylenko also founded a new chess magazine with the title 64, which he used as a ground to impose the socialist vision of chess to people as the editor. (Johnnson 33) Referencing to Stalin’s five year plan that was announced in 1928, he said that it was necessary to create a five year plan for chess and create a mass of chess players. The text of the original five year plan also included statements about chess and chess players, suggesting that the role of the chess players was to be active in the “cultural front” of the fight for improving socialism and their efforts were seen necessary in the achieving the goals of the first five year plan.11 Despite such heavy and intense effort to politicise the game, it took time for the people to adopt the game as a political weapon, and the ones that were playing only for the joy of the game were sternly criticised, the pure chess that was isolated from political or ideological agendas was not valued at all. An example for that is the anonimous Soviet propogandist’s observations of a trade-union chess club:

"Such a mixed group of individuals, united by nothing except chess, naturally led to a situation where the club concentrated on competitions and championships, while the industrial and political tasks facing chess players received no attention." 11

A similar, yet more stricter complaint appeared in 1931 Chess Congress, in which Krylenko warned the people who thought that politics should be seperated from general cultural work and from daily lives by stating that they were taking up a political position against the government and named them as class enemies. (Johnnson 35)

In 1925, Krylenko used funds from the New Economy Policy (abbreviated NEP) to organize the internetional tournament that was held in the same year in Moscow. For the first time in history, a state had sponsored a chess tournament. 10 Another important contribution that he made to the chess movement was making chess a part of Soviet education system, from the beginning to the end; chess was an integral part of the core-curriculum.12

Starting with the first attempt of Ilyin Genevsky and later on Krylenko, chess was clearly adopted by the Soviet Union to be promoted as a form of mental training and a way of replacing the typical pastime of the masses, which had been brewing liquor and brawling –in Krylenko’s words- 12 with a cultural activity. However, because of the persistent efforts to politicise the game, the course of chess became totally different; it turned into a symbol of class conflict and the clash of capitalist and socialist world; also a tool for proving the legitimacy and even superiority of the newly formed state to the world. The article that appeared on the chess magazine Shakmatny Listok (chess leaflet) in 1925 plainly reflects the situation.

“In certain circumstances, the participation of working class chess players in bourgeois tourneys would be politically adventageous, in as much as it would unite working people around the idea of class solidarity and of opposition, as a class, to the bourgeoisie. The chess section therefore, deems it possible for the proleterian chess organisation to take part in international matches so as, through victories over bourgeois masters, to enhance self-respect among the proletarian masses and faith in their strength and youthful talents. (Shakmanty listok, 7 October 1925, p.3) [13] 

By the end of 1920s, chess, involved with the education system and literacy policies,

had penetrated into every part of the USSR and was seen as a way of proving the superiority of the Soviet minds. However, the Soviet Union was a closed society and the world was not thoroughly informed about any of the incidents that were happening unless the government itself made it heard; and the cultivated Soviet masters weren’t participating in the international tournaments ocasionally. Also USSR rejected to be a member of the international chess federation (FIDE) hence it is not possible to speak of a hegemony until the end of World War II.

Although there was not any kind of international dominance before the cold war, another aspect of this research is the chess becoming widespread in the Soviet Union. That, however can be observed very clearly. In 1923, the number of registered chess players in the USSR was 1000, which increased to 24000 in one year. Four years later, the number noticeably increased to 140 000, and in 1929 150 000. In the following six years, it had boosted to 500 000, which became a million of registered chess players in 1950s11. Eventually, it increased to some five millions, which indicates that the planned chess movement successfully produced 5 million chess players who were to some extent professional tournament players, since registered means “licensed”. Thinking of those who were not interested in competing in a professional manner but were taught chess and were able to play, the number is rather untold. Also, about chess being widespread in Soviet Union, the respected Dutch grandmaster Hans Ree once stated humorously “When I am in the USSR, I have the feeling that every tram conductor plays chess better than I do.” [14] 

Although the numbers are truly significant, the climax of the Soviet chess movement was in the Cold War period, in which the “Soviet chess school” and its success was accepted worldwide.

The Cold War

Although there is not a concencus about the time when the Cold War first began –some historians argue that it started with the Bolshevik Revolution and ended in 1992- in this essay the period that started right after the World War II and ended in USSR’s collapse is referred.

The Cold War is known to be a period of most intense conflits between socialist and capitalist world. Even the language associated with the Cold War adequately reflects the situation; containment, déténte, Mutually Assured Destruction etc. In such an era in which the relations between the sides continually deteriorated, the competition, tension and hostile intentions were in extensive proportions and both sides struggled for global supremacy, the politics involved with chess became even more significant.

Although the winner of the big international tournament in Moscow (1925) Efim Bogoljubov was a Soviet citizen, who became first ahead of the two celebrated masters, the reigning world champion Jose Raoul Capablanca and the former world champion Emmanuel Lasker. This was therefore an important indicator that the Soviet chess movement was giving good results, but was not enough for a worldwide acceptance of the Soviet dominance.

The first success that was achieved in the Cold War was the 1945 USA vs USSR radio match, (named that way because the moves were transmitted via radio) which was won by USSR with a crushing 15½–4½. Although this match had shown the development of the Soviet chess and was quite successfull, USSR was not able to compete in the World Championship Cycle that started after the reigning world champion Alekhine’s death as they had been refusing to join FIDE for a long time. Without occupying the world championship it was not possible to speak of a worldwide dominance.

In order to achieve the planned success and being able to compete in the world championship cycle and also the olympics, USSR joined the FIDE in 1947. [15] One year later, the world championship was won by Michail Botvinnik, who was the favourite player of the government amongst others for him being a very profound socialist and a perfect example of a Soviet citizen. Starting from 1948, -excluding the three year gap between 1972-1975- Soviets were never beaten and were continually the world champions.

There were two incidents when the matter of prestige became more significant then any other time, the match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972, and the matches between Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi.

The first one was seen as the climax of the socialism vs capitalism clash, since Bobby Fischer managed to undermine the strongest point of the Soviet Union. However, because of an unknown reason, he resigned from chess for a long time and did not consider to defend his title after he became the world champion, so in 1975 Soviets came to power again with Anatoly Karpov.

The second one was also important, since Korchnoi was an emigré and was deeply anti-socialist. It again became a matter of prestige to defend the title against a Russian that defected from the USSR and made lots of anti-socialist statements.

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