Pawns in the Game
White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War was Fought on the Chessboard
Soviet people were once thought to have a unique talent for chess, and therefore to be clever. It was a case of: Sputnik, checkmate, The Working Class are Marching!
In the twenty-first century we can look back and see the falseness of this impression. For one thing, chess has been largely forgotten as a public institution in Russia since 1991. The current world champion is the Indian player Viswanathan Anand, while the women’s world champion is Hou Yifan from China.
Both titles were held by Soviet players almost exclusively from the late 1940s until the early 1990s. Though far from all of these were ethnic Russians, there was no doubt that the Soviet Union dominated world chess after the Second World War to an extent that few other countries have ever dominated any sport.
Yet up to the War, Russia/USSR had an honourable but not especially distinguished record in international chess. From the time the world championship was first contested, in 1886, to 1948 the country produced only one of the five world champions, the émigré Alexander Alekhine (who officially represented France). Things today are back to where they were then.
The question arises: how did the complete dominance of the period from 1948 to 1991, when eight of the nine world champions were Soviets (the exception being Bobby Fischer), come about? Was this due to accident, the temporary cleverness of Soviet people or the product of Soviet policy?
The clear answer is the third. Soviet chess dominance was planned as “war on the cultural front” by Nikolai Krylenko, one of the nastiest of the Bolsheviks. As Commissar for Justice, he had masterminded the original show trials in the 1920s, glorying in the killing of innocent people as a way of terrorising the rest of the country. He also was the person who established the Soviet approach to sport generally, using chess as an example.
“We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” Krylenko wrote. “We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess’. We must organise shock-brigades of chessplayers, and begin the immediate realisation of a Five Year Plan for ches
Krylenko established a country-wide chess development programme, starting in the schools, while at the same time infiltrating the international governing body. By the 1940s enough players had come through this system that the USSR was able to dominate an arena which most people thought of as sport, but which the Soviet Union used as a proxy for war. Mr Johnson’s book describes how that war was conducted.
The climax of the tale is the titanic match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik in 1972. There is much more, including a history of international chess from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twenty-first. But the real theme is the ultimately unsuccessful effort at browbeating the world into thinking that Soviet people were cleverer and therefore superior to those in the decadent West by means of what might be called chess-on-steroids.
“The attempt by Krylenko,” Johnson writes in conclusion, “to make chess serve the purposes of the totalitarian state came close to success, but in the end it was chess that heralded the impending collapse of communism.”
Johnson sees Gary Kasparov as a symbol of the way in which freedom of thought on the chessboard, in contrast to the unimaginative approach of his main opponent, Anatoly Karpov, ultimately defeated the culture of joyless disciplinarianism.
This is an interesting aspect of Cold War history, especially with all the stories of dirty tricks, underhand dealing and mind-games which Mr Johnson tells. The book would be justified if it only went that far. But it has a further dimension which is even more intriguing. In a chapter entitled The Jewish Factor, Johnson writes: “Jews made up less than 2 percent of the population, but of the Soviet world champions and leading grandmasters, a majority were wholly or partly Jewish. The only non-Soviet world champion during the post-war era, Bobby Fischer, was also Jewish.” Even more bizarrely, Johnson notes that many Russian people thought that non-Jews like Boris Spassky were in fact Jewish.
He describes how anti-Semitic the Soviet leadership became after Stalin showed the way in this respect, killing off most of the Jewish Old Bolsheviks in the 1930s, then turning violently anti-Zionist after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. The long-term result was the murky politics of 1970s détente, including the Jackson-Vannik Amendment, which is controversial to this day by making improved trade links with the United States conditional on, amongst other things, human rights and freedom to emigrate.
In the Soviet Union, it was the Jews who were most vocal in their campaign to be allowed to emigrate. They suffered most at the hands of a regime which did almost anything short of murder—and even that may have once been contemplated—to ensure that the ethnic Russian, Anatoly Karpov, won all his matches against the partly-Jewish challengers, Victor Korchnoi and Gary Kasparov. That is what “war on the cultural front” came to mean.
In the end, Krylenko unconsciously scored a colossal own-goal when he made the appearance of Soviet intellectual élan dependent on the skills of a group of people whom the Soviet regime came to despise, discriminate against and finally, in disgust, expel.