Red Letter Day: How Russian Chess Defied Putin


To my astonishment, not to mention extreme admiration, forty-four of Russia’s leading chess grandmasters, including last year’s world title challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi and top player Alexandra Kosteniuk (pictured above), wrote an open letter to President Putin denouncing his war. against Ukraine. These bold paragons of the chess community risk not only their personal freedom, but their lives.

As Friedrich Schiller originally wrote in his Ode to Freedom (before it was censored from “freedom” to the much less impactful “joy”): “Freiheit schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium…”. (Freedom, beautiful divine spark, Daughter of the Elysée…)

It was undoubtedly freedom that first attracted Beethoven for his magnificent chorale from the 9th symphony, but this great genius, too, had to bow to the censorship of the time. Here is the English text of this important epistle to evil lurking in the Kremlin, a place Dr. Samuel Johnson might have described as the last refuge of a villain:

“We believe that chess, like sports in general, should bring people together. The toughest and most prestigious international tournaments have taken place in our country at the highest level, even in the midst of a pandemic.
“Failures teach responsibility for one’s actions; every step counts and one mistake can lead to a fatal point of no return. And if it has always been a question of sport, today people’s lives, fundamental rights and freedoms, human dignity, the present and the future of our countries are at stake.
“In these tragic days, we think of all the people who found themselves at the center of this terrible conflict. We share the pain with our Ukrainian colleagues and call for peace.

Chess players in Russia enjoy three distinct advantages. First, the international scope of the game exposes them to a wide range of information, otherwise inaccessible to the man of Gogolevsky Boulevard. Second, chess players are engaged in a constant and relentless quest for the truth in any given situation. As Emanuel Lasker, world chess champion from 1894 to 1921, boldly asserted: “Lies and hypocrisy do not last long on the chessboard. Finally, even, and above all, during the time of the deplorable Soviet Union, chess offered a fertile and almost unique opportunity for independent thought, in the face of mass state control of what could be thought or expressed.

This idea helps explain why the Soviet Union was so successful in chess. From 1948 to 1972, the USSR dominated the world championship and even thereafter provided the majority of the world’s elite grandmasters. It has a lot to do with the gigantic material resources that the USSR invested in achieving victory in virtually all international sports. In the collective mind of the Soviet regime, chess was not just a sport; it also conferred intellectual respectability. We must never forget that the Russian revolution had made the USSR a pariah state; a feat that the current throne holder of Tsar Ivan the Terrible seems determined to emulate.

Therefore, from the Soviet point of view of the thirst for international prestige, the game was worth a substantial financial investment, in order to seize the world championship and, through the systematic education of young players, to consolidate and retain it. .

There is, however, as stated above, a deeper reason. The Soviet state was notable for its lack of opportunities for free thought. Any book, article, pamphlet, idea, piece of music or even poem can be considered ideologically unsound. The consequence for the writer, composer or thinker who offended communist or Stalinist state orthodoxy ranged from ostracism to imprisonment in Arctic Circle labor camps and the ultimate punishment: execution. summary. Similar fates potentially await the brave 44 who have now dared to face Putin’s wrath.

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky, the dissident Soviet writer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Earlier he had argued that “the surest defense against evil is extreme individualism and originality of thought”.

As I have already explained in these columns, there lies the real reason, apart from any state sponsorship, for the extraordinary popularity of chess in Soviet Russia. Chess offers a vast field of individual reflection, in which the State has no vocation to interfere. The irony is that what I would describe as the ultimate right-wing, autonomous, libertarian game is set to become the most powerful icon of the most powerful communist state in the world.

Even in music, the leading Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich was ridiculed by that well-known music critic, Joseph Stalin, and lived in constant fear of being arrested and deported to a labor camp. Shostakovich said he used to lie awake at night, overcoat, suitcase packed, silently waiting by the door (so as not to disturb his family) for the threatening knock from the KGB. Playing chess allowed Russians to free their minds from the shackles of state dogma. Not even a Soviet commissar would have dared to utter the words: “Comrade, this decision is ideologically unsound. You should have moved your Slon and not your Irons. On the way to the Gulag with you.

It should never be forgotten that Putin was a former senior officer in the KGB, an office of state oppression and repression, closely modeled on the Oprichniki of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Members of the latter group numbered an elite of 6,000 and are considered the first political police in Russian history.

In chess, the only criterion of validity is whether the move is good or bad, whether it wins or loses. By playing chess, ordinary Russians won back for themselves a certain personal intellectual freedom in their daily lives, over which the state had no control. In chess, they could seek internal freedom of thought and self-determination of decision.

In 1988, Professor Paul Kennedy published his book The rise and fall of the great powers, in which he argued that an excessive reliance on military force and state security creates an imbalance with economic viability and can lead to the very collapse of the nation or the seemingly most impressive empire. This has been widely, but erroneously, interpreted as a grim prediction for the future of the United States. In fact, Kennedy’s book prophesied much more accurately the impending demise of the USSR. Indeed, four years later, the USSR, as it had been constituted since the Revolution of 1917, no longer existed.

A critical factor in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the downfall of its communist masters was the regime’s reliance on the restriction of information and ideas. This was just when the economies of the Western world, and many in East Asia, were on the brink of an information explosion, driven by new information-based technologies and dependent to an unprecedented degree precedent of intellectual capital, of which Demis Hassabis’ Deep Mind (the program behind AlphaZero) is a proud British symbol.

It is no coincidence that Putin banned certain sensitive words regarding his adventure in Ukraine, such as “invasion” and “war”. Heavy penalties await those who use them. During this time, all voices and media and the press that could cast doubt on the Ukrainian business have been shut down. As we all know from Orwell One thousand nine hundred and eighty four, once the language is subverted, tyranny and repression automatically follow. It’s just a small, insidious step for a despot to ban certain words and then redefine slaughter and destruction as helping your victims, or “denazification.” Meanwhile, deprived of the oxygen of publicity or the antidote of dissenting opinion, the vast majority of the Russian public uncritically devours the poisonous pabulum of state lies.

The now recurring lack of information worsened during the 1986 World Chess Championship between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. The game took place in two equal halves, twelve games in London (arranged by the present author) twelve in Leningrad, as Saint Petersburg was then still known. As a standard facility for the International Press Corps, within five minutes of the end of each game, the London logistics team printed out a full record of the movements and times taken by each player, along with key comments Grandmasters and printed diagrams of critical situations. in-game. Not only was this flash report immediately available, but it was also faxed to interested reporters around the world within an additional five minutes. Nowadays, even fax machines are old technology, but in 1986 they were at the forefront of global communications.

In Leningrad, meanwhile, the contrast could not have been starker. Three elderly babushkas tapped the moves as the games progressed. However, there was no photocopier at the championship site at the Leningrad Hotel. The match director, secretary and press chief had to sign a document – in triplicate – allowing the press assistant to take a waiting taxi to the Communist Party headquarters, several miles away, the location of the only official photocopier (actually a crude old duplicating machine) in the city. It was only when the press attaché returned, after a wait of about 45 minutes, that the assembled international press was able to find out what the official steps had been. It then became clear to me that, for the USSR, the game would soon be over.

The USSR has disappeared, but has been replaced by a despotism reminiscent of 16th century Russia. Tsar Ivan the Terrible was described as both paranoid and prone to terrible rages, one of which resulted in the destruction of the city of Novgorod in 1570. Evil is everywhere under the sun, but not only is evil omnipresent, it reproduces and repeats itself.

I’m not risking anything by writing philippics as above, but I’m acutely aware of the irony that my fellow grandmasters, whom I write about here, are risking their lives, physical integrity and freedom by doing the exact same thing. . I greet you all.

Grandmaster Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, featuring some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available at by Blackwell.


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