Sunday, 2 February 2014

The talkativeness of Soviet players

This post has been prompted by a note from a former chairman of the English Chess Federation: Having just finished my postgraduate course in computer science I hitchhiked to Bath and got to discuss computers and chess with Petrosyan who correctly forecast the major role that games databases would have in the game. (I thought he was bonkers.) It can be found here. I have made one minor alteration to that contribution, standardising the spelling of the name of the former world champion.

Emails have been exchanged between Bernard Cafferty, Leonard Barden and myself. We expanded the discussion. We were like minded in the sense that we considered Soviet players guarded when in the West. The talkativeness of players is a subject that places a premium on oral recollections, particularly reminiscences.

Certainly, there are qualifications; as so often, the time and context cannot be ignored. For instance, Stalin died in March 1953 and Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech in February 1956. Therefore, in principle, one would expect a Soviet to be more open after 1956 than before 1953, reverting to caution after Khrushchev's ousting in 1964. Nonetheless, we all find the contention about Petrosyan difficult to believe.

I know personally that the late David Ionovich Bronstein was happy to converse in the 1970s in fluent English with teen-aged opponents after giving a simultaneous display. On the other hand, I cannot recall any remarks made to me from Anatoly Karpov, Tigran Petrosyan, Oleg Romanishin or Rafael Vaganian. One time someone from the Soviet embassy, presumably either the cultural attaché or from his department, observed to me: You're one of us, a recognition of my eastern European surname. The point here, though, was my age. I was unlikely to have been a provocateur, it was safe to speak to me. Players from the USSR were warned to be on their guard.

In Averbakh's memoirs, he mentions in several places that Soviet delegations were accompanied by a member of the security organs. On page 96 he relates how the over-talkative Spassky got into trouble for, amongst other things, conversing with a family of Russian émigrés. On page 105 he relates how he was instructed as to the dos and don'ts expected of a Soviet citizen when abroad. One can speculate, too, even though Averbakh doesn't say, that some care was taken as to the choice of who would appear on TV in Curaçao in 1963: in this instance it was Rona Petrosyan, the wife of the soon to be world champion. On page 148 Averbakh tells of the cordial relationship he enjoyed, also in 1963, with the great cellist Gregor Pavlovich Piatigorsky, then in his sixties, how he was invited to see Piatigorsky's private collection of paintings. I should say that this does not contradict the message of caution that was conveyed to Soviet players. In this instance, it should be observed that Averbakh was a member of the Communist Party, one who had begun climbing the hierarchy, He was already an experienced editor (having edited Chess In Moscow from 1958, in 1962 he took over editing Shakhmaty v SSSR and Shakhmatny Byulleten), he was considered dependable. One can note in passing that the most serious accusation levelled against Averbakh dated from 1969 (see page 154). He was contacted by a woman who had been very helpful to him on Curaçao, he was guilty of the crime (sic) of showing a foreigner round Moscow. He wrote: Since in those days I had no other contact with foreigners, it became clear that it was the visit of Mrs Fielders that had led to the denunciation of me. He became a nevyezdnym, one forbidden to travel outside the USSR (present day Belarus imposes a similar penalty upon supposed troublemakers).

Not to be overlooked was the language barrier, a major inhibition to any soul, wary of an official translator, who was brave enough to speak his mind. Bernard mentioned to me a dig of Kotov's: Even Petrosyan speaks two languages! Evidently Armenian and Russian. (The omission of Georgian for someone born in Tbilisi is notable. Petrosyan suffered from the handicap of deafness.) In ostensibly equal societies, there are means to look down on others, even on a player of impeccable working class origins in a socialist state, here the son of an illiterate caretaker. (See page 15 of Vik Vasiliev's book on Petrosyan, ISBN 0 7134 2818 x, translated by Mike Basman.)

Shyness, too, can be a consideration. Vasiliev wrote of the former world champion; His inborn modesty prevented him from asking strangers ... (page 16, admittedly, this was during Petrosyan's childhood). On page 18 Vasiliev quoted Archil Ebralidze (immortalised by Kotov in Think Like a Grandmaster {ISBN  0 7134 0356 x , page 73} with the words: Archil, take his rook): You must understand you were rather modest, rather quiet. On page 23 Vasiliev wrote: Always modest and self-critical. Indeed, Vasiliev indicated that Petrosyan thought of himself  as something of a provincial. Then, too, there is (page 27): Let us remember that Petrosyan's childhood had been spent during the war years, that he had lost both his parents early. In general terms, Petrosyan strikes me as one of the least likely of the top Soviet players, certainly in his later years, to have engaged in conversation with a stranger in the West, particularly an adult who (ludicrously in Western eyes) might have been an agent.

Leonard Barden wrote of Petrosyan (in an email dated 2 November, 2013, I've made some insignificant emendations):

My impression at Bath (in 1973 – SSYS) was that the USSR team were even more of an uncommunicative group than usual. This could have been due to fear of questions about how exactly Stein died, and the presence of Krogius as delegation head. At the end when I asked for a GM for a junior simul Krogius came along himself and got a minus score which he apparently later misrepresented to his team.

As for Petrosyan in particular, I think he became more guarded as he got older. He and Geller were quite jolly on the Windsor excursion at the 1954 match, and he was a regular at the nightly blitz sessions in the hotel lounge during the 1960 Olympiad. He was probably the best blitz player of the group, which included Fischer, Tal, Kortschnoi and Najdorf, and liked to say 'Forward Kazimirovich' when winning.

It was different in 1978 when he gave his simul at Centymca after Hastings. He wasn't aware of the dangers of English juniors, was persuaded by John Keable that he was playing some random children, so brought along a high official from the embassy to watch him in action. Mike Wills talked to him before the start, and he let slip that he got tired after two hours in simuls (by hindsight this may have been an early cancer symptom). This news was relayed to the players, with advice not to take early draws, and precisely on schedule he made a couple of bad errors. Later he blundered against Short and knocked over the pieces, provoking Nigel's 'Armenian peasant' comment many years later. Given his fatigue problem and the high strength of the opposition his +1 was a good score, though he didn't see it that way. At the end I made a flowery speech of thanks comparing him favourably to Nimzowitsch, to which he replied that he had been tricked, which was of course true. I tried to say that we were following the model of the 1935 Moscow simuls against Capa and Flohr, but he wasn't impressed. I never noticed a hearing problem during this exchange and thought that he understood the gist of what I was saying even before Mike Wills translated it.

Mike Wills was very prominent in the running of the chess section of the London Central YMCA. He is looked upon with affection by many from those years. John Keable was a county strength player who turned out for Surrey. He was instrumental in organising Soviet players to give simultaneous displays after the Hastings congresses.

Are there other instances of what happened when a top Soviet player did speak to a foreigner? Bernard Cafferty told me that Grigory Levenfish committed the crime of speaking to Paul List (an émigré and an old friend from pre-1914) in 1947, which resulted in a travel ban for the Soviet. Bernard mentioned that this was given by Levenfish in his posthumous memoirs, published in Moscow in 1967. Leonard Barden added to that:

Hans Schenk came to the match hoping to speak with Flohr, whom he had known in Prague. He only got a few words as Flohr seemed terrified and was nervously looking behind him.

Were a foreigner to speak to a Soviet grandmaster, neither of whom had previously known one another, then it is certainly plausible that the subject of chess and computers would come up. On page 14 of his book 200 Open Games (ISBN 0 7134 0410), grandmaster David Bronstein related how he and his peers were often asked about such things. His opponent in that 1963 game was the computer EVM 'M-20'. Indeed, given David Bronstein's fluency in English and that he won Hastings jointly in 1975/6, I can well imagine a conversation about such a subject with a young Englishman around then. (In the opinion of Bernard Cafferty, the best English speakers amongst the Soviet players of the 1970s were Tal, Bronstein and Spassky, he added: Averbakh and Keres were not at all bad, but I am hard pushed to think of more in this category out of the 15 or so people I spoke to over the years, headed in chronological order by Bondarevsky, Smyslov, Tal, Kotov... and later on Krogius, Suetin, Tukmakov, Botvinnik, Kortschnoi (after defection), Taimanov.)

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Centre-Stage and Behind the Scenes – Errata and Footnotes.

Rather belatedly, I have posted lists of errata and footnotes to Averbakh's work. These are applicable in the main to the English language edition. I have not provided sources for all the comments. In many instances the information is sufficiently well known as to not warrant any objection.

The suggested footnotes are available here and the errata here.

Please point out any errors or proposed changes. I can be contacted at otiosechessnotes at gmail dot com.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Averbakh 26: Centre Stage and behind the scenes: Final post.

Save for providing a list of errata and footnotes that should have been in the English edition, this will be my last post about Averbakh's memoirs.

A regret I have heard from many readers of the English translation is that Averbakh should have been more open about some of the controversies that dogged the chess world at various times: whether it be Bronstein's accusations concerning Zürich 1953, or what went on at Curaçao in 1962. Many recall Taylor Kingston's interview with Averbakh, which can be found in two parts at ChessCafé: here and here. In the first link one reads the words of Averbakh: In my book I publish only what I heard and saw. I have some documents to prove what I say, which is important.

To me this provides a complete explanation for some of the omissions. For instance: I heard this story about Bronstein, that they told him Geller will make a draw with him, and they did not tell Geller, and Geller won the game against Bronstein. I doubt this is a real story.

In light of the previous declaration, why would this tale appear in Averbakh's book?

On the subject of Bronstein, I'd have liked to have read something of his protector Vainstein. I can't recall any mention of him at all in the book and his name is not in the index (neither under v nor w).

Another point raised by Kingston is: Hague-Moscow 1948: there has long been the suspicion that Paul Keres was coerced to lose to Botvinnik in that tournament, so that Botvinnik would be assured of winning the world championship.

Again Averbakh gives an answer: That is something very difficult to prove, either side is very difficult to prove. ... soldiers in that invasion had papers, orders, to arrest various important men of Estonia. And my friend had orders to arrest Keres.

Have you any papers proving it?”. I had to say no,

There's no evidence, according to Averbakh, therefore it wasn't in the book.

Keres had been to hell and back during WWII, he was of a decidedly nervous disposition. He knew what Stalin's Soviet Union was like (when the Soviets overran the Baltics following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, there were many purges and executions). Did he need to be told, particularly given the trouble he had in being allowed to play chess, that he was not a desirable champion?

Kingston related: … orders came from Stalin himself, that Smyslov and Keres should perhaps lose to Botvinnik to make it easier for him to win the world title. Botvinnik claimed, though, that he refused to go along with this; he considered it an insult.

Averbakh responded: I don’t believe that Stalin would give such a recommendation, myself. It would be completely out of character. If it was given, it could not have been given by Stalin...

I won't repeat the rest of his answer. I cannot conceive of any Soviet defying an order of Stalin's in the late 1940s over such a matter and getting away with it. Whether one dates the absolute dominion of Stalin from the murder of Sergey Kirov in 1934 or some other time, the truth was he could and did do anything he wanted; for instance, on page 593 of Let History Judge (ISBN 0 19 215362 5), Roy Medvedev gave: His personal secretary Poskrebyshev was a frequent butt. One New Year's Eve Stalin rolled pieces of paper into little tubes and put them on Poskrebyshev's fingers. Then he lit them in place of New Year candles. Poskrebyshev writhed in pain but did not dare take them off. Cruel practical jokes were also played on highly placed officials invited to visit Stalin …

To me, some of the reaction to Averbakh's work is an echo from the Cold War. It is nonsensical to assume that all Russian triumphs were a product of cheating. Indeed, I am old enough to recall a Western grandmaster, one who has been compared favourably to Soviet players, perusing at a bookstall during an Islington Congress in the early 1970s. When challenged, it was discovered that the pages open related to the position on his board! The reality was that Botvinnik, Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal, … were great players. Only Fischer, amongst Westerners, could claim a superiority (Fischer never played at Islington, in case there is a misunderstanding).

What Averbakh does is tell his reader what life was like in the former Soviet Union for a member of the intelligentsia; one, moreover, of suspect ethnicity. From page 49:

'Let me ask you a confidential question: under “nationality”, why have you put “Jewish”?'

'But you have a Russian mother!' exclaimed Pavlov. 'If you want the advice of an old, experienced man, change the nationality. Under the law you have the right to choose.'

Soon after, I went to the police with the application form. Reading it, the section head grinned and said: 'Isn't it funny how all these Jews want to become Russian?'

Notwithstanding what that hated relic of Czarism the internal passport showed, Averbakh's name was a big clue as to his racial origins. Anyhow, here are the words of Article 123 of the Stalin Constitution:

Equality of rights of citizens of the U.S.S.R., irrespective of their nationality or race, in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life, is an indefeasible law. Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights of, or, conversely, any establishment of direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on account of their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.

Averbakh does describe some of the deal making that went on; and how it did not always go to plan. He was approached by the Moscow master Viktor Liublinsky with a draw proposal, which was agreed given this would not jeopardise Averbakh's prospects of qualification for the main contest. Liublinsky then got Averbakh tipsy before their game, which the Muscovite, contrary to the arrangement, went on to win.

I liked the mini-portraits of some of the figures of Soviet chess painted by Averbakh. It's a pity there were not more. I was entertained when I read how Spassky had thumped Aivars Petrovich Giplis when both were playing in the Soviet students team. Giplis was of grandmaster strength long before being awarded the title at the age of thirty. As related in previous posts by me, Averbakh's humour has sometimes been skipped in the translation. Fortunately surviving the cull was his account of how Postnikov, as head of the delegation to the 1953 Candidates, booked the Soviets into a hotel in the middle of the red light district in Zϋrich. It took him a week to extricate the players!

The lack of empathy of Soviet officials shines through when one reads that Averbakh was not informed of the death of his father, lest his play suffer in a match against the French in Paris.

In summary, as a social study, this book is outstanding. Regrettably, the number of mistakes in the English version is excessive, which will mar it for some; indeed, I very much doubt that much editing was done, presumably on the grounds of cost. Possibly, too, there should have been more attention paid to some of the oral histories; however, Averbakh is not alone in downplaying that.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

"This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country".

Probably only a small number of British readers will recognise these words. This was the motion tabled at a famous debate of the Oxford Union early in 1933: it was passed. Notwithstanding which, many of the young men who voted in favour went on to serve in the armed forces during the Second World War. Some have credited this vote, which was widely reported, with encouraging Hitler in his territorial aggrandisement in later years. An early example, perhaps, of the power of publicity. Still, I have always been sceptically inclined when it comes to anything resulting from a public discussion, whether it be from a debate or a lecture. Demosthenes' Philippics didn't stop the rise of Macedon.

Recently, Garry Kasparov proposed at an Oxford Union debate that there has been a slowing down in the rate of technological change with concomitant effects upon world growth. A debate that is available online. He was supported by Peter Thiel, a billionaire and a well known investor, who co-founded Paypal. The opposition was led by Mark Shuttleworth, another billionaire, who is best known for funding Ubuntu Linux. Also speaking against Kasparov's thesis was Kenneth Rogoff.

I am one of those who regrets that Kasparov gave up playing chess professionally. Yes, he had nothing left to prove; yes, playing at his level was very strenuous indeed. Nonetheless, he could well have produced many fine games that will not now see the light of day. On the other hand, when it comes to politics, despite his opposition to Putin, possibly, indeed, because of it, he is not taken seriously by many Russians. Writing for the Wall Street Journal will not help him one whit domestically, rather the reverse.

In the debate Shuttleworth teased that Russia is not a democracy. Rogoff (In my opinion, far and away the best speaker, even though he was softly spoken. I presume he has more experience of public speaking than the other three.) later followed this theme by cracking that had Kasparov become president of Russia, he'd have become a billionaire. I was surprised when Rogoff indicated that chess playing computers have already passed the Turing test: he finds it difficult to distinguish a game played by a machine from that ventured by a human.

As so often, much of what was said was not new. I've lost count of the number of times I've read that living standards for most Americans have not risen since the 1970s. Shuttleworth rightly pointed out that what Thiel said of America was true for America; however, in Asia, for instance, many people are better off than they were. This reminded me of a quip about VI Kulik (another toady of Stalin's, one who greatly damaged the Red Army): Each snipe looks to its own marsh. This was a play upon Kulik, which can mean a marsh bird (i.e. a snipe).

One oddity in the debate was the use of the expression Hobson's choice. A way to remember its meaning is: any colour you like, so long as it's black. Hobson was an ostler who would offer his patrons only the one horse, it was that or nothing.

For myself, I was persuaded by Rogoff's arguments. Those of moderate circumstances in the West are finding it hard to obtain credit. Smaller companies and enterprises are suffering from the identical problem. He added that he wanted a stabler world and cared about the environment. He wasn't bothered whether his kids voyaged into space or not (a mild quip aimed at Shuttleworth). Thiel may be right that bubbles are more frequent now than they used to be; he mentioned the South Sea Bubble and America before the Wall Street Crash, but not the Tulip Mania in the United Provinces (i.e. the Netherlands) of the seventeenth century. However, it could be argued that the number of recent bubbles is due to poor decision making (for instance, during the Greenspan era at the Federal Reserve).

For further reading there are two articles that recently appeared in the Financial Times. The first was written jointly by Thiel and Kasparov, the second by Gillian Tett, a highly regarded award winning journalist, she has had a good crisis.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Averbakh 25: Economists, arbiters and chess.

On pages 232-3 of his memoirs, Averbakh discusses the drawn game Hübner-Rogoff from the World Students Team Olympiad of 1972. The event was hosted by the Austrian city of Graz, which is in the province of Styria. This quick draw is the sort of thing that might attract the adverse attention of the educated reader who doesn't play chess in competitions. In the eyes of such an individual, the result, as described by Averbakh, can seem disappointing. However, chess can be very tiring. In his biography of Wilhem Steinitz, the first world champion, Kurt Landsberger touches on how difficult it was for Steinitz to obtain a good night's sleep during a chess match (i.e. an entire series of games, not just one). At my own, rather modest level, I find I can't sleep much when playing at the London Chess Classic. I stay up at night and watch television (no matter how mindless) until exhaustion guarantees some relief: that is better than retiring to bed at my usual hour. One could surmise that Rogoff, who later became a world class economist, to add to his chess grandmaster title, might also have been exhausted. In such circumstances, a draw offer from Hübner, a world title candidate, would have been very enticing.

When the arbiter refused to accept the first draw, the players had to return to the board. It is this game that Averbakh, rightly, takes exception to. At the bottom of the page is a translator's note giving the score of this splendid game. 

Here it is:
It's a pity that a more conventional drawn game, say twenty moves of a well known line, was not played. Some players can take exception to arbiter interference. But it would not be justified in this instance. More objectionable are some of the changes to the laws of recent years, such as forbidding a player from recording his move before playing it. One can find this approach recommended in Kotov's Think Like A Grandmaster; it's a device designed to avoid blunders. Some arbiters consider this note taking. A few years ago at an Olympiad, and before this law was introduced, an arbiter intervened to stop a player writing his moves first. The player concerned ignored this nonsensical demand, which could only have come from someone who hadn't played a game for decades …

However, my theme is chess and economics. Some months ago, in July, I read the following in the Financial Times:

… strategy was applied to chess in the Soviet Union. From 1937 until the country itself collapsed, and excluding the brief and farcical reign of Bobby Fischer, the world chess champion was a Soviet citizen. Excellence in chess gave prestige and diverted potentially troublesome intellectuals from thinking about other things. For East Germany, even chess was too dangerous: athletics and gymnastics were the favoured activities.

It can be found online at the website of the distinguished economist John Kay. Professor Kay writes a regular column for the paper, one I enjoy reading. In the realm of chess, though, I surmise that he plays casually, if at all.

In 1937, Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine won back his title from Max Euwe, having previously lost it in 1935. Alekhine, of course, having first become world champion in 1927. He was an émigré, one, moreover, who had attended White Guard banquets. And I haven't even discussed his track record during WWII. He may have been Russian, nonetheless, I consider it a stretch to say he was a Soviet citizen from 1937. I speculate that a list of world champions with Russian (sic) names caused this unimportant slip.

The penultimate sentence I have quoted from Professor Kay reflects an attitude that has been expressed before. In a well known letter to CHESS magazine, Fyodor Bohatirchuk wrote:

The declarations of red propagandists about the contribution of chess to the cultural development of the young generation are only a camouflage, under cover of which red propaganda pursues other aims. Soviet leaders are guided by a wise thought of a most reactionary Tsarist minister, Kasso. This minister was the first who permitted students to play chess because, he said, “Chess will divert them from politics”.

Lev Aristidovich Kasso (1865-1914) was the Minister of Education from 1910 until his death in 1914. An arch conservative of Romanian origin (from Bessarabia), he had a judicial background and was a law professor.

By way of contrast, Tsarist Russia witnessed the closure of St. Petersburg Chess Club because of alleged nihilism! This can be found in Adam Ulam's Lenin and the Bolsheviks (Fontana library, ISBN 0 00 631807), it's on page 83.

Playing chess at a high level requires a considerable investment of time; notwithstanding which, I've always doubted that that would keep a player politically inert. Nikolay Vasilyevich Krylenko (touched upon here and here) was genuinely interested in the game, the same was true of Lenin and Trotsky. In the 1920s the Soviets (Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky in particular springs to mind) made great strides to bring education to the masses, of which chess would have been a part. I suggest that chess is far from the ideal choice to stop a population from thinking. Throughout the Soviet period, powerful figures have been genuinely intrigued by the game. The same is true of today's Kremlin.

Thursday, 15 November 2012


Yakov Zusmanovich, who is originally from Moscow but now lives in California, has informed me that the first two volumes of a trilogy devoted to Fyodor Bohatirchuk are now at the printers in Moscow. At the moment only Russian language editions are available, although both Zusmanovich and his co-author Sergey Voronkov are considering the publication of English translations. Volume one is devoted to Bohatirchuk's chess career from 1911-35, volume two for the balance of his life. Much material has already been assembled by the two during their collaboration in anticipation of the third, and most difficult, book in the series. The final volume will examine his scientific career and his politics. Some of it has been made available in five Russian language articles that can be found on the chesspro website.

Both Zusmanovich and Voronkov are fiercely anti-Soviet in their outlook, in harmony with Bohatirchuk's own beliefs. They were granted the approval of Bohatirchuk's daughter, the late Dr. Tamara Fyodorovna Eletskaya, in the writing of these works. She sent Voronkov many papers from Bohatirchuk's own archive.

Fyodor Parfyonovich Bohatirchuk (1892, Kiev – 1984, Ottawa) won the fifth Soviet Chess Championship in 1927 jointly with Peter Romanovsky. As a radiologist who had served with anti-Bolshevik forces during the Russian Civil War, and as a member of the intelligentsia, he was automatically suspect in Stalin's Soviet Union. Numerous medical men did end up in the Gulag, thus he could be considered rather fortunate to survive the many purges more or less unscathed.

Bohatirchuk would have been well aware of the Great Famine of 1932-3 (known as the Holodomor in the Ukraine. I tend to avoid this term as the famine extended to well outside the Ukrainian SSR to, for instance, Kazakhstan and the Kuban). Food was requisitioned in the countryside for shipment to the cities; starvation in the countryside, rather than the cities, being the very antithesis of what happens in a normal famine. Thus, like many Ukrainians, he would, initially at least, have welcomed the seeming end of Soviet power. Note, however, that the Dnieper Ukrainians of the early 1940s were more anti-Soviet than anti-Russian. The term nashi (our people) described Russians and Dnieper Ukrainians, not Ukrainians from the west, such as from Galicia and Bukovina.

When the Nazis occupied Kiev on 19th September 1941 they were followed by the Melnykites, one of the two main factions of the OUN (the Organisation of Ukrainian nationalists), whose membership hailed overwhelmingly from the western Ukraine (using today's boundaries). In October 1941 the Melnykites established a semi-legal Red Cross in Kiev. Initially ten thousand roubles were made available. Bohatirchuk, a highly skilled doctor (he was awarded the Barclay medal in 1955), was persuaded to take charge. He was involved in achieving the freedom of some Ukrainians held at the Darnytsia prisoner of war camp, which was near Kiev. Note that, despite the abundant harvest, the Nazis intentionally starved the prisoners. Observe, too, that the Nazis wouldn't free most prisoners, owing to their racial theories. Eventually, even the freeing of Ukrainians was stopped.

Bohatirchuk did not only save Ukrainians from almost certain death, he saved others according to the testimony of Boris Ratner. Sergey Voronkov has written:

С этим, однако, резко не соглашался мастер Борис Ратнер (кстати, участник войны). Он подчеркивал:

– Богатырчук немцам не служил! Он во время оккупации руководил больницей Украинского Красного Креста, где, в частности, прятал мою родную сестру и спас ее, и не только ее, от Бабьего Яра! Она и я до нашей смерти будем благодарны Федору Парфеньевичу!


The master Boris Ratner (himself a war veteran) strongly challenged this opposition, he emphasised:

Bohatirchuk did not serve the Germans! During the occupation he was in charge of the Ukrainian Red Cross hospital in which he hid my sister. He saved her, and not only her, from Babi Yar. We shall be grateful to Fyodor Parfyonovich until our dying days.”

Babi Yar is the ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where the Nazis slaughtered tens of thousands. Anatoly Kuznetsov wrote a famous account of it which has gone through several editions and been translated more than once. The academic Karel Berkhof discusses this in a chapter of The Shoah in Ukraine devoted to the differences in the accounts of Dina Pronicheva, who managed to survive execution.

When the tide of war changed and the Soviets marched on Kiev, Bohatirchuk had a decision to make. He could either stay in defiance of Nazi wishes, a risky proposition, or flee west. Even if he had successfully hidden from the Nazis, he would have been greatly at risk of punishment from the advancing Soviets. Some doctors were spared from retribution, however, they had patients willing to testify on their behalf; furthermore, they had not been in charge of a Melnykite organisation.

At this stage in the war, late 1943, it was obvious to most that the Nazis were losing. There were many defections from the Vlasovites (conceived of by its founder Andrey Vlasov as an indigenous anti-Soviet movement) back to the Soviets. Nonetheless, Bohatirchuk chose to join this organisation rather than the Ukrainian nationalists. In a sense, this is an example to buttress the opinion of the late Professor John Erickson that many Vlasovites were desperate men out to save themselves. Note, however, that some, too, were out and out Nazis (the Kaminsky Brigade became notorious for its behaviour during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Earlier in the war, in Orel, Bryansk and Kursk oblasts inside the former Soviet Union, Kaminsky's men committed many further outrages). I haven't tracked it down yet, but according to Blowback (ISBN 0-297-79457-4), a book written by the journalist Christopher Simpson, there is a State Department document calling the prominent NTS (it provided much support to Vlasov) member Vladimir Porensky a two hundred percent Nazi. This can be found in a note on page 224.

As the reader can see, the subject of Bohatirchuk is a very difficult one. I can recall a conversation I once had with a Dutchman who was a teenager during the German occupation of the Netherlands. He stated that he did nothing heroic; his main aim was to avoid deportation to Germany as a slave labourer. In situations such as that encountered by Bohatirchuk, it isn't easy to recommend a course of action. Suffice it to say that he did save lives and that I know of no evidence that he committed any war crimes (had he done so, the Soviets would almost certainly have publicised them).

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Averbakh 24: Newspapers.

Whilst most Western chess players will recognise the Soviet chess magazines Shakhmaty v SSSR (Chess in the USSR) and Shakhmatny Bulletin (Chess Bulletin, note the adjectival rendition of Chess in the Russian), there are other publications discussed by Averbakh for which recognition will be more problematic.


On page 123 there is no note about the newspaper Borba (The Struggle, the same meaning as in Russian). This was a Belgrade based paper, even though it was established in 1922 in Zagreb. It was the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Because of the text before the tournament a reader might not realise where Borba was published.

Sports Illustrated

The translator was quite right not to expand upon Averbakh's description of the American magazine Sports Illustrated. However, it might have been worth pointing out that Fischer's article about the Curaçao 1962 Candidates, which is available online, included Kortschnoi in this alleged conspiracy (note the use of thereafter when accusing Tal). Nowadays, Kortschnoi is excluded from the circle of alleged conspirators. The American wrote: At Curacao there were five Russians out of the eight contenders. Mikhail Tal, however, the former world champion, had recently recovered from a kidney operation, became ill during the tournament and withdrew to enter a hospital, having no part in the general Soviet team effort thereafter. The other four Russians swam in the afternoons, dressed, came to the start of the games in the chess room at the Hotel Intercontinental, dawdled at the chessboards for half an hour or so, made a few quick moves, traded off as many pieces as possible and then offered a draw. "Niche!" one would ask. "Niche," his opponent would reply. They would sign their scorecards, go through the formality of turning them in to the officials and then have dinner or change their clothes and go back to the pool … But when the Russians drew with each other, they drew early, before the time of adjournment. They thus played only four days a week. In the weeks when all four Russians happened to be playing each other, and drew all their games, they really played only two days that week.

Both Averbakh and Timman, who maintain different interpretations of what happened, are former world title candidates. I'm not in a position to add to the discussion as to whether there was an agreement. Note, however, that Averbakh is consistent, he has denied that such a deal existed in earlier works. It could be that no verbal undertakings were given and that Keres was quite happy not to exert himself more than was required. That would be be in harmony with Averbakh's interpretation. Note the vehemence (page 134) of: As far as Keres is concerned, it is laughable to accuse such a gentleman and sportsman as he of a conspiracy.

The use of Russian was typical of Fischer. Petrosyan, although born in Tbilisi, was ethnically Armenian. Geller was born in Odessa, a cosmopolitan Black sea port, today it is part of Ukraine; his family name indicates his Jewish ancestry. Keres was Estonian. Kortschnoi part Jewish. 

Novy Mir 

Also absent is a translator's note about Novy Mir (New World) on page 138. This magazine was founded in 1925. Its early contributors came from the world of Soviet politics (Bukharin, Trotskii, Radek, Zinoviev …) and literature (Grossman, Babel, Zoshchenko, Mayakovsky, Alexei Tolstoi …). Despite the calibre of its contributors (including the politicians), the magazine enjoyed no great popularity in the 1920s. Its readership increased in the thirties, but it only took off in the post-Stalinist period when many of its shackles were removed. It published Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). It is struggling to survive in today's climate.

Home Patriot

The account giving the newspaper Home Patriot on page 138 is lacking in detail. I've found a page giving a brief obituary notice, together with a photo of its deputy editor's grave. As expected, it mentions that its purpose was to produce wartime propaganda. It is briefly mentioned here in connection with the interrogation of a photographer.

Fizkultura I Sport 

On page 141, Fizkultura I Sport is not explained. There is just the mention that it was an editorial house, i.e. a publisher. As the name indicates, it specialised in sports and physical culture publications, including chess. Established in 1923, it was the leading publisher in its field.