Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Averbakh 8: Thus it has been done before, so it will be in the future.

On page 127 of the English translation the title reads: In the Lenin Goldfields. Lenin should be Lena, an infelicity that is repeated throughout the English text. For instance, on page 128 there is: ... the Lenin goldfields are proud of their revolutionary traditions ... The Russian reads: Ведь Ленские прииски славны своими революционными традициями ...

This was the site of an infamous massacre in 1912, which every Russian schoolboy, to take a liberty with the words of the late David Bronstein, would know. Striking workers were slaughtered by the armed representatives of the Czarist autocracy. Minister of the Interior Alexander Aleksandrovich Makarov notoriously remarked of this callousness: Thus it has been done before, so it will be in the future. Many strikes broke out throughout the Russian Empire following this event.

Averbakh goes on to describe the disgusting state of the lavatories in Bodaibo (where the goldfields are), it reminded me of my trip many summers ago to Lake Sevan, in Armenia. At least my experience was not purchased at forty below freezing! Many visitors to the former Soviet Union will have similar stories. Barry Withius, who organised the tournaments at Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands, supposedly declined an offer from Mikhail Botvinnik to visit the Moscow Central Chess Club. The Netherlander had been once before. He would consider a trip if the Patriarch of Soviet chess could do something about the vile condition of the lavatories at Gogol’ Boulevard. Not even Mikhail Moiseyevich was able to offer any such assurance.

Expanding upon Averbakh's remarks, which are to be found lower down the same page, about Joseph Brodsky, who was recognised as an outstanding talent by the great Anna Akhmatova herself. The poet Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky (1940 – 1996) was born in Leningrad. He was not evacuated in 1941 when the Nazis blockaded that city, and had to endure hunger and privation. He left school at the age of fifteen, ending up in a variety of menial jobs. Considered the brightest star in the pantheon of Leningrad poets who emerged in the 1950s, he was published in several underground periodicals, which gave him an immense following. As Averbakh records, the poet was sentenced to internal exile for parasitism, it was in 1964. He was released following the intervention of several influential cultural figures, inside and outside the USSR. He emigrated, having been dumped on a plane by the Soviet authorities, to the USA in 1972. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. There is a biography available here.

Reverting to the name Makarov, which is relatively common (and therefore important not to get mixed up, for instance there is a player from the 1950s and a grandmaster); it crops up again, more directly, in Averbakh's account. On page 246 he discusses Kasparov's ally, Andrey Mikhailovich Makarov (born 1954, Moscow).  A. M. Makarov was to become a powerful figure in Russian politics after the collapse of the Soviet Union, eventually  ending up as a deputy for United Russia, a Kremlin controlled party. Which is worth noting, given that Kasparov, certainly, is known for his opposition to the Kremlin, at least while Putin runs Russia. An international master of chess since 1992, when A. M. Makarov's right to the title was challenged the case was investigated by the colourful president of FIDE Florencio Campomanes in person, who cleared him of any impropriety. Selected articles mentioning A. M. Makarov are available here, here and here.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Averbakh 7: Vera Nikolayevna Tikhomirova

The recent return of former world champion Boris Spassky from France to Russia prompts me to be little more topical, albeit over a quibble (the absence of a note). On page 222 Averbakh discusses some of the background to the London-Leningrad match in 1986 between Kasparov and Karpov. During the negotiations the principals disputed when it would be played and how many contestants there should be. In the book one reads:

..., Tikhomirov, who occupied a neutral position, made the commonsense suggestion - let the two of them sit down together and agree amongst themselves when they would play.

There is no note as to who this new figure is. The name may be known to Russian readers, but others are not so fortunate. Perhaps, too, it is a question of taste, for my preference is to use the feminine form when appropriate, I'd have written Tikhomirova with an a at the end.

Vera Nikolayevna Tikhomirova (1918, Rostov on Don - 2008, Moscow) won the Russian women's chess championship four times (1949, 1950, 1952, 1953) out of the fourteen she competed in. A deputy chairman of the USSR chess federation from 1963-5. Head of the Russian (not the Soviet) chess federation for what must have seemed an eternity (1958-1985). An international arbiter, she has been given the credit for instituting a chess school. See, for instance, this page.

There are quite a few Russian language articles devoted to her. For example, here are the details of her memorial tournament. She also received a medal of honour from Medvedev when he was President of the Russian Federation.

And the ties to Spassky? Well, she is in the photograph accompanying an article about the former world champion's return to Russia. The same picture, with the subjects' names given, can be found here, part of an article that is well worth reading in any instance. Tikhomirova was sitting at the far left next to Averbakh in the photo. But of incomparably greater significance, on this page one can see the credit being given to her for saving Spassky's career!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Averbakh 6: The Zϋrich Package.

On page 81 of the English edition, Averbakh, who was playing in the Zϋrich 1953 Candidates Tournament, the winner of which would play a match against Botvinnik for the world title, relates how he and Beilin his second were given a package:

When we got back to our room, we opened the packet. It did indeed contain sweets, but that was not all. Underneath was a printed proclamation from the NWU, the National Workers Union, an organisation which was opposed to the Soviet regime. 'Chess players', it read, 'are you aware of Stalin's crimes and of the millions of people in labour camps?' Much of what was written in the proclamation was unknown to us. The 20th Party Congress, at which Khrushchev exposed the crimes of Stalin, was still two years away.

There is a translator's note, it rightly points out that the Congress was three years later. I wish to expand upon Averbakh's paragraph. The use of Workers Union could lead a reader to wrongly infer that this was a left-wing organisation.

The Russian original is:

В номере мы вскрыли коробку, там действительно оказались конфеты. Но не только. Под ними лежали прокламации НТС («Национально-трудового союза» — организации, боровшейся с Советской властью). «С кем вы, мастера шахмат? — обращались к нам авторы прокламации. — Знаете ли вы о сталинских злодеяниях, о миллионах людей, находящихся в лагерях»? Многое из того, что содержалось в прокламации, было нам неизвестно. XX съезд, на котором Хрущев разоблачил преступления Сталина, состоялся лишь два года спустя.

Instead of:

... the NWU, the National Workers Union, an organisation which was opposed to the Soviet regime.

More conventional would have been:

... the NTS, the National Labour Alliance, an organisation that fought against the Soviet regime.

In English the Russian initials НТС are usually transliterated as given above. I also prefer chess masters to chess players, but that is a venial sin.

Before discussing further the NTS, it is worth relating that Sergey Voronkov, a friend and former colleague of Averbakh's, revealed more about this contact. Specifically here:

Но даже в сталинские времена, я знаю, находились люди, готовые рисковать! Юрий Львович Авербах, которого злые языки не раз упрекали в конформизме, дважды общался с Евгением Романовым – главой Народно-трудового союза, основателем журнала «Грани» и издательства «Посев». НТС был самым непримиримым борцом с советской властью, недаром КГБ считал эту организацию своим врагом номер один. Но Авербах дружил с Романовым еще с довоенных лет, когда тот увлекался шахматами, жил в Днепропетровске, участвовал в турнирах и как журналист побывал на многих соревнованиях. Правда, тогда его звали… Евгением Романовичем Островским! Первая встреча произошла на межзональном в Стокгольме (1952): «Помню, во время партии поднимаю глаза и… вижу Островского, который стоит у столика! Когда рассказал маме о нашей встрече, она сожгла все письма от Жени, которые были у меня… На следующий год он приехал в Цюрих на турнир претендентов, мы опять пару раз поговорили, хотя это было небезопасно: шутка ли, общение с руководителем НТС!»

But even in Stalin's time, I know of people willing to take risks! Yuri Lvovich Averbakh, whom malicious gossips have sometimes reproached with conformism, twice spoke to Yevgeny Romanov – the head of the "National Labour Alliance", the founder of the magazine "The Facets" and the publishing house "Posev". The NTS was a most irreconcilable fighter against the Soviet power, not without reason did the KGB consider this organisation to be enemy number one. But Averbakh had been a friend of Romanov's from the pre-war years, when the latter took a great interest in playing chess; he lived in Dnepropetrovsk, participated in tournaments and, as a journalist, had visited many tournaments. However, then he was called … Yevgeny Romanovich Ostrovsky! The first meeting occurred at the Interzonal in Stockholm (1952): "I remember, during the game, I lifted my eyes and … saw Ostrovsky who was standing at the table! When I told my mother about our meeting, she burnt all the letters from Zhenya which I had at home … next year he came to the Zϋrich Candidates Tournament, we again talked a few times, though it was unsafe: it was no laughing matter, social contact with the head of the NTS!"

This reveals that the fears of Moshintsev, the unnamed Chekhist deputy head of the delegation, of the risk from eating these sweets, as recorded in the memoirs, were perhaps a little exaggerated.

Dr Catherine Andreyev (an Anglicisation of Ekaterina Andreyeva), an expert on Vlasov, who is the daughter of Nikolay Yefremovich Andreyev (1908-1982, an émigré who was a historian at Cambridge University) wrote in her best known book :

No detailed and reliable account of the history of the NTS organisation exists.

See page 183 of Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-38960-7.

On page 189 of her book, Dr Andreyeva states of the differences between the NTS and fascism:

… one basic difference is striking. Fascism is largely anti-clerical and irreligious. The programme of the NTS was imbued with religious morality.

I presume Dr Andreyeva wished to avoid the emotionally charged term clerico-fascism when discussing the NTS. Perhaps she wished to associate fascism strictly with its Italian origins. Note, as well, Dr Andreyeva's words on the same page:

... the programme of the NTS expressed a concern for personal freedom, the furtherance of which was not a feature of fascist ideology.

The NTS was founded during a conference held in Belgrade from the 1st to the 5th July 1930. It represented younger émigrés and was the result of much jockeying between the various youth groups in the preceding decade. The pre-war body provided an umbrella for conflicting perspectives, monarchists co-existing with republicans, all united in their opposition to the Soviet Union. The inherent conflicts were swept under the carpet.

The modern reader must bear in mind that fascism in the 1930s carried broad appeal internationally. The NTS's philosophy was termed Национально-трудовой Солидаризм (National Labour solidarity). It had three main components: idealism, nationalism and activism. The nation was considered to be the combination of culture with ideas, supposedly only within its bounds was true creativity possible. Dr Andreyeva relates that the NTS was particularly influenced by Portuguese fascism (i.e. the Salazar dictatorship). The pre-war NTS was not interested in establishing a liberal democracy. The NTS should not be confused with the Paris-based ROVS, an extreme right-wing White Russian émigré organisation. The NTS influenced Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov after his defection from Stalin, as given by Dr Andreyeva; whereas the ROVS had a greater impact upon the attitudes in Spain of the extreme right wing (see, for instance, pages 39-40 of Professor Paul Preston's book The Spanish Holocaust, ISBN 978-0-00-255634-7).

To me fascism is a philosophy of government that glorifies the state, insists upon one supreme leader to whom everyone is always subordinate and lauds violence as a means of subjection. The presence of a supreme leader who can never be removed, except through death or violence, is a rejection of Western style democracy. The prevailing class systems and economic interests are left undisturbed so long as there is no threat to the polity. There are trappings, too, of pseudo-Darwinism; a nation is a living being that requires strong leadership in order to prosper.

As Mussolini put it in March 1921:

Fascism is not a Church. It is more like a training ground. It is not a party. It is a movement …


… the fasci are an organisation without ready made doctrines. Problems are faced by them not in a series but according to whether the moment is ripe.

- Michele Bianchi (Italian Fascist Party Secretary, 1921-22).

There is a strong element of opportunism in these characterisations.

According to Italian fascism, the state was split into:

... producers and parasites, creators and destroyers, poets and materialists.

These easy to redefine terms allowed ample scope for abuse. A journalist could be a producer or parasite, according to whether, or not, he toed the line.

Pre-war fascism was violently opposed to Bolshevism, which made it highly attractive to industrial interests and the wealthy in general.

There is no mention of religion in the above. The explanation lies in the history of fascism. The fascism of Italy was anti-religious: a product of Mussolini's personality and the Italian past. For instance, Mussolini attacked the Vatican for its stab in the back when Pope Benedict XV issued a peace note on 1st August 1917 in which the useless slaughter of the Great War was condemned. The Risorgimento (the movement leading to the unification of Italy), which greatly influenced many Italian political movements, necessarily had to fight the Vatican so that the Papal States could be subsumed into a unitary state. Likewise, despite the concordat signed with the Vatican (Mussolini's Italy also signed one), Hitler's Germany was essentially hostile to religion.

The 1944 programme of the NTS stated that all peoples to be found within the boundaries of the Russian state were part of the nation, with the exception of foreigners and Jews. At that time the NTS was an illegal organisation within the Nazi empire, so this exception, as noted by Dr Andreyeva (pages 190-191), could not have been due to pressure from the Nazis. It is intriguing that, a decade later, the NTS slipped a propaganda note to Averbakh. It was widely known that many of the Soviets who played in the Zϋrich Candidates tournament were at least partly Jewish. Their names were a giveaway, even if Ostrovsky hadn't known Averbakh in person.

The NTS splintered after the war. It is imprudent to assume that pre-war, wartime and post-war assessments of this organisation and its members should be identical.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Averbakh 5: The downfall of Krylenko

In The Prosecutor and the Prey Arkady Vaksberg provides details about Krylenko's fate. The following is sourced from page 130 onwards.

Still the People's Commissar of Justice on 12th January 1938 when the congress of the Supreme Soviet opened, Krylenko, who had done much to promote chess in the Soviet Union, had been given a premonition of his coming personal tragedy: he had not been elected the previous December as a Deputy for any region and instead had to attend as a guest. On 17th January, Dzhafar Bagirov, an ally of Beria's, attacked Krylenko in a speech: Whereas Comrade Krylenko used to devote most of his time to tourism and mountaineering, he now spends it playing chess ... These words were accompanied by mocking laughter. Bagirov called Krylenko a poor Commissar of Justice.

During the Great Purge (also known as the Yezhovshchina, after Nikolay Yezhov) many prominent Bolsheviks had testimonies prepared against them from some time before, to be brought into play at the whim of the dictator. The seeds of Krylenko's downfall had been planted a year earlier, when he had had to reverse his positions held previous to the purging of Pashukanis, a noted jurist. On 20 January 1937 Pravda printed the following about Pashukanis's beliefs: The judicial cretinism reaches Herculean proportions. It was said by a colleague of the People's Commissar of Justice: Many had hoped that the fight against wrecking in the legal system would be carried out by Comrade Krylenko, but in order to carry out this task he will have to reveal a number of his own mistakes and put an end to them. Krylenko had to concede of his defective ideas that vulgar, primitive contradiction does not become a Soviet lawyer. Krylenko wrote article after article over the next few months in a desperate bid to prove his loyalty and stave off the coming blow.

Krylenko's arrest warrant had been drawn up on 15th December 1937, before the congress. It was not served until 31st January 1938. Five days before his arrest, Krylenko took a phone call from Stalin himself: Don't worry, we trust you. You'll get a new appointment, but in the meantime get the Code ready. Be quick about it, the people are waiting. Work at it like a Stakhanovite! Krylenko didn't finish the new legal Code. Although the man who had named  mountain peaks in the Pamirs after Lenin, Stalin (this after it was discovered that there was a peak higher than Lenin's!), Dzerzhinsky and Sverdlov temporarily took heart.

Initially Krylenko was accused of being an agent of British Intelligence. His explorations of the Pamirs allegedly enabled him to draw up maps and prepare secret rendezvous. Eventually, however, his NKVD interrogators concocted quite different charges. At first the questioning was led by Lazar Iosifovich Kogan, a captain who was to be shot in 1939. His biography in Russian is available here. Kogan set out to prove that Krylenko had been an agent of multiple foreign intelligence services, had planned to wipe out the entire Soviet leadership and had schemed for the military intervention of foreign powers. The evidence had been built up over a series of previous interrogations of other enemies of the people, all of whom denounced Krylenko as a wrecker. When Krylenko was rehabilitated in 1955, it was discovered that not one of these denunciations could be found in the written statements of the tortured exposers.

Krylenko held out for four days. On 3rd February 1938 he confessed to having conspired against Lenin from before the Bolshevik coup in 1917. He also admitted to joining a body led by Bukharin in 1922 whose purpose was to stage a coup. It is known that Krylenko was interrogated at least twice more, on 3rd April and 28th July. On the konveier he revealed the names of around thirty accessories. Not all of whom were subsequently arrested. At some stage Kogan was replaced as the chief interrogator by Aronson. Krylenko assumed that things were looking up and retracted his confession. He then saw Aronson write: The person under interrogation confessed to everything. This broke Krylenko, who signed the document. He was ready for trial. It lasted twenty minutes, shortly after which he was shot. It was the 29th July 1938, the day after his final interrogation.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Averbakh 4: The Shakhty Affair and the Union Bureau of Mensheviks.

Caution, parts of this article are potentially distressing.

Averbakh's book touches on the show trials. On page 25 there is:

And sure enough. in the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a whole series of show trials - the so-called Sakhtinsky Affair, involving engineer saboteurs, and Mensheviks, who had infiltrated the state apparatus,  the Promparty Affair, involving scientist-saboteurs etc.

should be preferred to Sakhtinsky and Industrial Party to Promparty. The term wreckers,  rather than saboteurs, is usually employed when discussing these trials. The Russian source has:

Действительно в конце 20-х — начале 30-х годов в стране прошел ряд показательных процессов: так называемое «Шахтинское дело» об инженерах-вредителях, о меньшевиках, засевших в государственном аппарате, «Дело промпартии» — об ученых-вредителях и др.

The fictional Industrial Party allegedly had two thousand members, according to Medvedev, mainly highly qualified technical specialists. The accusation was that its purpose was to foster wrecking and counter-revolutionary activities. The trial ran from 25th November 1930 to 7th December 1930. The chief prosecutor was Nikolay Krylenko, of whom more anon. Needless to say, the defendants were convicted.

Of more interest to chess players is the trial of the Union Bureau of Mensheviks, which is also alluded to by Averbakh on page 197. Unfortunately, the translator's note at the bottom of that page is not completely accurate. Being a member pre-1917 of the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party was not a crime in Stalin's Soviet Union! For instance, Andrzej Vyshinsky (1883 - 1954), who was to gain world-wide prominence due to his role in the Show Trials, was a Menshevik before the Bolshevik coup. The accusation, rather, was that the defendants were wreckers. It's true, though, that many of the defendants were ex-Mensheviks. Amongst them was the chess problemist Lazar Borisovich Zalkind (1886-1945). Incidentally, this was the last trial in which Krylenko acted as the prosecutor. Much is known of what happened behind the scenes, for one of the defendants Nikolay Yakubovich lodged a deposition in 1967. An English translation of most of it can be found in Roy Medvedev's Let History Judge (ISBN 0 19 215362 5), it's on page 274.

Yakubovich relates of the charge:

Was there any wrecking in the Commissariat of Trade, in the planning for the utilisation of industrial goods? That is what L.B. Zalkind and I were charged with. Not only was there none; none was possible. The plans for the “supply of industrial goods” throughout the economic raiony were drawn up by me and the Board of Industrial Goods, which I directed.

A raion (plural raiony) was an administrative district.

Some extracts are quite shocking:

His ... helper ... in making up the story of the wrecking Menshevik organisation, was the defendant Petun, … he would receive a reward from OGPU – that is the restoration of freedom and a job. If he didn't cooperate, he would get a long term in prison or even die. It was Petun who came up with the idea of creating the “Union Bureau” on the principle of departmental representation: two people from the Supreme Economic Council, two from the Commissariat of Trade, two from the State Bank, one from the Central Trade Union Council, and one from Gosplan. …

... Then came the extraction of “confessions” … others … were “made to see reason” by physical methods. They were beaten – on the face and head, on the sexual organs, they were thrown to the floor and kicked, choked until no blood flowed to the face, and so on. …

… I was summoned from my cell and taken to the office of N.V. Krylenko … I had known him for a long time, from pre-revolutionary days. I knew him intimately. In 1920, when I was Commissar of Supplies for Smolensk Province, he came to Smolensk as a Plenipotentiary of the Party Central Committee and the Soviet Executive Committee to observe and direct the collection of grain. He lived in my apartment for some time, we slept in the same room. … In short Krylenko and I knew each other quite well.

Offering me a seat, Krylenko said: “I have no doubt that you personally are not guilty of anything. We are both performing our duty to the Party – I have considered and consider you a Communist. I will be the prosecutor at the trial; you will confirm the testimony given during the investigation, This is our duty to the Party, yours and mine. Unforeseen complications may arise at the trial. I will count on you. If the need should arise, I will ask the presiding judge to call on you. And you will find the right words.” …

At the trial a complication did in fact arise, as Krylenko had foreseen. The so-called “Foreign Delegation” of the Menshevik Party sent the court a lengthy telegram that disproved the depositions before the court. Krylenko read the telegram to the court, and, when he had finished, asked N.M Shvernik, the presiding judge, to call on defendant Yakubovich for a reply. … the “Foreign Delegation” itself made my job easy. Though refuting the prosecutor's case, it also declared that the defendants did not have and never had any relations with the Social Democratic Menshevik Party, … On this point I could speak truthfully and honestly, accusing the “Foreign Delegation” of lies and hypocrisy, recalling the role and service of a number of the defendants in the history of the Menshevik Party, … My promise to Krylenko had been kept.


In his concluding speech, Krylenko demanded the supreme measure of social defence against five defendants, including myself. He did not humiliate me in his speech.... called me an “old revolutionary”, but characterised me as a fanatic … and called my ideas counter-revolutionary. … In my “defence” speech I said that the crimes I had confessed to deserved the supreme penalty, …

But we were not condemned to death.

Among the techniques employed to extract the truth was imprisonment in a kartser, a punishment cell, essentially a stone hole in which there was only room for the half-dressed and barefoot prisoner to stand or sit, but not move around; it would either be very cold, or windowless and unbearably hot. Another technique was the konveier, a prisoner would be kept awake indefinitely and interrogated by teams of NKVD operatives. To give this account a contemporary flavour, it doesn't astonish me that the defendants in the Pussy Riot trial are being deprived of sleep and are undernourished.

Other testimony, as provided by the defendant Isaac Ilyich Rubin (1886-1937) via his sister, largely corroborates Yakubovich's account. This is also given by Medvedev, noteworthy is:

At that time Rubin was sharing a cell with Yakubovich and Sher. When he came back from the kartser, his cell-mates received him with great concern and attention … Telling about this, Rubin said that he was so amazed; these same people told lies about him and at the same time treated him so warmly …

This went on until January 28, 1931. On the night of January 28-9, they took him down to a cellar, where … someone named Vasilyevskii … to whom they said … “We are going to shoot you now if Rubin does not confess”.  Vasilyevskii on his knees begged my brother: “Isaac Ilyich, what does it cost you confess?” But my brother remained firm and calm, even when they shot Vasilyevskii right there. … The next night, January 29, they took my brother to the cellar again. This time a young man who looked like a student was there. My brother didn't know him. When they turned to the student with the words: “You will be shot because Rubin will not confess,” the student tore open his shirt at the breast and said: “Fascists, Gendarmes, shoot!” They shot him right there, the name of the student was Dorodnov.

Rubin was in poor health, with a diseased heart, before his arrest. His courage was extraordinary.

So much for the Union Bureau of Mensheviks.

The Shakhty trial (1928) provided a template for later trials. Nikolai Krylenko, who did much to promote chess in the early years of the Soviet Union, was also the prosecutor in that trial. Krylenko, an Old Bolshevik and an important figure in the codification of the laws of the USSR, was an appalling, boorish thug during this trial of fifty-three engineers. The defendants, both Soviet and foreign, were charged with trying to blow up the Donbass mines. It should be noted that the existing Soviet laws were flouted and the men brought before a Special Judicial Presence, chaired by Andrzej Vyshinsky (the same man who later gained international notoriety during the show trials of the 1930s). Arkady Vaksberg, a Russian journalist, wrote:

It was at this trial that the seed was sown which was soon to germinate and produce roots in profusion: all the court's attention was concentrated not on analysing the evidence, which simply did not exist, but on securing from the accused confirmation of their confessions of guilt that were contained in the records of the preliminary investigation. At the open trial, in front of a huge public, some of the defendants withdrew their previous confessions. Others changed them several times during the course of the trial, and anyone in the hall, unless he was blind or a half-wit, could clearly see what had gone on behind the scenes the night before: reduced to despair by blackmail, threats and physical intimidation, the victims “confessed” again and then, recovering their senses, denied the lies, and next day took the oath and slandered themselves again.

Whereas Krylenko publicly mocked the victims, Vyshinsky, on the contrary, wore them down with a taunting logic delivered in a sophisticated and dignified manner. Eye-witness accounts provide us with the most curious psychological portraits of the two pillars of Soviet jurisprudence at the time: while Krylenko emerges from their recollections as an insensitive bore, almost a lout, Vyshinsky is remembered, if not with warmth, then at least with respect – evidence of his displaying such qualities as politeness and responsiveness.

… the prosecutor's political rigidity, his inflexibility, his dreary straightforward method of exposing the accused, his primitive generalisations. “The intelligentsia,” asserted Krylenko, in his speech for the prosecution, “was never a class or a stratum of the population which had its own clearly defined, distinct political face. By its very essence as a serving and non-producing social stratum, the intelligentsia was always condemned to be stratified.”

Quoted from pages 44-45 of The Prosecutor and the Prey by Arkady Vaksberg, ISBN  0-297-81064-2.

As I recall, it was Bukharin, a very important Old Bolshevik and briefly co-ruler of the Soviet Union, who lamented, when on trial for his life in 1938, that guilt by confession was a medieval practice.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Averbakh 3: Notable curiosities and non-chess personages.

There are many inconsistencies as to who and what warrants an explanatory note in the English version. Furthermore, I am not convinced by what is accorded.

On page thirteen, a translator's note aids the reader:

Mikhail Frunze (1885-1925) was one of the Bolshevik leaders around the time of the Revolution. He died in 1925, after being given a massive overdose of chloroform, during a routine operation. Although foul play has been suspected, there is no hard evidence for this.

There is nothing factually wrong in this summary, and it would, perhaps, be churlish to deride Frunze as a politician in uniform. He played an important role in the organisation of the Red Army. Some of his reforms, such as those centred on industrial mobilisation and the integration into society of the armed forces were pertinent for decades (see, for instance, the note about Frunze in The Soviet Union, A Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-297-82010-9). I prefer, too, to describe Frunze as an Old Bolshevik, he joined Lenin's faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1904. He had a small role in the 1905 revolution, as well as the 1917 October (old style calendar) coup.

In my opinion, if Frunze is worthy of an explanation, so too are many others.

This may seem an ungenerous comment, unfortunately, a quandary is that it can lead to an inflated view of the relative importance of Frunze. For instance, on page thirty-five Averbakh provides a sketch of Yuri Kamenev, the son of Lev Kamenev. Lev Kamenev is called a top leader (the Russian text runs: Сын известного государственного деятеля Льва Каменева. This could be translated as: The son of the prominent statesman Lev Kamenev) and the brother-in-law of Trotsky. Regrettably, there is no footnote. At the very least the reader should have been told that Kamenev was a member of the triumvirate that ruled the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin. Stating that Kamenev detested Trotsky and manoeuvred against him would, perhaps, have been a useful bonus. Lev Borisovich Kamenev (real name Rosenfeld) was born in Mosow in 1883, he was to be one of the most prominent victims of the Show Trials, despite, one might almost say because of, his status as an Old Bolshevik, having supported Lenin from 1903. He was executed on 15th August 1936. There is an online article available here.

In a similar vein, Molotov (1890-1986) is introduced on page 42 without a note. The Hammer (molot is Russian for hammer. Gvozdʹov would have been a better nom de plume, in recognition of his role as Stalin's nail, to be hammered into many of the dictator's enemies. Post-war, Paula, the wife of Politburo member Molotov, was thrown into a camp.) achieved notoriety in the West for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, so possibly no description is warranted. As given by Averbakh, it was Molotov, not the dictator, who spoke on Soviet radio about the attack on the Soviet Union: Our cause is just. The enemy will be smashed. Victory will be ours. It was made at noon, on Sunday 22nd June 1941.

There is no note provided about the celebrated actress (celebrated in Russia that is) Olga Knipper-Chekhova (1868-1959). Averbakh describes, on page twenty-eight, how he was able to see her perform in the Cherry Orchard. She was the widow of Anton Chekhov. Colour could have been introduced by alluding to the alleged spying upon the Nazis by her niece, also called Olga Chekhova. Though that may be beyond the scope of a book devoted to Averbakh.

On page forty of the English edition the reader is told that the son of L. Mekhlis was a member of the chess club at the Pioneer Palace. The Young Pioneer movement was for children aged from ten to fifteen. Summer camps and the like were for the benefit of the young. This was the Soviet equivalent to the scouting movement in the West, with a more avowardly political dimension. Of some concern is the omission of a note about Lev Mekhlis, the man who destroyed many a Red Army soldier. All the reader has are the words: the very powerful. The name Mekhlis is redolent of the catastrophe the Red Army suffered at the Kerch Peninsular, part of the campaign in which Von Manstein's Eleventh Army captured Sevastopol in the Crimea. Of no ability whatsoever, even this creature of Stalin's was unable to escape demotion following the Kerch calamity. He was reduced to corps commissar.

Lev Zakharovich Mekhlis (1889-1953) was for part of his career (1937- 40) chief of the Red Army's Main Political Administration. At one time a member of Stalin's personal secretariat, Mekhlis was also, and it is hard to credit, editor of Pravda (1930-37). As so often with Stalin, the Civil War ties were behind Mekhlis's advancement, Mekhlis was a commissar on the Southern Front, in which Stalin featured so balefully for the Bolsheviks. According to the late John Erickson, a leading Western authority on the Red Army, Mekhlis hated Red Army officers. He played a large part in the downfall of Marshall Blyukher, the legendary commander of the Soviet forces in the Far East. Erickson wrote that Mekhlis showed an almost criminal predilection for frontal assaults (see The Road to Stalingrad, page 22, ISBN 0 297 77238 4).

There is a cameo in which Averbakh records that he had scored three in mathematics, it's on page twenty-six. Earlier he had stated that he was mediocre at the subject. Although the reader can infer the scoring system used by the Soviets, it wouldn't have done much harm to observe that the maximum score was five. Petrosyan, for instance, scored fives (see page fifteen of Vasiliev's book on Petrosyan, ISBN 0 7134 2818 x). The Soviet educational system is largely left as an exercise for the English reader to discover. Witness Averbakh's description of how he joined the seventh class in the autumn (page twenty-seven). I believe that would have been when he was thirteen (the first class was when he was seven), but confirmation would have been useful.

There is no exposition of the term chess fever, which is given on page 148. There is a subtlety that a lot of readers will miss: a play upon Chess Fever, the name of a 1925 silent film (it can be viewed on YouTube, Google throws up several hits, search for: youtube Шахматная горячка). Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolay Shpikovsky, it featured in person the reigning world champion José Raoul Capablanca; with smaller parts for the masters Grünfeld, Spielmann, Torre, Yates, Marshall and Réti, all of whom were contesting the Moscow 1925 chess tournament, Bogoljubow's greatest triumph. There were, too, several Soviet actors in the film. The comedy's hero Vladimir Fogel is so obsessed with chess that he neglects everything, including his cats and his fiancée Natalya Glan. Even when down on his knees begging for her forgiveness, he notices that he is kneeling on a chequered cloth, ideal for placing chess pieces on, which he proceeds to do. Softened by his solicitous pose, Glan, who has been looking away, turns to pet him, only to realise what he is doing! A despondent Glan seeks succour elsewhere, only, she can't escape the chess pieces. Even the vial of poison she is determined to take turns out to be a chess king. Poor Glan, but she is saved by the king of chess: Capablanca. Of under twenty minutes duration, the film is still amusing.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Averbakh 2: A brief introduction to Averbakh and the importance of chess inside the former Soviet Union.

Grandmaster Yuri Lvovich Averbakh was born on the 8th February 1922 in Kaluga, roughly a hundred miles south-west of Moscow. Ethnically half-Russian and half-Jewish, a former chess champion of the Soviet Union and a world title candidate; Averbakh, as he grew older, was to switch from active play to chess administration and journalism. He was to become the president of the Soviet Chess Federation, as well as the editor of Shakhmaty v SSSR (Chess in the USSR) and  Shakhmatny Bulletin (Chess Bulletin). He is well placed to expatiate on the ins and outs of Soviet chess for much of its history, particularly with regard to the political aspects.

Averbakh is considered to be a profound artist of the endgame. One of the books I have is devoted to the difficult endgame of knight against bishop. It is part of a famous series. To illustrate how appealing the game can be, try to solve the problem given in the diagram below. It took me an hour, without touching any piece, when I first saw it in the distant past.  I found Averbakh's and Vécsey's (Dr. Zoltán Vécsey, 1892 - 1984, a Hungarian problemist) variations. Averbakh also noted that a dual solution was claimed by Z. Byuzandyn (Shakhmaty v SSSR, 1971, volume 4) . I have reproduced just the main branch (the book gives all the lines), which it is possible to follow by clicking appropriately. Whilst playing through it, the pleasure can be enhanced by working out why the black king goes to a particular square.

Beautiful, the manner in which both queens appear on the board, with the promise of a draw, only for White's knight to execute a pas de deux with the enemy king, all the way to the funeral of Black's queen.

In the anglophone world, chess is frequently considered intellectual, but in a negative sense. The reality is that anyone can play, regardless of his level of education. What is true is that Caissa (pronounced kye-é-sah, there are three syllables) the chess goddess is unforgiving of those who do not worship (i.e. study or keep in practice) her, there is a loss of playing strength, Glazkov wrote:

Отвергнутый Каиссою, бедняга,
Не смог достичь я шахматных высот
Rejected by Caissa, a poor wretch,
Unable to climb to the heights in chess.

In Russia the negativity is missing. Indeed, it should never be overlooked that many prominent Kremlin figures were and are greatly interested in the game, actually meddling in its running. In contrast, I cannot conceive of a serving member of the British or American cabinets interfering in the planning consent for a player's accommodation and getting away with it: but this actually happened inside the Soviet Union. This mindset must be understood. One time Mikhail Moiseyevich Botvinnik, the patriarch of Soviet chess, made a phone call to Georgy Malenkov and was put through very quickly! Averbakh relates how Botvinnik, with Malenkov's support, overcame the opposition of Beria and had built a dacha (a substantial country house) for himself in Nikolina Gora. What gives poignancy to the story is that Malenkov was an ally of Beria's in Stalin's later years. On page 104, we have a clash between Malenkov and Beria, albeit over a matter that was probably not important to either.

Having become world champion, Botvinnik decided to build himself a dacha. And not just anywhere, but in one of the most prestigious places outside Moscow, Nikolina Gora, where in those days the most distinguished intellectuals had their dachas, including the poet Mikhalkov, the academic Kapitsa, the writer Panferov, and the aircraft builder Miasischev.

No guidance is provided for the English reader. He would probably not know that Pyotr  Leonidovich Kapitsa was, at one time, under house arrest in Nikolina Gora for refusing to help in the construction of the first Soviet atomic bomb because of the way in which Beria ran the project (see The Soviet Union, a Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-297-82010-9), an act of near suicidal courage. A short biography of Kapitsa is available here.

An English reader will typically be unaware of the oblique previous mention of Mikhalkov. On page 34 Averbakh quotes some famous words of Stalin's: Life has become better, life has become more cheerful. These were first uttered in 1935, after the Congress of Victors (the name Sergey Kirov gave to this gathering), the Seventeenth Party Congress, which was held at the end of 1934. There is a YouTube clip of Stalin available here. This became the basis of the Soviet anthem, which was composed by Alexander Vasilyevich Aleksandrov. The original lyrics by Gabriyel’ Arkadyevich Uryeklyan (better known as Gabriel El-Registan) and Sergey Mikhalkov (hence my digression) were edited by Stalin himself. There is a pertinent Russian language article by Sergey Mikhalkov available here. The Daily Telegraph obituary can be read here. Given that the man-made Great Famine of 1932-3 was over and the Great Purge of 1937-8 had yet to begin, what Stalin said was true, although not in any positive sense. A point Averbakh himself makes.

Quickly covering the other figures: the writer Fyodor Ivanovich Panferov (1896 – 1960,  this is the spelling in The Soviet Union, a Biographical Dictionary, Panfyorov is a better guide to the pronunciation) was not rated by Maxim Gorky, an amusing addition when one bears in mind the adjective distinguished! Recording Vladimir Mikhailovich Myasishchev's lifespan (1902-1978) would, perhaps, have been sufficient for the aircraft builder; I believe he, too, was briefly under arrest.

A slight slip in the translation is:

Nikolina Gora is not far from the Moscow River, close to the high-security zone of the capital, which was then controlled by the all-powerful Interior Minister Laventry Beria.

The all-powerful Beria the head of the NKVD was very much at the mercy of his master, Joseph Stalin.

The Russian original is:

Николина гора находится вблизи Москва-реки, в районе водоохранной зоны столицы и контролировалась тогда непосредственно министром внутренних дел Берией.

Beria's forename is not given. Nor is he described as all-powerful, an omission would have been better. The Russian водоохранной зоны means a water retention/preservation zone. Presumably streams were blocked to form small reservoirs. Note, however, that Nikolina Gora was a high security area, so the license taken on the translation is reasonable.

The Georgian Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953) was one of the most notorious of Stalin's killers. He became a Bolshevik agitator in the Russian Imperial Army in 1917. After the Russian revolutions of 1917, Georgia became an independent state, it was ruled by the Mensheviks (many prominent Mensheviks, the section of the Russian Social Democratic Party opposed to Lenin in the celebrated split of 1903, were Georgian). Beria was expelled from Georgia in 1920. He joined the Cheka (probably better known as the KGB to an English reader, note that this is somewhat imprecise, the areas of responsibility changed throughout Soviet history) in 1921. The Bolsheviks overran Georgia soon afterwards. Beria rose steadily through the ranks until he was placed in charge of the security organs of Soviet Transcaucasia in 1931. In that year he became First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party.

Averbakh provides a picture of who Malenkov was, which is suitable for a Russian reader. In my view, the English version should have added to this. Shortly after Stalin's death, Georgy Maksimilyanovich Malenkov was briefly the ruler of the former Soviet Union, he was the Chairman of the Council of Ministers and ran the secretariat of the Communist Party. Born in Orenberg in the Urals in 1902, the teenage Malenkov joined the Red Army at the time of the Russian Civil War, rising to become a commissar in Turkestan (not to be confused with Turkmenistan, which was part of Turkestan). He became a Party member in 1920. After that war ended, he studied at the Moscow Higher Technical Institute. Upon graduation he joined the bureaucracy supporting the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Rising steadily through the ranks, and lacking the qualities of mercy that were sorely needed during the purges, he became a member of the Central Committee in 1939 and joined the Politburo in 1941 as a candidate, rising to full membership in 1946.