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.

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