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.

No comments: