Krylenko Part II
Krylenko’s Legacy: Modern Chess
Until Krylenko and the 1917 Revolution came along, Russian chess was confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and almost entirely dependent upon rich patrons.
Organized chess struggled to exist. Just a few great players had been produced before 1917 and Russia was not considered a force to be reckoned with in the chess world. That was soon about to change.
Mikhail Chigorin (1850 to 1908) was the leading Russian player of his time. He played 2 world championship matches with Steinitz, losing both. He later became known as the ‘Father’ of the Soviet School of Chess.
Even though Nikolai Krylenko was an avid chess player, his direct involvement in chess as a political force began only in 1924. Krylenko decided that chess was going to serve the state and not the other way around.
Krylenko got himself appointed chairman of the chess section of the All-Union Committee on Physical Culture.
Recognizing the enormous propaganda potential of the game, its relative inexpensiveness as well as its enormous usefulness as an educational tool in a backward country as Russia where very few peasants could actually read, Krylenko threw himself into transforming chess into a national passion with his usual relentless energy.
Krylenko wrote: ”We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess’, like the formula ‘art for art’s sake’. We must organize shock-brigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.”
The first step was to sell the idea to the Soviets, which for the powerful and influential Krylenko was not very difficult. Chess became politicized instantly, with slogans such as ”Take chess to the workers” and ”Chess as an instrument of intellectual culture.” New chess clubs were set up everywhere: in factories, farm collectives, trade unions, government offices, and especially in educational institutions.
The next step was to organize massive chess events all over the Soviet Union (simultaneous exhibitions/team matches between trade unions/amateur tournaments) attracting tens of thousands of participants and spectators. The media was employed to foster interest and dynamize the game.
The chess magazine ”64” was created at about this time, and Krylenko was listed as one of the editors. Infact, he remained editor until his death in 1938. By the end of 1924 there were an estimated 24,000 members of the chess section.
The third step was to organize ”big chess”; elite international chess tournaments attracting the very best players in the world. This required real money–which was scarce in those difficult times–but Krylenko’s personal influence and powerful connections found a solution.
Diverting funds from the NEP, the 1925 Moscow International Chess Tournament was organized with a budget of 30,000 rubles and a cast that included many of the very best players in the world, including the World Champion R.J. Capablanca.
Moscow 1925 was the world’s first state-sponsored chess tournament, and at the same time a risky move for Krylenko because the future of his plans depended upon how successful and prestigious the tournament would be perceived by the everyone. How would the Soviet players measure up to the rest of the world?
The World Champion was invited , as well as Lasker, Bogoljubov, Torre, Marshall and Tartakower, and a host of soviet players including F. Bohatyrchuk. Alekhine was not invited for political reasons. Also participated Rubinstein, Reti and Grunfeld.
Krylenko gave the welcoming speech at the Hall of the House of Unions, just steps away from Red Square (which indicates how high profile the tournament was being billed). The video below, from a Spanish/English production, re-enacts Krylenko giving the welcoming speech:
Tickets were put on sale and were quickly sold out. It is estimated that up to 50,000 spectators attended the various rounds of the tournament. Thousands more crowded outside of the playing venue.
Capablanca playing the tournament winner Bogolyubov. Notice the spellbound spectators
The stunning loss of Capablanca by the soviet master Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky was capitalized by Krylenko to justify such a large capital investment in the tournament. ”I played like a lunatic” wrote Capablanca of his only loss in the mega-event.
Alexander Alekhine, born in an aristocratic Russian family, fled his homeland soon after the start of the Russian Revolution, making his new home France. Krylenko would not invite him to the 1925 tournament, calling him an enemy of the people for making anti-soviet comments while in Paris.
Even when Alekhine became World Champion in 1927, Krylenko was unforgiving: ”Who is not with us, even to a small degree, is against us.”
Lasker was also a participant of the 1925 , 1935 and 1936 Moscow tournaments. He finished an excellent 2nd in 1925 (despite being almost 57 years old), 3rd in 1935 and 6th in 1936.
In 1935 Krylenko invited Lasker to live in the Soviet Union. He was invited to become a member of the Moscow Academy of Science, and to continue some of his mathematical research. Lasker accepted and lived in Moscow with his wife , Martha, for a while. In August 1937, with the terror undoubtedly being a factor, the Laskers decided to go to America.
Bogolyubov , born in Kiev, was the surprise victor in the 1925 tournament. Lasker came in second. The World Champion , Capablanca , could only finish in third position.
Capablanca – Botvinnik Leningrad simul 1925 (0-1)
With the obvious exception of Bogolyubov, the Soviet players placed in the bottom half of the tournament crosstable. This presented a problem for Krylenko’s ambitons since you don’t find many chess heroes in the bottom half, and Krylenko wanted to use chess as a propaganda tool!The Ukranian born Bogolyubov was the strongest player in the Soviet Union at that time, but soon after the Moscow 1925 tournament he defected (in late 1926) to Germany, leaving Soviet chess without a world-class superstar.
This was a serious setback for Krylenko, who almost immediately afterwards took an interest in the young talent from Leningrad, Mikhail Botvinnik.
The Moscow 1925 International Tournament was a learning experience for Krylenko. And while it was a great success, it would be another 10 years before Krylenko would organize another super-tournament.
With the toll of the Revolution on the chess community, and its numerous defections to the west of its leading talents, Krylenko realized that organizing such expensive tournaments with little expectation of homegrown success was counter-productive to his overall plan.
For Soviet chess to prosper, he needed to produce a World Champion. Krylenko wanted to use chess to project the image of the new Soviet citizen.
In the meantime, Krylenko ensured that money continued to be pumped into chess organization: internal chess competitions , national championships, and especially the searching for, training and developing of chess talents.
A metamorphysis was gradually taking place that was going to have a profound effect on world chess. By 1928 there were 140,000 officially registered members of the All-Union Chess Section, the umbrella organization that Krylenko created in 1925.
For the first time some Soviet players were allowed to participate abroad. By 1934, there were 500,000 registered members. In 1935 the trade union championships saw 700,000 people take part.
In 1936 there were 10,000 females participating in the qualification sections for the USSR woman’s championshp! Year by year the soviet championships were getting stronger. New talent was breeding more new talent.
But undoubtedly the single most important factor–to Krylenko atleast–the Soviet Union had a player who was soon going to be capable of winning the World Title: Mikhail Botvinnik.
The New Soviet Man
Botvinnik’s rise was likened to a train that slowly gathers speed and momentum and then becomes unstoppable. Krylenko took a very personal interest in Botvinnik’s development.
It was almost as if Botvinnik was his protege. Krylenko made sure that Misha’s homelife was stable and financially secure. He found the resources to send Botvinnik abroad to participate and gain an experience that did not yet exist back home in the Soviet Union. Krylenko also organized matches for Botvinnik. And Botvinnik’s results did not disappoint Krylenko.
Botvinnik playing in 1935 against Levenfish
When Krylenko felt confident that Botvinnik was capable of winning against the best, he decided to re-start his big chess Moscow International Chess Tournament.
One was organized in 1935, again having many of the very strongest foreign grandmasters in the world participate. Tickets were sold out long before the event even began: 60,000 tickets!
Krylenko was a master of getting things moving: 23 foreign journalists were invited, as well as 180 Soviet journalists. 4,000 fans showed up for the first round! Thousands more lined the streets. There was chess fever!
Krylenko was proven sensationally correct when Botvinnik won the tournament, tied with Salo Flohr. Not only this, but it was clear that the Soviet masters were soon going to be better than their foreign counterparts.
The years since 1925 had been put to good use in creating a new , tough and brilliant generation of stars that would make the motherland proud. Krylenko was in the process of reshaping the world of chess.The following year, 1936, Krylenko organized another Moscow tournament, only this time he followed the advice of Botvinnik in reducing the number of participants by only inviting the cream and making it a double round event: a real super-tournament.
This spectacle was going to be the costliest of the three Moscow tournaments so far, but Krylenko found the resources to pull it off.It proved to be a bit of a disappointment, in that Botvinnik could only finish second (!), 1 point behind the cuban Capablanca, but 2.5 points ahead of the next place finisher! It was clear that Botvinnik , at the age of 25 (Capablanca was 48) could only get better.
By the end of 1936, with millions of Soviet citizens playing chess in thousands of clubs and tournaments, and with a whole new generation of Soviet grandmasters appearing (with Botvinnik at its head), it was clear that Krylenko had achieved even more than what he could have dreamed of.
For the next 70 years the chess world would see the Soviets achieve absolute domination. A ideologically based, self-propagating grass roots program created world champion after world champion.
Nikolai Krylenko never lived to see this happen, having become just another Stalin statistic in 1938. At least the bastard who re-shaped Modern Chess was not an innocent victim!