Nikolai Krylenko: Part I
When FIDE elects a new president on October 3rd in Batumi, Georgia the chess world will likely enter an entirely new era in its history. For this reason I think it appropriate to remind the readers of how much our chess world has been manipulated, shaped and controlled by political forces. And will continue to be.
The Soviet School of Chess, which would emerge as the dominant force in Modern Chess after WWII, was created virtually single handedly by the force of character of one of the most remarkable, brutal and notorious individuals to have emerged from the Russian Revolution of 1917. Nikolai Krylenko.
His story is compelling. I first published this two part article back in 2009 on my old blog.
Modern chess is the result of the contributions of many people spanning numerous generations and from every corner of the world. Players, organizers, patrons, politicians and journalists. Famous people and not so famous people, but all with a story to tell. Some of their stories are colourful, others are less interesting but still relevant. Most are everyday stories, more often boring than not.
Nikolai Vasilyevich Krylenko (Russia, 1885-1938). Krylenko would later become known as the founder of Soviet chess. A british Sir Bruce Lockhart, once described him as ‘an epileptic degenerate…and the most repulsive type I came across in all my connections with the Bolsheviks.’
Krylenko was a devout Bolshevik by the age of 17, and became a close friend of Lenin. Brilliant and utterly ruthless, he was entrusted to smuggle into pre-revolutionary Russia literature and revolutionaries ready to fight for the cause.He studied law at the St.Petersburg University during the day, and mobilized students for the cause. Krylenko was arrested several times, exiled twice, and for a brief time imprisoned. His oratory skills were legendary, capable of wooing even the most hostile crowds, for hours on end if need be. These same skills he put to good use during the Moscow show trials of the late 20’s, sending thousands of innocent political prisoners to their deaths.
”After the tsar’s fall, Krylenko served on the Military Revolutionary Committee, with Ilyin-Genevsky, and in November 1917 was ordered to the general staff headquarters at Mogilev to replace General N.N.Dukhonin, who had refused to open peace negotiations with the Germans.
In a sweeping promotion, Krylenko went from ensign, the lowest commissioned rank, to Supreme Commander in Chief of the world’s largest army.”–Andy Soltis (Soviet Chess)
Once, when it was pointed out to Krylenko that the death penalty was supposed to have been abolished when the Bolesheviks took power and yet his own work seemed to not comply with this, Krylenko repied ”I order the guilty only to be shot; I don’t order their deaths.”
Krylenko : ‘‘We must not only execute the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the mass even more.” He was unapolagetic: ”We admit the fact of ‘terror’ ”
With the death of Lenin in 1924, Krylenko’s influence and reach was greatly extended. Instead of things getting better, things got much worse.
Establishing the Soviet state had a very heavy price: the people paid very dearly. Henchmen like Krylenko displayed great enthusiasm to please their masters. They realized that if they refused to perform what was asked of them, then others would take their place. Millions were executed or disappeared in the night. Millions were exiled to the gulags. Millions more died of forced starvation.
In 1931 Krylenko was appointed Commissar of Justice, and he personally presided over the prosecution of members of the Communist Party in the Great Purge. Terror reigned, and no one was exempt from Stalin’s increasing paranoia. In 1933 Krylenko was awarded the Order of Lenin. This was the peak of his career.
Retreating to his dacha outside Moscow with his family on the 31st of January, he received a phone call from his friend , Josef Stalin, telling him not to worry and to continue to work on some legal project that had been in the pipeline for some time now.
The irony is that several hours later his dacha was surrounded by the secret police and Krylenko and his family were arrested.
Towards the end, Krylenko was often found in his Moscow offices drinking heavily and playing chess. His enemies accused him of wrecking the government. His sister, Elena (by then an American) reacted stoicly: ”I suppose chessplaying is now considered wrecking the government.”After 3 days in prision, enduring the same type of interrogation and torture that his many victims had been subjected to , Krylenko confessed to wrecking the government, subversion and anti-Soviet agitation.
Six months later, on July 29, he was put on trial. The trial lasted all of 20 minutes(!). He denied the confession, was predictably declared guilty and immediately executed. Curiously, the person responsible for getting him to confess met with the same fate soon enough afterwards.
Not many shed tears for Krylenko, but the news of his arrest and execution shocked a good many. If a powerful man like Nikolai Krylenko could not save himself, then what hope was there for mere mortals?
Soviet-era records show that in the two year period 1937-1938 a total of 681,692 people were executed as a result of the terror, almost certainly all of them innocent of the charges that were brought upon them.
Some were executed simply for knowing foreign languages. The secret police had been given -by Stalin himself- weekly quotas of how many had to be arrested and executed.
Krylenko then suffered the fate so common of many of that time of repression: he disappeared, officially, for decades. His name was taken off important documents and books. Photos were destroyed or altered.
Even an introduction that he written for the 1935 Moscow International Chess Tournament was eliminated! History was re-written to serve the purposes of the state. (Ironically, Krylenko would have approved!)
With the death of Stalin in 1953, came a period of sober reflection over the excesses of the Revolution. Much was denounced and a process of righting some of the wrongs began.
Nikolai Krylenko’s guilty verdict (1938) was annulled by the Soviet government in the first wave of destalinization in 1955. By the early 1960’s his enormous contributions to Soviet chess earned him the reputation of being the father of Soviet chess.
Today Krylenko’s rightful place in the Bolshevik revolution is offically recognized. In 1989 the Soviet government produced a commemorative coin in honour of Nikolai . Two years later, in 1991, the Soviet state disappeared.
NEXT PART II: KRYLENKO’S CHESS LEGACY