Perhaps the most iconic Soviet chess pieces of all are what we have come to call Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces, BFII for short. In evolving variations, they were used at the highest levels of Soviet chess from the 1930s to the 1960s, including the 1934 Leningrad Masters Tournament, the 1935 Second Moscow International Tournament, the 1936 Third Moscow International Tournament, multiple Soviet Championships, and the 1956 Moscow Olympiad. World Champions Lasker, Capablanca, Euwe, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Fischer all played with pieces of this style.
For decades, BFII chess pieces served as soldiers in the front lines of the Soviet state’s program of Political Chess first pioneered by Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky in the 1920s and firmly established by Nikolai Krylenko in the thirties.
Genevsky served as a Red Army Commissar during the Revolution and was a master-level player and chess organizer. He believed chess was a way to teach soldiers initiative and strategic thinking. Chess, he wrote, “sometimes to an even greater degree than sport, does develop boldness, inventiveness, willpower, and something more that sport cannot do, develop strategical ability in a person.” Genevsky believed chess could do the same for the working masses, arguing that “In this country where the workers have gained victory, chess cannot be apolitical as in capitalist countries.” Krylenko had served as Commander in Chief of the Red Army during the Revolution, and later became Chief Prosecutor of the Soviet Union as well as Chairman of the All-Union Chess Section of the Supreme Council for Physical Culture. “We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” wrote Krylenko, “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.”
Political Chess advanced on two fronts. First, it sought to increase the cultural level of the masses by teaching them chess and expanding clubs in workplaces, unions, youth organizations, and the armed forces, thereby drawing them into the political and social life of the Soviet Union. “In our country,” wrote Krylenko, “where the cultural level is comparatively low, where up to now a typical pastime of the masses has been brewing liquor, drunkenness and brawling, chess is a powerful means of raising the general cultural level.” This expansion would also improve the quality of chess play by identifying, nurturing, and advancing talent, which would thereby help the Soviets to compete with and defeat chess in the West, the second front of Political Chess. Political Chess catapulted Botvinnik to the world championship in 1948 and created a cadre of world class players who dominated chess for decades, thereby achieving Stalin’s goal of “meeting and exceeding the West.” This is an introduction to these historic pieces, which were present at every step along the Soviets’ road to world domination.
Pieces of the Mid-1930s
BFII pieces took center stage in the Krylenko’s efforts to gauge the strength of Soviet players against top level international competition, and to carry forward the “struggle at the chess board between the USSR and the capitalist countries.” Introduced at the 1934 Leningrad Tournament where future World Champion Max Euwe and Hans Kmoch, both Dutch, were brought in to compete against top Soviet players, they enjoyed the limelight at the 1935 and 1936 Moscow International Tournaments. The pieces shown as Set 1 are very similar, if not identical, to the sets used in the 1934 , 1935 , and 1936 tournaments.
The set acquires its name from the two players who shared first place in the 1935 affair, Mikhail Botvinnik and Salo Flohr, ahead of former world champions Lasker (third) and Capablanca (fourth). It was with pieces like these that the famous Mop the Floor game was played between Botvinnik and Flohr in the 1936 tournament. The II designation distinguishes these pieces from those used in the Botvinnik-Flohr match of 1933 (BFI pieces). Until the differences between the pieces used in the 1933 match and the other events were rediscovered in 2017, collectors and manufacturers of reproductions had confounded them.
The pieces comprising Set 1 were turned and carved in Leningrad at the Prometheus Cultural Goods factory on Krestovsky Island, according to a stamp in the accompanying red-stained wood box. Given the pieces’ high level of craftsmanship for a Soviet set, the Prometheus Cultural Goods factory may well have been an artel. Artels were collectives of handicraft-producing artisans, recognized by Soviet law, who organized their own production efforts and shared costs and revenues.
Collectors in Russia and Ukraine might refer to the set colloquially as a Leningrad set, as they report that it is their practice to refer to sets by using the name of the city or town where they were produced. With very few exceptions, Soviet sets went nameless, and like other Soviet consumer goods were referred to by functional designations. Thus, sets intended for tournament play were all called Tournament Chess, those for youth Yunost (Youth) Chess, and so on.
While the pieces used in the 1935 and 1936 International tournaments were clearly black and natural in color, this specimen is bright red. Stalin, our colleagues in the former SSRs tell us, did not like white pieces, as they could be seen to symbolize the White Army that fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. Revolutionary red, often referred to as “Stalin Red,” was to be preferred for sets made for Apparatchiks and the public.
The style of these pieces differs noticeably from that of traditional English Staunton in several respects. First, the king is not topped with a same-color cross, but a secular, opposite-color finial. While the bishop’s miter at first included a cut, as we shall see it soon disappeared. The knight is simply cut and carved, echoing the lines of the 15th century Novgorod knight displayed in Linder’s works, rather than the Elgin Marbles. They lack the S-shaped back of English Staunton knights, and their ears face forward, rather than backwards, as in the English sets. The crenelations in the queen’s crown and the rook’s turret follow Staunton conventions, but soon disappeared. Unlike traditional Staunton pieces, which have an easily distinguishable base/stem/pedestal structure, these pieces flow up conically from the outside circumference of the base and ascend in a curve, which trumpets out to form the pedestal, upon which the piece signifiers and their connectors rest. This base to stem to pedestal curve was to become a basic element of Soviet style. The royals and clerics retain the double collars of the connector between piece signifier and pedestal familiar to traditional Staunton pieces. The pieces generally conform to the proportions of Staunton pieces.
Pieces of the Mid-1930s to 1940s
No sooner did the BFII design debut than it began to evolve and undergo permutations. Set 2 derives from the mid-to late 1930s. It appears in the black and natural colors characteristic of Soviet tournament sets. The bishops share the shape of the previous specimen, but the miters lack the cuts. Kings sport opposite-color bone finials. There are some variations in the carving of the knights from the previous specimen, most notably the ears, which do not extend the curve of the back but perk forward from the top of the head. Knights with this ear structure appear in many photos from the 1935 and 1936 Internationals, but to my eye the ear structure of the knights in those photos is mixed between those found in these first two specimens.
Set 3 appears in a photo dated 1938 appearing in Igor Botvinnik’s Photo Chronicle (2012) tribute to his uncle. It is very similar to the original design, but the bishop’s miter has grown rounded and lost its cut. The black king’s finial is made of bone, and the set is substantially weighted.
In Set 4, below, we begin to see significant modifications. The king’s crown and bishop’s miter have been noticeably rounded. The crenelations on the queen’s crown and the rook’s turret have disappeared, while the cut in the bishop’s miter remains absent. The queen’s finial has changed from same-color to opposite-color. The vertical portion of the stem has been shortened, while its conical portion has been commensurately lengthened, presenting an overall conical impression. And the torso of the knight, while retaining its neo-Novgorodian profile, has ballooned in girth, leading some collectors to dub it a Penguin Knight. A very similar set likely was produced by Artel Red Combine.
The Olympic Version of the 1950s
The final version of this iconic design (Set 5) appeared early in the 1950s, and was made in Valdai, Novgorod Oblast, according to an original box housing a pristine specimen of this version in the collection of Mike Ladzinski. Bobby Fischer played blitz against Tigran Petrosian with this version of the pieces, and they were the pieces used in the 1956 Moscow Olympiad and the 1957 USSR Championship.
The design of this final version of the venerable BFII retreats from the radically conical version of the late thirties. The proportion of the conical lower to the vertical upper portion has diminished to that of the mid-thirties sets. While the tops of the kings and bishops remain rounded, there is a sharp joint demarking the boundary between top and side. The characteristic base/stem/pedestal curve remains. The size and girth of the knights are diminished, and the ears are pointed out to the sides for the first time. Unlike our first three specimens, the neck for the first time is not cut back from the front of the torso to the base. The height of the knight’s base is increased to compensate for the reduction in the height of the figural horse.
Set 5 is finished in natural and black, as were the sets used in the Olympiad and Soviet Championships.
Soviet Design and Political Chess
The simple style of the BFII pieces may be seen to carry forward the program of Political Chess in several ways. It facilitated cheaper mass production of chess equipment for use by the hundreds of thousands of players Political Chess would draw to the game. Beyond that, in relying on simplicity and incorporating industrial and geometric forms akin to Modernism and Constructivism, the Soviet design broke radically with the realism and neoclassical forms associated with the rise of industrial capitalism and “respectable Victorian society” expressed in the Staunton.
The design’s treatment of religious symbolism, a pillar of the Staunton design, merits elaboration. To be sure, the removal of crosses from kings and miter cuts from bishops expressed the Soviets’ underlying antipathy to religion and their efforts to repress it, but two other historical factors reinforced their aversion to the use of religious symbols in chess pieces. One is the Eastern roots of chess in Kievian Russia, where the first chess pieces bore a heavy Muslim influence in name and their geometric, abstract design, reflecting Islam’s prohibitions on the use of human forms. These Eastern influences persisted centuries longer than they did in the West, as the modernized game did not reach Russia until the rule of Peter the Great after 1760. The second is the hostility of Orthodox Christianity towards chess. Even many Tsarist designs avoided crosses and miter cuts, perhaps because more secular designs accommodated the Church and defused its opposition to the game.
Interestingly, however, early BFII pieces retained bishop miter cuts. Perhaps this reflected the pieces’ intended use in international tournaments, and an interest in keeping the pieces sufficiently familiar to foreign players participating in Soviet-sponsored international events. This may have been a factor in the Soviets’ retention of other elements of Staunton design as well, such as the relative proportions of the respective pieces. The BFII pieces—as other Soviet chess pieces we shall examine—ultimately incorporated some elements of the traditional Staunton design, while rejecting others, thereby forming what philosopher Walter Benjamin called a dialectical image in which now (modernist/simplified/geometrical/secular/socialist) confronts then (neoclassical/complex/realistic/religious/capitalist). In this way, these Soviet chess pieces embodied the “struggle at the chess board between the USSR and the capitalist countries” pursued by Krylenko’s program of Political Chess through the international and championship tournaments in which they were used.
The iconic Botvinnik-Flohr II design served the Soviet program of Political Chess as it scaled the ramparts of chess dominance. It is a preeminent example of how the Soviets put their mark not only on the style of chess play, but on the style of chess pieces as well.
An original version of this article appeared in the November 2021 edition of The Chess Collector Magazine, official publication of Chess Collectors International.