Pushki on the Chessboard: The Soviet Cannon Rook Set

c. 1935 Cannon Rook Pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

One of the most interesting sets in my Soviet collection comprises what I call the “Cannon Rook” pieces, a non-Staunton design characterized by its unusual rooks, represented not by the traditional towers, but by cannons mounted on stems above bases.

c. 1935 Cannon Rook Pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The pieces present an overall conical impression, tapering from bottom to top without distinct base and stem sections. The piece signifiers share a common theme—a bullet-shaped cap, mostly in red for both sides, but with some varnished in natural wood. The king is 107 mm tall with a base of 37 mm. Its crown consists of two parts–a colored cone situated within a ring of saw-toothed points. The queen has a rhyming structure, but instead of a cone her crown inlay consists of a tear-shape atop a disc-shaped pedestal. The tear-shape also appears atop the bishop and the pawn. The knights are nicely carved with large, prominent teeth like those found in other late Tsarist and early Soviet knights, and resemble other well-carved knights thought to be made by Artel Kultsport. The pieces are nicely weighted and felted with patterned cotton cloth.

c. 1935 Cannon Rook pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Moscow’s Russia Chess House, from whom I acquired it, dated the set as late 19th century, but I think this is too early. The design appears in the photographic record in 1935, which I think much closer to its time of origin owing to the “Kultsport” knights and the nature and condition of the varnish finish. Here is a photo said by St. Petersburg collector Sergey Kovalenko to be from the Leningrad region in 1935.

CDN Molypolk.ru photo, provided by Sergey Kovalenko.

I know of three sets that share this basic design. Of a somewhat smaller set, noted German collector Holger Langer writes: “An unusual Soviet chess set with unusual rooks, probably made in the 1920’s or 1930’s. The pieces are made of wood and are moderately weighted. King height is 9.85 cm or 3.85″. The white side is covered with the usual reddish-brown varnish often seen in Soviet sets. The black side is covered with a black lacquer. The kings with a very pronounced crown and hat in green color with a red finial, the queens of almost equal height but with a red ball inside the crown with a red disc and a small ball finial on top (the black queen with some damage, unfortunately). The rooks are extremely unusual in that they are shown as cannons mounted on a circular pedestal. The knights as carved horses’ heads of typical Russian or early Soviet shape. The bishops with a long cone shaped corpus and a green colored pointed finial. The pawns also with a smaller cone shaped corpus and a colored drop finial (in red for the white side and in brown for the black side).”

Holger Langer Collecti0n, photo.

Of the second similar set, artistically restored by The Chess Schach, artist Alan Power writes: “Militibus ex Antiquis Ruthenorum (Old Russian Warriors), 32 heavily-weighted chessmen without board, wood, white v. red, Soviet (post Revolution era), circa 1920 – 1930 Height: King 10cm, weight 55g, base width 3.8cm, Queen 9.2cm, Bishop 9cm, Knights 8/7.5cm, Rook 5.8cm, Pawn 5.8cm. W: red felt bases B: black felt bases.

Militibus ex Antiquis Ruthenorum. The Chess Schach Gallery, Alan Power photo.

“An extremely rare set of Soviet chessmen (most probably hand-turned for personal use or as a gift, perhaps). It came to me in pretty poor condition; two of the Knights muzzles have been repaired and two Bishop mitres and five pawn caps (I’ve lost track of which pawns) have been replaced. There is also a certain amount of ‘head-bowing,’ also called stooping or leaning amongst the pieces, which adds overall character, therefore, it has been left as is. A few ‘battle-scars’ have also been left here and there for the same reason.” Unlike the Langer and Grau specimens, the Chess Schach rooks are traditional towers, not cannons mounted on bases. The knights are more delicately and intricately carved.

The third specimen is the most intriguing. According to a well-regarded collector who goes by the penname Schachkunst BL on Facebook, Stalin presented Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) with it as a gift. The set made its way into the hands of Turkish Master Halil Sertac Dalkiran (b. 1955), who displayed it in a chess museum he opened in Istanbul.

Set gifted to Ataturk by Stalin in Dalkiran’s Istanbul Museum. Photographer unknown. Source: Schachkunst BL on Facebook, accessed 3 April 2022.

Indeed, a photograph of a Soviet Cannon Rook set appears on the cover of Dalkiran’s 1995 book Chess Training Method, as posted on Facebook by Moscow collector Alex Chelnokov.

Source: Goodreads

According to Schachkunst, Dalkiran’s museum closed in 2008. The whereabouts of the Atatürk set are unknown as of this writing.

The cannon is an important part of Russian cultural heritage. We are all familiar with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, commemorating the successful defense of the Motherland from Napoleon’s invading armies, and the rousing cannonade of its finale. Less well-known in the West is the massive Tsar Cannon, cast in bronze in 1586 by the master caster Andrey Chokhov and displayed on the grounds of the Kremlin in Moscow.

Jorge Láscar/Flickr photo.

The set’s likely origin in the early 1930s came at a time of great experimentation in Soviet chess design, much of it challenging central Neoclassical elements of the Victorian Staunton design. Some games sought to displace classical chess. One such game was Victrix, as explained by Moscow Chess Museum Curator Dmitry Oleynikov: “The revolutionary changes in the world of the 1920s gave rise to attempts to ‘revolutionize’ the old war game, and not only by depriving it of its ‘monarchist’ regalia.” Advertisements described Victrix as “An exciting new game of chess pieces on a board of 100 squares. In addition to the usual figures, new figures MACHINE GUN, PLANE AND TANK are participating! Anyone who knows the rules of an ordinary chess game very soon, at once, LEARNS THE MOVES OF NEW FIGURES!” While Victrix did not include a Cannon piece, it does evidence a willingness to experiment with the identity of the playing pieces, and its Machine Gun bears an eerie resemblance to the Cannon Rooks of the c. 1935 set.

1920s Victrix Set. Russian Chess Federation photo.

Elements of the crown structures can be seen echoed in other Soviet sets. The first is from my collection, a diminutive Constructivist-influenced set from the 1920s or thirties, where the king’s crown is reminiscent of that in the Cannon Rook set.

1920s-30s Constructivist-Influenced Pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The second set resides in the collection of New York collector Eduardo Bauza. The royals’ crowns in this set beautifully restored by Ron Fromkin echo those of the Cannon Rook set.

Eduardo Bauza Collection, photo.

Finally, the king’s crown of the c. 1980 Minsk Olympic Commemorative set recall those of the much earlier Cannon Rook set.

c. 1980 Minsk Olympic Commemorative Pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The fascinating design of the wonderful Cannon Rook pieces well reflects the creativity of Soviet chess design in the 1930s and its challenge to Neoclassical Staunton design. Elements of the Cannon Rook set’s design can be found in other Soviet sets spanning the decades.

Author: Chuck Grau

I'm a chess collector, chess player, and retired attorney. I've been collecting Soviet and Russian chess sets since 2014. I'm interested in their history, design, and the people who made and played with them.

3 thoughts on “Pushki on the Chessboard: The Soviet Cannon Rook Set”

  1. Fantastic article, Chuck! I was not aware that ours are the only ones with cannon rooks. And thanks for the deeper insight into the design specifics. I noticed the similarities of the kings’ crowns in other sets, for example, but somehow never made the connection. Excellent research!

    Like

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