Rocket City Molodets Set

Rocket City Molodets Set. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

A beautiful, cleverly simple plastic set.

The set’s original box indicates that it was manufactured in Dnepropetrovsk (since 2016 simply Dnipro), the fourth largest city in Ukraine, with about one million inhabitants, located in east central Ukraine, about 400 km southeast of Kyiv. I use the term Rocket City because Dnepropetrovsk was the center of Soviet strategic rocket development and manufacture. I use the term Molodets in reference to Toronto-based artist and collector Alan Power’s description of the king’s similarity to a particular Soviet ICBM, the RT-23 Molodets, which translates to Brave Man or Fine Fellow. Its NATO designation was the SS-24 Scalpel. Alan owns and operates The Chess Schach, where he artistically restores vintage sets, many of them Soviet, and provides both set specific commentary and related essays.

RT-23 Molodets ICBM at the Varshavsky Rail Terminal, St.Petersburg, Home of the Central Museum of Railway Transport, Russian Federation

I date my specimen from an inspection stamp found inside the set’s box.

Molodets Set with original box and inspection certificate. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Original boxes accompanying sets are important sources of data on the sets’ dating and manufacturer. They more frequently are found with plastic sets than with wooden ones, which typically are paired with wooden box/boards that may or may not be original to the sets they accompany.

Alan Power describes the graphic on the top of the box as follows: “It has the words ‘CHESS’ at the top and bottom and DNEPROPETROVSK to the right of the illustration, depicting war machines (a tank and a rocket being launched) and a statue of a cosmonaut reaching up into space. The words ‘Plant DNEPROPLASTMASS’ appear at the bottom of the label. Unfortunately, the ‘цена’ (‘price’) is left blank.” Here is the bottom of the label from my set, which extends to the side of the box’s top.

Translation: “Chess/Factory Dneproplastmass/Price” Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The clever simplicity of the set lies in its redundancy, its repeated use of the same parts to construct different pieces. The bases and stems of the king, queen, and bishops are identical. Only the crowns and miter distinguish them. The bottom portions of the king and queen crowns are identical. The top portions of their respective crowns vary to identify them. The king’s crown bears an opposite-colored conical top, identical in shape to that of the bishop, but of a different color, and set in a crown, whereas the conical piece in the bishop sits directly atop the stem. The shape of the king’s crown echoes the structure of the Molodets ICBM. The top of the queen’s crown is likewise opposite-colored, but is dome-shaped rather than conical.

Rocket City Molodets Set. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Rocket City Molodets Set. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

In similar fashion, the rook and pawn share identical bases. Again, it is their tops which identify and distinguish them. Atop the rook sits a turret that is none other than the same part used for the bottom portions of the royal crowns. Atop the pawn rests the same dome used to distinguish the king from the queen, but of the same color as the pawn’s base, whereas for the queen, the dome is opposite-colored. Alan Power suggests the dome shapes allude to the Soviet Sputnik satellite.

Sputnik I, Cosmos Magazine image.

It is not at all surprising that the Soviets would incorporate stylistic elements reminiscent of icons of Soviet achievements like the Sputnik satellite or the Molodets ICBM, for it was common practice for them to use art to glorify the successes of Soviet socialism, and to name places and things after heroes of the Revolution or Soviet socialism. It is also consistent with the theory and practice of Socialist Realism, the theory of art formally sanctioned by the Soviet State in 1934, which, simply put, mandated the use of “realist styles to create highly optimistic depictions of Soviet life.”

Dnepropetrovsk Proplastymass manufactured the Molodets set in other colors. Here is one in chocolate and white.

Chocolate and White Rocket City Molodets set. Collection and photographer unknown.

This beautiful set from the Soviet Union’s Rocket City is an echo chamber of form and color so clever it could have been designed by a rocket scientist. In the tradition of Socialist Realism, the Molodets set pays homage to the Soviet Union’s military and scientific rocketry by incorporating design elements reminiscent of the RT-23 ICBM and the Sputnik satellite.

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.

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