The 1940 Soviet Staunton: A Counterrevolution in Style

In our examination of the Botvinnik-Flohr II, Smyslov, Cannon Rook, and other Soviet sets of the 1930s, we have seen how the revolutionary precepts of Soviet Constructivism and modernism influenced chess set design in the Soviet Union. We also have examined two designs comprising traditional Staunton elements, the Tal set, which first appeared in Estonia in 1940, and the Grandmaster 3 set, which first appeared in Moscow in 1950. These elements include the straight ascension of the stems; the distinct breaks between base, stem, and pedestals; the step-up from base to stem; the triple collars; the cross atop the king’s crown; the crenels in the queen’s coronet; the bishops’ miter cuts; the merlons of the rooks’ towers; the pieces arrayed mirroring the columns and pediment of classical Greek architecture; and the S-shaped backs of the knights. We have called the latter two sets Soviet Stauntons. The sets’ Soviet identity is largely cosmetic, consisting of opposite-colored finials and the vestigial nature of the king’s cross.

V. Smyslov, Moscow 1940. A. Yegorov, Sovfoto photograph.

Socialist Realism and Stalinist Empire Architecture

Even as Soviet chess set design saw an explosion of creative expression during the 1930s, heavily influenced by modernist concepts, a major counterrevolution in design took seed. Asserting control over art was one component of Stalin’s brutal consolidation of power from the death of Lenin to the beginning of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. Key to this was the official disbanding of all existing literary and arts organizations in 1932, their replacement with state-sanctioned and -controlled artist unions, and the formal adoption of Socialist Realism as the only acceptable theory of art by Communist Party Central Committee and the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. In his address to that Congress, Maxim Gorky declared that Socialist Realist art must be proletarian; it must be typical, addressing the everyday lives of the Soviet people; it must be Realist in style; and it must be partisan, actively promoting the aims of the Soviet state. For Stalin, Socialist Realism meant that art must offer unambiguously positive images of life in the Soviet Union, in a ‘true-to-life’ visual style that the masses could readily digest. The Art Story, accessed 18 May 2022.

Maxim Gorky watching Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov play chess. Photographer unknown.

Socialist Realism turned Soviet architecture away from the Constructivist influences of Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky and others and towards the Neoclassical influences of the likes of Ivan Fomin, Ilya Golosov, and Vladimir Vladimirov. Id. According to Russian art historians Kristina Krasnyanskaya and Alexander Semenov, the 1930s to mid-1940s saw a shift in architecture and furniture design to Art Deco and Soviet Neoclassicism, often described as Stalinsky Ampir or Stalinist Empire Style, which embraced a return to decor and classical forms. Soviet Design, From Constructivism to Modernism 1920-1980 194 (2020). In the words of Christina Lodder, “During the Stalinist era and particularly in the years just before and after the Second World War, Soviet architects and designers tended to turn their backs on avant-garde approaches and produce furniture and buildings that sought to evoke an immutable classical elegance and a timeless quality in the solidity of their materials, their historical allusions and their ornate forms.” Id. at 11-12. The purpose of this approach, Latvian lawyer Augustinas Žemaitis explains, is that “Stalin sought to make Soviet cities look grander than those of the empires gone-by and perhaps comparable to the US cities. The details inspired by previous styles (columns, towers, etc.) returned even on simple buildings such as apartment blocks.”

A good example of Stalinist Empire Style, in which the Neoclassical influences are evident, are the structures VDNKh, or the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, located in Moscow and dating back to 1939. The entire VDNKh complex includes columned porticos, pediments, domes and lavish sculptural adornments “reminiscent of ancient temples and palaces.” Nataliya Kuznetsova, Stalinist Empire Style in Moscow, accessed 19 May 2022.

Bolshevik Constructivism had sought new forms to forge a new Socialist Society. Stalin’s Socialist Realism sought to prove that his brand of statism met or exceeded the West by adopting the West’s own forms. With Stalin forcibly eliminating his domestic enemies, real and imagined, it should come as no surprise that Soviet chess set designers from the mid-thirties to the rise of Nikita Khrushchev would begin to embrace Staunton chess set designs, which embodied the same Neoclassical design elements that Stalinist Empire Style employed to symbolize the success of the Soviet Union. It likely also offered them a very real form of personal and employment security.

Bakelite Version

The late 1930s saw the introduction of a Soviet tournament chess set unique in three respects. First, it was unabashedly Staunton in its design. Second, its knights copied the Elgin Marble design of the British Jaques knights. Third, it was made of Bakelite, an early phenol-formaldehyde plastic that was moldable.

Late 1930s Bakelite Soviet Staunton. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Late 1930s Bakelite Soviet Staunton. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

This Soviet Staunton is a large set, with kings 110 mm tall. It is also heavy despite being unweighted owing to the density of the Bakelite. Its beauty, size and weight mark it as intended for high level tournament play, and the photographic record of later Carbolite versions of the design confirm this.

The moldable nature of Bakelite promised to provide a set that could be easily reproduced and did not involve the labor required to hand carve each and every knight, particularly one so handsome and detailed as this one. Bakelite was hard but brittle, and therefore relied on fillers to give it structural strength. The need to hide the filler led to it appearing primarily in dark colors, typically black and dark maroon in chess sets and other consumer products.

1940 Carbolite Version

The design was made famous by a photo shoot taken at the 1940 Soviet Championship, which was held in Moscow, and therefore is often referred to as the “1940 Championship Club” set. The Smyslov photo as the top of this post is one of those photos. Here are several others.

V. A. Makogonov. 1940 Moscow. A. Yegorov, Sovfoto photograph.
Paul Keres. Moscow 1940. A. Yegorov, Sovfoto photograph.

The pieces actually used in the championship, however, were BFIIs, as photographs of the tournament itself establish.

Isaac Boleslavsky. 1940 USSR Championship. The set is clearly a Botvinnik-Flohr II design. Russian Chess Federation photo.

The black and white version of this Soviet Staunton was molded of a different plastic that the Soviets called Carbolite. Like Bakelite, Carbolite is also a moldable phenol formaldehyde resin, developed to transcend the brittleness of Bakelite and obviate the need for fillers and dark colors to mask them. It differs chemically from Bakelite in that it is made from an acidic solution, whereas Bakelite is made from a basic solution. Carbolite was initially developed by the Karpov Scientific and Research Institute of Physical Chemistry in Moscow. J. Crowther, Science in Soviet Russia 67 (1930). The sets likely were made at Karbolit Zavod (Carbolite Plant) in Orekhovo-Zuyev outside Moscow. I believe the Bakelite version of this Staunton design came first because Bakelite preceded Carbolite, but there is also reason to believe that Bakelite versions continued to be made even after the introduction of the Carbolite version.

Here is a beautiful specimen of a Carbolite 1940 Soviet Staunton from the collection of Ron Harrison.

c. 1940 Carbolite Soviet Staunton. Ron Harrison Collection, photo.

Legend has it that the Carbolite chessmen of the 1940 photos were used in the Moscow Chess Club, but I am unaware of any firm evidence supporting that. The legend has the benefit of at least being consistent with known facts in that it first appeared in Moscow and was considered to be an important design. Perhaps the photo shoot was intended to showcase a practical and beautiful application of the Karpov Institute’s research.

The Carbolite set appears to have been used in the 1946 US-USSR Match, the 1947 USSR Championship Semifinals, the 1948 USSR Men’s and Women’s Championship, and other events.

Keres (R) vs. Fine, 1946 US-USSR Match, held in Moscow. 1-0. Max Euwe, chief arbiter. Photographer unknown.
Mikhail Botvinnik, 1946 US-USSR Match, Moscow. Photographer unknown.
Simagin vs. Kholmov 1947 USSR Championship Semifinals, Moscow. 1-0. Photo courtesy of Jorge Njegovic Drndak. Photographer unknown.
Furman vs. Averbakh (1-0), 1948 USSR Championship, Moscow. Photograph courtesy of Eduardo Bauza. Photographer unknown.
Anna Barysheva vs. Yuzefa Gurfinkel. 1948 USSR Women’s Championship, Moscow. Photograph courtesy of Jorge Njegovic Drndak. Photographer unknown.

1950s Carbolite Version

The Carbolite version of this Soviet Staunton continued to be produced in the 1950s. Here are pieces from the set in my collection.

1950s Carbolite Soviet Stanton. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
1950s Carbolite Soviet Stanton. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

I believe these pieces to be from the fifties, owing to the yellowish cast of the white Carbolite, the red plastic finials of the Black royals, and the obvious casting seams, which suggest the decline in attention to detail that began to creep into post-war production. The castings of my Bakelite specimen and this Carbolite version are virtually identical, though great care was taken to file down the casting seams of the Bakelite pieces. The most noticeable structural difference between the two versions is there is an additional beveled level at the bottom of the Bakelite pieces, giving them a slight height “advantage” over these Carbolite pieces. These Carbolite kings are 108mm. As with their Bakelite comrades, these pieces are heavy despite being unweighted.

Miniature Versions

Both plastics were used to manufacture miniature versions of this Soviet Staunton design.

Late 1930s-1950s Miniature Bakelite Soviet Staunton Pieces. Nikolay Filatov photo.

These pieces were manufactured by Artel Plastmass (артель “Пластмасс”) in Leningrad. According to Russian collector Sergey Kovalenko, one of the plants of the artel “Mineral” was reorganized into the Artel Plastmass around 1937. Sergey tells us that the most famous products of these artels were gramophone records and dominoes. The kings are approximately 70 mm and the pieces are not weighted.

Possibly 1950s Miniature Carbolite Soviet Staunton Pieces. Nikolay Filatov photo.

Conclusion

By incorporating the Neoclassical architecture of the traditional Staunton design, the Bakelite and Carbolite Soviet Staunton sets of the late 1930s, 40s, and 50s rejected the Constructivist and Modernist design influences of the 1920s and 30s, instead embracing Socialist Realism, the Soviet state’s official theory of art as of 1934. In doing so the sets symbolized the arrival of Soviet Chess to the pinnacle of the sport, much as Stalinist Empire architecture signaled the Soviet Union’s arrival as a great empire.

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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