The 1930s saw an explosion in the production of Soviet chess sets and in the creativity of their designs. While very simplified designs began to be produced in Gulag workshops worked by largely unskilled prisoners to meet the demands of the Soviet State’s program of bringing chess and culture to the masses, smaller cooperatives of skilled artisans known as Artels threw off the yoke of the Staunton design and began incorporating Modernist and Constructivist elements into their designs.
Artels were collectives of handicraft-producing artisans, originating in Tsarist times yet expressly recognized by Soviet law, which produced consumer goods and handicrafts. These artisans labored in a commonly owned workshop with commonly owned tools, and their products belonged to the cooperative. They organized their own production efforts and shared costs and revenues.
Artels saw a dramatic expansion during the late twenties and thirties, but an equally dramatic reduction in numbers during World War II. By 1960, all the remaining Artels had been converted to state factories. G. Phillips, Handicrafts in the Soviet Union, 14 JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL AFRICAN INSTITUTE NO. 4 209 (Oct. 1943); F. Leedy, Producers’ Cooperatives in the Soviet Union, 80 MONTHLY LABOR REVIEW 1064 (No. 9, Sept. 1957).
Foremost among the chess-producing cooperatives was Artel Kultsport, located in Moscow. Artel Kultsport produced chess pieces, chess boards, chess tables, checker sets, and other sports-related items. This “advertisement” from the 1930s lists the artel’s product line and lists its Moscow address. Ironically, the graphic designer does not appear to have been a chess player!
Here are two pages from the 1936 Moscow Directory recoding the production of 34,359 chess boards by Kultsport, uncovered by the excellent research of St. Petersburg collector Sergey Kovalenko into the history of Soviet chess-manufacturing entities.
The Ferocious Knight Set
Among the most beautiful of the sets Artel Kultsport produced was this tournament set, whose pieces are weighted and whose kings are 100 mm tall.
The beautiful red-toned box/board contains a partial paper label linking the set to Artel Kultsport.
The set is finished with the caramel-colored varnish typical of the 1930s, and is well-scarred by cigarette ash. Some of the pieces, even a rook, exhibit warping, a very uncommon affliction in Soviet sets.
The pieces of the set retain some Staunton elements. The pieces’ relative proportions reproduce the column and pediment structure analyzed by architect and chess set designer Dan Weil. The Queen wears a coronet and the rooks turret bears merlons.
At the same time, the set dispenses with the Staunton’s “triple collar.” It also replaces the King’s cross with a spiked finial, a practice that Isaak Linder documented goes back to ancient Rus. Linder, The Art of Chess Pieces (Eng. ed. 2002). The Bishop’s miter resembles the onion tops of Orthodox churches. In addition to the traditionally Russian elements, the set-identifying elements of the pieces–their bases, stems, and pedestals–form a continuous geometric curve that reflects Modernist and Constructivist influences and resides at the core of Soviet design. The rooks tubular appearance presages the barrel-rooks of sets of the early 1940s.
The knights of this set are magnificent. The standard Staunton S-shaped spine has been eschewed in favor of the Soviet C-shaped spine and V-shaped chest. While the carving is detailed, it depicts not the horse of the Elgin Marbles, but a highly expressive stylized horse with exaggerated eyes and over-sized mouth gaping open to bite its foe with its large and finely detailed teeth. Its forward-perked ears tell us the horse is at heightened alert, focused on the enemy to its front. By contrast, the ears of the Staunton’s Elgin Marble knight are pinned back. The sweeping side mane is beautifully carved, and the mane carvings along the spine foretell those found on the knights of the early 1940 Barrel Rook set.
The 1930s Artel Kultsport Ferocious Knight Set embodies the high production standards, creativity in design, and Modernist elements of Soviet artel sets of the era. Its fierce knight perhaps symbolizes the spirit to attack the future, the past, and enemies of the State both foreign and domestic.