Pieces in a Larger Game: The Key to Understanding Soviet Chess Sets

The key to understanding Soviet chess sets is to consider them as an economic problem born from a political choice.

The first things I learned in college as a student of political science and economics were that 1) politics is who gets what, when, and how; and 2) economics is what is to be produced, when, where, and how. I came to see economics and politics as two sides of the same coin, much in the way Classical Economists did, considering them to be the single subject of Political Economy.

John Stuart Mill, much maligned by Marx, saw production to be determined by natural laws, but distribution to be a product of political choices. In the Soviet Union, however, the decision that drove most everything related to chess sets was political: the program of Political Chess I have written about elsewhere established as state policy exponentially increasing chess play among the masses.

The program of Political Chess was wildly successful, ultimately drawing millions of players to the sport. According to Professor Richards, in 1923, at the end of the Civil War, there were approximately 1,000 registered players in the Soviet Union. In one year, that number ballooned to 24,000. By 1929, the number had grown to 150,000, and more than tripled to 500,000 within the next five years. The number of players doubled to 1 million by 1951, six years after the end of the Great Patriotic War, and then tripled to 3 million by 1964.

All these new players needed sets to play on. To appropriate a phrase from Lenin, what was to be done? Who was to produce these sets? Where? How? The Soviets’ answers to these questions was reflected in evolving state policy that first eliminated the market, then reinstated it, then abandoned it in favor of artisan collectives–artels–and workers imprisoned in Gulags, and finally by state factories worked by wage labor.

The Soviet Union inherited a system where the handful of sets needed were produced by private artisans working in ateliers and artels. During the Civil War, however, the Bolsheviks went to great lengths to replace private markets with a command economy, a set of policies given the name War Communism (1918-1921). Of course, it is hard to believe that anyone was making or buying new chess sets during this period of political, economic, and social upheaval.

Lenin orating.

War Communism succeeded in arming, clothing, and feeding the Red Army enough to defeat the Whites and their Western allies, but it left everyone else cold, hungry, and wanting. So Lenin adopted what he called the New Economic Program (1921-1928), or NEP, that dialed back the command economy and promoted private markets to produce necessities and consumer goods. This gave ateliers and artels the space to operate and grow. They likely were able to provide the sets needed for the early stages of growth in player numbers, but there is scant direct evidence for chess sets being produced under NEP, even though we can infer that there were enough sets to service an increase of 23,000 players from 1923 to 1924, and of another 126,000 by 1929.

NEP Man and Woman enjoying the high life again.

Lenin died in January 1924, and Stalin successfully maneuvered to succeed him. Surrounded by hostile neighbors, Stalin saw a command economy to be the way the Soviet Union could rapidly industrialize. Plus, a command economy was more for him to command. So the expansion of private ateliers and artels was reversed under his First Five Year Plan (1928-1932). This could only have hurt anyone who had been making chess sets under NEP and strained the state’s ability to supply sets to the relentlessly growing army of players, which reached half a million by 1934.

Poster for Stalin’s First Five Year Plan

Agricultural collectivization and drought brought famine and mass starvation from 1930 to 1933, and the singular focus on industrialization generated sizeable shortages of other consumer goods. Stalin addressed this with his Second Five Year Plan (1932-1937) and expansion of forced labor camps known as Gulags. While maintaining rapid industrialization as a goal, the Second Five Year Plan promised to expand the production of consumer goods, a category that included chess sets, and promoted the used of cooperatives–artels–to do so. Similarly, Gulags were seen as an economic engine to develop natural resources, build infrastructure, and manufacture consumer goods. Among the natural resources was timber, and among the consumer goods were furniture, toys, and chess sets, all made in workshops associated with timber harvesting.

These economic policies bore fruit. From 1932 to the onset of the Great Patriotic War, the number of artels and the value of their production markedly increased. We also can see from surviving sets and their affixed labels that artel chess production increased dramatically during this period, as a dazzling array of designs have survived.

The Gulags, too, turned to chess production. In the thirties, a Siberian children’s penal colony began producing simple, functional sets in a design that continued to be produced in a Mordovian Gulag in the forties and fifties and then in state factories until the fall of the Soviet Union and beyond.

1930s Gulag chessmen. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.

Both the Gulag design and many of the artel designs evidence the influence of Constructivists and other modernists. In the case of the artels, this influence likely was a matter of artistic expression. In the Gulags, however, it was a matter of economization. Simplification enabled unskilled and semis-skilled workers to more easily and economically manufacture the sets. It is ironic that one of the most enduring contributions of the Constructivists–champions of human liberation from wage slavery and commodity fetishism–was produced in Gulags. Such is the tragedy of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The Great Patriotic War brought a decline in the artels, as war production required greater economies of scale. Surviving artels were able to continue largely by adopting mass production techniques characteristic of state factories. By 1956, the Central Committee of the Communist Party had decided that “many enterprises of industrial cooperation have ceased to have the character of artisanal cooperative production and essentially do not differ from enterprises of state industry.” Remaining artels began to be nationalized, becoming state-owned enterprises under the control of the various state authorities.

By the early 1950s, state authorities had come to realize that Gulag production was inefficient and uneconomical. Upon Stalin’s death, a Beria’s general amnesty sounded the death knell of the Gulag system. By 1960, it was formally abolished, though prison labor continued to be used in state prisons.

The 1950s saw the dramatic rise of chess set mass production by state factories employing wage labor. Designs were simplified and often degraded. Wooden knights and finials were replaced with molded plastic ones. What had begun as an artisan trade fifty years earlier was now mechanized. Even so, players voiced protests over the unavailability of sets. By 1964, their numbers had reached 3 million.

The key to understanding Soviet chess sets is to appreciate that their history was driven by a political choice to grow the sport among the masses. How the Soviet economy produced the sets for that burgeoning army of chess-players in turn was driven by the evolution of Soviet economic policy and organization, from War Communism to the NEP to the Five Year Plans to the end of Gulags and artels. You can read about this in more detail in my forthcoming article in CCI-USA, “The Means of Soviet Chess Set Production,” later this year.

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.

6 thoughts on “Pieces in a Larger Game: The Key to Understanding Soviet Chess Sets”

  1. Thank you very much, Chuck! This is a very interesting and serious holistic, academic study! May I please share this on a Norwegian Chess History Forum on Facebook (called “Forum for Sjakkhistorie” = “Forum for Chess History”) that has many keen and knowledgeable collectors? I will make sure to acknowledge (and thank) you as author and send you the link to the post. Yours sincerely, Terje Kristiansen, Tönsberg, Norway

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Chuck, is there a reason for naming your blog “Soviet and Late Tsarist Chess Sets” and not “Late Tsarist and Soviet Chess Sets”? I reckon there were many more Soviet chess sets, and your focus might be on these… I am just curious as your last great study “Pieces in a Larger Game: The Key to Understanding Soviet Chess Sets” started off chronologically with the Late Tsarist chess sets. Anyway, I very much enjoy you blog and Facebook-posts (and I will buy any book you publish on these topics). I have got a collector friend (a real connoisseur with a huge collection), with rare Natalia Danko porcelain pieces among the finest (on the 16. December 2021). I attach the link of the Forum page on Facebook (that has a decent translator). https://www.facebook.com/groups/726168771702172/ I have written extensively on this Forum as well, but mostly on Soviet chess history. Best regards, Terje Kristiansen, Tönsberg, Norway

    Liked by 1 person

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