Children of the Gulag: The Berezovsky Chessmen

The 1930s saw the introduction of chess set production by Gulags. Gulags were used to produce chess sets in to fill the need for sets among the Soviet Union’s burgeoning army of chess-players. Increasing the production of consumer goods was a goal of Stalin’s Second Year Five Year Plan, and planners viewed Gulag labor in Gulags as one way to produce more consumer goods and toys.

The production of chess sets by Gulag labor may well have begun in the Berezovsky Children’s Penal Colony of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, located in Siberia, near Krasnoyarsk. The Krasnoyarsk camp opened in February 1938. It specialized in logging, but prisoners also made furniture, so chess set production was a natural complement. Indeed, Krasnoyarsk sits amidst large pine and birch forests. It was a major hub of the Gulag system under Stalin. The children’s penal colony likely housed the children of prisoners interred in other camps in the Krasnoyarsk area.

Child inmates in their Gulag bunks. Source: David Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

Employing children employment in woodworking was a common Gulag practice. According to historian Anne Applebaum, while there are some examples of children’s work camps being assigned to hard physical labor such as mining or forestry in the harshest conditions of the far north, most children’s camps were dedicated to wood-working, metal work, and sewing. Gulag rules provided that children split their time between work and schooling, but the rules most often were honored in the breach. Camps often had no schools. Children faced the same deplorable living conditions and treatment as adult prisoners.

Here is an example of a first quality set the children of the Berezovsky camp made, and the stamp in its board.

First Quality Berezovsky Chessmen. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.
First Quality stamp on Berezovsky set. Mike Ladzinski Collection, photo.

Here is an example of a second quality set made in this camp, identified by a stamp inside its board/box.

Second Quality Berezovsky Chessmen. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Berezovsky Stamp inside board. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Neither box bears a date stamp, but we can reasonably date them as pre-1939, when Gulag production began bearing a five-pointed star as a registered trademark.

Gulag Trademark, registered 1939. Source: Eduard Andryushchenko

The design is both very simple and surprisingly elegant. Simplicity of design made sense for a set that was to be produced by unskilled or semi-skilled child Gulag labor. The bases and stems of the royals, clerics, and pawns form a cone, providing the pieces a good degree of balance. The “step-up” base characterizing the base-to-stem transition of the traditional Staunton design has been simplified to a circular cut. The stem ends at a disc-shaped pedestal, but the double collars characteristic of Staunton clerics and royals have been eliminated. The royals’ crowns are simply turned, the Staunton cross replaced by a tear-shaped turned finial on the king’s crown, and pointed crenels replaced by simple cuts on the queen’s coronet. The elaborately carved Elgin Marble knight has been replaced by a simply carved horse of a pleasing shape but little detail. The kings are 90 mm. The pieces are weighted with plaster. The set is made of birch, and the black pieces are simply painted. The design was successful and was produced all the way to the end of the Soviet Union, albeit in different production facilities over time. Later versions were unweighted.

Portuguese collector and historian Arlindo Vieira admired the design’s simple, slim bodies and broad bases, which afforded the pieces stability during play. He found them “elegant” and “aesthetically very pleasing” even though they are made from “poor” wood. In these ways, they reflect the “simplicity in manufacture, without great details in the pieces,” which results from “the need for serial manufacture” at “affordable prices” characteristic of Soviet pieces.

Vieira called the design “Latvian” because he found it in many pictures of Latvian events in which pieces like these were used. Many contemporary collectors of Soviet sets today would identify the pieces as “Latvian,” notwithstanding that over the course of six decades they apparently were manufactured in multiple locations from Moscow to Mordovia. However, artist-collector Alan Power and others have begun to call the pieces “Mordovian-Latvian,” or simply “Mordovian,” reflecting our our understanding that many sets of this design were manufactured in a Mordovian Gulag in the late 1940s and 1950s.

I also have seen the design referred to as “Tal’s favorite” or the “Latvian Tal” set. The basis for such claims is an exuberant exclamation Vieira uttered in his iconic 2012 video on Soviet chess sets, but neither he nor anyone else has offered any evidence for the claim other than Tal is seen playing with such pieces in several photos. Those photos by themselves do not reasonably support any claim of a special relationship between Tal and the design.

I am thinking of referring to this style as the Berezovsky design because this is where it appears to have originated based on the board stamps. I think that would be fitting homage to the child prisoners of the Gulag who first made them.

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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