The Gulag Sets of Mordovia

After the Great Patriotic War, sets of the Berezovsky design were mass-produced in labor camps located in and around the villages of Temnikov and Yavas, Mordovia. The set pictured above is one from my collection that has been restored to its original finish. The pieces below are in their original red. The opposing pieces are black. They are from 1954.

Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The Gulag Museum provides a history of the Mordovian camps:

The Temnikovsky ITL was opened on 6 June 1931 and operated until 12 October 1948 when it was reorganized into the Osoby (Special) Camp № 3 (“Dubravny Camp”). The administration of Temlag initially was located in Temnikov District, Sredne-Volzhsky Krai, later it was in the settlement of Yavas in Mordovian ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). The Temnikovsky Camp was established for logging but it was reorganized in 1940 for producing goods for mass consumption and conducting other works. The maximum number of prisoners held in Temlag was recorded in 1933 as 30,978. Many of them were women: 6,204 out of 14,896 prisoners in 1943. In terms of operational command, the camp was initially subordinate to the GULAG (Chief Administration of Corrective-Labor Camps and Colonies), later it was transferred to the control of the Administration of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) in Sredne-Volzhsky Krai, and beginning on 8 May 1935 it was transferred to the GULAG again. In 1937 the Vetluzhsky ITL was included into Temlag. During its reorganization into the Osoby (Special) Camp № 3, all its property and some part of its prisoners were transferred to the Dubravny Camp and the Temnikov Industrial Complex of the GULAG.

Like the Berezovsky camp, the Mordovian camps were located near forests that provided the raw materials for logging, and the production of furniture, toys, chess sets, and other wooden consumer goods. It is after the 1948 transfer that we find chess sets being produced. Here is one of the earliest of the Mordovian Gulag sets, from 1949.

Mykhailo Kovalenko Collection, photo.

Many of these Mordovian Gulag sets have survived. Here are a variety posted by members of the Facebook group of Soviet chess set collectors, Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery.

Here is a montage of stamps from the boxes of the posted sets.

Steve Phillips photo

These stamps bear dates from 1950 to 1952. The five-pointed star is the registered trademark of Gulag production. The “5 TEM” marks denote production by Factory 5 of the “Temlag” or Teminovsky Corrective Labor Camp. The triangular OTK stamp is the mark of the factory. Temlag’s major industries included logging, woodworking, railroad construction, and consumer goods, so it is no surprise to find chess sets were produced there.

Following Stalin’s death and Beria’s general amnesty of 1953 , the star Gulag trademark disappeared on many of the Mordovian sets, and stamps bearing the Tempromkombinat name begin appearing. Tempromkombinat is a Soviet acronym for the Temnikovsky Industrial Combine of Gulag. Here are some examples.

Steve Phillips photo

The Gulag trademark did not entirely disappear after 1954, though the reasons for this are unknown. Here is an example.

Sergey Kovalenko Collection, photo.

The sets produced by the Mordovian camp are quite attractive and relatively well-made. Unlike the Gulag sets of the 1930s, the Mordovian sets were unweighted, and relied upon their wide, conical stems and bases for stability. Portuguese collector and historian Arlindo Vieira admired the pieces’ simple, slim bodies and broad bases that afforded them stability during play despite being unweighted. 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.

The knights of the Mordovian Gulag sets are simply carved, but aesthetically very pleasing. Here are some examples.

In 1960, the Gulags were officially terminated, though prisoner labor remained part of the Soviet penal system. By 1954, Soviet officials widely acknowledged that Gulag production was inefficient and unprofitable. The Berezovsky Gulag design perhaps reached the pinnacle of its development in the camps of Mordovia, but it would continue to be produced in State factories in ever more simplified and regrettably degraded versions.

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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