Artel Kultsport: Serving the Needs of Political Chess

Soviet chess of the 1930s faced a major problem born of its own success. Krylenko’s program of Political Chess had grown the ranks of chess-players from 1,000 at the end of the Civil War to 150,000 by 1929. Old Tsarist stock and ateliers and artels promoted by Lenin’s NEP (1921-1928) supplied sets throughout the 1920s, but Stalin’s First Five Year Plan (1928-1932) pulled the rug out from under the NEP-men and their private workshops, replacing market socialism with a command economy reminiscent of War Communism (1918-1921).

While the number of chess-players swelled to half a million by 1934, the First Five-Year Plan emphasized rapid industrialization and centralized control above all else, including consumer goods like chess sets. Stalin’s Second Five Year Plan (1933-1937), however, aimed to expand the production of consumer goods and sought to expand the use of producer cooperatives–artels–to achieve the aim.

As a result, the mid-1930s saw an explosion in artel production of chess equipment. A good number of artels produced chess sets, some of very high quality, in a dizzying range of designs characterized by their simplification and incorporation of modernist motifs that Constructivists had developed through the 1920s in support of cultural revolution.

Judging from the number of surviving sets and set labels that collectors attribute to it, Artel Kultsport was the most prolific producer of chess sets in the mid- to late-thirties, and into the war years. The name itself suggests a link to the Supreme Council for Physical Culture, a standing committee of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Krylenko’s Chess and Checkers Section reported to the Council, and reflected the Soviets’ emphasis on physical culture—fizkultura—aiming to produce productive workers and fit soldiers. Interestingly, the Council retained the services of leading Constructivist artists to illustrate how fizkultura would create the new Soviet Citizen—novyi chelovek.

Artel Kultsport, operated in Moscow. It produced chess pieces, chess boards, chess tables, checker sets, and other sports-related items. The following advertisement from the 1930s lists the artel’s product line and lists its Moscow address.

Below are two pages from the 1936 Moscow Directory recording 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.

Kultsport produced a large number and variety of sets in a remarkable number of different designs. Here are some of the sets linked to Kultsport by evidence such as labels and stamps, or in the view of various collectors.

1930s Ferocious Knight Set

Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Among the most beautiful of the sets Kultsport produced was this tournament set, whose pieces are weighted, and whose kings are 100 mm tall. Although Soviet sets only rarely were named, I call this one the “Ferocious Knight” set for the knights’ menacing visages. The knights are well-carved, and the other pieces nicely turned. 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 red-hued board is typical for Kultsport in this period. It doubles as a storage box for the pieces, a characteristic typical of wooden Soviet sets. The inside of the box bears a partial paper label identifying it as a Kultsport product.

Here are photos from a similar 1930s set, again with a label inside the box.

Here are photos of a similar set from 1940. The board is no longer red, and the paper label has been replaced with ink stamps dating and identifying it a Kultsport product.

Even in 1940, Kultsport played with geometric motifs in its designs. Here is a set from the collection of Eduardo Bauza, closely related stylistically to the so-called Acorn and Belarusian Mushroom sets.

Some sets are said to be Kultsport products notwithstanding the absence of stamps or labels corroborating the claim. Here is another geometric design that Kiev collector and dealer Kick Filatov believes to have been made by Kultsport. Fellow Ukrainian dealer/collector Mykhailo Kovalenko is not so sure. I’ve referred to it as a Bell-Bottom set for obvious reasons.

Nick Filatov photo.

Collectors of Soviet sets agree that the so-called Laughing Knight sets were produced by Kultsport, though I am unaware of any corroborating stamps or labels.

c. 1940 Laughing Knight pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

Some sets bear Kultsport stamps, but Collectors remain divided about their true origins. One such set in the collection of Baltimore collector Mike Ladzinski bears a 1941 Kultsport stamp, as does a similar set in Mike Adamski’s collection. Nevertheless, Moscow Collector Alexander Chelnokov thinks the pieces may have been made by the Red Combine artel.

So it is with this set, very similar to that used in the 1944 USSR Championship, whose board bears a Kultsport stamp, but the pieces of which Chelnokov believes may have been crafted by Red Combine.

Chelnokov has identified a large number of sets as products of Artel Kultsport that he dates between the 1915 and 1940.

Conclusion

Artel Kultsport provided a remarkable number and creative range of designs to serve the needs of the growing army of chess players enlisted by Krylenko’s program of Political Chess.

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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