Belarusian Mushroom Chessmen

I call this hypermodern set Belarusian because so many specimens originate from Minsk and its surrounds. Many collectors of Soviet sets describe it as Mushroom because the architecture of the king and queen resemble mushrooms: the flat, disc-shaped crowns resemble mushroom caps resting directly on long, thin, pedestal-free stems.

c. 1960s Belarusian Mushroom pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.
c. 1960s Belarusian Mushroom pieces. Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

This specimen is from Minsk. The seller dated it as from the 1960s, and I concur. The kings are roughly 90mm tall, and the pieces are unweighted, deriving their stability from their oversized conical bases. Long, narrow stems rise from the large bases of the royals, attaching directly to the mushroom cap crowns, unmediated by a pedestal or connector as typically found in Staunton designs.

In contrast to the royals, the clerics and pawns have no stems. Their conical bases terminate directly at the bottom of their disc-shaped pedestals. Tear-shaped miters sit atop the bishops. The knights are oversized, slightly taller than the bishops and towering over the rooks. They are simply carved, with manes cut only on the left sides of their heads. The rooks are undersized. There is no demarcation between the rook’s base and tower walls, which rise up in a single uninterrupted curve.

Here we see a Mushroom set being used on the streets of Moscow in 1947. Some of the pieces appear to be taken from other types of sets.

Robert Capa photo.

Nick Lanier called the pieces “Svelte,” and listed the set as German, though he admitted “some details point to Russia or even the Baltics.” Given the pieces’ fat bottoms, I find the name inapt. Nor do I find any credible evidence to support his opinion of geographical origin in Germany or the Baltics. While a German influence is theoretically possible from Germans living with Russia in the twenties 1920s and 30s, the German population around Minsk and other western regions was relocated eastward during WWI.

This design likely can be traced to the 1930s. Kiev collector and vendor Nikolay Filatov believes this set is from the 1930s, but does not express a view as to its geographical origin.

c. 1930s Mushroom set. Nikolay Filatov photo.

The 1930s version is weighted, and its kings are slightly taller than the 1960s version, measuring 10.2 cm in height. Unlike the later version, the royals have three collars separating their crowns from their stems. The bishops also have three collars separating their miters from their stems, whereas the later versions have single disc-shaped pedestals. The shape of the earlier knight is also different from the later version, most notably in its straight chest. The chest of the later version is v-shaped. Thus, over time, the Mushroom design was simplified, making it easier and cheaper to produce.

The hyper-modernist design of the Mushroom set is reminiscent of another, later hypermodern design with Belarusian connections, the plastic Minsk 1980 Olympic set.

It is interesting that two hypermodern set designs are linked to Minsk and Belarus. Belarus was devastated and Minsk leveled during the Great Patriotic War. It was rebuilt to exemplify Soviet Socialist Modernism and designated a Hero City for its reconstruction efforts. Minsk is home to myriad examples of Soviet Socialist Modernist architecture.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Minsk, Belarus. Creative Commons license.

Other examples of Soviet Socialist Modernist architecture in Minsk can be viewed here, here, and here. While modernist architecture built after 1945 cannot explain set designs that arose in the 1930s, it can help explain why the hypermodern design of the Mushroom set became popular in Belarus in the 1960s, and why the 1980 Minsk Olympic set took a hypermodern design.

The hypermodern Mushroom sets were popular in Belarus in the 1960s, though the design originated before the war in a place yet to be determined. The post-war sets reflected the post-war Soviet Modernist architecture of Minsk, and remain monuments of their own to Soviet Modernism.

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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