The Ubiquitous ‘Soviet Upright’ Pieces of Artel Vsekokhudozhnik

If you follow this website or the Facebook group Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionary, you know that our knowledge of Soviet chess sets remains far from complete, even though it is growing. One thing we have learned, helped by Sergey Kovalenko’s research into Soviet archives, is that chess pieces (shakhmaty) and chess boards (shakhmatnyye doski) were seldom produced or sold as a unit, at least prior to the Great Patriotic War. Rather, they typically were produced, marketed, and sold as separate components, with the pieces housed in cardboard boxes. The evidence for this and its implications for dating and identifying pieces’ manufacturers will be explored in a future article. Few of these cardboard boxes have survived to the present, making every discovery of one previously unknown significant.

Mykhailo Kovalenko (no relation to Sergey) recently found a set of so-called “Soviet Upright” or “Botvinnnik-Flohr I” pieces housed in an original cardboard box. His discovery has allowed us to identify who likely made the pieces, and to help us situate them in the historical context of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Here are specimens of the type of pieces I am referring to:

Chuck Grau Collection, photos.

We already have explored this design and the inaccuracy of the “BFI” name in our article on the pieces of the 1933 Botvinnik-Flohr match, and won’t repeat the discussion here. Quite a few specimens of these pieces have survived, from which we can reasonably infer that quite a few of them were produced. Indeed, evidence of their use in the second half of the 1930s can be found in the photographic record.

Nikolay Grigoriev (1895-1938), c. 1936. Photographer unknown.

Here are the pieces and the cardboard box discovered by Mykhailo.

The bottom line of the stamp identifies the contents of the box as Chess Pieces No. 4, likely meaning that they were appropriate for a size 4 board with 40 mm. squares. The middle line gives a Moscow address. The bottom line of the label provides the name of the entity that manufactured the pieces: Vsekokhudozhnik, which translates to All-Russian Cooperative Association ‘Artist.’ Wikipedia offers the following photo of the production facilities.

Moscow. The building of production workshops of Vsekokhudozhnik. Creative Commons license.

Simply identifying the entity that produced a board or pieces tells us little about the entity itself. Most of the artels and Gulag workshops that produced chess equipment remain shrouded in mystery, as we have discussed earlier. Such information is important in situating that equipment in its social, historical, economic, political, and cultural context. That context included both use value of the equipment, and the social relations and political economy of their production.

The equipment had use value at two levels. Most concretely, it was used to play chess. Chess playing was not for the sake of chess in the Soviet Union, however, but to manifest Political Chess, the state’s policy to use chess to raise the cultural levels of the masses and to defeat the West in this arena of cultural competition. As we have seen, Political Chess demanded a continuously expanding supply of chess equipment. The means and social relations of the production of these sets were structured by the evolution of Soviet economic policy from War Communism to to NEP to Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, as we have begun to explore here.

We also have seen how the design of Soviet pieces reflected a dialectic between Modernism and Traditionalism. We have begun to explore that dynamic as a manifestation of Stalin’s cultural policy for the arts, namely the suppression of the Modernism of the Avant Garde and the official endorsement of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism portrayed an idealized view of the Soviet Union through the use of realistic images and forms. Maxim Gorky outlined its basic principles, declaring that Socialist Realist art must be proletarian; it must be typical, addressing the everyday lives of the Soviet people; it must be Realist in style; and it must be partisan, actively promoting the aims of the Soviet state. For Stalin, Socialist Realism meant that art must offer unambiguously positive images of life in the Soviet Union, in a ‘true-to-life’ visual style that the masses could readily digest. The Art Story (accessed 18 May 2022).

Isaak Brodsky, Stalin (1933), an example of Socialist Realism. Public Domain.

Vsekokhudozhnik was instrumental to the institutionalization of Socialist Realism and concomitant marginalization of the Avant Garde. Its production of chess sets both facilitated the success of Political Chess and helped bankroll the institutionalization of Socialist Realism.

The early 1920s saw a proliferation of artists’ groups, many of them by different groups within the Avant Garde. But some of the groups opposed the Avant Garde, notably the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AKhRR), which contended art should depict the happy aspects of everyday life under socialism via “artistic documentary” and “heroic realism.” Noted Suprematicist Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) wrote in 1926 that the Association was “drowning the remains of art in its quagmire,” “We must overthrow this AKhRR,” he penned, “but we must be careful–so that this rot doesn’t bring any damage.” Murray infra.

Kazimir Malevich, Boy (1927-1928). Public Domain.

Throughout the 1920s, the Avant Garde nevertheless lost ground to the Realists. Art historian John Bowlt explains that Socialist Realism grew ascendant in the later 1920s, “a relentless move towards ‘art that is national in form and socialist in content.'”

Symptomatic of this was the opening of the Artists’ Cooperative Organization (Vseko-khudozhnik) in Moscow in 1929, a rich and active government organ. It provided its members (painters, sculptors and architects) with regular contracts from workers’ palaces, government offices, etc., and it gave direct material aid to artists and arranged exhibitions for them -with the unwritten prerequisite that the works produced be Realist and socially relevant. By the late 1920s leftism was officially being condemned although still tolerated: this situation meant that, while leftist exhibitions were still organized and opened to the public, their reception by the Press and critics was, because of government influence, negative.

John E. Bowlt, Russian Art in the 1920s, 22 Soviet Studies 575,591 (No. 4 1971)

Vsekokhudozhnik was founded under the name Khudozhnik (Artist) at the cusp between NEP and Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan.

In 1932, the Communist Party Central Committee adopted a resolution, On the Reformation of Literary and Artistic Organizations, which decried “the influence of alien elements, especially those revived by the first years of NEP.” The resolution claimed that “the confines of the existing proletarian literature and art organizations (VOAPP, RAPP, RATIM, etc.) are becoming too narrow and are hampering the serious development of artistic creation.” It expressed fear that “these organizations might change from being an instrument for the maximum mobilization of Soviet writers and artists for the tasks of Socialist construction to being an instrument for cultivating elitist withdrawal and loss of contact with the political tasks of the present and with the important groups of writers and artists who sympathize with Socialist construction.” The resolution called for the abolition of these artistic organizations and the integration “of all writers who support the platform of the Soviet government and who aspire to participate in Socialist construction in a single union of Soviet writers with a Communist faction therein.”

Accordingly, in 1932, Khudozhnik was reorganized as the All-Russian Cooperative Union of Fine Arts Workers (Vsekokhudozhnik). Independent artistic groups were dissolved. Murray, infra.

The Artel’s Journals, left to right, for 1932, 1931, and 1935. Bookvika photo.

Historian Galina Yankovskvaya of the Perm State National Research University reports that none of the artel’s founders were among the Avant Garde, though many Avant Garde artists did join it to obtain art materials and sell their works to various state entities comprising its clientele. It introduced collective work, organizing artists into brigades, and pressed them into the mass production of household goods and mass-market art. Among its most famous products were dolls crafted and sold for export.

The exclusion of Avant Garde artists as founders of Vsekokhudozhnik clearly was no oversight, as it reflected their official marginalization. Moreover, the inclusion of Avant Garde artists as members was not intended to create organizational pluralism, but to operate instead as a mechanism of social control. Artists depending on Vsekokhudozhnik for subsistence were economically coerced to toe the line.

Without its help, it would have been impossible for artists to work. It supplied them with canvases and paints, gave advances and loans, ordered and bought works, sent them one by one and ‘brigades’ on creative business trips – mainly, as it was then supposed, to factories and construction sites. It organized contests of monuments projects. Various workshops worked, either serving the artists or giving work to them. Moreover, the money earned on the sale of embroidered scarves and shawls, pottery and toys, went to ensure the unprofitable work of easel painters.

Bookvika (accessed 9 November 2022)

Vsekokhudozhnik‘s control over artists was not limited to economic coercion. From 1932 on, writes art historian Natalia Murray, it was used to monitor and control artists by ensuring their work complied with the tenets of Socialist Realism.

A clear hierarchy of genres was established, and new heroes and new subjects (such as Communist Party leaders, Party meetings, workers and workers’ delegates, miners and builders) were obligatory for every artist who hoped so survive under the new regime. The avant-garde was stopped dead in its tracks. Any artist deviating from the official Party line was denounced as a formalist and at best cut off from support, and at worst left to die of starvation or sent to the remote camps of the Gulag.

Natalia Murray, “The New World of the Mass Man,” Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 25 (Royal Academy of Art, 2017)

Vsekokhudozhnik was transferred into the jurisdiction of the People’s Commissariat of Education of the RSFSR in 1935, and assumed responsibility for issuing copyrights. In 1940, it was transferred to the Council of Commissars of the RSFSR, and later to the Council of Ministers of the RSFSR. The artel dissolved in 1954 and its functions transferred to the Art Fund of the USSR.

The recent discovery of well-known and well-liked chess pieces in their original cardboard box has revealed where they were made, and has historically situated their maker at the epicenter of Stalin’s institutionalization of Socialist Realism as the official theory and practice of art. The sale of these sets helped support that process.

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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