Nikolai Krylenko, Political Chess, and the 1935 Second Moscow International Tournament

In our recent post showcasing photos from the 1935 Second Moscow International Tournament, we mentioned the significance of the tournament to the Soviet program of Political Chess. In the Preface to the official tournament book, Soviet chess tsar Nikolai Krylenko elaborates:

“The Second Moscow International Tournament of 1935 took place in conditions of a colossally expanding Soviet chess movement and essentially turned into a struggle at the chess board between the USSR and the capitalist countries. That was how the matter stood objectively in historical and political terms; that was how it was understood and perceived not only by us, but also by bourgeois chess circles.

Nikolai Krylenko. Photographer unknown.

“In the ten years since the Moscow International Tournament of 1925 the USSR has grown both politically and economically, and has become at once a leading industrial nation and a great international power. For this reason every contact the USSR has with the bourgeois world, including the Moscow International Tournament of 1935, is already inevitably analyzed abroad from more than just a narrow sporting point of view.

“Up until a well-known point the USSR was an enigma for wide circles of the foreign bourgeoisie, an enigma which suddenly converted itself politically into a powerful force, directly influencing the fate of the world. From the specific point of view of foreign chess players, the same question arose for them: what on earth is the significance of the USSR for chess? Even for non-chess players who are aware of what is going on in chess, and for several first-class masters known to us such as Lasker, Capablanca, Euwe and Flohr, the tournament was also of interest from this point of view-what, then, can the mysterious Soviet Union give to chess culture?”

Propaganda poster depicting the struggle between Soviet workers and Capitalists and religion, Capital’s minion. D. Moor 1920.

“Only the workers of capitalist countries understood the enigma of the USSR. But for them the chess tournament had again to give an answer to that eternal historical question: who is the greater?”

Of course, this question was quite important to Krylenko as well. After all, as a good Marxist-Leninist, he already had cast the tournament “objectively in historical and political terms” as a “struggle… between the USSR and the capitalist powers.”

“There is no need to speak about the way the tournament was perceived by the broad mass of workers of the USSR. Highly developed politically and culturally, the millions of workers of our Union awaited the encounter with bourgeois masters most of all to answer this question: how will our players acquit themselves? What will our players be able to give in the struggle with recognized authorities of the bourgeois chess world? In order to find this out they followed the progress of the tournament from the very beginning to the last round.”

The 1935 tournament was not the first international event the Soviets had held in furtherance of their political program. The original event was the 1925 First Moscow International Tournament. Krylenko does not mention it, perhaps because he found it difficult to recite that it was won by Bolgolyubov, who had moved to Germany, taken a German wife, been declared a “renegade,” and tossed from the Soviet chess organization in 1926. Krylenko details other events where the struggle against the capitalist nations was prosecuted.

Before being declared a “renegade,” Bogolyubov represented the USSR at the 1925 First Moscow International Tournament, here playing Rubenstein. Public domain photo.

“The enormous interest in the tournament was inspired to a considerable extent by encounters between Soviet masters and foreign grandmasters which were a kind of prelude to it: the Flohr-Botvinnik match in 1933, which demonstrated the equal strength of the two players, and the Leningrad tournament in 1934 which Euwe and Kmoch participated in, suffering an extremely painful defeat at the hands of Soviet masters. True, these achievements were a little tarnished by Botvinnik’s unsuccessful appearance at Hastings. But this failure merely heightened interest in the tournament. The international tournament had to settle the question once and for all: was Botvinnik’s failure accidental, or had the entire Soviet Union fallen behind the capitalist countries with their international chess forces.

“These were the basic factors which turned the second Moscow Tournament of 1935 into a major political event, causing great excitement amongst the broad masses of our society and the chess circles of Western Europe.”

Krylenko pivots to his characterization of the tournament’s results, which he goes to great lengths to spin as a major Soviet victory despite four of the top five finishers to have represented capitalist powers.

“So what were the results of this encounter? They already belong to history are now widely known and generally acknowledged both here and abroad.

Capablanca, at the 1935 Second Moscow International Tournament, with a good view of the pieces used. Photographer unknown.

“The USSR, in the person of Mikhail Botvinnik, defeated bourgeois chess culture, as his only rival, finishing in first place with him, Flohr, did not actually win this first place, but received it as a kind of gift from the Soviet masters Kan and Bogatyrchuk, who beat Botvinnik and thus allowed Flohr to draw equal with his rival. These defeats which Botvinnik suffered were also important in the sense that they demonstrate something else, a quality which is characteristic of our chess players-their sporting honesty, which does not permit them to go a single iota against their conscience during the fight, not even out of a false understanding of patriotism. This, unfortunately, cannot be said of all the bourgeois masters-participants in the tournament, who in their games more than once gave cause for doubt that they were playing at full strength (for example, the Spielmann-Flohr game)-although, of course, everyone was well aware of the significance of a half-point in this tense struggle.”

Salo Flohr. Photo provided by Sergey Dubodel.

“True, bourgeois Europe may point to the fact that the runners-up were all foreigners: Lasker, Capablanca, Spielmann. But, in the first place, these were ex-world champions Lasker and Capablanca, and in the second place, Spielmann won his place in the very last rounds, while Levenfish was confidently catching up with him. We do not yet expect, by the way, that Soviet masters should occupy all of the top places, although, without unnecessary modesty, we have reason to think that such a moment will come in the not-too-distant future. In support of this we have the more than modest places which were occupied by Pirc, Stahlberg and even Lilienthal, and the extraordinarily high quality of play demonstrated by the Soviet masters: Ruumin, Ragozin, Levenfish, Romanovsky and Kan. Goglidze, Lisitsin, Rabinovich and Alatortsev also had certain achievements which cannot be doenied, and only Bogatyrchuk played below his ability, whilst only Chekover persistently showed a ‘chess spirit’ which was inappropriate for such a serious test.”

1935 Moscow Second International Tournament book. Photo provided by Sergey Dubodel.

One tenet of Political Chess was that masters owed an obligation to teach chess to the masses. The 1935 tournament book is a fine example, containing detailed annotations of the events games authored by participating masters.

“In publishing this collection which summarizes the achievements of the tournament, we consider it a major contribution not only to the of chess creativity in the USSR, but also to world chess literature. The broad mass of Soviet chess players will use it for study, further increasing and deepening their achievements in the sphere of chess art.”

“Nikolai Krylenko
Moscow, 14 November 1935

From Moscow 1935 International Chess Tournament (N. Krylenko and I. Rabinovitch eds., Caissa Ed. 1998) (Jimmy Adams and Sarah Hurst Trs.).

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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