1930s Poltava Artel Sport & Culture Bell-Bottom Set

One of the more unique Soviet sets comprises “Bell-Bottom” pieces, named for the unusual shape of their bases. Here are photos of the c. 1930s specimen in my collection. It came to me in pristine condition.

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

Collector Sergey Kovalenko’s research suggests that the design originated in the Ukrainian city of Poltava, first produced by the Postyshev Children’s Commune there. Sergey located one set in the State Central Museum of Modern Russian History. Here is a photo of the box housing the Museum’s set.

Source: State Central Museum of Modern Russian History.

The box to my set also contains labels linking it to Poltava.

The label references a Poltava artel named “Спорт и Культура” (“Sport and Culture”). The exterior of the box housing my set differs from the one found in the Russian museum.

Chuck Grau Collection, photo.

The Poltava artel’s name “Sport and Culture” is remarkably similar to the well-known Moscow Artel Kultsport. The relation between the two is a topic of future research. It may be that the Poltava artel was the organizational predecessor of the Moscow entity, or that they somehow were affiliated. There is little chance that the similarity in names is purely serendipitous, given the cultural importance of sport to Soviet society.

Poltava is located on the Vorskla River in northeast Ukraine. In 2013 it had a population of roughly 300,000. It first was settled in the seventh or eighth centuries. It long has been considered a center of Ukrainian national identity. Woodworking was among the region’s noted industries in the early 1900s.

While there are no known design records for this set, the pieces’ bell-shaped bases and integrated stems bear some resemblance to the domes of Poltava’s historic Exaltation of the Cross Monastery. Or perhaps the bell-shaped bases are homage to the monastery’s four-tiered bell tower, built in 1786 and housing at least ten bells, the largest of which weighs over 6.5 tons.

Poltava’s Exaltation of the Cross Monastery and Bell Tower. Source: Discover Ukraine.

The Postychev Children’s Commune and its relationship to the Sport and Culture artel are both in need of additional research. The name of the children’s commune hints of one of the darkest chapters of Soviet history, the Holodomor (death by starvation), resulting from Stalin’s policies of collectivizing agriculture and exporting grain from Ukraine SSR rather than using it to feed her people.

Pavel Petrovich Postyshev. Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine.

With no little irony, the children’s commune linked to this design seems to be named after Pavel Petrovich Postyshev, a Russian politician who Stalin dispatched to Ukraine in 1932 to overcome opposition to the collection of grain. His methods were brutal, earning him the epithet “the hangman of Ukraine,” and generating thousands of orphans, many of whom likely matriculated to children’s communes like that in Poltava. Ultimately, Stalin feared that Postyshev was building a rival power base, and had him arrested in 1938 and shot in 1939. Perhaps Postyshev’s fall from Stalin’s grace explains why subsequent versions of this set no longer bore his name.

The Poltava Bell-Bottom chess set is a beautiful design, possibly linked to Ukraine’s Orthodox architecture and one of the darkest chapters in Soviet history.

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.

2 thoughts on “1930s Poltava Artel Sport & Culture Bell-Bottom Set”

  1. Thank you very much, Chuck! Very interesting research, beautiful pieces indeed! Looking forward to more articles (and answers to questions raised). Best regards, Terje Kristiansen, Tönsberg, Norway


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