Towering Giants of the Soviet Chessboard: The Ukrainian GM Set

This is the chess of my childhood, proclaims Ukrainian collector and dealer Mykhailo Kovalenko. It is “the most common Ukrainian chess set… made of wood,” and was used in regional but not high level tournaments. SK 4 June 2020 & 14 April 2021, accessed 19 April 2023.

Sometimes called the Ukrainian Grandmaster pieces, perhaps the largest of all Soviet tournament sets were manufactured by the Bolekhavsky Timber Plant, part of the Carpathian Industrial Timber Association and Ministry of Forestry of Ukraine SSR.

Here is a specimen I recently acquired from Kyiv dealer and collector Nikolay Filatov of SovietChessUSSRGifts. The varnished natural and burnt sienna pieces arrived in excellent condition.

Chuck Grau photo.

The royals are notable for their verticality, proportionately large crowns, and their towering height height relative to the other pieces. “That king is a rocket ship!” exclaimed collector John Warth, “Or brings to mind Seattle’s Space Needle.” SK 14 April 2021 (accessed 17 April 2023). The structure it brings to my mind is the famous Kyiv Television Tower, erected in 1973 in the image of an immense rocket. The king measures 13 cm, or over 5.1 inches, tall.

Kyiv Television Tower. Creative Commons License.

Like the royals’ crowns, the bishops’ miters also are proportionately oversized. The knights are simply cut. “The rooks are very odd,” according to collector John Moyes, “Like chimneys!” SK 19 May 2020, accessed 17 April 2023. They feature slender, tapered towers, with relatively small, ringed turrets. The pawns are immense, typically Soviet homage to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The pieces are unweighted. Because of the large bases, this is not a problem for any pieces other than the royals, whose great height to base width leaves them too easily toppled. Perhaps there is a metaphor lurking there as well.

Chuck Grau photo.

My set was accompanied by its original box, its factory label intact. The label is significant because it tells us when and where this set was made. Here is the label.

Chuck Grau photo.

According to a translation provided by the Nikolay Filatov, the box contains Шахматные Фигуры (“Chess Figures”), which were manufactured in 1985 by the Bolekhavsky Timber Plant, Carpathian Industrial Timber Association, Ministry of Forestry, Ukrainian SSR.

The factory was located in the small city of Bolekhiv in the southwestern Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast of Ukraine, 300 miles southwest of Kyiv and near the Carpathian mountains. Its population was approximately 10,000 as of 2022. At various times in its history it was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland, Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and Ukraine. Its sizeable Jewish population was all but annihilated in World War II.

The pieces often are found together with wooden board boxes made in Rivne, Lviv, and Chernivtsi, Ukraine, according to Kovalenko. SK 19 May 2020, accessed 17 April 2023. Labels on such boards I’ve seen, however, reference only the board and not the pieces, suggesting to me that they were paired after production and not necessarily from the same plant. Here are two examples.

Although the set was not used in high level tournaments, it did manage to find its way out of Ukraine SSR. Here is a photo of it in use in Turkestan, SSR. photo, courtesy of Jorge Njegovic Drndak.

I know of two other specimens that are associated with original labels for “Chess Figure” rather than “Chess Boards.” They are shown below. The set on the left at the time of this writing is being offered for sale by SovietchessUSSRGifts on Etsy. The set in the middle photo is from the collection of Eduardo Bauza. Its label is shown on the right. The labels establish that both sets originated from the Bolekhavsky Timber Plant.

There are a number of variations to the Ukrainian Grandmaster design, as with other Soviet designs whose use spanned several decades. Without belaboring the details, the reader may observe some of them in this gallery of photos posted in the Facebook group Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery.

Whether these sets were all manufactured by the Bolekhavsky Timber Plant, with the variations coming over time, cannot be said on the basis of the existing record. It remains possible, as Mykhailo Kovalenko asserts, that they were manufactured in other sites as well. Perhaps specimens with labels linking the pieces themselves to other factories will emerge.

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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