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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To follow up on our recent article on Artel Drevprom’s “Baku” set, here are images of Baku sets that have been posted in the Facebook Group Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery by its members, together with a few photos of the set appearing in the historical record.
Collectors of Soviet chess sets are familiar with the pieces that have come to have been known as “Baku” chessmen so-named by Western collectors because the photographic record establishes that they were used in the 1961 Soviet Championship held in Baku, Azerbaijan SSR. The name raised eyebrows among collectors in the former SSRs, who typically refer to otherwise unnamed sets by where they were produced, because they understood the pieces to have been manufactured in the Leningrad region.
The design is well-liked among collectors. Noted American collector Mike Ladzinski names it his favorite Soviet design: “These pieces exude a wonderful board presence. I love the unique Bishops, those whimsical Knights, the wide base Pawns with big ball heads, and the stocky Rooks along with the wonderful Kings and Queens with BFII elements.” The kings range in size around 110 mm and appear in a variety of finishes. Here is a set from Ron Harrison’s collection with blond White pieces like those shown in the Tal photo above.
A red-orange specimen resides in my collection. It came with a board stamped Red Combine bearing a hand-written gift inscription “In memory of Yuri, from relatives,” and “1951” inside the box. While I don’t think that Red Combine manufactured the pieces, I do think the board is contemporaneous to the pieces, and is evidence of their dating.
Here are two other specimens from my collection.
The pieces exude modernist design influences, combining them with a twist of Ancient Rus. The base and stems have been simplified into a single conical structure, which after a tapering ascent flairs out to form pedestals upon which the piece signifiers rest. The royals’ piece signifiers are attached to the pedestals by a double collar connector, reminiscent of basic Staunton design. The sweeping, curved tower walls of the rooks rhyme with the base and stem structures of the royals, clerics, and pawns. The knights are simply carved and tubular, bearing a striking resemblance to an early 15th century horse unearthed in an archaeological dig of ancient Novgorod, which I like to describe as “Novgorod Knight.”
Inasmuch as the dig occurred after the Baku first appeared, I cannot claim that they were directly copied. The connection may exist in the recesses of the collective unconscious of Russian art, a topic for another day.
The three sets that I have reweighted all came with cavities stuffed with a combination of glue and sawdust that reeked when drilled.
While variations in piece heights, base widths and structure, finishes, and snout sizes are observable, I don’t find them significant or systematic enough to merit any sub-genuses of the design, with one exception. Some sets contain faceted knight bereft of the simple mane carvings found on the tubular knights. Here is an example.
While it seems clear that the faceted knights are a simplification of the main design inasmuch as they are easier and quicker to make, I don’t find that there is direct evidence at this time sufficient to say whether the faceted design or the tubular one came first. But I do find some compelling circumstantial morphological evidence probative of the issue. Consider this set, commonly known to collectors as the BFII Penguin Knight set owing to the shape of the knight. It appears in the photographic record right about 1940.
The unitary conical base-stem-pedestal configuration of the Penguin Knight set is virtually identical to that of the Baku sets. The knight shares the same Novgorodian form. Even the facial carvings appear similar. The royals’ piece signifiers are very close in shape to those of the Bakus. The Penguin Knight’s bishop has an altogether miter, and is attached by a double-collar connector that has disappeared in the Bakus even as it remained in the Baku royals. The Penguin Knight’s rook is a typical, straight-walled BFII rook characteristic of BFII sets from the 1930s and later, whereas the Baku rook’s walls are curved to repeat the general shapes of the royals, clerics, and pawns. I infer from this that the Baku design derived from the Penguin Knight BFII some time after 1940. Further research may shed some light on this morphological relationship.
Already St. Petersburg collector and researcher Sergey Kovalenko has tied the Baku design to the early- to mid- 1950s. Here are two photos Sergey dissects.
New label. “White Baku” chessmen with the “native” board. By “native” I mean same period board. Both artels (“Древпром” and “Лужский мебельщик”) from Leningrad region. According to accounting documents located in the archives of the Leningrad region, the “Drevprom” artel produced two types of chess and many other wood products, with the exception of chess boards. The “Luzhskiy Mebel’shik” artel produced a lot of wooden furniture, as well as chess boards, but did not produce chess. It is worth noting that the situation could change over time. The documents viewed in the archive relate to the period 1953-1956.
Sergey’s research is supported by the emergence of at least one Baku specimen in an original cardboard box from Artel Drevprom. Graphic images of the Baku pieces appear on the box’s cover.
Artel Drevprom’s Baku set is a much-loved design with ties to Old Rus, the renaissance of chess set design in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, and the dominant chess played at the highest levels of Soviet competition.
Another example of a Vsekokhudozhnik Upright recently sold on EBay.UK, collector Vikhram Ravi reports. The specimen was of the rarer 3.75” king variety, and was complete with its original box, Artel stamps, and a retail label. Here are the photos posted by the seller, bovkey109.
The Vsekokhudozhnik stamp, Chess No. 4, likely denoting the size of the set. The significance of this artel is discussed here.
According to St. Petersburg collector and researcher Sergey Kovalenko, the colorful label affixed to the inside of the box is from Дом ленинградской кооперации” (The House of Leningrad Cooperation), the largest department store in Leningrad from 1927 to 1935.
The pieces and finials are nicely turned and shaped. The finish is worn.
Off-center and missing finials are not uncommon in vintage Soviet sets.
The woven “felts” appear to be in very good condition.
Many thanks to Vik and Sergey for their contributions to our growing understanding of Soviet chess sets.
I recently posted photos of the 1935 Second Moscow International Tournament that were graciously provided by our friend Sergey Dubodel of Belarus. Sergey also provided some photos of the 1936 Third Moscow International Tournament, which I present here paired with historian Michael Hudson‘s account of the 1936 event and other relevant photos and images.
Like the 1935 Moscow International, the 1936 tournament used BFII chess pieces. Unlike the 1935 event, which was a single round robin, the 1936 affair was a double round robin. It was held in the Hall of Columns, the ballroom of Moscow’s House of Unions, and the site of Bukharin’s show trial in 1938.
“A few months after the Moscow 1935 event ended, Botvinnik (who had received a cash prize, an automobile, and a doubling of his post-graduate stipend for his efforts) began to petition Krylenko for another tournament. Botvinnik argued that Moscow 1935 was flawed by the inclusion of too many relatively weak players, which introduced an element of chance and made it difficult to judge the strength of the leading Soviet players. He proposed a smaller ‘match-tournament’ with five strong foreigners and the five strongest Soviet players. Krylenko was initially only lukewarm to the proposal. Selecting the five Soviet players would be difficult and divisive given his embarrassment of riches. More to the point, there was also the expense. Tournaments with Westerner participation required hard currency, which was always in short supply. But eventually Krylenko relented–swayed, perhaps, by an offer from the Central Committee of the Komsomol (the Party youth organization), where Botvinnik had powerful friends, to help with the funding. Significant Komsomol involvement in the Soviet chess organization, which dates from the middle 1930s, would eventually loosen the tight hold the Chess Section had on all aspects of Soviet chess.”
“The Third Moscow International Chess Tournament was held in the summer of 1936. The foreign contingent consisted of Lasker, Capablanca, Flohr, Lilienthal and the Austrian master, Erich Gottlieb Eliskases (1913-1997).”
“The younger Soviets were well represented by Botvinnik, Ragozin, Ryumin and Il’ia Abramovich Kan (1909-1978). Levenfish, alone, represented the old guard.”
“The tournament quickly became a contest between Botvinnik and a resurgent Capablanca. Botvinnik claimed to have suffered from the heat and insomnia during the tournament; Capablanca, on the other hand, was inspired by love. He had just met the woman who would become his second wife, and he promised her he would regain the world title. Botvinnik lost to Capablanca in one of their games, and this turned out to be the margin of victory for Capablanca.”
“Botvinnik finished one point behind Capablanca, while Flohr finished a distant third. The rest of the Soviet contingent, however, fared rather badly. Krylenko was only grudgingly satisfied with Botvinnik’s play, and he was not at all pleased with his other protégés. In his foreword to the tournament book, he took the Soviet players to task, insisting that the most immediate lesson of Moscow 1936 was that Soviet players needed to drop their conceit, study their games, and learn from their numerous mistakes.”
“A curious anecdote about Moscow 1936 was related years later by Capablanca’s widow, the woman whose love was said to have inspired Capablanca’s victory:
It is little known, I believe, that Stalin came to see Capablanca play, hiding behind a drapery. This happened in Moscow in 1936. Capa had mentioned it to me en passant, so I am a bit hazy about the details, such as who had accompanied Stalin–seems to me it was Krylenko. However, the gist of this encounter remains quite clear in my mind. Capa said to Stalin: “Your Soviet players are cheating, losing the games on purpose to my rival, Botvinnik, in order to increase his points on the score.” According to Capa, Stalin took it good-naturedly. He smiled and promised to take care of the situation. He did. From then on the cheating . . . stopped and Capablanca . . . won the tournament all by himself.
“Capablanca’s charges of collusion were not ungrounded. Botvinnik’s friend, the Leningrad master Ragozin, participated in both Moscow 1935 and 1936.”
“Although his overall results were mediocre, Ragozin later (in 1946) revealed in his Party biography that he had received a special, secret prize in each tournament for the best score against foreign participants. No such prize was mentioned in the official tournament books.”
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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.).
Our friend Sergey Dubodel, from Belarus, recently forwarded photos of the 1935 and 1936 Moscow International Tournaments. Both tournaments were held in furtherance of the Soviets’ program of Political Chess. In this context, the tournaments were intended to provide forums where top Soviet players could compete against leading Western players, both to gauge the progress of Soviet player development, and with good results, to demonstrate the superiority of socialism in an important arena of cultural competition. In this post, we’ll look at photos from the 1935 event.
Leading the 1935 Soviet contingent was Mikhail Botvinnik, whom Soviet chess tsar Nikolay Krylenko and others saw as the Soviets’ best hope to become world champion. Among the Western players were former world champions Emmanuel Lasker and Jose Raul Capablanca, and Salo Flohr, then viewed as a leading contender for the world crown. Flohr and Botvinnik drew their game and shared first place.
The tournament is significant for collectors of Soviet chess sets for three reasons. First, it is an important manifestation of Political Chess, the engine driving the train for the growing production of Soviet chess sets and the evolution of their design towards simpler, more easily mass-produced pieces. We have explored these relationships here. Second, it showcased the pieces used, a design that became a workhorse for Soviet chess at its highest levels through decades in its evolving forms, as we have reviewed here. Finally, it is the event whose joint winners’ names have come to describe the pieces used for reasons we have discussed here , here, and here.
St. Petersburg collector and researcher Sergey Kovalenko has reviewed his archives and found a second well-known set likely manufactured by Vsekokhudozhnik. The set had been sold some time ago by an Etsy and eBay dealer known as Antikvar to a buyer unknown at this writing. Sergey kept photos from the set’s listing for his archives. He has generously shared them with us.
The label appears identical to that found in Mykhailo Kovalenko’s specimen discussed here. The top line recites the name of the artel; the middle line appears to give its address. The bottom line describes the contents: Chess (set or pieces) No. 4, presumably indicating their suitability for play on a board with 40 mm squares.
The pieces are easily recognizable and fairly common today, and generally are considered to come from the late 1930s or pre-war 1940s. Arlindo Vieira described them in 2012 as “Soviet Championship” pieces of the 1950s and 1960s, but we now know that the championship sets sharing many of this set’s design elements were from the BFII family. Russian collectors refer to the design as the “Leningrad Schoolboy” set as it is found in photographs of Leningrad schoolboys playing with them. Here is one such photo from the St. Petersburg Archives provided by Sergey.
As Moscow collector Alexander Chelnokov informs us, many of the known specimens of the “Leningrad Schoolboy” design were sold from Leningrad. Others have been sold from Ukraine. Sergey tells us that the photographic record shows them being played with in locations other than Leningrad.
Whether all of the “Leningrad Schoolboy” sets were made by Artel Vsekokhudozhnik in Moscow and sold elsewhere I cannot say. One respected dealer from Kiev suggested to me that this design was manufactured in multiple locations. Inasmuch as there is no hard evidence that any entity other than Vsekokhudozhnik produced them, and that I know of only three surviving Vsekokhudozhnik boxes, I am hard-pressed to dismiss the Antikvar specimen as a case of a box mismatched with a set of pieces. I cannot dismiss the possibility that the sets were made in Moscow and transported to Leningrad and elsewhere for sale and use. At the same time, I find the suggestion of multiple points of production to be plausible. As with so many other issues involving Soviet chess sets, more research and evidence are needed.
Here are photos from a specimen in my collection, which I obtained without an original box from Ukraine.
My specimen has 87.5 mm kings. The pieces are unweighted, and have cloth bottoms.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
The 1920s saw the world mesmerized by the discovery of the tomb of the young Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun (c. 1341 – c. 1323 B.C.). Collector Eduardo Bauza suggests that this fascination perhaps led the Soviets to name this exotic chess set “Egyptian,” an act notable because they seldom named sets. Here is a beautiful specimen of a presumably later version of the set presented by collector and dealer Valerii Krasnykov.
The “white” army is sometimes finished with a red-brown varnish. These are presumably the earlier versions of the set.
At least one specimen of this interesting design has survived with its original cardboard box, providing us valuable information as to who made these sets.
The label tells us the design’s name, Egyptian, and the set’s manufacturer, Khalturin Kirov region industrial artel “MYUD.” Unlike many artels, which remain shrouded in mystery, MYUD’s history has been documented. MYUD was formed in Khalturin in the 1930s, and its name is an acronym for International Youth Day. Among its first products were caskets, cigarette cases, and wooden pipes made of wood and burls. By 1939 it was producing chess pieces. Around 1960, when the last artels were being sunset, MYUD merged with the artel Sila, founded in 1925. The merged entity was reorganized as a state factory under the name Khalturinskaya Factory of Cultural Goods.
The design bucks the Soviet trend towards simplification. All the bases are topped with pronounced pedestals from which the the stems of the royals, clerics, and pawns rest, as do the knights’ torsos and the rooks’ towers. The stems rise vertically, themselves topped with pedestals upon which the piece signifiers sit, attached by a connector defined by two collars, the bottom one slightly smaller in diameter than the pedestal but noticeably larger than the top collar. The proliferation of pedestals and collars hearkens back to various pre-Staunton designs. The kings are 9.5-9.7 cm. tall. The pieces are unweighted and appear to be made of linden wood, commonly known as basswood in North America.
The knights are large, as tall as the bishops, and quite wide. They incorporate the CV spine/chest shape typical of Soviet knights. The ears alertly perk forward. The angle of the ears essentially follows the curve of the back as they extend upward.
In at least some reddish-brown, presumably earlier versions, the ears distinctly angle up from the spine’s curve. Here are specimens from Vikham Ravi’s collection.
The Artel MYUD Egyptian set may have bucked the Soviet trend of simplification, but it illustrated well the richness and diversity of Soviet chess design of the 1930s and 1940s.