Why Soviet Sets?

Mid-1930s Botvinnik-Flohr II pieces. For photos of other Soviet and Tsarist sets, visit our Gallery.

I often am asked why I am interested in Soviet chess sets. It’s many things. I was born in the wake of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union was an indispensable ally of my homeland in the war against Nazi Germany, and at the outset of the Cold War, when it soon became a hated enemy. As a school child, I lived through duck and cover drills and the very real dread of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet as I learned the game of chess, I became fascinated by the unparalleled achievements of Soviet chess, and by the Soviet men and women who played it. I grew up in awe of their historic dominance, and the challenge Bobby Fischer mounted to it. As I later became familiar with the pieces with which they played this magnificent chess, I became impressed by the wonderful and varied artistic license they took with the basic Staunton form. I grew to respect and appreciate the apparatchiks and artisans and denizens of the labor camps who designed and made these wonderful sets. So many great players played such magnificent chess with them; and so many ordinary people did as well in the interstices of the Revolution, the Civil War, the NEP, the Five Year Plans, the Famines and Purges, the Great Patriotic War, the Iron Curtain, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, the rise and fall of Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, and Roosevelt, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the demise of the Soviet Union. I grew curious as to how these game pieces played into the Soviet program of political chess, and became instruments of state policy, the spread of cultural literacy, and ideological hegemony. I find Soviet chess sets significant and fascinating at every level.

Since I began collecting Soviet chess sets in 2014, there has been explosion of interest Soviet chess collecting. One reason for it is the popularity of the Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit telling the story of prodigy Beth Harmon’s rise from orphan to world championship contender in Moscow.

A second is the work of Arlindo Vieira, whose 2012 YouTube Soviet and Russian Chess Sets and accompanying blog Xadrez Memoria sparked interest among a group of dedicated collectors who since have promoted Soviet chess collecting on social media on Chess.com’s Chess Books and Equipment Forum and the Facebook group Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery, which I founded in April, 2020 and as of this writing has nearly 2,500 members worldwide.

1980s Minsk Olympic Pieces. Read more about them in our Gallery.

The question I hear most often about Soviet chess sets is, “Where can I learn more about them?” I have created Shakhmatnyye Kollektsionery, my blog on Chess.com, and this site to help answer that question.

In our inaugural article, we examine Vieira’s legacy, which provided a baseline of knowledge and an agenda for collecting. Despite Vieira’s pathbreaking work, there has been a paucity of information about the chess pieces used by the most successful chess program in history. What are the different types of Soviet chessmen? What are their names? Who played with them, when, and where? What are the elements of Soviet chess piece design? What historical factors, social forces, and artistic theories influenced their design? What changes took place in them over time? Where were they produced and by whom?

c. 1900 Karelian Birch pieces, like those used at the famous 1909 and 1914 St. Petersburg Tournaments.

We’ve also compiled a Gallery of important sets that provides information about them and provides a key to set identification. Many of the sets will be the subjects of future articles, where we’ll examine them in greater depth.

My goal is to pull together what has been learned about Soviet chess sets, to promote interest in their collection, to identify what we still don’t know about them, and to push the boundaries of our knowledge by continuing to explore them. Thank you for joining us in this journey!

Original Tal pieces, like those shown on “The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal.”

Thanks, too, to all my friends and comrades at Shakmatnyye Kollektsionery, who have added so much to our understanding and enjoyment of Soviet chess sets, and whose wonderful contributions daily bring me joy. A very special thanks to my friend, Berlin artist and collector Porat Jacobson, who has taught me much, who challenges my thinking, and who helped me, an aspiring Luddite, compose, format, and post this website.

Gens una sumus.

Chuck Grau

January 1, 2022