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Storming Fortresses: A Political History Of Chess In The Soviet Union, 1917-1948


From the end of the Second World War through the demise of USSR, Soviet chess players dominated world chess. Not only did they control the world champion title after 1948 (except for the Fischer interlude), they also monopolized all other areas of international chess competition. When the Soviets captured the world title in 1948, this was the culmination of a long, carefully cultivated program to foster a chess community in the Soviet Union. The rationale for this initiative, which engaged the attention of the highest levels of the Soviet state, had deep ideological roots.

This dissertation explores the social/political history of chess in the Soviet Union, particularly its utility to Party and State. The story of Soviet chess begins in the Civil War, when chess was enlisted as a training tool for military recruits. After the Bolshevik victory, a very similar rationale was used to promote chess as an instrument for training Party cadre in the burgeoning Communist Party. The same attributes desired in soldiers were also desired in Party activists, and chess was seen as a tool for nurturing these attributes.

In the early 1920s, the state-sponsored chess program was greatly enlarged, and at the same time its ideological rationale shifted. Faced with the reality of building socialism in a backward country, the Party believed that chess could be of great utility in raising the cultural level of the laboring masses. A culturally developed proletariat was one of several prerequisites for socialism that the Soviet Union lacked. Chess became closely tied to the State labor organizations, although officially attached to the government's sport and physical education bureaucracy. Whether chess refashioned Soviet society is debatable, but official encouragement refashioned chess, which became a significant cultural component in the lives of Soviet citizens. Chess achieved a stature in Soviet society that was entirely without precedent.

One outcome of the popularity and status of chess was, by the mid-1930s, the cultivation of a generation of world caliber players. Soviet ability to stand toe-to-toe with the world's best exemplified by the Stalinist slogan, "catch up and overtake." Soviet chess now reinvented itself as a propaganda device for touting the superiority of Soviet culture. The world championship was conquered in 1948, and Soviet domination of world chess was a very important weapon in the cultural front of the Cold War.

Although this concept of three stages-martial emphasis, chess for the workers, and Cold War chess-is a convenient way to divide up the formative period of Soviet chess, the shifting emphases do not supplant their predecessors. Chess continued to be an important part of military culture, while the wide dissemination of chess in Soviet society remained a priority of the Soviet chess organization, even as the top Soviet players dominated international chess. All of these aspects of Soviet chess have outlived the Soviet state, and chess can be seen both as a positive achievement by the Soviet state and as a positive legacy of Soviet rule.

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