Around the middle of last year, in response to a post on The Soviet Grandmaster Title, ejh commented, 'Have you written anything about, or are you aware of any source that explains, precisely what constituted a first category or second category player? One sees these terms frequently but it's much harder finding out exactly what they mean!' Indeed it is, but I can finally answer the question. The March 2009 issue of Europe Echecs features a series of articles on Russian chess, including interviews with GMs Dorfman, Kramnik, and Vaisser, all of whom have settled down in France.
The introduction to the Dorfman interview explains, 'Like every beginner he started by passing the first selection : the five categories of the famous Soviet pyramid. It was the first hurdle to clear before contemplating a professional career.' Here's Dorfman discussing his youth:
There were two theory courses of two hours each week, and on Sunday we played separate tournaments according to our category. Everything was free. There were no opens. There were only closed tournaments, bringing together 10 to 12 players. We had to achieve the equivalent of a norm and repeat the performance at least once to pass to the next level. There were beginners, then 5th category, 4th, 3rd, etc. The level of 1st category was more or less equivalent to a current classification of 2000 Elo. After that one could become a Candidate Master, which corresponded to a current Elo of around 2200. As for the Master category, it was 2400, maybe more.
I'm not a professional translator. If I were, I would try to negotiate a deal to produce Europe Echecs in English. Every month's issue is a treat.