25 October 2016

'Alekhine in Soviet Land'

Of the different topics introduced in Albrecht Buschke's Chess Life history columns (see last week's post 'Alekhine's Early Chess Career' for an introduction), the longest series of columns was 'V. Alekhine in Soviet Land' (30 columns). The first of those columns is shown below, split into five parts to keep it compact.

Chess Life 1951-03-05
(Click image for larger version)

Buschke wrote his columns about 30+ years after the events they covered, which today would be equivalent to a chess historian writing about the first Kasparov - Karpov World Championship matches. The second half of the 20th century's second decade was a tumultuous period. Alekhine (born 31 October 1892) was 21 years old when the first World War (WWI, 1914-1918) broke out and 24 when the Russian revolution (1917) occurred. In normal times those would have been among his most productive chess years, but those were not normal times.

Now that more than 65 years have passed since Buschke's columns first appeared, how much of his material has passed into chess lore? I noted a number of topics in that first 'Soviet Land' column and performed the obvious web searches. Buschke wrote,

In Russia, there was only one chess magazine, the "Shakhmatnyi Vestnik", Moscow, in existence in 1914, then in its second year, and it stopped publication with the double number for October 1916, which was probably published considerably after this date, possibly even after the February revolution of 1917.

We mentioned already in a previous installment [CL 1950-07-05] that this last issue of "Shakhmatnyi Vestnik" contains the news item about Alekhine's hospitalization in Tarnopol, his unique chess activities from his bedside, and the blindfold game with Feldt, later also published by Alekhine in "My Best Games of Chess (1908-1923)" as game no.48 and properly dated as "played in a blindfold exhibition at the military hospital in Tarnopol, September 1916."

Alekhine himself had published this blindfold game before in his pamphlet "Das Schachleben in Sowjet-Russland", which appeared some time in 1921 as one of the numerous publications of the German chess book publisher Bernhard Kagan, but is neither reliable nor complete.

There is a wealth of reference material in those few paragraphs. First, from Di Felice's 'Chess Periodicals, 1836-2008':-

2414. Shakhmatnyp Vestnik [Moskva] (1913–1916) Vol.1, no.1 (Jan 1, 1913)–Vol.4, no.19/20 (Oct 1/15, 1916). Fortnightly. • Editor: S.P. Simson. • Editorial staff: O.S. Bernstein, L.B. Zalkind, K.I. Isakov, D.N. Pavlov, V.N. Platov, A.S. Seleznev. • Publisher: Alexey A. Alekhine; printed by Tip. Ryabushinsky. Moskva. Russia. 23 cm. Magazine. General. Russian.

We saw Alexey Alekhine last month in Alekhine's Brother (September 2016), who undoubtedly had non-public information about his famous younger brother. For the Tarnopol story, here is an excerpt from Andre Schulz of Chessbase, 'The Big Book of World Chess Championships; 46 Title Fights – from Steinitz to Carlsen':-

Alekhine joined the Red Cross, took part in the war as a Red Cross helper and was wounded in 1916, receiving severe contusions to his back. He spent several months confined to his bed in a convent hospital in Tarnopol.

That excerpt, plus several paragraphs surrounding it, can be found in John Watson Book Review #115: Kings of Chess (theweekinchess.com). For the Feldt game and related stories, see Alexander Alekhine vs M von Feldt; Tarnopol 1916 (chessgames.com).

As for 'Das Schachleben in Sowjet-Russland' ('Chess Life in Soviet Russia'), here's an excerpt from 'Timman's Titans: My World Chess Champions' by Jan Timman:-

Right after the Revolution, [Alekhine] had been in danger in Russia as he was of noble birth. There is a classic story. A sentence of death had been pronounced on him, which had to be signed by five judges. One of the judges refused to sign, out of respect for Alekhine's successes on the chessboard. This meant he was saved for the time being. Not much later, he decided to leave his motherland, and his roving life began.

With the Berlin chess publisher Bernhard Kagan, Alekhine published a thin book called Das Schachleben In Sowjet-Russland. Grandmaster/journalist Savielly Tartakower wrote a brief introductory word, which starts as follows: 'As the wild animals in the Arion sage [saga?], so the Bolshevik rulers also tolerated the magic of chess.' These were sardonic words as an introduction to Alekhine's negative discourse on Soviet chess.

The first sentence of the book reads: 'Chess life in Petrograd and Moscow, which already left a lot to be desired at the beginning of the war, experienced its definitive downfall after he October Revolution.'

As with so much in chess history, one thing leads to another. Two other versions of the 'death sentence' story are in the Andre Schulz book mentioned earlier. The allusion to 'wild animals in the Arion [saga]' is explained in another Chessbase article, this time in German: Der Zauber des Arion, which Google Translate gives as 'The Magic of Arion'. I could also go on about Alekhine's books of his 'Best Games' or Buschke's further reference to 'Russian chess historian M.S.Kogan' and his book of 'sketches'. But I have to stop somewhere and that point is now.

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