As a boy Ukrainian thriller writer Andrey Kurkov reflects on how Russian chess players before and after the Revolution lived and died at their boards. From the Tsar to the Black Sea sanatoriums to the players of Abhasia.
"I was born as the era of Soviet Chess was drawing to a close. In our family album there are photos of me at five years old playing chess with my father and my Mother's brother, uncle Boris, who was a police detective. For most citizens the Soviet Union was not a great nuclear power, but a great chess nation, where the names of the Soviet chess masters were uttered in the same tone of awe and respect as that of Yuri Gagarin. Of course the "deviant" champions, the ones who fled to the west, were erased from the encyclopedias and press reports. I did not know those names, but for some reason I was convinced that chess was to be played before bed, and changing into your pyjamas was an essential part of the preparations. My pyjamas were stripy, like prison clothes, but I only realized that years later, when going through the family albums."
Andrey Kurkov is the author of Death and the Penguin and more recently The Good Angel of Death. He has a surreal, slightly morbid sense of humour that is reflected in his novels and this short essay on Chess in Russia.