Kontynuacja odcinka 5

The winner of the last pre-war chess championship in the Soviet Union (it was the so called absolute championship of the USSR played in spring 1941), international chess champion Michail Mojseyevich Botvinnink (1911-1995), was also among the privileged individuals who were evacuated. At tournaments in pre-war Europe Botvinik succeeded in battles with the best foreign masters. He ranked among five or six best players in the world scale; after the war (in 1948 at a match tournament played partly in Haague and partly in Moscow) he even won the World Champion title. The Stalinist regime boasted Botvinnik´s sport results and used them as evidence that the Soviet Union equaled the ‚bourgeois’ West also on the intellectual level. Therefore, Botvinnik was supported by the state like no other Soviet chess player of that time.

The story of his participation at the AVRO international tournament in Holland in November 1938 specifically documents the influence of the protection provided by the Soviet regime to Botvinik is the one about. It was the most prestigious competition of that time where all aspirants to the chess throne were to compete with the period holder of the title, Russian emigrant Alexander Alechin. Organizers invited the Soviet grandmaster Grigory Levenfish who had won the USSR championship the year before.  Levenfish, born in 1889, was formed by the culture of pre-revolutionary Russia – both as a person and as a chess master. He did not understand the new post-revolutionary order and unlike true Communist Botvinnik he probably despised it in the depth of his mind. Botvinik did not participate in that Soviet championship, so he at least attempted to steal the champion title from Levenfish. Their mutual match ended in a draw which sufficed Levenfish to retain his title of the USSR champion. However, journeys of soviets citizens to (capitalist) foreign countries had to be approved by the Communist party. Botvinnik contacted the right people and left for Holland while poor Levenfish remained at home.

After the beginning of the war Botvinnik was not recruited because of poor eyesight. Fortunately for chess, his application for the Militia was not taken seriously by authorities. Botvinnik was more valuable for the Soviet Union as a chess virtuoso than as a killed defender of the country. In the mid-August 1941 he left Leningrad for Perm in the Ural along with the ensemble of the Kirov Theatre where his wife Gajané, a talented ballet dancer of Armenian origin, worked. After Botvinik spent a year and a half working hard in Ural-Energo – an electrical distribution company (beside chess he also studied electrical engineering for many years), Molotov arranged for him a permit from Stalin to spend two days a week exclusively on chess.

Not all grown-up Leningrad citizens were as lucky as Botvinik. Some, for example grandmaster and participant of many USSR championships Alexander Tolus, or Vladimir Zak, who later became very famous as a children’s coach, ended up at the battle front. Like Korchnoi’s father, Zak first enrolled in the Militia. He miraculously survived the bloody hell in which People´s Militia divisions disappeared. He spent the rest of the war as a common Red Army soldier.

Most civilians got stuck in the besieged town. This also happened to the real heart of the Leningrad chess life of the Stalinist era, Abram Yakovlevich Model (1895-1976). A tireless organizer and master player was a member of the municipal sports committee and was in charge of chess. By coincidence he was the first Botvinnik’s coach and helped him in the match with Czechoslovak grandmaster Salo Flohr in 1933. Four years earlier Model had become famous in the chess life of Leningrad by a sensational match of a mysterious master X. The match was organized by the popular youth newspaper ‚Smena’. Ten strong Leningrad chess players, including the famous master, then champion of the town, Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky, future grandmaster Vjaceslav Ragozin and Botvinnik himself participated in a match against an anonymous challenger. Players analyzed their games at home and telephoned their moves to Master X to the editorial office of the newspaper. X, who played with white chess pieces in all games, had a whole following day to answer. Master X achieved an unexpectedly high score 8 ½ : 1 ½. After some time Model published an article in ‚Smena’ where he attempted to deduct out who the mysterious master was. He concluded that the man hidden under the Master X mask was Model himself!

Beside sense of humour and chess practical jokes Model showed also great organizational talent. He was the head of the central Leningrad chess club for many years and organized municipal championships (in which he successfully participated).

In autumn 1943 when the worst clench of the siege was released and the war terror did not suffocate the town so much, Model came up with an excellent idea. He managed to establish a chess department in the municipal Pioneer Palace. Children´s chess tournaments had been held in the Pioneer Palace before. One such tournament was played in the palace gardens on the very first day of the war against Hitler. The Pioneer Palace had its seat in the beautiful Anickov Palace since February 1937. The construction of the impressive structure on the bank of the Fontanka River, near the Anickov Bridge was commissioned by tsarina Elizabeth I for her lover, count Alexey Razumovski. The palace was designed by the best architects employed by the tsarist family – Bartolomeo Rastrelli – the creator of Russian baroque, and Mikhail Grigorievich Zemtsov, who started his career under the rule of Peter I.  The impressive front of the building with a rather monotonous colonnade faces the Nevsky Prospect. During the first year of war the palace was used as an army hospital and a surgery ward. Afterwards it was returned to pioneers again. Here, in the large palace rooms Viktor Korchnoi, Boris Spassky, who subsequently became the world champion, and many other chess masters and grand masters launched their career.

Model was the headmaster of school no. 57 in Smolněnsky Leningrad district (close to Smolny Palace, the period headquarters of the Communist party in the city). As a person who was sincerely concerned with children’s interests he was very active in organizing evacuation transports. He managed to win the favour of the powerful boss of the Leningrad executive committee (a special council which administered the city during the war) and chairman of the municipal committee, Petr Sergeyevich Popkov. The Communist party boss Popkov signed evacuation travel orders including vitally important food vouchers as per Model’s proposals. Abram Yakovlevich managed to export almost 15 000 little Leningrad citizens from the besieged town. Little Viktor Korchnoi almost joined them as well upon his father’s recommendation. Lev Merkurjevich presciently assumed that due to the closeness of Finland and the Baltics, the city would be exposed to war events, therefore, it was necessary to get children to a safe place. Viktor set off for the journey along with other pupils from his school, but…

 “However, the mother soon learned that children encountered serious problems during evacuation: trains were helplessly overfilled, many schools got stuck in the Leningrad region, some were exposed to air raids. The mother set off to look for me. About three hundred kilometres from the town, on the southern side of Lake Ilmen she found our camp, took me and I had to return to Leningrad with her.”

Was this a result of exorbiant fear of a hysterical mother? Not at all! Even though Zelda Gershevna was an unbalanced and impulsive person, this time her motherly intuition was right. The Leningrad soviet prepared a plan to evacuated almost 400 000 children from the town. The main features of the evacuation plan were chaos and incompetence of the bodies in charge. Moreover, children were supposed to leave without their mothers. Especially as regards small children this measure was generally refused, parents simply refused to obey this merciless order. The first group of evacuated children was sent away by the end of June 1941. However, the destinations where they were to be transported were situated right on the line where the German army operated. In response to information about successful progress of the Wehrmacht crowds of desperate mothers besieged the local soviets and required their offspring back. Parents who managed to get their children back home narrated about problems which they encountered during their rescue operations. They usually had to walk since trains were regularly bombed. Occasionally they managed to get a ride on a truck or a horse carriage.

In August 1941 the second round of evacuation for children up to 14 years of age took place. This time mothers were allowed to accompany them. Many of them refused anyway. Beside fear of unknown places, there were also more specific concerns.  Jelena Alexandrovna Skrjabinova recorded in her memoirs: “…typhus, cholera and other abdominal disease epidemics raged along railway lines. All this and, moreover, the fact that evacuation trains were bombed. The family of the director of the company where my husband worked had left and soon afterwards we got a message that their fourteen year old son died of typhus.” Viktor was leaving with his school, without parents. Many such transports were leaving Leningrad. Some were, as a result of lacking information or underestimation of the situation, directed straight to the area of German attacks. Enemy air force dropped bombs on roads, railway and telegraph lines. A tragedy happened in Lyckov a small town south of Lake Ilmen, i.e. in an area where Viktor and his classmates stayed as well.

The train station was attacked by German Stuka bombers right at the moment when a convoy with children from Leningrad kindergartens gathered there. “They subsequently claimed that they did not notice them,” remembered a teacher. “What a filth! It was a beautiful day and children were wearing their best and most colorful clothes. He must have known very well what he was hitting.” Only ruins of carriages remained of the train as if somebody crashed them with a ‚huge fist’. Adults accompanying the convoys simply ran away in the chaos that developed. “The station was burning. We could not find anyone at all, it was absolutely horrible!” one mother recalled the journey from Leningrad. “The head of the evacuation train sat on a tree stump, his head buried in his hands. He lost his own family and had no idea where who was.” The children who survived wandered around damaged trains and vainly searched for their relatives. No wonder that many parents set off on rescue missions and searched railway stations hundreds of kilometres to the south and east of Leningrad to save their offspring. In consequence of dreadful conditions evacuation journeys frequently turned into journeys to another type of hell.

Zdeněk Vybíral


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