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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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Kontynuacja odcinka 4

At the beginning of July 1941 Stalin ordered to have militia troops formed (‚narodnone opolčenije’). They were created in a number of places in the European part of the Soviet Union. As regards Leningrad, Stalin actually just approved the initiative of the boss of Leningrad communist organization, Andrej Ždanov. However, it was not his original thought. Everything started as a spontaneous movement initiated by the German attack and feelings of anger, patriotism and compactness that Hitler’s aggression aroused in Leningrad citizens. Later on people would enroll in the militia either under the influence of propaganda or since they were forced to register. Militia members were qualified craftsmen, engineers, teachers or students, simply said city inhabitants educated in technical fields or liberal arts.  The first three divisions of Leningrad militia were formed by the mid-July 1941 and four guards divisions during four following weeks. Commanders called them guards divisions in order to disguise their insufficient training and shabby armament. Their members came from various Leningrad factories and also from the university and the Technical Institute. They gathered in provisional barracks where they were to undergo military training. However, there was hardly anyone to train them – one instructor per 500-600 militia members. Militia divisions did not lack only experienced officers and non-commissioned officers, they lacked everything. They did not even obtain enough weapons and ammunition. Every fourth member lacked a gun while many allocated guns originated from the Russian-Japanese war (from 1904-1905). Not even mentioning heavy weapons.

Most militia members had no idea what they could expect and what purpose they would be used for. Most of them were convinced that they would serve at various rearward and support units. Instead of that Soviet commanders sent them directly to the first line attempting to fill up gaps resulting from the destruction of ordinary divisions of the Red Army. The committment of militia at the battle front is considered another national tragedy by contemporary Russian historians. Men with poor armament and insufficient military training had not chance to succeed in the fight against Wehrmacht troops. Commanders sent militia against German armoured troops in senseless attacks in the style of living waves for the sake of having an excuse rather than due to a reasonable strategy. The only profit that the Soviet commandment gained from such massacres was a bit of time that Germans spent to liquidate the militia troops.

Viktor’s father was lucky at the beginning. He did die in a similar senseless counter-attack. After more than half of the committed divisions was destroyed, the commandment decided to dissolve them on 19th September 1941. The remaining men were transferred to regular Red Army units. Lev Merkurjevitch Korchnoi was a member of the Communist party and also a top specialist in cooling industry. Moreover, he was originally not conscripted into the Red Army due to his small figure. In spite of that he was enlisted in the militia infantry, so little respect the regime had for its human resources! He was summoned up in August 1941, too late to be ground up by the bloody mill in which seven militia divisions disappeared at the front line. Lev Mekurjevitch went through a few months of officer training and as a second lieutenant he was transferred to the 56th reserve shooting regiment.

According to his memoirs, Viktor last saw his father at the beginning of November 1941. His father, all swollen due to undernutrition (militia troops, like civilians, got even less food than the regular army) left the barracks to visit his home before leaving for the battle front. He died during one of the first battles at the coast of Lake Ladoga. From the beginning of September Germans held approximately 30 km of the coast along the southern bay of the lake from Schlisselburg towards Kobona. Militia troops attempted to support the Red Army in their desperate and long unsuccessful effort to push the Nazi away from this area. Later on it was discovered that the boat transporting Korchnoi’s troop on Lake Ladoga was hit by a German bomber. The boat went to the bottom and the crew disappeared. Red Army authorities cynically declared Lev Korchnoi missing. That was common. Those who wanted to die a heroic death in the Red Army had to leave a legend or a story behind and to have a witness. Everyone else was thrown in one bag with the missing, deserters, prisoners of war and defectors. Families of soldiers who disappeared in such a way did not get any financial support from the government. Their children were bullied by their mates. Viktor ended up in exactly the same situation. However, during the following months he went through even more cruel physical and mental suffering. The Siege of Leningrad was about to start.

Viktor encountered the war, which swept away his father as soon as it started, during the first days of July of the horrible year 1941. An army hospital was established in his 203rd municipal school and pupils, including Viktor, went there to help treat the injured or at least entertain them. Chess champions would also go there and play simultaneous games with injured soldiers. Ten-year-old Viktor was not good enough in chess yet to be able to play with adults. He simply recited poems to soldiers. Love of poetry was as strong in this young boy as his love of chess.

In the meantime the town was putting on military clothes. Viktor could watch the progress of preparations. Smolny Palace, the seat of the Leningrad communist party organization and the former centre of the Bolshevik revolution from November 1917 was all covered with camouflage nets. Gilded tips of Admirality were painted grey by mountain climbers. The Victorious column of Tsar Alexander I erected in the Palace Square to commemorate the triumph in Napoleonic wars was encircled with a wooden casing. Just an angel with a gilded cross stuck out. The famous Horse Tamers from the Anichkov Bridge were removed and buried in the garden of the Alexandrinka Theatre. Air raid shelters were built in public areas and parks. Soldiers tightened barrage balloons. “They floated under the blue sky like silver boats. One could not see their ropes and they seemed as if they loosely floated in the sky”. Even the symbol of the “Saint Peter’s town” – the sculpture of copper rider (Falceton’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great) was affected by the war. The sculpture was covered with soil and sand and this artificial barrow was topped with a special casing. Even in residential neighbourhoods people stuck paper tapes to windows so that glass would not pour out in case of an air raid. All of these were useful measures even though mortar firing and air raids by Luftwaffe started only in early September.

Viktor later recalled: “The first air raid took place on 8th September 1941. They put food warehouses, called Badajev warehouses, on fire. Lots of smoke was coming from there. It was obvious that Germans had informers in the city – the Soviet regime produced so many enemies that Germans knew everything and in the first place they bombed these warehouses. In general, Germans attempted to destroy all important buildings, in order to weaken the city defense. House no. 4 at the beginning of Litejny Prospect, a so called ‚Great House’, was the KGB building (at that time the headquarters and the main prison of the NKVD – note by Z.V.); Germans wanted to destroy it. However, the house was protected – there were anti-aircraft weapons on the roof and it was difficult to approach it. Bombs fell into its vicinity. Many houses were destroyed in the surroundings of our house (Litejny no. 16). One bomb of approximately two hundred kilograms landed on the pavement right in front of our house. The main load-bearing wall cracked. However, the bomb did not explode.” No wonder that Viktor’s grandma wanted to run away from the problematic neighbourhood of the strategically significant government building.

On the twenty first of August Viktor heard a speech by Andrei Zhdanov on the Leningrad radio. Zhdanov was the highest party representative in the town and a loyal servant of Stalin. He was trying to imitate his master by soldierly appearance – he would always wear a greenish-brown army blouse – and by unscrupulous brutality. “The enemy is trying to penetrate into Leningrad”, Zhdanov’s voice roared from the radio. “The enemy wants to destroy our households, take over factories and plants, to plunder the national heritage, flood streets and squares with blood of innocent victims, set peaceable citizens against each other, enslave free sons of our homeland”. A printed version of Zhdanov´s speech was displayed in Leningrad houses by Communist party members. One day before the speech was given on the radio, Wehrmacht destroyed a part of the main Moscow – Leningrad railway line by the town of Chudovo. Five days later Lyuban, situated 30 km north of Chudovo, surrendered. The main railway to Moscow became enemy’s spoils of war.

As soon as Germans reached suburbs of Leningrad and at the same time interrupted most traffic arteries connecting the city with the “Great Country”, the issue of transport of civil citizens to a safe place emerged. The Soviet general staff theoretically assumed that people from densely populated conglomerations would be evacuated should they end up in the line of war operations. As early as on 24th June 1941 a committee for evacuation of the Council of People´s Commissars of the USSR was established in Moscow. The committee was to organize evacuation from endangered territories. However, as typical of the Bolshevik regime people and their needs were not taken into consideration. Equipment was prioritized. It was followed by power representatives, i.e. party apparatus and NKVD units, then by technical staff and qualified workers. ‚Valueless’ groups of citizens were the last in the line. By the end of 1942 they managed to transfer to the East – mostly right behind the Ural or to Middle-Asian Soviet republics – approximately 12 million people. More than 65 million ordinary civilians were left behind in the war zone and occupied territories.

Transports were organized from Leningrad as well. All factories were dismantled and necessary specialists were sent along with them. The regime valued only those whom they could use for propaganda. Scholars and culture representatives could hardly ever use this way to save themselves. Most professors, musicians, writers and also chess players remained in the town if they did not join the army. Dmitri Shostakovich, the greatest Russian and maybe also world composer of the inter-war period, was enrolled in the firefighting brigade of the Leningrad conservatoire where he lectured. The famous photograph from the time of blockade showing Shostakovich wearing a firefighting mask while liquidating a fire which broke out after a German air raid was only made for the purpose of Stalinist propaganda. In fact, Shostakovich was transported by a special airplane to Kuibyshev where party and government authorities who were not vitally necessary in the endangered Moscow were relocated. During the first months of his Kuibyshev stay Shostakovich completed his famous 7th Symphony – ‚Leningrad Symphony’. However, Stalin´s propaganda claimed that the composer lived and worked in Moscow to persuade the public that the capital was safe to live in.

Zdeněk Vybíral


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