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Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Father of Soviet Chess

     ...it's probably not who you think. It was Alexander Fyodorovich Ilyin-Genevsky (November 28, 1894 – September 3, 1941). Actually his name was just Ilyan, but the Genevsky was added when he joined a Bolshevik group of Russian's while in exile. 
     Ilyin-Genevsky was an Old-Guard Bolshevik, a military organizer, historian and diplomat. He was the younger brother of Red Navy leader Fedor Raskolnikov
     Back in 1914 an All-Russia Chess Union had been formed and was based in St. Petersburg, but Soviet authorities were suspicious of independent societies and the Union failed to establish itself. The result was independent chess clubs were replaced by a national organization that was controlled by the Kremlin. The Russian Revolution and the purges that followed it all but destroyed the middle classes and it was realized that private patrons could no longer subsidize chess, only the government could do that. 
     Enter Ilyin-Zhenevsky. He had been expelled from school in 1911 along with other members of an underground Bolshevik cell and went into voluntary exile in Switzerland. At the same time his brother Fedor adopted the name Raskolnikov and went on to become one of the heroes of the October Revolution. 
     Ilyin-Zhenevsky, at age 16, was good enough that in 1910 he played in the St. Petersburg championship and while in exile he was the Geneva champion in 1914 and that's where the Genevsky came from...he added the city of Geneva to his name. When the war broke out he returned to Russia and, despite his politics, joined the tsarist army. He was wounded and returned to St. Petersburg, by then renamed Petrograd. He suffered shell shock and lost his memory. As a result he had to relearn everything, even how to play chess. 
    The Bolshevik Revolution saw him being appointed to a key position as administrator of Petrograd's military district, no doubt thanks to his brother, a naval officer, who had taken over a military base and was leader of a group that carried out the Bolshevik coup. Ilyin-Zhenevsky was in his early 20's and was then in a position of power and influence in a situation where the only thing that counted was force. 
     The war destroyed all the famous old chess clubs and the Red Guards had vandalized everything. Including the chess clubs. Alekhine said they were prevented from burning all the chess books in the club libraries only by a second hand book dealer named Julius Sossnitsky. It was he who during the St. Petersburg tournament of 1909 was responsible for helping foreign players obtain lodging. 
     Ilyin-Ghenevsky visited Moscow in 1918 only to find most of the great players of the city dead or dispersed.   He did manage to play a match by candle light with a leading master, Nikolai Grigorev in the basement of an apartment of a Jewish chess fan named G.D. Berman and when they ran out of candles, they used matches. When it was one player’s turn to think, Ilyin-Ghenevsky wrote, “the other lit a match and held it until his fingers began to burn.” In one game when Grigoriev announced check, thinking that he would soon mate, Ilyin-Zhenevsky replied, “Excuse me, but you are in check yourself.” The game ended in a draw. 
     Ilyin-Ghenevsky determined to restore chess as a worthy activity and in 1920 he was recruited by by one of his brother's former men who was head of an organization known as Vsevobuch which was involved primarily in military training, but also was in charge of sports and other leisure activities. This put Ilyin-Ghenevsky in a position to support chess. He proposed an All-Russian Chess Olympiad started a chess column in the organization's newspaper and opened the first state run chess club at the organization's military sports club.
     The civil war was still be fought in some regions and so many masters were unable to attend, but there was still a good turnout.   Alekhine won the tournament. It's curious that prizes were goods confiscated from local pawnshops. Paper was scarce so no official record of this event was ever published. 
     Ilyin-Ghenevsky was soon transferred to Latvian and later back to Petrograd, but in 1924 where he eventually was informed that the leaders in Moscow wanted chess to be “an instrument of intellectual culture.” One of those fellows was Nikolai Krylenko.  He was arrested in 1937 and purged in 1938. For more on Krylenko a must read is Kevin Spraggett's article on his Blog.
    Ilyin-Zhenevsky promoted chess as an educational vehicle for developing tactical and strategical comprehension during military training, and, within the Soviet Union, he was the main person responsible for the spreading of the idea of chess as a way to teach the basics of scientific and rational thought. The first Soviet Championship in 1920 and the 1933 match Mikhail Botvinnik – Salo Flohr were organized by Ilyin-Zhenevsky. He won the championship of the Leningrad three times, in 1925 (jointly), 1926, and 1929. In 1925, he won a game against Capablanca with a stunning Q-sacrifice, thus becoming one of only a handful of players to have ever achieved an even score (+1 =0 −1) against the Cuban grandmaster.
     A variation of the Dutch Defense, characterized by the moves 1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.0-0 d6 7.Nc3 Qe8, is named after him. 
    Alas, because of his association with many “enemies of the State” Ilyin-Zhenevsky himself suffered persecution in the Joseph Stalin era.  According to Botvinnik (himself described by David Bronstein as a “good Communist”) and official sources, he died in a Nazi air raid on Lake Ladoga on a ship during the siege of Leningrad. Others believe that he fell victim to the Great Purge along with the majority of the Old Guard of revolutionists. 
     Ilyin-Zhenevsky was also involved in a curious crackdown on vegetarians by Lenin.

See the Soviet site e3e5 for an interesting article on Ilyin-Zhenevsky.

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