In view of his poor results it was decided in the Spring of 1941 to hold a match-tournament for the title of Absolute USSR Champion in which the top six from the Championship played four games against each other With the support of his old friend Ragozin, Botvinnik was able to prepare well and led from beginning to end and won all of his matches. However, the tournament turned out to be of no importance because the Second World War was already in progress.
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launched a massive surprise attack against the Soviet Union. The German attack came during the semi-final round of Soviet Championship being held at Rostov-on-the-Don. When news of the war broke during the ninth round all the games were agreed drawn. Initially the tournament organizers were ordered to continue the tournament but that proved impossible and all the players went home while others joined reserve units. The Soviet Championship did not resume until 1944.
In Leningrad city championships were discontinued until 1943. In 1941 the situations was so bad in Leningrad that in June the first arrests were made for cannibalism. Cannibalism had occurred in Soviet history during the famines of the 1920s and 1930s and in some labor camps. It is likely that many in Leningrad ate human flesh without knowing it when they bought meat on the black market thinking it was cat or dog meat. There were many cases of people cutting flesh from corpses they came across and there were also many murders committed for the purpose of obtaining meat. Things were so bad that the NKVD created a special task force to arrest those who were suspected of cannibalism.
|A corpse for burial in Leningrad|
Things were different in Moscow. By November 1941, Moscow was virtually on the front lines, but the annual city championship continued. The decision was mainly due to Stalin’s determination not to evacuate Moscow or relocate the government in the face of the advancing German Army. Stalin proclaimed that the city was calm and orderly and normal life continued.
Soviet master Vladimir Alatortsev, the Director of the Moscow Chess Club, and Boris S. Vainshtein, an NKVD colonel not to be confused with Samuil O.Vainshtein, began using chess players as propagandists to conduct thousands of simuls and organized clubs in the hospitals and to visit rear military units. They weren't visiting hospitals just for fun. It was believed that chess promoted more rapid healing because it rested the body and stimulated the brain. As such, it helped the wounded to return to action sooner. The Soviets were so serious about this activity that hospital administrators were required to cooperate with representatives of the Chess Section.
While the German invasion of the Soviet Union frustrated Botvinnik's attempts at obtaining world championship match with Alekhine, his status had its benefits. All Soviet citizens were required to serve during the war either in the military, defense industries or on construction projects...except Botvinnik. He, along with a few other top players, were considered valuable for propaganda purposes.
As a result, on on August 19, 1941, Botvinnik was evacuated by train from Leningrad to Molotov as the city of Perm was called from 1940 to 1957. There he worked in his profession as an electrical engineer, but times were still hard; at one point he even had to sell his typewriter to make ends meet.
The situation caught up with him in January 1943, when he was suddenly assigned to work on a timber cutting detail. Botvinnik didn't want to do engage in such physical activity so he used his political connections to be relieved of lumberjack duties on the grounds that such strenuous work would make it impossible to prepare for any chess challenges after the war. It worked; his labor assignment was significantly reduced then eliminated entirely.
Prior to that, in 1942 a number of strong masters were in what was at the time known as Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) and they held a tournament. Botvinnik did not compete, but managed to arrange a “business trip” while the tournament was in progress. One amusing incident was the time Botvinnik tried to purchase a spectator ticket and hey were sold out. Of course, being Botvinnik he didn't need to buy a ticket and attended the tournament anyway. That's when he discovered the reason for the unavailability of tickets. A piece of bread had been included with the tickets and many citizens bought tickets just to get the piece of bread.
The 1942 Sverdlovsk tournament was followed by another one in 1943 with the strongest players available being invited. The main reason for this event was to allow Botvinnik and the others to hone their skills.
By the summer of 1943 Botvinnik was out of the lumberjack business and back in Moscow where he played in the Moscow Championship. Botvinnik won and had a meeting with Soviet chess officials where the subject of a postwar match with Alekhine was again discussed.
Before the war the Soviets vilified Alekhine for having committed treason and being an enemy of the people, but they also had to admit that he was a great player who couldn't be ignored. Preliminary negotiations for match between the two had been conducted in the late 1930s, but the war further soured the Soviet attitude towards Alekhine because of his pro-Nazi sympathies and he was considered a war criminal not only in the Soviet Union but also by the French underground and for those reasons a postwar match would be politically unthinkable.
Botvinnik considered this attitude unacceptable and began an all out campaign that would push his political connections to the limit. His first strategy was to propose that both the Soviet Chess Federation and the United States Chess Federation declare that Alekhine was no longer world champion and Botvinnik would play a world championship match against Samuel Reshevsky who at that time was generally acknowledged to be one the world’s best.
As part of the scheme Botvinnik managed to arrange a meeting with the Ambassador to the United States, Makhsim Litvinov, who happened to be in Moscow. Litvinov was unwilling to promise anything more than support in principle.
A frustrated Botvinnik then reverted to Plan A...a match with Alekhine, but to accomplish that he had to change his strategy and pitch the idea to different members of the All-Union Chess Section.
A part of this plan involved using his party connections to force a change in the chess federation's leadership. This move was later to come back to haunt him. Initially things didn't look to be going his way, but when someone pointed out the Party had ruled that the match should take place (even though that approval was before the war), the opinion was reversed and a match with Alekhine was considered acceptable.
One result of his scheming was that Botvinnik had placed himself in a position where he had to continually prove that he was a worthy challenge. His first chance came in the spring of 1944 in the first Soviet Championship since the German invasion. Among the seventeen players was Salo Flohr of Czechoslovakia who had been in the Soviet Union since 1938 and had become a Soviet citizen during the war. Botvinnik won the championship in a convincing manner.
By that time Botvinnik was getting rather long of tooth for a chess player. He was 32-years old and hard on his heels was the 22-year old Vasily Smyslov, plus Botvinnik suffered a defeat at the hands of a tailender, a 20-year old named David Bronstein. Botvinnik began to fear was that the younger players might surpass him and that his long dreamed for match with Alekhine would not take place. Those those turned out to be unfounded when in the late spring of 1945 he finished an amazing three points ahead of his nearest rival in the Soviet Championship.
Nevertheless, there were still political problems involving a match with Alekhine thanks to Alekhine's war time activities. In 1941 Alekhine, by then a French citizen living under German occupation, wrote several articles for a Paris newspaper, subsequently reprinted in German chess magazine, including the Nazi-controlled Deutsch Schachzeitung.
In those articles Alekhine applied Nazi racial theory to chess history and distinguished between Aryan and Jewish chess. Aryans were aggressive fighters while Jews were cowardly, materialistic and defensive. Botvinnik was also mentioned. Like a few other Jewish players Botvinnik showed a lot of creativity and attacking spirit. Alekhine accounted for Botvinnik's ability being due to overcoming his “natural instincts” and deliberately learning from the younger Soviet masters. Alekhine claimed Botvinnik's games were dry and soulless. After the war Alekhine disavowed the articles, but he had participated in all of the major Nazi sponsored tournaments during the war under the Nazi flag.
Still, all through 1945 Botvinnik, with the support of Soviet politician Vyacheslav Molotov and he believed, of Stalin himself, continued to press for the match. His friend Vyacheslav Ragozin spearheaded an effort on behalf of Botvinnik that included a letter to Stalin signed by leading Soviet masters and Stalin agreed despite Alekhine's Nazi collaboration.
In early 1945, Alekhine announced his willingness to play a match with Botvinnik on the terms that had been agreed upon back in 1938-1939. Alekhine agreed because he needed the money and he wanted to reestablish his reputation. In a letter to the sponsor of the London international tournament that had canceled its invitation to him, Alekhine wrote that he had never taken part in anything not directly connected with chess and the political shenanigans attributed to him were preposterous.
So while it was agreed that the match should take place there was a snag. Alekhine was a Soviet citizen who had defected and as a defector could not be allowed to set foot on Soviet territory. The British Chess Federation was willing to host the match provided Moscow paid the bill.
But Botvinnik still faced problems thanks to the political situation. The Soviet government was of conflicting opinions and the Soviet chess organization no longer had the influence it previously held plus the French Communists were adamantly opposed to the match. There was also the matter of one of the chess officials Botvinnik had deposed earlier; he still had connections which he used to oppose Botvinnik. Botvinnik was summoned before NKVD officials who asked ominous questions. Botvinnik's answers were not favorable, but he had innocent explanations. It was clear to Botvinnik that the meeting was an attempt by the NKVD to intimidate him.
The Soviets could not talk directly with Alekhine so they used British intermediaries and the organizer of the Nottingham 1936 tournament, J.N. Derbyshire, who was friends with both Botvinnik and Alekhine, took over the discussions.
In late January 1946, Derbyshire sent a telegram to Alekhine saying that Moscow had offered a substantial sum to finance a match to played in England. He was immediately issued a challenge by Botvinnik which was accepted. Alekhine appointed Julius du Mont, editor of British Chess Magazine, to act on his behalf.
On February 28, Moscow agreed even though the NKVD continued to oppose the match. The Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs reiterating the promise that if Alekhine ever set foot in the Soviet Union he would be arrested immediately.
In Britain, the chess federation was divided because of Alekhine's war activities, but the prospect of a match won out over political considerations and in March it was decided to hold the match, but there was yet one more complication that could not be overcomes...on March 24, 1946, the day after the British Chess Federation's decision to host the match, Alekhine died. For details on Alekhine's death see Kevin Spraggett's excellent blog article HERE.