In Russian Silhouettes (and later in The Reliable Past: New in Chess, 2003) he describes a game, a sphere of human creativity, that amid nightmarish and fantastic oppression attracted the genius, the dreamer, the damaged and otherworldly, and the angry too. He gives us a cool appreciation and judicious appreciation of what chess meant for these men; and never has the royal game seemed more strange, deadly and beautiful.
Reviewed by Paul Kane
by Genna Sosonko
Paperback: 208 pages, September 2005
Genna Sosonko emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1972, when he was aged 29. He had been a chess coach in his home country and, settling in the Netherlands, he became a world-class grandmaster of chess. In recent years he has turned to writing about the country of his birth and the game to which he has devoted his life. Russian Silhouettes is one of these writings; The Reliable Past is another, later book. Both books present a series of biographical sketches – composed of memoir and interview – of chessplayers and coaches whom Sosonko had known in the Soviet Union, and later in the West. These books will certainly appeal to chessplayers with a penchant for history, but they will be of interest to others too – and for two reasons.
First of all, because these books present a portrait of the artistic life. It may seem strange to equate chess (which is just a game, some may say) with art, but there are certain parallels between these two spheres. Grandmaster Luzhin, the stunted, stilted protagonist of Nabokov’s The Defense, is a kind of artist; and it will be recalled that Marcel Duchamp, one of the most significant artistic figures of the twentieth century, gave up art for chess. And in a more general sense, one could argue that a ludic orientation toward creativity is characteristic of many avant-garde artistic and literary movements, such as Surrealism, Fluxus and the OuLiPo. Mikhail Tal, world champion in the early 1960s, was as close to artistic genius as any chessplayer who ever lived. Sosonko’s portrait of him, taken from the moving memoir, “My Misha”, recalls to my mind James Lord’s descriptions of Giacometti:
He showed little interest in his health or his appearance, or in what others thought of him. He was as from another planet, and there was only one thing that really excited and interested him: chess. He belonged to that rare category of people, who, as if it were something that went without saying, rejected everything to which the majority aim, and went through life with an easy step, a chosen one of fate, an adornment of the earth. In burning out his life, he knew that this was no dress rehearsal, and that there would not be another one. But he did not want to and could not live in any other way. (p.27)
Chess was a kind of Platonic enclave during Soviet times, offering an escape from the oppressive reality of the state, but it was also a propaganda tool. The Soviet (and later Russian) domination of chess, which has continued from 1948 up to the present day (except for the three brief years 1972-1975, when Bobby Fischer was world champion) was considered proof of the superiority of communist culture. And here is a second reason why these books (and Russian Silhouettes in particular) are of great interest. We are given a true picture of the world of Soviet sport and competition, and of society in general. At one point Sosonko describes the corrosive effect of political oppression on the people who lived during and after Stalin’s rule:
What happened to them was a kind of anabiosis, a state of suspended animation, such as occurs with fish in winter. … In order to survive, they either had to conform, or to mimic, and there were no ready-made prescriptions for how to live a worthy life in those blood-thirsty times. Conforming signified the loss of your soul, while mimicry led to the adoption of the traits, large and small, of your surroundings. Perhaps this was why, when I came across people of this type in the Soviet Union in the 60s, they did not appear to me to be from another planet. They looked quite normal, apart from sprinklings of something, on which one’s gaze and hearing, accustomed to greyness and monotony, would involuntarily halt. (p.181)
Sosonko gives us portraits of great chessplayers – such as Tal and Mikhail Botvinnik (the so-called “Patriarch of Soviet Chess”) – and of minor ones too. Among the latter we are given an affecting memoir of Alvis Vitolins, a brilliant Latvian master of attack who suffered from periods of schizophrenia; he was eventually to take his own life. But it is the chess coaches who shine the brightest in this book. One such was Vladimir Zak, a difficult, awkward man who lived through the siege of Leningrad in the years 1941-1943, and a great chess teacher. He inspired and became a father surrogate to many of the pupils who had lost their fathers in the war. One of these pupils was Boris Spassky, who later became world champion in 1969 only to lose the title after an epic battle with Fischer in 1972; anyone would have lost to Fischer at that time. Tal’s coach, the cosmopolitan Alexander Koblents, writes about their relationship in a letter to Sosonko, saying that “the most important thing that a trainer can do is to resolve the problem of his player’s loneliness, to become a sincere friend.”
L.P. Hartley begins The Go-Between, one of the great novels of the last century, by telling us that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In Russia these words are literally true, for there the past belongs to a country – the Soviet Union – that is no more. Genna Sosonko, a native of Leningrad (a city that no longer exists in name), knows this most of all. In Russian Silhouettes (and later in The Reliable Past: New in Chess, 2003) he describes a game, a sphere of human creativity, that amid nightmarish and fantastic oppression attracted the genius, the dreamer, the damaged and otherworldly, and the angry too. He gives us a cool appreciation and judicious appreciation of what chess meant for these men; and never has the royal game seemed more strange, deadly and beautiful.
Russian Silhouettes is a significant contribution to the literature of chess and, very much in the style of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium, to the history of the Soviet Union too.
About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org