Culture and Civilisations

A Soviet survivor: the case of Tigran Petrosian

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A Soviet survivor: the case of Tigran Petrosian

1971: Tigran Petrosian and Bobby Fischer (Allsport Hulton/Archive)

As regular readers of this column will know, the USSR created the mightiest state apparatus for the support of chess which the world has ever seen, or is likely to see. The engine for powering this enterprise was the USSR Chess Federation and the exploits of this imperium of the mind, for much of its existence, ruled over by the Red Czar of Soviet chess, Mikhail Botvinnik, from his Kremlinesque base in Gogolevsky Boulevard, Moscow, have formed a consistent leitmotif of my columns for TheArticle.

Furthermore, one publishing house, Elk and Ruby has specialised in creating a memorial to Russian Grandmasters and those of the Communist era in particular. Elk and Ruby have produced a stream of publications on events, competitions and personalities of the legendary Soviet age. The Titans covered include Efim Bogoljubov, a two times World Title aspirant who defected to Germany, another defector in the form of Viktor Korchnoi who was again twice challenger for the supreme sceptre, one time challenger David Bronstein, plus World Champions Vassily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian and top trainer/ideologue, Peter Romanovsky. Elk and Ruby’s authors include such luminaries as former Soviet, now Dutch, expert Genna Sosonko, and the late Alexander Koblenz, the faithful analyst and industrious supporter of the Wizard of Riga, Mikhail Tal (1936–1992), the subject of the most recent thoroughbred from the Elk and Ruby stable, Mikhail Tal: The Street Fighting Years. This book focuses on that period, culminating in the World Title match of 1960, when Tal obliterated, blasted or simply outperformed such giants as Smyslov, Gligoric, Fischer, Larsen, Bronstein, Geller, Keres and Petrosian, to storm the ramparts of Botvinnik himself in his Kremlin fortress of Moscow.

Almost overnight, though, the nation state which provided this massive support, epically recorded in the Elk and Ruby oeuvre, ceased to exist. When hardliners tried, in their 1991 coup d’état, to reverse USSR President Gorbachev’s reforms, western commentators, including even the knowledgeable critic Bernard Levin, lamented that the progressive clock would be turned back by decades. In contrast, World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov confidently announced to me that the Myrmidons of regression would barely last a week.

Kasparov was right.

Why, though, had the Soviet Union been so overwhelmingly successful at chess? From 1948 to 1972 the USSR dominated the World Championship, and thereafter still provided the vast majority of the world’s elite grandmasters. As noted above, this had much to do with the gigantic material resources that the USSR ploughed into achieving victory in virtually every international sport. Indeed, in the collective mentality of the Soviet regime, “chess” was not merely a sport; it also conferred intellectual respectability. Hence the game was worth substantial financial investment, in order to seize the world championship and, by systematic nurturing of young players, to consolidate and retain it.

There was, however, a deeper cause for Soviet success at chess, namely that the Soviet state was notorious for its lack of opportunity for free thought. Any book, article, pamphlet, idea, piece of music, or even poem might have the potential to be considered ideologically inimical to the doctrines of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. The consequences for the writer, composer or thinker who offended state orthodoxy ranged from ostracism, to imprisonment and Arctic Circle labour camps, and the ultimate sanction: summary execution.

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky, the dissident Soviet writer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Earlier he had written: “Evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist.“ For expressing such sentiments he was sentenced to five years in a prison camp in Siberia. Brodsky also argued that “the surest defence against evil is extreme individualism and originality of thinking.” In parallel, consider this statement:

“‘Children need to be encouraged to think rather than to follow blindly. Not thinking for themselves leads to horrendous consequences. The nation is engaged in a process of reduction of values and principles. Thinking almost seems to be out of the equation.’ Frances Lawrence, widow of London headmaster Philip Lawrence stabbed to death by a 16-year-old gang member outside his school in December 1995. Mrs Lawrence was launching her manifesto for nationwide moral revival.” The Times, 19th October 1996.

Over the past two weeks in my columns for TheArticle I have inveighed against cancel culture, the obliteration of memory, the hard-Left campaign to achieve imposition of a herd mentality and related obsessions of the “woking class”. In that context, Mrs Lawrence’s words seem prophetic and the current dangers for western society are only too apparent.

Here, in the attempted suppression of alternative, non-approved, modes of thought and expression, lies the true reason, aside from any state sponsorship, for the extraordinary popularity of chess in Soviet Russia. Chess offered a wide field for individual thought, in which the state had no remit to interfere. Even in music, the leading Soviet composers such as Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were ridiculed by that well-known music critic, Joseph Stalin, and the former lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation to a labour camp.

Playing chess, though, allowed the sons and grandsons of Lenin to free their minds from the shackles of state dogma. Not even a Soviet commissar would have dared to utter the words, “Comrade, that move is ideologically unsound“! In chess the sole criterion of excellence is whether the move is good or bad, whether it wins or loses. By playing chess, ordinary Russians re-conquered for themselves a measure of personal liberty in their everyday lives, over which the state had no control. In the realm of chess, they could pursue freedom and self-determination.

Well, almost. One of the most thought provoking episodes concerned World Champion (1963-1969) Tigran Petrosian, the subject of the ambitious Elk and Ruby publication, Petrosian Year by Year:  Volume I (1942-1962) co-authored by Tibor Karolyi and Tigran Gyozalyan.

On his return to Moscow, from the 1956 World Championship Qualifying Tournament in Amsterdam, Tigran Petrosian’s high quota of draws from this event led to excoriation in the Soviet press. Homo Sovieticus was meant to be a prodigy of Stakhanovite over-production, not a pusillanimous compromiser, only too willing to agree a draw! Naturally the critics failed to mention that many of the draws came about through Petrosian failing to grasp obvious winning opportunities, rather than from any aversion to fighting, but the damage was done and the most sophisticated of the world title aspirants at the time, a man who had shared third prize in the qualifier for the world championship itself, was almost moved to abandon the game he loved.

I understand this problem well.

After winning the British Championship in 1971, reports by an influential writer of the day (whose name I shall withhold, according to the formula: de mortuis nihil nisi bonum) referred to my lack of fighting spirit, when I had actually made speculative and unsound sacrifices to force events and gone through multiple adjournments with games lasting for days and over 100 moves. The same, at least in my opinion, talent-free critic went even further when I won the international tournament at Woolacombe in 1973, writing a report which more or less failed to mention me, apart from focusing attention on my only loss! In the West, this kind of idiocy is irritating, annoying even, but not much more. In the paranoia-laden atmosphere of Soviet officialdom, adverse critique from an established quarter could be career or even life-threatening.

Of all the forms of intellectual activity permitted in the Soviet Union, chess was the most immune to state interference along dogmatic Marxist-Leninist lines.

Fortunately, after 1956 Petrosian decided not to abandon chess and the upward curve of his results deflected any serious heckling from official Soviet sources. 

Nevertheless, even after his eventual 1963 victory in the World Championship, it was fashionable in the West to decry Petrosian‘s exploits and look forward to a new golden age when Petrosian would be deposed and replaced by a Spassky or a Fischer. In this respect it is interesting to compare certain aspects of the respective careers of both Fischer and Petrosian.

The rise of Bobby Fischer was meteoric, yet, having won the World Championship in 1972, he basically gave up playing chess. It seemed that he possessed just so much nervous energy. His batteries had been exhausted by the Match of the Century against Boris Spassky. True, these two aged gladiators emerged from retirement 20 years later to fight once more in war-torn Yugoslavia, but the quality of these games fell far short of the epic Reykjavik clash and for Fischer, certainly, that was to be his swan song.

Now compare Petrosian‘s astounding longevity – in a career which saw him involved at the prestigious Interzonal Stage (aka the first International Qualifying stage), at least, in every World Championship cycle from 1952 to 1982. Petrosian achieved the following:

• He won four Soviet Championships.

• He won two World Championship matches against Botvinnik and Spassky.

•He won one Candidates’ Tournament.

• He twice – at Havana 1966 and Lugano 1968 – won both team and individual gold medals on top board for the USSR in the international Olympiad.

• Additionally he won matches against Hübner, Portisch, Korchnoi, and Polugayevsky and had equal scores against both Karpov and Kasparov.

•  Finally he won numerous first prizes in important tournaments such as Los Angeles 1963, Buenos Aires 1964, Moscow 1966, San Antonio 1972 and so on.

Unlike Fischer, Petrosian keenly felt his duty to his club, country, fans and the public, and he carried on playing chess until he dropped. Both champions were active for similar periods and they clashed in no fewer than three Candidates competitions for the World Championship. There can hardly have been two more contrasting figures, the brash, controversial outspoken maximalist, Fischer, and the quiet, unassuming, almost self-deprecatory minimalist, Petrosian.

It is true that Fischer achieved greater heights than Petrosian, and his overall score (eight wins to four) against Petrosian reflected that. Fischer’s domination, though, flickered for the briefest of moments, while, in typical contrast, Petrosian‘s flame burnt at a somewhat lower intensity, but for much longer, in spite of his early death. Fischer‘s premature retirement of course, truncated what should have been a normal career length at the top.

I now compare Petrosian‘s results in the world championship cycle which brought him the Title (1961–1963) with those of Bobby Fischer over his own victorious series of qualifiers and the final challenge (1970–1972).

Petrosian lost just three games out of 90 played (as Black vs. Stein, White vs. Botvinnik, and Black vs. Botvinnik). Fischer lost four games out of 62 (I have ignored defaults): as White vs. Larsen, Black vs. Petrosian, and Black vs. Spassky twice. This means that Petrosian lost 3.33 per cent of his cycle games while Fischer at his peak lost 6.45 per cent, so that at their respective bests, Fischer was still twice as likely to lose as Petrosian was. Fischer was also far more likely to win and as challenger, having already won the US Championship with 100 per cent, he scored 12 straight victories in the qualifiers against Taimanov and Larsen.

Petrosian died in 1984 at the tragically early age of 55, narrowly pre-deceasing the Soviet Union, which had nourished his successful career. It seems incomprehensible that such a monolith should have disintegrated so rapidly, yet the dissolution of the USSR was predicated on its very efforts to stifle dissenting opinion, the same disease to which I animadverted last week , though in that case using Nazi Germany as my metaphor for strangulation of untrammelled thinking.

In 1988 Professor Paul Kennedy published his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which he argued that over-reliance on military strength and state security creates an imbalance when weighed against economic viability and can lead to the collapse of even the seemingly most impressive nation or empire. This was widely, but wrongly, interpreted as a dire prediction of the future of the USA. Kennedy’s book far more accurately prophesied the imminent demise of the USSR. Indeed, within a further four years the USSR, as it had been constituted since the Revolution of 1917, and subsequent statehood in 1922, no longer existed.

A critical factor in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of its communist masters was the regime’s dependence on restricting information and ideas. This was at the precise moment when the economies of the western world, and many in East Asia, were on the brink of an information explosion, driven by new information based technologies and reliant to an unprecedented degree on intellectual capital.

This message became strikingly apparent to me during the 1986 World Chess Championship between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. The match was held in two equal halves, twelve games in London (for which I played the role of fundraiser and organiser), and twelve in Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then still known. As a standard resource for the international press corps, within five minutes of the end of each game the London logistics team printed a complete record of the moves and the times taken by each player, together with key comments by Grandmasters and printed diagrams of important situations in the game. Not only was this blitz report instantly available, it was also faxed to interested journalists around the world, within a further five minutes. Of course, the fax is now regarded as technology from the Cretaceous period, but in 1986 it was cutting edge.

When our delegation arrived in Leningrad, for the second half of the match, the contrast with London could not have been more marked. Three elderly babushkas typed up the moves as the game progressed. However, there was no photocopier at the Championship site in the Hotel Leningrad. The match Director, Secretary and Press Chief had to sign a document in triplicate allowing the press assistant to take a cab to Communist Party Headquarters several miles away, the location of the only official photocopier in the city. Only on the press assistant’s return, after about 45 minutes, could the assembled international press corps even discover what the official moves had been. It was obvious that for the USSR the game would soon be over. By stifling alternative opinion, the monolith finally strangled the roots of its own creativity.

In that regard, and also bearing in mind the current woke cancel culture against free speech and alternative thought, here are two of my favourites from the archives: “I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” attributed to Voltaire. And a pronouncement by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, called by Dante in his InfernoMaestro di color che sanno” (‘the Master of the men who know’): “be a free thinker and don’t accept everything you hear as truth. Be critical and evaluate what you believe in.”

This week’s games are two wins by Petrosian against Fischer. The first in the 1959 Candidates’ Tournament in Yugoslavia; the second from the 1971 Candidates’ Match in Buenos Aires.  As I have maintained for a considerable time, Fischer was a magnificent challenger but the worst ever Champion. In comparison, Petrosian’s six years at the pinnacle of the greasy pole were a golden age compared with the arid wasteland of Fischer’s three years as a latter day kind of chessboard Merovingian Roi Fainéant.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Amazon, and Blackwell’s.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 94%
  • Interesting points: 95%
  • Agree with arguments: 95%
50 ratings - view all

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