Chess is one of the world’s most popular games and dates back to chaturanga, a sixth-century Indian battle game involving four armies. Chess spread from India into neighbouring Persia, from where it found its way to Russia. The Russian language employs the original oriental names of the pieces, such as the Persian word firz?n (wise man or councillor), which in Europe gradually evolved into the queen (ferz in Russian).

Chess is first mentioned in Russian written sources in the thirteenth century, although archaeological excavations show that the game was played as far back as the eleventh century. In the fifteenth century, chess became popular among all classes of Russian society, even in the face of a religious ban. The Russian Orthodox Church outlawed the game, along with the playing of musical instruments, dice games and drunkenness.

Chess was also condemned in Ivan the Terrible’s moral regulations for Russian households (Domostroi) and forbidden by his Hundred Chapters (Stoglav). But this did not stop the game from being one of the favourite pastimes of the Russian sovereigns in the pre-Petrine period. Ivan the Terrible is even said to have died in the middle of a game of chess with the English ambassador, Sir Jerome Horsey, in 1584.

The Russian boyars were skilful players and their expertise was recorded by foreign visitors. Expensive chess sets are listed in the inventories of the Moscow Armoury, alongside precious goblets and chalices. Such sets were regularly acquired by the imperial court. In 1669, Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich commissioned a set from the bone carvers of Kholmogory in north Russia, who reputedly made the country’s finest chess sets.

In the eighteenth century, Russian chess rules gradually began to fall in line with the rest of Europe. The game was popular among the aristocracy, who played with pieces made of porcelain and ivory (the common people preferred the simpler game of draughts). Peter the Great loved chess and introduced the game to his famous assemblées. A special Chess Room was later built at the Winter Palace.

Chess was just as popular at the court of Catherine the Great. Her favourite, Prince Grigory Potemkin, was an excellent player. In 1796, St Petersburg witnessed the unusual phenomenon of a game of “human chess” in honour of the visit of King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden. Count Alexander Stroganov’s servants were the pieces, moving at the command of the two players, Count Ivan Ostermann and Lev Naryshkin. The “board” was the lawn of Count Stroganov’s country residence.

The first informal Russian chess club opened in St Petersburg in the late eighteenth century at the German Club near the Blue Bridge. Chess soon became popular in other public places, such as cafés, inns and the English and Hunting Clubs. Chess boards were an invariable feature of Dominique’s Café on Nevsky Prospekt. The game was also extremely popular in the Russian army. The Decembrists were all fine players, particularly Mikhail Lunin and Nikolai Basargin.

The popularity of chess grew steadily in Russia throughout the nineteenth century. A circle of chess lovers, including Alexander Petrov and Nikolai Bakhtin, was formed in St Petersburg in the early 1820s. Alexander Petrov, who was known as the “Russian Philidor,” published a self-tuition manual in 1824. Chess parties were held in many private houses in St Petersburg, including the homes of Viscount Giulio Renato de Litta, Fyodor Samarin and Vasily Pogodin. Russia’s first chess column appeared in the Illustration magazine in 1845.

Seven years later, the first official chess club was registered with the Ministry of the Interior. The St Petersburg Society of Chess Lovers was established on 27 August 1852 and opened on 27 March 1853. The members included such famous writers as Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, Yakov Polonsky and Ivan Turgenev. A well-known figure in the chess clubs of Paris and Rome, Turgenev was personally acquainted with some of the world’s top players, such as Paul Morphy and Adolf Anderssen.

While the membership of the earlier informal clubs had been drawn from the social elite (mostly aristocrats and Senate officials), the St Petersburg Society of Chess Lovers was more democratic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the club’s activities were closely monitored by the Third Department – the name for the tsarist secret police between 1825 and 1880. The St Petersburg Society of Chess Lovers existed until 1860, when financial problems forced its closure.

Two years later, a second chess club was founded by Count Grigory Kushelyov-Bezborodko. The count was a literary patron who owned the monthly Russkoe slovo (“Russian Word”) journal and published Russia’s first ever chess periodical (The Chess Leaflet) from 1859 to 1863. The new club opened on 10 January 1862 and met in the Yeliseyev House at 15 Nevsky Prospekt/59 River Moika Embankment (now home to the Barricade Cinema) in St Petersburg.

The members of the second club were drawn from the raznochintsy (“people of miscellaneous ranks”) and urban intellectuals. Most of the attendees were progressive writers, philosophers, journalists, critics, editors and publishers, including Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Grigory Yeliseyev, Maxim Antonovich, Nikolai Nekrasov, Nikolai Serno-Solovyovich, Dmitry Pisarev, Grigory Blagosvetlov, Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin, Vladimir Stasov, Ivan Panayev, Nikolai Pomyalovsky, Andrei Krayevsky, Pyotr Lavrov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

At that time, Russia was experiencing a wave of popular dissent and calls for democracy, following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the growing revolutionary movement in Poland, which led to a national uprising in January 1863. The founding of the second chess club in January 1862 coincided with the establishment in late 1861 of Zemlya i volya (“Land and Liberty”), a clandestine group which hoped to ferment a revolution in the countryside. Many members of the club were also involved in the activities of Zemlya i volya.

The second chess club perhaps inevitably developed into a literary and social forum, where the intelligentsia met to discuss the burning issues of the day, including government policies, the latest literature and important public events. On one occasion, an agent of the Third Department reported back to his superiors that the members had called for constitutional reform and freedom of the press.

In May 1862, St Petersburg suffered from unseasonably hot weather, which led to an outbreak of fires in many parts of the city. The government used the blazes as a pretext to clamp down on the revolutionary movement. In June 1862, Russkoe slovo was closed down for eight months, while Dmitry Pisarev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Nikolai Serno-Solovyovich were arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. On 8 June 1862, the chess club was closed down at the personal order of Prince Alexander Suvorov (military governor of St Petersburg).

A third chess club was founded in St Petersburg in 1869 and merged with the German Assembly in 1870. A similar club opened in Moscow in 1877 and in other towns across the Russian Empire. The result was the establishment of the Russian school of chess towards the end of the nineteenth century and the emergence of such grandmasters as Mikhail Chigorin and Alexander Alekhine.

In the twentieth century, chess continued to grow in popularity in Russia. Like Tsar Nicholas II, many of the early Soviet leaders played chess, including Vladimir Lenin, Mikhail Kalinin and Mikhail Frunze. Chess was possibly the only game that enjoyed the full support of the Communist regime, which held games of human chess in public squares in the early 1920s.

Two leading Bolshevik functionaries – Alexander Ilin-Genevsky and Nikolai Krylenko – were fanatical chess players and made an important contribution to the development of Soviet chess. Alexander Ilin-Genevsky opened chess clubs across the country and wrote several books on the game. Nikolai Krylenko was the president of the All-Union Section of Chess and Draughts and helped to organise the first international chess tournaments in Moscow (1925, 1935, 1936).

The popularity of chess was reflected in the Soviet fiction of the 1920s. Leonid Leonov’s romantic tale The Wooden Queen (1923), Boris Eichenbaum’s study Gakrab: A Poem on the Game of Chess (1924) and Elena Danko’s poem on chess for children (1929) paved the way for the future success of Soviet chess in the post-war period, when Russia produced such world champions as Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.

A Central Chess Club was opened in Moscow in 1956 and chess columns became a feature of all national newspapers. Chess clubs were an obligatory part of Soviet houses of culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As a result, images of people playing chess were one of the most popular subjects in Russian art in the late Soviet period.

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