Boris Gulko, Vladimir Popov, Yuri Felshtinsky and Viktor Kortschnoi [sic], The KGB Plays Chess: The Soviet Secret Police and the Fight for the World Chess Crown (Russell Enterprises, 2010). 176 pp. $19.95.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. –Thoreau
Get busy living, or get busy dying. –The Shawshank Redemption
The KGB Plays Chess is a fascinating volume, focused primarily on the seven years GM Boris Gulko and his wife, WGM Anna Akhsharumova, spent as “Refuseniks” in the USSR. Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov both feature in the story in an integral way, and many other chess players show up in cameo roles. It’s really the Gulko story that’s at the heart of the book, however, so for those who weren’t around when all of this was going on, I’ll offer a brief recap.
Gulko was an extremely strong GM in the late 1970s, twice winning the Soviet Championship, and his wife was one of the strongest women in the country as well. In 1979 they, along with many other Soviet Jews, applied for permission to emigrate to Israel, and they were refused (thus “Refuseniks”). There may have been any number of reasons for the refusal, but among them was the fear that Gulko might help the defector Korchnoi to beat Karpov in a subsequent world championship match.
Korchnoi, who defected in 1976, was persona non grata to the Soviet establishment, while Karpov was the communist government’s golden boy. Karpov’s power and prestige were such that legendary players like Mikhail Tal, Lev Polugaevsky and Efim Geller had to work in his employ to ensure their good standing in the USSR. Worse yet, Korchnoi’s son was basically held hostage in the USSR, and Gulko was trapped as well. Korchnoi himself stated in the Western press that Gulko would help train him, and this worrisome prospect only helped keep Gulko stuck in the USSR. (In fact, Gulko seems to think Korchnoi harmed his family by omission as well as commission. Korchnoi's failure to include the Gulkos' release as one a precondition for making up the Candidates match with Kasparov "prolonged our stay in the USSR for two and a half years".)
Korchnoi lost a tight match to Karpov in 1978, before Gulko tried to emigrate, and a one-sided match in 1981. Yet even then Gulko and his wife were not allowed to leave. It was only in 1986, after seven long years of trying, that they were finally allowed to leave. Along the way they underwent several hunger strikes, risked public demonstrations, and were helped by supportive acts in the West from both chessplayers and non-chessplayers. At the end of the Brezhnev era, they might have been making some small progress, but when he died and was replaced by first Andropov and then Chernenko, things got worse. It was only in the Gorbachev era that the cracks started to appear in the Soviet regime, and it was then that their long wait was over.
That, in a nutshell, is the story. The vast majority of the book is an elaboration of the story from two complementary perspectives: Gulko’s and the KGB’s. Gulko’s is told by Gulko himself, while the KGB’s point of view is depicted by Vladimir Popov and Yuri Felshtinsky (P&F). Popov worked for the KGB in various capacities from 1972 to 1991, while Felshtinsky is a Moscow-born American who has studied and researched in Russia over the past two decades. Gulko's story is fascinating and at times moving, while P&F's narrative fills in some details from the other side. Often those details match Gulko's, sometimes they add new information.
One thing confuses me about the P&F story, and it's their source material. There are many precise details, but as far as I can tell Popov wasn't one of the agents assigned to the Gulkos, while Felshtinsky was not an agent at all. Were the records on the Gulkos made publicly available? Even if Popov had access while he worked for the KGB, that information is 24 years old and it beggars belief that Popov would have memorized all those details, especially if he wasn't directly involved. Would he have walked out with the files? It's not as if he has access from Canada, where he has lived since 1996.
There were some remarks of Gulko that seemed curious too, and some clear factual errors as well. To note one especially nonsensical example, there is this passage: "Karpov tried to prove that he had still been capable of playing at the moment when the match [DM: the unlimited one against Kasparov in 1984/5] was stopped. A week after the memorable press conference, Karpov traveled to Sweden to play for the Soviet team in the European Team Chess Championship. Not winning a single game in the competition, Karpov proved nothing to anyone. In November 1985, in a new match, Karpov would lose the title of world champion" (pp. 126-7).
It's easy to understand Gulko's antipathy to Karpov, but the remark bears almost no resemblance to the truth. There was no European Team Championship in 1985. There was a World Team Championship, but it was in Switzerland, not Sweden; it took place after the second K-K match rather than the first; and Karpov didn't go winless but scored an undefeated 5-2 (including a win over Boris Spassky, no cream puff). Karpov did play in one event between the matches, a double round-robin in Amsterdam, but he won it comfortably enough to draw his last three games in 11, 15 and 16 moves, respectively. Of course, this event wasn't right after the first match either.
It's a minor point, but it does remind the reader that recollections of the past are fallible, especially for matters the person didn't experience himself. It's also a reminder to be doubly careful when making statements about people one dislikes (or worse) - who knows how many of his other remarks and judgments about Karpov and others might be more or less colored by his anger? All the same, it's a remarkable story whose broad outlines aren't in any doubt.
The book is recommended to those interested in the human beings in the chess world, those with an interest in the world of the Cold War, and to the countless university professors in the U.S. and elsewhere who think that the Soviet Union was really a nifty idea, if occasionally a touch imperfect in practice.