Nikolai Krylenko: the bastard who re-shaped world chess

Back by popular demand!  Since this was originally written (2009), some more information about Krylenko’s downfall have come out.  You can read more here

Sometimes it is good for us to be reminded of how much our chess world is manipulated, shaped and controlled by political forces.  Alekhine’s death might have been ordered by a powerful figure in Moscow who wanted to see the ‘new Soviet man’ Mikhail Botvinnik inherit the world title. Chess popularity  reached its highest point during the cold war when Fischer took on Spassky and won.  Today, when chess is quietly being forgotten in the corridors of power, we often sit in nostalgia for those days to return…here is a blog article that appeared here early last year that describes the life and times of the man who was responsible for re-shaping world chess.



Modern chess is the result of the contributions of many people spanning numerous generations and from every corner of the world. Players, organizers, patrons,politicians and journalists. Famous people and not so famous people, but all with a story to tell. Some of their stories are colourful, others are less interesting but still relevant. Most are everyday stories, more often boring than not.

A few , however, have spectacular stories about remarkable contributions. This is the real story of one of the most notorious chessplayers of modern times, and how his life had an incredible impact not only on his own people, but on the chess world as we know it: Nikolai Vasilyevich Krylenko (Russia, 1885-1938).

Krylenko would later become known as the founder of Soviet chess. A british diplomat once described him as ‘an epileptic degenerate.’

Krylenko was a devout Bolshevik by the age of 17, and became a close friend of Lenin. Brilliant and utterly ruthless, he was entrusted to smuggle into pre-revolutionary Russia literature and revolutionaries ready to fight for the cause. He studied law at the St.Petersburg University during the day, and mobilized students for the cause. Krylenko was arrested several times, exiled twice, and for a brief time imprisoned. His oratory skills were legendary, capable of wooing even the most hostile crowds, for hours on end if need be. These same skills he put to good use during the Moscow show trials of the late 20’s, sending thousands of innocent political prisoners to their deaths.

Lenin playing chess
Krylenko and Lenin (an avid chessplayer since a boy) occasionally played chess together. Andy Soltis, in his authoritative Soviet Chess 1917-1991 recounts a story: Krylenko and Lenin were relaxing in a small town near Moscow when they decided to play a few games. But Lenin set three conditions: no taking moves back, no getting upset by the loser, and no exulting by the winner. Krylenko had the edge in the first game but eventually lost and became angry. ”What’s with you, Nikolai Vasilyevich?” Lenin teased. ”You’re breaking the agreement?”

The Bolsheviks quickly took power, thrusting Krylenko into a position of power.

”After the tsar’s fall, Krylenko served on the Military Revolutionary Committee, with Ilyin-Genevsky, and in November 1917 was ordered to the general staff headquarters at Mogilev to replace General N.N.Dukhonin, who had refused to open peace negotiations with the Germans. In a sweeping promotion, Krylenko went from ensign, the lowest commissioned rank, to Supreme Commander in Chief of the world’s largest army.”–Andy Soltis (Soviet Chess) Soltis neglects to mention that Krylenko ordered General Dukhonin to be immediately bayoneted infront of him and trampled on by horses, tearing him to pieces.

Sharing a love for chess and a fervent belief in the need for revolution were the bonds that united Lenin and Krylenko

In the chaos that followed the Bolshevik victory, Krylenko showed great loyalty to the Revolution.

Nikolai Krylenko’s name soon became synonymous with state terror and political repression

Krylenko’s next career move was that of chief prosecutor for the state. Political repression and terror were soon firmly established in his firm hands. He served in a number of official positions (sometimes simultaneously), and became a key figure in the ‘Show Trials’ of the late 20’s and early 30’s, personally handling the highest profile cases.

The Moscow show trials served many purposes, apart from getting rid of political opponents and enemies of the state. Primarily these trials were a propaganda tool, orchestrated to enhance the prestige of the new Soviet government and to strike terror in the minds of any among the general population who might have had any thoughts of criticizing the new communist state.

Under Krylenko’s supervision, detailed daily written reports were sent to every corner of the Soviet Union. The use of cartoons was incorporated because so few of the peasants could read. Films of the daily show trials appeared in the cinemas just hours afterwards. The Soviet people became obssessed with the trials.

Krylenko was at his most eloquent and ruthless. An eye witness account appeared in the New York Times: ” Day after day the 3,000 constantly changing auditors have sat breathless under the spell of Krylenko, as he brought son to implicate father, blandished brother into betraying brother, and lashed an old technician who was accused of accomplishing the death of his housemaid until the wench suddenly turned up last week. ”

Every person on trial was first beaten and tortured ,for weeks if necessary, in order to get a confession that would later be used to condemn them at the public show trials.

Torture was a busy profession in those days

Mikhail Yakubovich, a defendant in one of these show trials, described meeting with Krylenko after weeks of torture by the secret police to discuss his upcoming trial: ”Offering me a seat, Krylenko said: “I have no doubt that you personally are not guilty of anything. We are both performing our duty to the Party—I have considered and consider you a Communist. I will be the prosecutor at the trial; you will confirm the testimony given during the investigation. This is our duty to the Party, yours and mine. Unforeseen complications may arise at the trial. I will count on you. If the need should arise, I will ask the presiding judge to call on you. And you will find the right words.”
Nothing was left to chance. The trials were orchestrated like theatrical plays.
Some film from conspiracy trials in 1923 can be seen at the following link.  They include rare footage of Krylenko in action:
Stalin wrote: ” A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Krylenko was an exponent of socialist legality and the theory that political considerations, rather than criminal guilt or innocence, should guide the application of punishment. One of his most famous quotations was ”We must not only execute the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the mass even more.” He had a marked propensity for cold bloodedly executing prisoners without due process. It is unknown exactly how many were killed at his orders, or his own hands.
Once, when it was pointed out to Krylenko that the death penalty was supposed to have been abolished when the Bolesheviks took power and yet his own work seemed to not comply with this, Krylenko repied ”I order the guilty only to be shot; I don’t order their deaths.”

Krylenko : ‘‘We must not only execute the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the mass even more.” He was unapolagetic: ”We admit the fact of ‘terror’ ”

Lenin and Stalin were able to trust Krylenko’s loyalty

With the death of Lenin in 1924, Krylenko’s influence and reach was greatly extended.

Establishing the Soviet state had a very heavy price: the people paid very dearly. Henchmen like Krylenko displayed great enthusiasm to please their masters. They realized that if they refused to perform what was asked of them, then others would take their place. Millions were executed or disappeared in the night. Millions were exiled to the gulags. Millions more died of forced starvation .
In 1931 Krylenko was appointed Comissar of Justice, and he personally presided over the prosecution of members of the Communist Party in the Great Purge. Terror reigned, and no one was exempt from Stalin’s increasing paranoia. In 1933 he was awarded the Order of Lenin. This was the peak of his career.
But time was running out for Krylenko. ”He who lives by he sword, dies by the sword.”
With the assassination of Kirov in 1934, and the subsequent bloodshed and disappearances in what became known as The Terror , Krylenko found his career starting to go downhill. Perhaps he simply had reached the point where he had too many skeletons in the closet and too many enemies. In January 1938, during a meeting of the Supreme Soviet, Krylenko was targetted by his political enemies, and before the end of the same month he was stripped of most of his power. Among other accusations, it was said that he played too much chess!

It is now believed that Stalin himself was behind the death of Kirov, whose murder was taken as the justification for unleashing an unprecedented epidemic of fear and suspicion that poisoned every aspect of Soviet life, including chess.
Retreating to his dacha outside Moscow with his family on the 31st of January, he received a phone call from his friend , Josef Stalin, telling him not to worry and to continue to work on some legal project that had been in the pipeline for some time now. The irony is that several hours later his dacha was surrounded by the secret police and Krylenko and his family were arrested.

Towards the end, Krylenko was often found in his Moscow offices drinking heavily and playing chess. His enemies accused him of wrecking the government. His sister, Elena (by then an American) reacted stoicly: ”I suppose chessplaying is now considered wrecking the government.”

After 3 days in prision, enduring the same type of interrogation and torture that his many victims had been subjected to , Krylenko confessed to wrecking the government, subversion and anti-Soviet agitation. Six months later, on July 29, he was put on trial. The trial lasted all of 20 minutes (!). He denied the confession, was predictably declared guilty and immediately executed. Curiously, the person responsible for getting him to confess met with the same fate soon enough after!

Despite such an illustrious career serving his masters, Krylenko was given a fair trial that lasted all of 20 minutes

Not many shed tears for Krylenko, but the news of his arrest and execution shocked a good many. If a powerful man like Nikolai Krylenko could not save himself, then what hope was there for mere mortals? Soviet-era records show that in the two year period 1937-1938 a total of 681,692 people were executed as a result of the terror, almost certainly all of them innocent of the charges that were brought upon them. Some were executed simply for knowing foreign languages. The secret police had been given -by Stalin himself- weekly quotas of how many had to be arrested and executed.
Krylenko then suffered the fate so common of many of that time of repression: he disappeared, officially, for decades . His name was taken off important documents and books. Photos were destroyed or altered. Even an introduction that he written for the 1935 Moscow International Chess Tournament was eliminated! History was re-written to serve the purposes of the state. (Ironically, Krylenko would have approved!)

It was not uncommon at that time to simply disappear into thin air:

Where did he go?

Fyodor Bohatyrchuk

F.Bohatyrchuk , a Ukranian chessplayer and radiologist, who personally knew Krylenko, had the good sense (luck) to escape the Soviet Union at just the right time. He fled to Canada, where he lived and worked for the rest of his long life. But he still disappeared: his name vanished from official records of Soviet chess tournaments! Just like he never existed.

Once, during the terror, Bohatyrchuk was arrested by the secret police for interrogation, but was soon after released. He was accused ,among other things, of having tried too hard to defeat Botvinnik in their individual encounters (Misha was considered a Soviet hero) and having succeeded! (He had a plus score! )

With the death of Stalin in 1953, came a period of sober reflection over the excesses of the Revolution. Much was denounced and a process of righting some of the wrongs began. Nikolai Krylenko’s guilty verdict (1938) was annulled by the Soviet government in the first wave of destalinization in 1955. By the early 1960’s his enormous contributions to Soviet chess earned him the reputation of being the father of Soviet chess.

Nikolai Krylenko achieved respectability long after this death .

Today Krylenko’s rightful place in the Bolshevik revolution is offically recognized. In 1989 the Soviet government produced a commemorative coin in honour of Nikolai . Two years later, in 1991, the Soviet state disappeared.


Until Krylenko and the 1917 Revolution came along, Russian chess was confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad), and almost entirely dependent upon rich patrons. Organized chess struggled to exist. Just a few great players had been produced before 1917 and Russia was not considered a force to be reckoned with in the chess world. That was soon about to change.

Nikolai Krylenko’s direct involvement in chess as a political force began in 1924, when he decided that chess was going to serve the state and not the other way around. Krylenko got himself appointed chairman of the chess section of the All-Union Committee on Physical Culture. Recognizing the enormous propaganda potential of the game, its relative inexpensiveness as well as its enormous usefulness as an educational tool in a backward country as Russia where very few peasants could actually read, Krylenko threw himself into transforming chess into a national passion with his usual relentless energy.
Krylenko wrote: ”We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess’, like the formula ‘art for art’s sake’. We must organize shock-brigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.”
Krylenko seated in the centre. (cerca 1927) He envisioned chess as an instrument of Soviet propaganda and in the process made chess the national sport

FIDE was created in Paris in 1924. In 1925 the Soviet Union was invited to become a member, but the Kremlin declined. The official reason was that the Soviet Union could not become a member of an organization that tried to remain politically neutral.

The first step was to sell the idea to the Soviets, which for the powerful and influential Krylenko was not very difficult. Chess became politicized instantly, with slogans such as ”Take chess to the workers” and ”Chess as an instrument of intellectual culture.” New chess clubs were set up everywhere: in factories, farm collectives, trade unions, government offices, and especially in educational institutions.
The next step was to organize massive chess events all over the Soviet Union (simultaneous exhibitions/team matches between trade unions/amateur tournaments) attracting tens of thousands of participants and spectators. The media was employed to foster interest and dynamize the game. The chess magazine ”64” was created at about this time, and Krylenko was listed as one of the editors. By the end of 1924 there were an estimated 24,000 members of the chess section.
The third step was to organize ”big chess”; elite international chess tournaments attracting the very best players in the world. This required real money–which was scarce in those difficult times–but Krylenko’s personal influence and powerful connections found a solution. Diverting funds from the NEP, the 1925 Moscow International Chess Tournament was organized with a budget of 30,000 rubles and a cast that included many of the very best players in the world, including the World Champion R.J. Capablanca.

Capablanca was the star attraction in 1925 , and played in the 1935 and 1936 editions of the Moscow tournaments . He won the 1936 edition , perhaps the strongest of them all.

Moscow 1925 was the world’s first state-sponsored chess tournament, and at the same time a risky move for Krylenko because the future of his plans depended upon how successful and prestigious the tournament would be perceived by the everyone. How would the Soviet players measure up to the rest of the world? The World Champion was invited , as well as Lasker, Bogoljubov, Torre, Marshall and Tartakower, and a host of soviet players including F. Bohatyrchuk. Alekhine was not invited for political reasons. Also participated Rubinstein, Reti and Grunfeld.

Krylenko gave the welcoming speech at the Hall of the House of Unions, just steps away from Red Square (which indicates how high profile the tournament was being billed) Tickets were put on sale and were quickly sold out. It is estimated that up to 50,000 spectators attended the various rounds of the tournament. Thousands more crowded outside of the playing venue.

The stunning loss of Capablanca by the soviet master Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky was able to be capitalized by Krylenko’s work to justify such a large capital investment in the tournament. ”I played like a lunatic” wrote Capablanca of his only loss in the mega-event.
I suggest the reader might want to take a look at some rare footage of Capablanca in Moscow in 1925:

Persona non grata in Russia

Alexander Alekhine, born in an aristocratic Russian family, fled his homeland soon after the start of the Russian Revolution, making his new home France. Krylenko would not invite him to the 1925 tournament, calling him an enemy of the people for making anti-soviet comments while in Paris. Even when Alekhine became World Champion in 1927, Krylenko was unforgiving: ”Who is not with us, even to a small degree, is against us.”

Lasker was also a participant of the 1925 , 1935 and 1936 Moscow tournaments . He finished an excellent 2nd in 1925 (despite being almost 57 years old), 3rd in 1935 and 6th in 1936. In 1935 Krylenko invited Lasker to live in the Soviet Union. He was invited to become a member of the Moscow Academy of Science, and to continue some of his mathematical research. Lasker accepted and lived in Moscow with his wife , Martha, for a while. In August 1937, with the terror undoubtedly being a factor, the Laskers decided to go to America.

Bogolyubov , born in Kiev, was the surprise victor in the 1925 tournament. Lasker (almost 57 years old at the time) came in second. The World Champion , Capablanca , could only finish in third position.

On a rest day during the Moscow 1925 tournament, Capablanca was invited to go to Leningrad to give a simultaneous exhibition. A 14 year old schoolboy by the name of Mikhail Botvinnik was amongst those ready to meet with the World Champion. How could anyone have guessed the historic significance of this day?

Capablanca J. – Botvinnik M. Leningrad 1925.
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Nbd7 5. e3 Bb4 6. cxd5 exd5 7. Qb3 c5 8. dxc5 Qa5 9. Bxf6 Nxf6 10. O-O-O O-O 11. Nf3 Be6 12. Nd4 Rac8 13. c6 Bxc3 14. Qxc3 Qxa2 15. Bd3 bxc6 16. Kc2 c5 17. Nxe6 Qa4 18. b3 Qa2 19. Qb2 Qxb2 20. Kxb2 fxe6 21. f3 Rc7 22. Ra1 c4 23. bxc4 dxc4 24. Bc2 Rb8 25. Kc1 Nd5 26. Re1 c3 27. Ra3 Nb4 28. Re2 Rd8 29. e4 Rc6 30. Re3 Rd2 31. Rexc3 Rxc2 32. Rxc2 Rxc2 [0:1]

When Capablanca resigned, he is reported to have thrown the pieces onto the floor!
Capablanca playing the tournament winner Bogolyubov. Notice the spellbound spectators

Grandmaster Carlos Torre

The Mexican genius Carlos Torre finished in 6th position, and defeated Lasker with a brilliant tactical Queen sacrifice that is even today published in many books on combinative themes. History has it that in the said game Lasker had a large advantage when he suddenly received a telegram from his brother Berthold (in Germany) informing him of some exceptionally good news. Lasker became so excited that he lost his concentration and made a serious mistake . The mexican pounced on it :

Torre had just played his Bishop to f6, forcing Lasker to accept the Queen sacrifice. Lasker could not save his game. Torre was a brilliant grandmaster with an attractive style of play. Unfortunately, mental illness cut short his chess career. He died in 1978, not having played any serious chess for the previous 40 years or more.

With the obvious exception of Bogolyubov, the Soviet players placed in the bottom half of the tournament crosstable. This presented a problem for Krylenko’s ambitons since you don’t find many chess heroes in the bottom half!

The Ukranian born Bogolyubov was the strongest player in the Soviet Union at that time, but soon after the Moscow 1925 tournament he defected (in late 1926) to Germany, leaving Soviet chess without a world-class superstar. This was a serious setback for Krylenko, who soon afterwards took an interest in a young talent from Leningrad, Mikhail Botvinnik.

The Moscow 1925 International Tournament was a learning experience for Krylenko. And while it was a great success, it would be another 10 years before Krylenko would organize another supertournament. With the toll of the Revolution on the chess community, and its numerous defections to the west of its leading talents, Krylenko realized that organizing such expensive tournaments with little expectation of homegrown success was counterproductive to his overall plan. For Soviet chess to prosper, he needed to produce a World Champion. Krylenko wanted to use chess to project the image of the new Soviet citizen.

In the meantime, money was continued to be pumped into chess organization: internal chess competitions , national championships, and especially the searching for, training and developing of chess talents . A metamorphysis was gradually taking place that was going to have a profound effect on world chess .
By 1928 there were 140,000 officially registered members of the All-Union Chess Section, the umbrella organization that Krylenko created in 1925. For the first time some Soviet players were allowed to participate abroad. By 1934, there were 500,000 registered members. In 1935 the trade union championships saw 700,000 people take part. In 1936 there were 10,000 females participating in the qualification sections for the USSR woman’s championshp!

Year by year the soviet championships were getting stronger. New talent was breeding more new talent. But undoubtedly the single most important factor–to Krylenko atleast–the Soviet Union had a player who was soon going to be capable of winning the World Title: Mikhail Botvinnik.

Botvinnik was being groomed to become the new Soviet man
Botvinnik’s rise was likened to a train that slowly gathers speed and momentum and then becomes unstoppable. Krylenko took a very personal interest in Botvinnik’s development. It was almost as if Botvinnik was his protege. He made sure that Misha’s homelife was stable and financially secure. He found the resources to send Botvinnik abroad to participate and gain an experience that did not yet exist back home in the Soviet Union. Krylenko also organized matches for Botvinnik. And Botvinnik’s results did not disappoint Krylenko.

When Krylenko felt confident that Botvinnik was capable of winning against the best, he decided to re-start his big chess Moscow International Chess Tournament. One was organized in 1935, again having many of the very strongest foreign grandmasters in the world participate. Tickets were sold out long before the event even began: 60,000 tickets! Krylenko was a master of getting things moving: 23 foreign journalists were invited, as well as 180 Soviet journalists. 4,000 fans showed up for the first round! Thousands more lined the streets. There was chess fever!

Botvinnik playing in 1935 against Levenfish

And Krylenko was proven sensationally correct when Botvinnik won the tournament , tied with Salo Flohr. Not only this, but it was clear that the Soviet masters were soon going to be better than their foreign counterparts. The years since 1925 had been put to good use in creating a new , tough and brilliant generation of stars that would make the motherland proud. Krylenko was going to reshape the world of chess.

The following year, 1936, Krylenko organized another Moscow tournament, only this time he followed the advice of Botvinnik in reducing the number of participants by only inviting the cream and making it a double round event: a real supertournament. This spectacle was going to be the costliest of the three Moscow tournaments so far, but Krylenko found the resources to pull it off.

It proved to be a bit of a disappointment, in that Botvinnik could only finish second , 1 point behind the cuban Capablanca, but 2.5 points ahead of the next place finisher! But it was clear that Botvinnik , at the age of 25 (Capablanca was 48) could only get better.

The 1936 Nottingham International Chess Tournament was another brilliant result for Botvinnik.

By the end of 1936, with millions of Soviet citizens playing chess in thousands of clubs and tournaments, and with a whole new generation of Soviet grandmasters appearing (with Botvinnik at its head), it was clear that Krylenko had achieved even more than what he could have dreamed of. For the next 70 years the chess world would see the Soviets achieve absolute domination.
Few of Nikolai’s chess games have survived the turbulance of his time, but here is one of the few that has made it into the databases. By today’s standard, Krylenko must have been master strength when on his game:
Krylenko – Lykum
Russia, 1925.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. b4 The Evan’s gambit is known for its ferocity

4… Bxb4 5. c3 Ba5 6. O-O d6 7. d4 Bd7 8. Qb3 Qe7 9. dxe5 Bb6 10. exd6 cxd6

Krylenko had an unmistakeable talent for chess. Here he retreats his Queen, a very surprising move, not typical of a natural born attacker, and very profound. Kasparov was also noted for such Queen moves.
11. Qd1 O-O-O 12. Na3 Bg4 13. Qd3 Nf6 14. Bd5 Rhe8 15. Qc4 Qd7 16. Nd4!

16…Bc5 17. Nxc6 bxc6 18. Rb1 Kc7 19. Bf4! It is not clear how much longer black can hold things together after this fine move

19… Bxa3 20. Qa6 Rb8 The alternative was to resign (or be shot). At least this move has the advantage of perhaps placating Nikolai

21. Qxa7 Kd8 22. Rxb8 Ke7 23. Rb7 Black resigns before he is going to get butchered.

A crushing win. Perhaps Krylenko’s opponent was afraid to try to win!?

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