“There is always huge popular enthusiasm for the game when important matches and tournaments are going on,” said Michael Hudson, an associate professor at the American University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, who wrote his thesis on chess in Soviet Union. “They always get the headlines.”
But the international chess organization this week dealt a blow to Russia, where the game is historically embedded in the country’s national identity. In response to Ukraine’s invasion, the International Chess Federation on Sunday withdrew tournaments from Russia and Belarus, a decision experts have called historic.
“FIDE expresses its grave concern over the military action launched by Russia in Ukraine,” the organization, using its French acronym, said in a statement. “FIDE is united against wars and condemns any use of military means to resolve political disputes.”
As well as drawing tournaments – including the prestigious Chess Olympiad – FIDE has also said Russian and Belarusian players will not be allowed to display their flags in tournaments and the federation will end all sponsorship deals. which it holds with Russian and Belarusian public companies. He also said that two Russian players who have publicly expressed their support for the invasion could be sanctioned.
“We were convinced that we had to act,” FIDE vice-president and British grandmaster Nigel Short told The Washington Post.
“This is an outright act of aggression against a sovereign country, and … it involves two very important chess nations,” he added, referring to Russia and Ukraine. . “I mean, they are two of the strongest chess nations in the world.”
In the days leading up to Sunday’s announcement, critics had questioned whether the organization would take a tough stance on Russia. Ben Finegold, an American grandmaster, was one of them.
Following FIDE’s announcement to withdraw the Chess Olympiad and suspend other tournaments, Finegold told the Post that the organization’s decision is “unprecedented” as it has traditionally moved away from the Politics. It was also a “pleasant surprise” because FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich is Russian.
“The Olympiad is a huge event, so taking it away is a real ‘sanction’ against Russia,” Finegold said.
The measures “could make Russia [grandmasters] even more angry with [President Vladimir] Putin,” he added, “and could cause some to rethink the country they represent.”
FIDE, on the other hand, did not ban Russians from participating in tournaments. When asked if FIDE could impose more restrictions, Short said the organization had been “very widely praised for the actions it has already taken – even from its perennial critics.”
“But whether our substantive decisions have gone far enough is another matter,” he said. “It’s something we’re looking at.”
Sports sanctions can pose “moral opprobrium” that could also undermine Russian citizens’ trust in Putin, said Steven Fish, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine “being increasingly difficult to support with ordinary Russians when they see apolitical international sports organizations … locking down their country,” Fish told the Post.
Fish added that international sporting events, including the Chess Olympiad, are extremely important to Russians. Putin has worked to boost Russia’s global prestige by hosting events such as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup, he said.
“Chess certainly has a big part in the imagination of Russians, and they take pride in the fact that they have grandmasters and tend to do well in these competitions,” Fish said. “And that, like football, is a beloved sport in Russia, and they’re going to take being excluded from it very seriously.”
As of October 2020, there were 1,722 grandmasters in the world, according to FIDE, and Russia was home to 239. Germany, the country with the second highest number of grandmasters, had 96, followed by the states United with 95.
While Russia’s relationship with chess dates back centuries, it was during the Soviet era that the game became widespread, said Hudson, a professor in Cambodia.
“Chess has this very important ideological component, right from the start,” Hudson said. “Chess was never about chess in the Soviet Union. Chess was about politics.
Vladimir Lenin and other Bolsheviks were avid chess players, Hudson said, and Soviet leaders believed the 1917 Russian Revolution “came too soon”. Therefore, they sought to prepare the proletariat for its “historic mission” to achieve a socialist society, Hudson said: “It was decided that chess would be one of the ways to achieve this.”
In the 1920s, a “chess fever” gripped the Soviet Union as the government sponsored programs and established chess clubs from Moscow to the Siberian countryside, wrote Russian FIDE master Andrey Terekhov in a essay published on Chess24.com, a chess platform and publication. . The game was still present in factories, cafeterias and schools, according to Hudson.
Chess later became a way for the Soviets to exercise international power – to demonstrate the “superiority of the Soviet system,” Hudson said, and Russia came to “dominate” FIDE.
The Soviet Union and Russia quickly produced some of the most famous and successful grandmasters, including Kasparov, Karpov and Mikhail Botvinnik. In the second half of the 20th century, players from the Soviet Union and Russia won all but one of the world chess championships.
FIDE’s connection with Russia continued after the fall of the regime, Wired reported. For 23 years from 1995, Russian businessman and politician Kirsan Ilyumzhinov served as the organization’s chairman. He was accused of being close to the Kremlin, which he denied, as reported by FiveThirtyEight. In 2015, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Ilyumzhinov for providing financial support to the Syrian government.
“We’ve been dominated by Russia, at least politically, for a long time,” FIDE official Short told The Post.
Dvorkovich, who previously worked for the Russian government, is now the organization’s chairman. But Short credited Dvorkovich with helping usher in organizational change. He said FIDE’s ability to pull tournaments out of Russia and cut sponsorships from its state-owned companies “shows things are changing.”.”
Short stressed the importance of cutting sponsorships.
“A few years ago FIDE couldn’t have done it because they couldn’t afford it,” he said. But now, “we get our money from different sources, from many different countries around the world.”
Hudson agreed that FIDE’s most recent actions signal a change in sentiment.
“This whole thing with the withdrawal of FIDE from Russia would have been unthinkable in Soviet times because FIDE was really controlled by the Soviet Union,” Hudson said.
In the last World Chess Championship held in Dubai at the end of 2021, Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi was beaten by Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, the reigning champion.
Carlsen publicly opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tweeted last week: “Peace is cool. War – not so much.
Nepomniashchi tweeted in Russian: “I fear that the price of the madness of the last days is unimaginable and exorbitant.”