BERLIN – Viktor Korchnoi lost the most important games of his chess career. Yet the 85-year-old grandmaster, who died Monday, was an oversized figure: Unlike most Soviet emigres, he got a chance to take on the Communist system in open competition, and he put up a fight that inspired many behind the Iron Curtain. As a Russian who disagrees with the regime that holds power in my country today, I too find belated inspiration in Korchnoi’s David vs. Goliath battle.
Korchnoi started playing chess at 13 in Leningrad, then under German siege. He progressed quickly and became one of the most prominent players in the Soviet Union, where chess was gaining importance as a showcase for the country’s intellectual advantage. Yet he had an explosive temperament and a penchant for inconvenient truths, and sports officials disliked him. Besides, like many of his peers in the star-studded Soviet chess community, he was Jewish — hardly a point in his favor in a firmly anti-Semitic system.
Korchnoi did his best to advance within the system. He even joined the Communist Party — a prerequisite for being allowed to travel regularly to international tournaments. But by the mid-1970s, when Korchnoi reached the peak of his form and was beating the strongest rivals both inside and outside the country, there was a new kid in town — Anatoly Karpov, an ethnic Russian from a working class family and a model young Communist. The Soviet chess hierarchy rallied behind him.
Korchnoi later wrote in his book, “Chess is my life”: “Karpov well understood what he represented: he was a symbol, a banner of the Russian people and the working class. He knew how to behave, and he knew what was expected of him.”
In 1974, a well-staffed and coached Karpov beat Korchnoi in a match of pretenders to the world chess championship. The older grandmaster later wrote that after the match he was punished “simply for fighting” the Communist Party’s favorite. His relationship with the sports authorities was ruined, and he was in trouble for giving outspoken interviews. He was banned from TV and from lecturing, and he thought his apartment was bugged. So in 1976, he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands.
In those days, emigration was known as defection and immediately a campaign against him was launched. Most Soviet chess players — with only two or three notable exceptions — signed collective letters denouncing Korchnoi. Karpov, then world champion, published a separate one. “V. Korchnoi’s decision to betray his motherland deeply astonished and saddened me,” Karpov wrote. “Despite Korchnoi’s current statements, there weren’t, couldn’t be, any obstacles to his creative activity in the country to which he owes everything, including the full flowering of his talent.”
Stripped of all his titles and, later, his Soviet citizenship, Korchnoi remained a formidable player; he qualified to play the much-younger Karpov again for the world championship in 1978. The epic match in Baguio, in the Philippines, was watched throughout the world, but especially jealously in the Soviet Union. I was only 7 at the time, but I remember the newspapers that avoided calling Korchnoi by name — to them, he was just “the pretender.” Yet many rooted for him quietly: the image of an aging Don Quixote attacking a well-oiled windmill was too powerful to resist. To those who distrusted the Soviet system but lacked the courage or the wherewithal to leave or fight, Korchnoi was a symbol of freedom, a man who crossed the line and did not slink away from a confrontation with the machine that had used him and forced him out.
Throughout the match, Korchnoi and Karpov accused each other’s teams of using hypnosis, and the pretender claimed Karpov was taking some form of doping with his yogurt that allowed him to play without tiring. The Soviet authorities wouldn’t allow Korchnoi’s family out of the country to join him, and his son was threatened with a prison term for draft dodging (he was convicted the following year). Karpov developed a 5-2 lead, but Korchnoi, playing in mirrored glasses to shield his eyes from Karpov’s psychologist in the audience, staged a remarkable comeback to 5-5 before losing the final game.
Both the champion and the challenger wrote books about the battle, filled with deep personal bitterness. Korchnoi’s “Antichess” was a samizdat hit; despite the paranoia that permeated the book, it was the story of a vulnerable individual taking on something much bigger than himself. “A system worked and won against me,” he said in 2011. “I probably found strength in the sense of contrariness, which is a characteristic of mine.”
The official propaganda tried to make an example of Korchnoi on these same grounds: The message to Soviet citizens was, betray the Motherland — and you’re alone. “Who are Korchnoi’s friends?” Alexander Kiknadze wrote in a short documentary novel of the Baguio match. “With whom does he share his joy or grief? There’s no one there for him. There are people willing to share his dollars, or pounds sterling, or Deutschmarks, but not joy, not grief.”
Korchnoi, indeed, was acerbic and standoffish. Yet, after losing another match to Karpov, he went on to have an extraordinarily long career as a tournament player, one of the most respected figures in the world of chess. He refused to come back to Russia in 1990 after his citizenship was restored to him: life expectancy was higher in the West, he noted dryly.
Karpov, unsurprisingly a Putin ally, remembers Korchnoi with wistfulness. “His style was inimitable,” he said after his death. “He was such a hard worker and a man of special talent, a chess player of the highest rank.”
The statement Korchnoi made by leaving Russia is relevant again. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine insists, as Karpov did back in 1976, that there are no obstacles to development in Russia. Those who leave Russia today, because they find the regime objectionable or oppressive, are not stripped of their citizenship. Theoretically they can travel back and forth — although a growing number of regulations makes it risky for those who are considered disloyal.
Yet, once again, they are pressured and pushed out — by the closure of free media, the erosion of academic and artistic freedoms, the attacks by law enforcement agencies on the businesses of outspoken entrepreneurs. And they are often looked upon as traitors willing to work against their country and for hostile Western powers. The player who succeeded Karpov and broke many more records before retiring — Garry Kasparov — is a lot like Korchnoi in temperament and liberal convictions. An opponent of Putin, he too is persona non grata in Russia today.
Korchnoi’s “sense of contrariness,” however, can be a source of strength again. And the system can lose, even when it wins.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of three novels and two nonfiction books.
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