1965 Berlin

On our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia we crossed the iron curtain between West and East Germany. On the way out there was minor drama, when the easy-going West German border guards had taken the original of a key document listing the 24 members of our party, leaving only a photocopy for the dour  East German guards. They were not happy, but ultimately let us through. It was all a bit of a drama for me, as a totally inexperienced tour leader. Fortunately, we were subsequently in the safe hands of the Eastern student organisation that was running the trip for us.

On the return journey, we went through then-divided Berlin. After a long rail journey across Poland, we arrived in Berlin early evening, and hastily dismounted onto the platform. We soon realised that something was wrong. The station was deserted. A couple of us went seeking help, and found ourselves emerging into totally darkened streets. The light dawned – we were in East Berlin and the train had gone! Back in the deserted station, we saw that there was another train due to go to West Berlin in a few minutes time. We embarked onto this one and soon arrived in West Berlin, without further trouble, other than checking of documents. Was it really that easy to cross the curtain?

West Berlin was a huge contrast – lively, brightly lit, people going about their business as in other European cities – a graphic illustration of the difference between lives on the two sides of the curtain. Of course, many in the East wished to escape to the West. As we saw the next day, the Berlin Wall was massive and surmounted with barbed wire, before the no man’s land where would-be escapees were regularly shot.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, manifestation of the thawing of the hearts of men and women. Thank God for that, and what joy was in our hearts at that time. This makes it all the more tragic that Vladimir Putin now appears intent on dragging us back to those days of European division.

Featured image:  Berlin Wall from Potsdamer Platz 1965.
For the rest of the trip, see 1965 Prague, 1965 Kiev, 1965 Odessa, 1965 Moscow.

1965 Prague

The first match of our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was actually in Prague. I was struck by the similarities of Prague with Vienna, which I had had the good fortune to visit on a school trip a few years earlier. The spirit of the people seemed similar, yet more depressed. Many of the magnificent buildings bequeathed by history were in much need of repair. Prague was not thriving at this time.

During our time off we explored some of the great historic sights – the powder tower, cathedral, astronomical clock, but my main memory is of doing all this sightseeing while playing blindfold chess with friend Brian Kerr. Maybe we did not adequately attend to the magnificence around us.

Little did we know at that time, but the spirit rising that we sensed was soon to be inflamed by the Prague Spring led by Alexander Dubček‘s reforming government and then crushed by the Russian invasion in August 1968. We later learned in horror and admiration that in January 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest, in the very same Wenceslas Square we had wandered through.

The parallels with the current invasion of Ukraine are all too apparent. Russia seeks to rule by fear and compel compliance, and punishes those who will not submit.

There is an echo of an earlier religious reformer, Jan Hus, who died by burning at the stake for heresy, by order of the Catholic Church in 1415, memorialised in this statue before the Tyn church.

The cycles of history go on and on.

Featured image is from cathedral door at Prague.

1965 Moscow

The final stop of our 1965 chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was Moscow, then capital of world chess. Of course, we lost the matches, as we were each playing against significantly stronger players. But what stays in memory is the impressions of the then-capital of a mighty empire – the USSR.

1965 GUM

The people seemed drab and depressed, compared to Western Europe, and compared to Ukraine (see previous posts 1965 Kiev and 1965 Odessa). The GUM department store had queues and empty shelves; the system did not appear to be working well for people here at the centre.

This suggested to me that the USSR was not a great success for its own peoples. It had clearly not recovered from WW2 as well as the West, and the people had not correspondingly benefited. Why would Russians wish to go back to those supposedly glorious days through the current ventures in Ukraine and other parts of the Russian border?

Paradoxically, there was also evidence of good organisation, modern technology and buildings suggesting a glorious history.

Worker and collective farmer

All this intermingled with drab buildings and worthy statues to the glory of the working man, rather strange to Western eyes. This was, after all, supposedly a communist state.

So I have very mixed impressions of Moscow at that time, a period when nuclear war between USA and USSR was only narrowly averted – times of peril that the Putin regime seems determined to go back to.

Tsar bell

My only other photograph from that visit was this one of the huge Tsar Bell, considered to be the largest bell in the world. The bell was cast in the 1700s but never struck for real, because a fire caused a bit to split off before it could be hoisted into position to ring. That somehow seems to sum up Russia.

1965 Kiev

Today’s Russian assault on Ukraine and its capital Kyiv brings to mind my one experience of visiting that city, in 1965. The city was then behind the Iron Curtain, part of the USSR, and had its Russian name, Kiev. The featured image is the one photograph I took at that time in Kiev, showing the River Dnieper flowing through the city – the fourth largest river in Europe.

This visit was part of a combined Oxford/Cambridge Universities chess tour, venturing behind the Iron Curtain, because that was where the strongest chess players then were.

After interesting encounters with friendly West German and dour East German border guards, we began our tour in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and were quite surprised to find that city reasonably free and spirited, a bit like a rather subdued Vienna.

We then moved on to Ukraine, its capital Kiev and the Black Sea resort of Odessa. Differences from Western Europe were more marked. We were still clearly in Eastern Europe, but the lively spirit was a bit more subdued, and material conditions much worse. I was pursued half way across the city in an attempt to persuade me to sell my pursuer a ballpoint pen!

Finally, we arrived in Moscow, where the best chessplayers were. This no longer seemed like Europe. The people seemed drab and depressed, and there were empty shelves and queues in the shops. Despite some beautiful buildings, this seemed a more fearful place, the capital of an unhappy empire.

Just 3 years later, 1968, I was delighted to see the emergence of the Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubcek led in establishing more liberal reforms. This seemed to correspond with that feeling I’d had in Prague in 1965 – its seemed natural for Prague to be more aligned with its sister Vienna. Then I recall the Soviet tanks rolling in to Prague to crush the reform movement. How terrible to see that beautiful city of spirit crushed by the Soviets. After that, Czechoslovakia remained controlled by the Soviet Union until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution peacefully ended the communist regime, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall – a time when anything seemed possible.

Although a founding member of the USSR in 1922, Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the USSR. In 1995 Kyiv became an authorised spelling of the capital’s name, and was strongly adopted recently because of the associations of ‘Kiev’ with Russia. Now, it seems, that Ukraine is suffering a similar event to that crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, 54 years later. For reasons unclear to us in the West, Mr Putin seems to have decided that he will not allow Ukraine to continue its path of alignment with the more liberal Western Europe – it must again be forced under Russian control, in an apparent attempt to restore the supposed glories of that USSR.

We weep for them, and the unnecessary and untold miseries that will ensue.

That was 2020 on this blog

It always seems a bit introspective, reflecting on your own blog. But that is one way to learn. I start with my own favourites from the 165 posts that appeared on this blog in 2020.

My favourite photo posts of 2020

My favourite wordy posts of 2020

Most viewed in 2020

WordPress stats give the top 5 most viewed posts in 2020. This appears to be a strange selection, until you realise that mostly these will be hits from search engines, of subjects not widely covered on the web.

Most liked (4 years)

The ‘most liked’ top 5 covers likes over the lifetime of this blog. What most surprised me was the top one, a recent post on psychology and astrology models – which is somewhat peripheral to the main thrusts of this blog.

I note that my preoccupation with a New Renaissance and rantings on politics/economics/science do not figure in either of these lists!

Maybe I should ask myself the question: should I have a number of different blogs, rather than this single eclectic blog?

Bittersweet chess

I used to play club and county chess regularly every season from autumn to spring, with a break at summer. It’s so long ago that I had forgotten what it was like, until I just came across this poem, written for my own pleasure and insight, and then hidden away in a filing cabinet for nearly 40 years.

As summer fades away, thoughts return
to pastimes of many a winter’s day.
Has enthusiasm been rekindled
by the long break away,
or will the waned passion of the spring
remain spent?

What magic makes this game so fair?

Pure thought concentrated on an inner world
safely enclosed in a wall of rules
An escape from reality?

Emotional excitement, the dread anticipation,
the tension of time trouble, the thrill of winning.
An outlet for passion?

The long drawn out playing for a team,
week after week, in League and Cup.
The belonging, the glory?

The pleasure of good moves, the unexpected sacrifice,
a well played realisation of advantage.
Aesthetically satisfying?

The horror of mistakes, the letdown of losing,
repetition of patterns in game after game.
A vehicle for self discovery?

The meeting of old anatagonists, the five minute game,
discussion of chess politics, analysis with friends.
The social side?

The long drawn-out struggle, as both players
take issue, advantage swinging from side to side.
The thrill of battle?

The tiredness, energy spent, stale moves, no ideas,
loss of excitement, no motivation in game after game.
The negative side?

Enough of this introspection.
A new season’s dawning.
Let’s leap forth again to the battle,
Renewed and invigorated. Insane?

Featured image is from the World Championship match Euwe-Alekhine, 1935, via Wikimedia Commons.

Queen’s Gambit

We just completed watching the popular Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit, the fictional story of a female chess prodigy Beth Harmon, based on a novel by Walter Tevis.

The story is well told, in such a way as to make it interesting to non-chessplayers. As an ex-chessplayer, to county standard, I can say that it does get over quite well the reality of playing chess at the time – the fictional period is round about the time I was regularly playing chess. You really get the feel of the excitement of playing the games, but without need to understand precisely what is going on at the board. Indeed, the chessplayer cannot easily tell what is happening. But the drama is excellent.

It does give an idea of the misogyny that was prevalent in the game at the time, which reflected the wider society. Boys just did not believe that girls could really play chess as well. Although in the USSR things were different. Women’s world champion Nona Gaprindashvili was a very strong player, as I discovered when drawing with her in a simultaneous diplay in Cambridge in the 1960s.

This is also a deep psychological story, of how Beth copes with a deep trauma from childhood and how this affects her chess and relationships, again well done.

When she goes to Moscow (funnily enough around the time when I was involved in a real chess trip to Moscow), the film also only hints at the extreme measures taken by the USSR to ensure its hegemony at chess. The shenanigins of the matches between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky and between Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi are notorious. She would have needed seconds along with her to survive.

And finally, when she has beat a Russian opponent, he hugs her – a modern sexism for effect in the film, but no, it would not have happened then.

Still, it’s a great story. I give it 5/5.

Featured image is from Netflix publicity.

Mrs Watty

Mrs Watty lived two doors away from us in 1950s Lincoln. She was pretty well off compared to the rest of the street, having a car long before anyone else and having people in to do things for her.

We had but a nodding acquaintance with Mrs Watty until I was an early teenager. She never seemed to go out of the house, other than in the car. Her age I know not; I just saw her as ‘old’.

Presumably Mrs Watty found out that I played chess at school, and she let it be known that she would like to learn to play chess. Thus it was that I embarked on a very brief career as a chess coach and went round to see her, along with my chess set.Read More »