|Kavlov in 1949, a secret photograph taken by US intelligence camera concealed in his chess board|
Many commentators have pointed that Putin’s quick thinking has offered a convenient solution for all involved, but few have recognised the role that chess played in this incident. Keen enthusiast of the game will recognise that Putin’s proposal was a variation on the classic ‘Jabowntski sacrifice’, in which a functionally-degraded chess piece is sacrificed to create space for manoeuvre elsewhere. But that is only half the story.
Few people will know of the role chess played in Soviet strategic thinking and the various programmes that the USSR established to train its military and intelligence elites in the art of Zevsebia, or chess-think. Chess-think was for the USSR what game theory was for the US during the Cold War, but the Soviets went further than the Americans in making chess-think second nature to their cadres.
According to Soviet documents that were declassified in 2004, the first Zevsebia programme was initiated in 1932 when Stalin, an obsessive chess player, put the man who would later head the NKVD Beria in charge of running the programme. Beria recruited Russian chess grandmaster Kavlov, also a keen amateur boxer who won a bronze medal in the 1924 Olympics, and charged him with developing the outline of the programme.
Kavlov’s template was to survive almost unchanged until 1986, when Gorbachev, who had an aversion to chess, cancelled the programme after decades of successful operation during which it trained hundreds of the top Soviet cadres. Kavlov’s combination of intellectual and physical rigorous training provided a winning formula for the programme, and Stalin often joked that graduates were ‘our own Supermen’.
|One of the few known Jabowntski sacrifice notations|
The programme was only offered however to a small number of top operatives that had the appropriate levels of mental and physical fitness to pass the rigorous training. In the KGB for example, only agents promoted to the prestigious X2, nicknamed the steel professors, were allowed to receive a Zevsebia training. The X2, as you might have expected, was Vladimir Putin’s old unit in the KGB. An even more interesting fact is that the six remaining Zevsebia graduates are all associated with Putin’s inner policy circles, as former Kremlin insider Yuri Nodov revealed in his critical but obscure 2008 book ‘The Circle’.
In one of the few available written documents on Zevsebia, Nodov published a description of the programme and its training routines in his book, providing a valuable insight that has gone largely unnoticed in the West. Not only were the trainees subjected to intensive training in tactics, military theory, chess and physical fitness, they were forced to compete in chess under extreme conditions. For example, the trainees were forced to play rounds of chess inside refrigerator rooms at below-zero temperatures. They were also made to compete inside very hot rooms, invariably while hopping one foot or doing push-ups. It isn’t surprising than fewer than fifteen per cent of all candidates graduated from the programme. It won’t come as a surprise that Putin came top of his class.
Putin no doubt came across the ‘Jabowntski sacrifice’ during his Zevsebia training, as Russian chess players were forbidden to use it in play and it remained a tactic known only to those within the intelligence community. Stalin had good reasons to maintain the secrecy. During the siege of Leningrad, he and Beria and Kavlov implemented a variation of the manoeuvre by offering Hitler forces what appeared to be a valuable strategic position on the outskirts of the Zabvadna, only for the jubilant Nazis to realize too late that this allowed Stalin to outflank them and finally manage to break the long siege. Yaroslav Mitske’s book ‘The Gamble’ has a detailed description of the operation. Mitske also describes how Stalin had the sixty officers who were in charge of the operation shot after the war ended to preserve the secrets of the ‘Jabowntski sacrifice’, no doubt because of his paranoia.
|Young Putin at the Zevsebia school, in its trademark uniform.|
For Zevsebia experts, there is no doubt that Putin’s manoeuvre yesterday when he offered to sacrifice the Assad regime’s chemical weapons in return for staving off the US attack was inspired by the classic chess move. The Kremlin will no doubt dismiss those reports as fantasy, as it has done for decades but the evidence is there for all to see. It’s not a little bit ironic that the manoeuvre that allowed the US to save face was developed by the Soviets for precisely the opposite reason.
|Stalin and Beria at a visit to the Zevsebia school in 1947.|
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