This is the story of a Russian generation, told as if one were sitting in front of a game board. Because as much as Russia has indeed come back to the world’s geostrategic game, the game being played no longer develops over a chess board – it does so over a goban.
Russia, between de-Stalinization (1956) and the end of the Khrushchev Thaw (1964), saw its own “ten thousand flowers.” Academic and artistic debate was timidly opening up, and great expectations, a search for meaning — somewhat naive and sentimental, and more lyrical than political — grows among the first Russian generation to go through a massive education system and took the social elevator of Stalinism. But in 1964, Khrushchev falls. The small glimmer of criticism opened by the CPSU threatens to morph into the loss of control of the satellite countries and internal dissent. There was nothing lyrical about the wildcat strikes of the Urals in 1962. So the CPSU checks the padlock decidedly but gently, without old-style great purges. A deaf repression, more social than police-led, tries to freeze time. The heavy, grey, and increasingly inefficient years of “Brezhnevism” begin.
But what happened to those young people and children who breathed the refreshing air of 1957? During the eighties, they seemed like Oleg’s character in The Americans. It is the generation that made possible the changes ushered in by the Gorbachov era. In the nineties, they had to manage the debacle and reinvent Russia. Their lives happened as in Yevtushenko‘s poem, “The City of Yes and The City of No.” Between the decaying apparatus of a decomposing regime, and the curiosity of the quiet circles in which, among friends, they dreamed and discovered alternative worlds.
Everything is deadly,
everyone frightened, in the city of No.
It’s like a study furnished with dejection.
In it every object is frowning, withholding something,
and every portrait looks out suspiciously,
Every morning its parquet floors are polished with bile,
its sofas are made of falsehood, its walls of misfortune.
You’ll get lots of good advice in it — like hell you will! —
not a bunch of flowers, or even a greeting.
Typewriters are chattering a carbon copy answer:
And when the lights go out altogether,
the ghosts in it begin their gloomy ballet.
You’ll get a ticket to leave — like hell you will! —
to leave the black town of No.
But in the town of Yes —
life’s like the song of a thrush.
This town’s without walls–
just like a nest.
The sky is asking you to take any star
you like in your hand.
Lips ask for yours, without any shame,
“Ah–all that nonsense!”
This is the story of a generation told as if sitting in front of a game board, and of how, against all odds, the number of Go players increased tenfold decade after decade. From ten players during 1970 when Soviet power was in full force to today, when Go enthusiasts hope to reach one million — the mythical maximum membership of the CPSU — by 2020.
The First Thousand of The City of Yes
We are now in 1962. Like any good generational story of the time, this one begins with a “youth” magazine: “Юный техник“, “Young Technician,” or “Ют” (Iut), to its friends. A publication for pre-college students, halfway between an advanced electronic magazine and a hacker Scout newsletter, with a smattering of science fiction. The old system took the training of young people seriously, so “Iut” featured among its writers prominent technologists and mathematicians like Mikhail Posnikov, who was, by then, already a world figure in the field of algebraic topology. Popular, adored by his students, he was a hacker of the time who surprised everyone with his love for difficult problems and elegant solutions.
Posnikov knew full well that nobody played Go in Russia in 1962. It hadn’t been played since in 1933 the Central Committee decided to ban “any cultural expression” that could be associated with Japan. But he also knew that in 1957, by a happy coincidence, the first European Go Congress had been organized, and thereupon the European Go Federation had been founded. So he decides to try his luck, take the risk, and give his own two cents towards de-Stalinization. He publishes an article with the rules of the game. And the impact was felt immediately, much like the impact that I.J. Good’s famous column in the New Scientist would have in the English-speaking world three years later.
During those years, Yuri Filatov, then a graduate student at the Hermitage in Leningrad, also discovers the game. He is doing his dissertation on Pavel Filonov, an artist of the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of the century, who would be banned until 1967. With such preferences, his chances of getting published or finding a minimally interesting job were nil.
One night, while playing pool, he meets a recently released old survivors of the gulag. He had been an officer in the White Army and learned to play Go with Japanese prisoners. Filatov is fascinated, and, fully consistent with his spirit — ignoring the intellectual limitations imposed by the regime — decides that he will devote himself to promoting the game right after he reads his dissertation. In 1965, he finds two friends who decide to join him on the adventure, Valeri Atashkin and Georgi Nilov. They make their boards and print the rules themselves… and go out on the streets with them.
Khrushchev’s reformist winds are still blowing, so, far from being arrested or harassed, their open classes in Leningrad’s parks and gardens attract increasing numbers of people. They manage to get into factories and the University’s conference rooms. In two years, they teach and federate over a thousand people. Go becomes a Leningrad symbol of the social spring Russians yearn for. The Leningrad Go club comes under the patronage of the influential chess club. It hosts a dozen tournaments with over 400 participants. Newspapers and radio stations start reporting the results of the matches. In late 1966, the team championship of Leningrad has 12 teams representing neighborhoods and businesses across the city.
But the City of No Makes them Start Again from Scratch…
Filatov prepared a small manual to publicize the game beyond Leningrad. In the final draft for the publisher, he makes a political mistake: comparing Go with chess, and both with the evolution of technical and military philosophy. Khrushchev is gone, and the party has become suspicious. Go players draw the attention of the KGB. Friends ask Filatov to withdraw that chapter from the definitive draft of the book, but Filatov ignores them and tries to assert his right as a citizen through the chess club. The result was the dismantling of the whole social structure created so far: the visits of the KGB are persuasive. In less than a month, fewer than 15 federated players are left, and Filatov has to formally leave the chess club so as not to cause more problems for his friends.
The Small City of Yes of 1970
The group goes back to square one. In 1970, there are barely a dozen of them. Filatov, Atashkin, his wife Virginia, and some others get a small place to play in the “House of Friendship” and in the “Palace of Youth.” They gradually rebuild the relationship with the chess club. But they have to be discreet. There, a KGB official who is organizing the first “friendship” trips by representatives of Japanese civil society discovers them. The tour ends up including a visit and a few matches with them — they suddenly become useful for the Soviet foreign image. By a lucky coincidence, the Japanese TV reporter covering the event, Mr. Nishio, is a third dan. Trust ensues, and Nishio starts mobilizing Japanese diplomacy in support of the group. In 1974, with sponsorship from JAL, they organize the first visit by professional players: Sachiko Honda, 2P, and Chizu Kobayashi, 5P. The Japanese Foreign Ministry gives them 300 basic textbooks and 50 sets of stones and boards.
Slowly, they start gaining back popular support. Rada Nikitichny Adjoubei, Khrushchev’s own daughter, opens the doors of the major state publishing group, which publishes “Science and Life” magazine, to Virginia. In 1975, Virginia starts publishing tsumegos and organizes a contest. The result is nothing short of spectacular: players and teams begin emerging throughout Russia once again. They receive correspondence from every corner of the USSR. Go slowly gains back space in the press, and in 1982, it appears for the first time on Soviet television.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, one of those twenty-somethings from the Khrushchev thaw, and a confidant of Andropov, came to power. A reformer who embodies, if only because of his youth (50 years old), the end of the generation gap and the return of the yearnings of the thaw years.
Among the first symbols of the new climate, which was hardly perceived in the West, is the inclusion of Go in the global Soviet education system. Even in the rooms devoted to chess in all military installations, the purchase of boards and stones is recommended by ministerial order. They begin to hold Russian championships regularly. The relaxation of restrictions on the contact with foreigners allows greater exchange with Japanese professionals and the technical level of players begins to increase. Filatov starts publishing, in Kaliningrad, the first magazine about Go (1000 copies). The sports committee of the Russian Federation begins sending players to international tournaments. Russian players soon begin to appear among the first European positions. In 1988, a Russian team wins the European championship for the first time. In 1989, the Russian Go Federation — one of the first still “Soviet” organizations to have a fully independent and democratic structure — is created.
The Soviet Collapse and the Reinvention of Russia
The generation of “The City of Yes” had come to power and was finally starting to change Russia. Years had passed, but they hadn’t lost their momentum or imagination. The Kazan group organizes its tournament as a cruise on the Volga, educational activities multiply… But decomposition is unstoppable. The collapse of the USSR produces a daily sense of helplessness.
Still, just like in the space science fiction stories that they like so much, in the midst of the collapse they manage to send two young players, Svetlana Shikshina and Alexander Dinerchtein, to study in Korea with our friend Chun Poong Jho. They become the the first European professional players of their generation.
Thus, the coup of 1992 and the end of the USSR coincide with a generational change. The exterior appearance of the new Russia, buffeted by political reforms, corruption, and price shocks, scares the world. But underneath, the same wave that has patiently and tenaciously been growing since the sixties becomes increasingly powerful. In 2005, when the 40th anniversary of the first group of players was held, they have reached a whole new level. In 2010, the Russian Go Federation is the largest in Europe, with over 100,000 members. Russian is the European language into which the most materials are translated, and in which the most information can be found on the Internet.
On the boards, the Russian Go Federation is today, indisputably, the great European giant. This is thanks to a generation that had to pay a very high price for wanting to see itself in Europe, for opening up to the world, building a civil society with a minimum of freedom, and trying to leave behind the “City of No.” It is important not forget this today, now that Go can perhaps not just provide strategic metaphors, but also a better understanding of Russian democratic elites. Because, the fact is that Russia has returned to the global table. But this time, the game is no longer played on a chess board – it’s played on a goban.