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How Chess Helped the Jews Survive in the Soviet Union

Natan SharanskyFilmed at Limmud Conference 2014

The game of chess became an alternative to the Yeshiva’s Chavruta: it enabled sharpening the sophistication of one’s thinking in a world of forced assimilation. In this Jewish talk, I speak of how chess helped preserve the sanity of Soviet Jewry in general, and myself in particular, through the hardships of the Gulag.

Natan Sharansky, born in Donetsk, in the Former Soviet Union, was a Prisoner of Zion and a leader in the struggle for the right of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel as well as a spokesman for the human rights movement.  Subsequent to his request to make aliyah, Mr. Sharansky was arrested on trumped up charges of espionage.  Natan Sharansky was tried in a Soviet court, convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He served nine years in the Gulag with many stretches in solitary confinement.  He was released following massive public campaigns by World Jewry and officials in the West.  On the same day that he was released he made aliyah.  In the first few years in Israel, he established the Zionist Forum to assist in the absorption of Soviet olim.  In the 1990′s, he established the Yisrael B’Aliyah party in order to accelerate the integration of Russian Jews. He served in four successive Israeli governments, as Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.  He is the author of three bestselling books and is the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Natan Sharansky remains a champion of the right of all people to live in freedom and believes that the advancement of freedom is critical to peace and security around the world.

In 2009, Natan Sharansky was elected Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency.  As chairman, one of his great missions is to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish People.

Dear friends, so , how Jews survived in the Soviet Union or, how chess became a very important tool in Jewish intellectual survival in the Soviet Union. What was intellectual life for soviet Jews about; let’s say in the period up to the Second World War and until then in the Soviet Union? First of all, it was the life absolutely disconnected from Jewish identity; from history, from faith, from tradition, from language. There were no institutions which could help you to get this knowledge. And, if there were some, very few institutions like the Choral Synagogue in Moscow, very few society Jews would agree to be connected to this. Because they know that it is not good for your career, for your position in society, and sometimes for your freedom, if you do things which are not really approved and supported by the Soviets. So there was a lot of self- censorship in the life of soviet Jews: a lot of doublethink – when you think one thing but say the other. A lot of fear, which was the basis for this self-censorship. All the Soviet people lived in this double think and self-censorship but in addition, Jews also knew that there was discrimination, there are restrictions and so on. And the message from the parents was very clear; you are a Jew and you must be the best in your profession and anyone who runs away and escapes into this world; ivory tower of science or arts, and then maybe he will be more protected. And many, many Jews chose to escape into the world of chess. You know, everybody knew that in soviet universities there were restrictions for Jews. No more than 5% if it is somewhere in Siberia, no more than 2% if it is in the university in Moscow. If it’s a very good university no more than 1% but if you go to chess club you think there is quota restrictions for non-Jews. There are 80%, 75, 90 everybody is Jewish around there. So the question is: why Jews loved this chess club? You know only many years afterwards, when I came to Israel, for the first time, I went to yeshivah, a big yeshivah. And for the first time I saw chevrutta and then for the first time of my life I understood how close it is. You listen to this singing, you go through this mixture of Hebrew which I understood- was difficult and Aramaic which I didn’t understand. But when you start understanding, you understand that it’s almost the same. You know, there is very limited number of openings which theorists studied and proposals in the game. And there is very limited number of end games. But the number of ways, of passes, from these opening to these end games is innumerable in the whole world, nobody can count. There is a very limited number of halachot in Gemara, and taryag mitzvoth in Tanach. But the ways by which you can take from this Halacha and to go to Tnach are billions and billions and billions. And there is always ‘on one hand and on the other hand’, Chazal says, and there is always black and white. And there is always positional approach and combinatorial. There is Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, so it is also the same. And there must be chiddush. And chiddush is the move, the move which takes you from one situation to the other. And what is great about chiddush maybe there is an English word, I don’t know for chidush…but that’s what they say in chevruta if you didn’t finish for chiddush then everything was lost. So you have to finish with a move. And what’s good about this, it’s always open ended, it never finishes. After this chiddush, there will be somebody else who will make chiddush and then the same with the chess. So, Jews can do the same that for centuries their grandfathers did, without going to yeshivah, without studying for 12 years. And you can also do it without self-censorship, without double-think, without fear, and that was what was so attractive. And more than this: for your talents, for your creativity, you will not be punished, as in some other fields. You will get a prize! Why the Soviet Union was giving prizes, why they were supporting it? Because, my theory is that it was very important for the Soviet regime to show that we are the best in the world to the world and to their own people. They wanted to show it in the economy but everyday life was miserable. They wanted to show it in the arts, but censors were killing the arts. In chess they could show it. Here I took all the world champions and the strongest candidates from those years. As you can see 11, from 12 are Soviet except from Fisher. By the way, Fischer’s both father and mother were Jews, communists who didn’t care about their child, so Fischer all his life hated communists and hated Jews. So 11 from them are Soviet 10 from them are Jews that was typical situation. To say that there were no ideological problems, I can start telling you about loyal Botvinnik, not loyal Bronstein, Korchnoi who left and those who were contacting him were not sent to the championships….it doesn’t matter, in comparisons with the general life it was a very safe place and then what happens to a Jew who crosses this line of double-think and becomes a dissident? Then chess becomes even much more important. Here is another candidate to be the world champion. I really wanted from the age-here I’m a bit older – but from the age of 5 I learned this game and I loved this game, because I could win, defeat people who were much taller than me. The theory was: the taller the guy, the quicker I beat them! I loved to play blind, without looking at the board. I loved to play simultaneously with many grownups. And I was going to be a world champion. And when I understood that probably it would be difficult so then I started looking for a career where I can be the best. And that’s how I became a political prisoner. So now, let me take you straight to the first day of my arrest and what an important role chess played. So that’s as you probably know KGB. The monument of the first leader of KGB Dzerzhinsky. In this building, they told me a number of times before that I will finish badly. Here they told me…here the head of KGB signs the paper that I’m accused of high treason and espionage. And I was explained that I will not get out alive if I will not cooperate. And here I wake up in the Lefortovo Prison and I understand that at any moment they will call me for interrogations. And I understand what a huge responsibility is on me and I cannot concentrate on anything. I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, how they can….such an open struggle of thousands of people all over the whole wide world….millions.’ so how they can show that it is high treason and espionage? Maybe all will finis now. They will simply put me in the aeroplane they will send me abroad and will release some of their spies. Oh yeah, I hear that somebody is coming, yes somebody is coming, opening the food trap and says ‘here is toilet paper’. Oh my God, what nonsense is in my head. And then I start thinking to the contrary: of course they will not release me; they have declared already to all the world that I am pays so they will have to kill me. My God, why I’m working for them, I am convincing myself they will kill me….so I try to think about the interrogations. Instead of this, my thoughts go to Moscow to my parents to Israel to my wife, I cannot concentrate. And suddenly I see on the wall, the blackboard, the rules. And there in the rules everything is prohibited, prohibited, then, suddenly ‘you can have a set of chess’. I demand ‘give me a set of chess’. The guard looks in the cell and says ‘but you are alone.’ I said, ‘in your rules it is not written how many people must be in the cell; give me a set of chess’. Rules are rules they gave me a set of chess. I start playing quickly, quickly, quickly. And I’m slower, slower, slower. I started thinking slowing down, analysing the position. And suddenly feel that I can now, I can think about the interrogations. And then I wrote this scheme. It was written by my handwriting on the so-called paper for the toilet and each time someone was looking at this, I as throwing it away and then writing it down again. In chess…some people think that the good chess player is the one that count many moves from this position that you are, no the good chess player sees the strategy and from there, from the end game, from the strategy, he tries what is his goal then what are the condition stop reach this goal, then these conditions are turning into the sub goal. Then they are looking for the conditions to real this goal, and then you connect your final aim with today’s situation, and then you count the moves. So I try to have this tree of goals and conditions for my interrogations. What is my aim? My aim is at the beginning I wrote to prevent them from making this case. Then I said, I can’t prevent. Then not to cooperate. In what not to cooperate? In attempts to present it as something secret – not to cooperate with them in trying to create the cases against the others. And then to study the case and to unmask them – well that will be for later stages. But let’s see what it means, well no, you can think, and that’s what I think now, it looks like a very primitive scheme. But in fact, that’s what gives you the opportunity to rationalize all your strategy against the KGB. Then, after this for more than a year I had 110 interrogations, maybe a thousand hours which I spent in interrogations. They tried all the time to surprise you, to put some question about somebody’s arrested or some document is found. You see you will be accused of these things if you do not answer immediately. Well, they think that it’s checkers, that they put me a piece and I have to take it. I’m not some checkers, I’m a chess player, I have a strategy. I write down their question, I think for 20 minutes, I try to analyse what answer will maximise these goals, and then I give the answer. So that is how chess helped me during the interrogations. After the interrogation, there were another eight years in prison half of this in solitary confinement, half of this in punishing cell. That’s my punishing cell in which I spent 405 days. The idea of this, is that it’s cold, its dark there’s nothing to eat, nothing to read, nothing to write, no one to talk to and that intellectually and physically you’re becoming weaker and weaker every day. But I’m playing thousands and thousands of games and I’m winning all of them. And even if it’s a draw I get a point and with every next game I’m improving on my previous game. So not only I’m not deteriorating intellectually. I’m improving intellectually. And that helps me to spend another day, another day and I know that every day is a closer to the death of the Soviet Union, we were absolutely sure. And while the Soviet Union is weakening dissidents are going out. And here, just in the last months of my being in prison, Karpov, who was the symbol of the Soviet system, and Kasparov, who was the symbol of dissent are playing. And nobody can be indifferent. And just at the time when they are playing, on the latest news, the chess was so popular they are telling not only what are the results, but if it is adjourned, they are telling what is the position. In my punishment cell, I cannot hear but the guard who is just near he makes just at the moment when they describe the position-he makes it very loud. He comes in, he opens my food trap, he says, ‘listen, whose position is better’ and I think for a moment, and I say ‘you have no chance Kasparov will win’. And you can hear from the other cells shout ‘hurrah’ and he says ‘shut up’. But nothing will help them. Next day, Kasparov will become World Champion, in two months I will be released, in one year all the other political prisoners will be released. In two years the Iron Curtain will fall, in five years, the Soviet Union doesn’t exist. And then Kasparov comes to Israel and plays simultaneous game, and I win and I told him ,’Garry, don’t take it so seriously…’ ‘you didn’t have nine years of training in the punishing cell!’ and then we become friends and then Kasparov becomes dissident, here he is arrested. And then I invite him over to our dissident conferences and then he writes the book ‘Life Imitates Chess’, and I write the book, ‘The Case for Democracy’. And I inscribe it for him: ‘to dissident Kasparov, from chess player Sharansky.’ And that’s the happy ending, like in Hollywood, that’s the happy ending. You see, that’s the same building of KGB but now no monument of Dzerzhinksy. They promised me that day that I will not go out alive and Dzerzhinsky didn’t go out alive, the revolution took him away. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist and three generations of my family continue. I want in the name of the Jewish people; I want to thank the people of Iran for giving us the game of chess.

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