Recently I re-read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ again. After a first reading when I was still at school, and a second one in my late 20s, I came across the book again after a long break. I am not going to details to describe what the book is about because most of the readers of this blog will know this famous dystopian novel.
There are just one or two marginal remarks I want to make here.
One is: it’s always interesting to see how a book changes over the years. The ‘1984’ I read as a teen is different from the one I read in my late twenties, and both differ considerably from the copy I read now. And yet it is exactly the same book. What has changed is not the book, it is the reader. Some aspects of the book which were very important to me in my younger years seem to have faded (like the love story between Winston and Julia), other aspects have grown more important with the passing of time. That might simply reflect the fact that the reader has become more mature (hopefully!) but also that certain aspects of Orwell’s novel have come much closer to their realization as it seemed to me 20, 30 years ago. The disappearing privacy of our times, the almost ever-present state control over all our movements, the execution of people because of “thought crimes”, not of real crimes they have actually committed, the deafening everyday propaganda that tries to make us believe things that are obviously not true, the euphemisms in the language we use or to which we are exposed permanently. “Newspeak”, “thoughtcrime” and “doublethink” are concepts with which we are all more or less quite familiar today if we still have eyes to see, ears to hear and a brain to think and reflect about things. Having read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” in the meantime, I think a little bit less of Orwell’s literary originality than before, but it is in the description of the concept of “newspeak” and “doublethink” where he is really impressive.
A second very small remark which seems to be detached from the above (but wait and see): while re-arranging my library not only Orwell’s book went through my hands again but (amongst many others) also my chess book collection changed places. Yes, I admit it: collecting chess books (thousands of them) is one of the weirder features of my personality. Maybe later I will write a bit more about my collection, but this is a kind of private obsession that is not shared by very many people and therefore maybe interesting from a pathological point of view only. Be it as it may, I treasure those books in my collection that have not only an interesting content, but also those that tell me a story. For example books with book plates, exlibris or owner stamps of the previous owners, personal dedications, books with annotations by the previous owner, or books which are for a special reason interesting beyond the content. I have one of the very few surviving copies of a specific chess problem book – almost the whole edition sank on board of a ship that was sunk by a German U-Boot in 1917; a very rare copy of Marcel Duchamp’s and Vitaly Halberstadt’s “L’Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées sont Réconciliées“, tracked down after a long hunt in an antiquarian book store in Antwerpes, Belgium for a small fortune (and with all errata slips!); several books inscribed with dedications by former world champion Botvinnik; a bulletin of a tournament in Moscow 1991, signed by my chess idol Mikhail Tal after our personal game. One the most treasured books in my collection is a tournament book of the Moscow International Tournament 1935, won by Salo Flohr and Mikhail Botvinnik ex-aequo, with 66-year old chess legend Emanuel Lasker half a point behind (he was undefeated and demolished the “invincible” Capablanca). Now this is one of the great tournament books every collector would like to possess – but I remember that I got a faster heartbeat when I discovered the book in an antiquarian book store in Heidelberg for another reason: the book had what almost all copies of that edition were missing – the preface by Nikolay Krylenko.
Krylenko was one of the early Bolsheviks that with great energy and extreme ruthlessness helped to establish the dictatorship of Lenin and later Stalin. He was a very efficient henchman of the system, who – since he was an expert in “revolutionary law” – always asked indiscriminately for the death penalty of those who came under his fingers. One of his most infamous remarks: ”We must not only execute the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the mass even more.” As People’s Commissar for Justice and Prosecutor General of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic he had plenty of opportunity to get “enemies of the people” (real and invented one’s) executed for the good of the Soviet Union.
But this bastard had also another side that made him (almost) human. When he was not busy getting people tortured in the ‘konveyer’ (the equivalent to room 101 in Orwell’s novel, or of Guantanamo in the 21th century) and executed after a “fair trial” that lasted rarely longer than five minutes, he was an avid mountaineer and participated in several of the early German-Russian Pamir expeditions. And he was an excellent chess player of master strength that did more for the popularization of the game than probably any other person in history. Chess, the favorite pastime of men like Lenin and Trotsky (both excellent players) was a game played by a very small number of people in Russia before the October Revolution. With a powerful man like Krylenko who was pushing the right buttons for the administration to provide comparatively big resources for the establishment of what was later to be known as the “Russian Chess School” and that dominated the chess world until the rise of Bobby Fischer, it was just a matter of time until the new talents with Botvinnik as the chosen No. 1 would develop to a strength that was not to be surpassed for several decades by any player outside the Soviet Union. Krylenko was also the first to organize international tournaments in the Soviet Union with the strongest masters from abroad. It was these tournaments where the Russian masters could finally test their growing strength.
Like most of the early Bolsheviks, Krylenko met his fate when he seemed at the top of his career. During the great purge he was arrested under the same absurd accusations like most people that became a victim of the great witch hunt. His was tortured for several weeks, convicted in a 20-minute trial and immediately shot. His interrogator was to fall victim to the great purge himself just a few months later.
As most of you will recall, Winston Smith is working in the Ministry of Truth. His task it is to permanently change the past. Newspapers and other past texts have to be changed all the time. People who have disappeared or were “vaporized” (nowadays this is done with the technical support of drones) have to disappear also from the record. After the respective changes, the old papers are deposed of. No trace of the real past will remain in the records, just as no trace will remain of the disappeared and vaporized. Big Brother is always right. The same fate waited for Krylenko. After he was executed, his name was removed from all records of the Soviet Chess Federation and all other records. The preface of the Moscow Tournament Book 1935 which was written by him was removed from almost all copies diligently with a razor blade. Only a very small number of advance copies were already distributed. And one of them is now in my possession. It’s one of these small ironic coincidences that I laid my hands on it again just by chance after I had finished my re-reading of ‘1984’.
George Orwell: 1984, Penguin Classics
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We, Penguin Classics
Robert Braune: Apôtre de la Symétrie, L’Esprit 1913
Vitaly Halberstadt / Marcel Duchamp: L’Opposition et les Cases Conjuguées sont Réconciliées, Paris-Bruxelles 1932
Anon.: Bulletin Moscow International Chess Tournament 1991, Moscow 1991
Vtoroj mezdunarodniy shakhmatniy turnir Moskva 1935, Moscow/Leningrad, 1936
Arkady Vaksberg: The Prosecutor and the Prey, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1990
The blog of Grandmaster Kevin Spraggett contains very interesting details about “the bastard who re-shaped the chess world” which I partly used for my article:
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