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The Leningrad Scene Print E-mail
By Eliot Hearst   
November 1, 2010
LeningradRussialead.jpgIn the November issue of Chess Life Eliot Hearst's article "Victory at Leningrad" tells the story of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. victory at the World Student Team Championship in Leningrad. This is the only time the U.S. won a world team championship ahead of the U.S.S.R.

The following, which describes life in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia) at the time, was cut from the print article due to space concerns. Please enjoy it and then login as a member to access the print article.
It is not easy to decide what to say about life in the Leningrad of 1960 when I cannot compare it to the situation in the St. Petersburg of today. The name of the city has reverted back to what it was before the Russian Revolution and I have not had the opportunity to visit it again over the half-century since we won the world championship there.  After the event, Team Captain Jerry Spann assigned me the task of preparing a report for Chess Life on our victory - perhaps because I did not have much "work" to do during the tourney. However, rather than providing the kind of tournament summary you have just been reading I chose to leave that kind of report to others and to write about some of the people we met, how they felt about the USA and the world situation, the city itself, and how we were treated while we were chessplayer-tourists there. When I began to research this 50th anniversary article I realized that a complete summary had never been written about the tournament results and the round-by-round delights and disappointments the American team experienced. I have tried to fill that gap in the above passages and now have relatively little space to describe the human interest side of the picture. But some vivid memories of people, places, and personal interactions and conversations remain.

We were in Leningrad a couple of years after Nikita Khrushchev had taken over as Premier of the Soviet Union. He had denounced Stalin's repressive measures and "crimes" and while we were in Leningrad there was what many referred to as a "thaw" in personal freedom and general attitude toward the USA, as well as an attempt to improve living standards, for example, in the fields of housing and availability of consumer goods. Jerry Spann later wrote that the members of the USA team "were treated wonderfully and the people cheered us." I recall that our reception committee at the airport could hardly have been friendlier - from Natasha, a brilliant and attractive engineering student who became very attached to our team and one player in particular (he and she might have developed a really strong relationship, but all of us were determined to take the tournament very seriously and no real romance eventuated, although I believe he corresponded with her after we returned home), to Raia, a Soviet woman candidate chessmaster who was to referee most of our matches in the tournament, to Volya, a medical student who knew more jazz talk and Dixieland tunes than any of us. All spoke English well and chatted nonstop as we drove from the airport to the Hotel Baltiskaya, on famed Nevsky Prospekt (Avenue). The Soviet team was also quartered at that hotel, not far from the Palace of the Pioneers where the tournament was held.

Our assigned interpreter was a newly-wed, Svetlana, who was majoring in English literature at the University of Leningrad. However, she told us (as did many others) that the only "recent" American authors available to read in English were Jack London and Mark Twain. She was in charge of arranging for all our side-trips, shopping excursions, and meal tickets. In partial return we taught her to play chess, which we had thought all Russians already knew how to play! Svetlana never appeared to be keeping an eye on us, although we had suspected initially that she had some "spying" duties as well. We seemed completely free to come and go as we pleased and our team members often took unescorted walks around the city. A personal memory of mine was Svetlana's kindness in making an appointment for me to visit Pavlov's old lab in the city, where the director showed me some equipment from earlier days and inscribed a recent book of his own for me, which I still have among my books on psychology.

We were impressed and even overwhelmed at times by the curiosity and warm feelings of  most of our acquaintances, Many were surprisingly critical: "we know that most of what we read in the papers is just propaganda"; "we have at least as many spies as you do" - these are some comments I recorded from chance conversations. All of us on the USA team became involved in political discussions on one occasion or another, but the lack of hostility with which our beliefs were received was quite unexpected. Most of us had decided beforehand to avoid political topics and just play chess.

Russian curiosity about the United States and its customs, salaries, and habits was insatiable: the price of automobiles, the availability of higher education, the merits of television (none of the TV sets in our hotel worked!). Absent from the streets of Leningrad were the large billboards and advertisements so characteristic of an American metropolis. The most provocative sign might be one advising passers-by to "Buy Soap" or "Use Taxis."

The city of Leningrad was quite beautiful. The old Czarist palaces, statues, cathedrals and art galleries, the broad boulevards, the numerous bridges and canals, the intermingling of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and eclectic architecture, all made the city as historic and interesting a city to visit as Paris or Rome. However, the new apartment buildings were drab and monotonous, seemingly built just for more living space, with little imagination involved in their planning.

Many people told us how they never would have had the courage to approach Americans four or five years before. However, they often complained about the relative impossibility of their traveling abroad (without leaving a relative behind in Russia) and the lack of non-Communist books and periodicals in Russia. Most of us returned home with a list of American books that we posted back to various people: mysteries, dictionaries, and scientific and legal treatises. Comments critical of the Soviet regime were frequent among a good number of our Russian contacts, especially those from chessplaying groups or the better-educated citizens. The maids in our hotel, the elevator men, the taxi-drivers, while still treating us personally with great hospitality and warmth, echoed the theme that there are only a few people in the USA who have political power and that these tyrants were mainly interested in wars and money. The only English words some people knew were "Wall Street" and "Pentagon."

We were bombarded with presents of Russian chess books, souvenirs, and even Sputnik pins. I happened to give a ball-point pen to one of the referees when she misplaced her pencil. On each of the next three days I was brought a different gift (chess score books, theoretical volumes by Keres that were hard to obtain in the USA, etc.). Fortunately, for many gift-givers I was able to retaliate with gifts of chewing gum (greatly prized by both adults and children) or with copies of Polaroid instant photos, a great novelty for all of them. Somewhere in my attic I still have such photos of Natasha, Raia, Volya, and Svetlana.

Though obviously irritating the Soviet chess bigwigs and politicians, our victory was well received by the majority of chess fans and players at the tourney, especially those from satellite countries like Latvia and Estonia. That is why Kalme and Mednis were particular favorites

Being a relatively old man, I am sorry that I will probably never return to the town that now bears the name of St. Petersburg and never discover how general conditions and the city itself have changed. I would like to search for some of the people we knew well, even though they will be relatively old men and women, too.


April - Chess Life Online 2010

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