Reds versus Whites

A masterpiece in porcelain replays old struggles between Bolshevik and Czarist opponents

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As chessmen go, they are large, the king and queen nearly five inches tall, knights and bishops about an inch less, pawns and castles two and a half inches. Most chess sets come with opposed sets of identical pieces. Not these.

Take a good look at the White queen, a lady in a splendid gown who carries a cornucopia spilling over with gold coins. Her Red counterpart on the opposite side of the board is a sturdy young woman in a simple country dress and apron, carrying a sheaf of wheat and flowers.

Political statement here? You bet. This is a Russian chess set, made in 1922-23, when the Russian Revolution was new. Led by Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks had lately taken over Russia, and were still barely afloat in a sea of hostility, their enemies at home known as Whites. So it was a time, if ever there was one, to proclaim the virtues of Communism.

Thus a patriotic chess set, with all the Red pieces vigorous and handsome, workers or soldiers, with hope and revolutionary zeal lighting their clean-cut faces. The broad-shouldered Red king wears a laborer's apron; beside him rests a sledgehammer. By contrast the White king comes clad in ominous black armor swathed in an ermine-lined robe. His face is a skull — a death's head. In fact, except for the pawns, all the White chessmen simply reek of corruption — even the knights are posed in effete attitudes. The pawns are serfs bound in black chains, looking upward in fear and despair.

These days visitors may see the set in the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, sometimes referred to as "Smithsonian North." Its treasures rotate on display, and can always be "objects at hand" upon request for special viewing. The chess set was donated to the museum in 1994 by the widow of Harrison Salisbury, a celebrated author and Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times who died in 1993. Salisbury wrote a number of books about Russia, including The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad and Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917.

Despite long use, the porcelain figures still glow today as if just glazed. Nearly 80 years ago, when they were fired, the recently nationalized State (formerly Imperial) Porcelain Factory in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg and soon to be renamed Leningrad) had swiftly adapted its products to the new Bolshevik revolutionary realities. Gone were the scenes and figures idealizing the lifestyles of a privileged czar and the Russian nobility. Instead, plates and tea sets were decorated with factories, their chimneys spouting smoke, or the grain-rich meadows of collective farms.

Floral motifs still appeared — often surrounding a red star or a hammer and sickle. Scenes featured workers hefting hoes and spades, or farm maidens bearing sheaves and sickles. The soldier with a red-starred hat badge or the sailor carrying a red flag were good sellers. Ceramic noblemen vanished, however, except as symbols of outdated exploitation.

Three-quarters of a century later, the once-mighty Soviet Union is gone, collapsed and fragmented into a collection of restless Slavic and Asian states. As the agony of the revolution and the horrors of Stalin's purges fade, reminders of the confident Red propaganda of the early 1920s now seem harmless, even faintly ironic. But the Cooper-Hewitt chess set still hammers home the old Communist line with idealistic conviction.

According to Deborah Sampson Shinn, assistant curator of applied arts and industrial design, the chessmen are the work of a porcelain artist named Natalya Danko, one of the top-notch people recruited by the Soviets to spread their message.

Danko grew up in St. Petersburg (as of 1991 restored to its czarist name). Natalya's sister, Elena, working in the same factory, recalled the city as the violence of revolution swept through it, noting "its deserted houses plunged into darkness and cold, their windows spikily starred with traces of recent bullets." In the midst of this grim scene, she remarks on a window display of porcelains. "There stood tiny porcelain Red Guards, sailors and partisans, and new 'Reds and Whites' chess sets sparkled. A large plate bore a legend, encircled by a garland of flowers: 'We will turn the whole world into a blossoming garden.' Passers-by would stop at a window and gaze long at the china...a message from a beautiful future...."


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