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Reds versus Whites

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

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...."

Alas, a future not to be realized. Or rather, a dream betrayed in blood and terror. In 1917, the Russian empire of the Romanovs, rotting at its core, had been struggling for three years to keep the armies of Germany and Austria at bay on World War I's Eastern Front. Czar Nicholas II had mobilized about 12 million men; casualties — dead, wounded and missing — finally topped 50 percent. The soldiers, illiterate but sturdy peasants, were often misused by incompetent officers. On the home front, inflation, hunger and disillusionment led to protest marches — met by the bullets of the police and military. Perhaps a million Russian soldiers deserted. Many of those stationed in St. Petersburg mutinied to join the growing revolution.

The czar was forced to abdicate. A provisional government took shape under a mixed group of notables, but it was local councils — the soviets — who really governed. When Lenin's Bolsheviks — the Russian Communist party that had long been plotting revolution — suddenly took over, its enemies were legion. Leon Trotsky set about training a Red army to defend the still precarious Communist grip on government.

At first the Reds seemed about to lose to the Whites. The Whites did have financial support from the Western Allies, and in 1918 British, French and American soldiers actually landed in northern Russia, in Murmansk and later Archangel. The Americans, part of the 85th Division, recruited largely in Michigan and Wisconsin for World War I, were put under British command and briefly got into action against the Reds. But their hearts weren't in this savage civil war. Some are said to have actually mutinied; others petitioned their officers to call the whole thing off. They all wanted to go home, and when the ice finally broke up in June 1919, they shipped out. When the victorious Reds proclaimed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, they executed many Whites, as well as the czar and his wife and children. Others slipped away into exile.

Natalya Danko designed her colorful chess set when the fighting was over. Limited production probably kept the price quite high. Chess-mad Russians doubtless scraped up the rubles for it anyway. For a while it must have seemed odd to play White. If you did, was it politically incorrect to win?

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