Reds versus Whites

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

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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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