What were the problems? There wasn't any list of organized players except for 4,000 rated players and those rated players weren't taking their political duties seriously. They were neglecting propaganda and political education. Chess activity in the army and navy was being conducted poorly, activity in the trade unions was unsatisfactory, work among school children was neglected and propaganda was not being disseminated. As a result, organizers were spurred into action and Ilyin-Zhenevsky was ordered to assume control of Leningrad chess. Even the chess magazine Shakhmatyi Listok was changes to Shakhmaty v SSSR (Chess in the USSR) because it was more politically correct.
Krylenko proclaimed at the 1931 All-Union Chess Congress that shock brigades of chess players had to be formed and a 5-year plan was developed with the aim of organizing one million players by the end of 1933. There was to be sixty percent from the workers, nineteen percent from students in higher education, fifteen percent from the collective farmers, and the remainder from the military and police organizations. Krylenko also harangued the delegates on the political significance of their work and defended laws punishing grain theft on the collective farms and the evils of missing work in factories.
By the end of 1932 the All-Union Chess Section pointed out there was still a problem in that chess on the collective farms was led poorly and a goal was set that there should be 148,000 collective farmers among organized chess players. To that end, Machine Tractor Stations which ensured government control over collective farms were used as handy tools to implement chess policies. In 1936 former world champion Emmanuel Lasker, then a Soviet citizen, gave exhibitions on the farms. The activity was slowed down by the War, but by 1950 the Soviets were able to hold a massive collective farm team tournament.
In this whole process, Soviet chess officials had singled out problemists for attack because many of their problems had appeared in foreign magazines. In 1930 Krylenko turned savagely on the problemists and their new organization, the All-Union Association of Chess Problem and Study Lovers. His complaint was that the group was illegal because it was not affiliated with his Chess Section and the leader and well known problemist Lazar Borisovich Zalkind was arrested and accused of complicity in a Menshevik plot.
Krylenko handled the prosecution Zalkind himself. In March 1931, Zalkind was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in the labor camps. The All-Union Association of Chess Problem and Study Lovers was disbanded and replaced by the Central Composition Committee, a part of the Chess Section. Problemists were censured for past offenses such as submitting their compositions to Western publications and they were put on notice that this practice would be severely punished.
Nine foreign publications were designated as acceptable, but problemists submitting works to them had to make an application through the Composition Committee and they could not deal directly with any foreign publications.
Problemists were also advised that bourgeois themes should be avoided in favor of revolutionary themes. What did that mean?! Simply that compositions were required to have a close relationship to practical play and they were not to be fanciful. In the problem world that meant that one-, two- and three-move compositions were out because they tended to be fanciful while long, complicated problems that required multiple variations were in favor. Problems like helpmates, self-mates and fairy chess were officially disgraced. The construction of these fanciful problems was classified as formalism.
In early 1936 Shakhmaty v SSSR ran an article co-authored by Botvinnik and the journal’s editor Spokoinyi announcing a crusade against formalism in composition. The article argued that compositions weren't all that important and were useful only if they helped to develop practical play. Short version: chess problems of a fanciful nature were useless and so their existence could not be justified.
Botvinnik claimed that a “socially useful” composition had three distinctive features. First and most importantly, it should center on a practical theme...a situation that might occur in practical play. Second, the solution should be not be obvious, but difficult to figure out. Third, the idea should be expressed artistically. In the article Botvinnik charged many Soviet composers were engaging in all manner of decadent bourgeois themes which explained why they were publishing in the West, the home of the discredited concept of art-for-art’s-sake. The problem with many composers was that formalism had become a nasty habit that too many of them refused to renounce. But now the government's patience was exhausted and Soviet composers had better shape up.
The director of the composition department of the chess magazine 64, Mikhail Barulin, ridiculed Botvinnik by arguing that chess competition and chess composition were completely different things. Chess problems had a long history and had every right to be considered as separate from competitive play; it was an art form in itself.
The official response, again co-authored by Botvinnik and Spokoinyi, was to remind him that the practice of art for its own sake had been denounced in all areas of Soviet culture, and chess had been a leader in that movement. Therefore, Barulin was guilty of provocation and if he really believed that composition of chess problems should enjoy immunity from serving the purposes of the Soviet state, then Barulin and other like-minded composers were good for nothing. In 1937 Krylenko and the Chess Section addressed the issue. Botvinnik was correct.
Article 58 of the Soviet penal code was enacted against numerous problem composers. Arvid Ivanovich Kubbel (1889-1938) was a Soviet problemist with an international reputation. In 1937 he became a victim of Article 58. A specialist in self-mates and help-mates, he became increasingly frustrated with his inability to have his compositions published. In frustration, he sent his compositions directly to the German chess magazine, Die Schwalbe. He was arrested in 1937 and was sentenced to ten years at labor without right to correspondence; he died on route to a Siberian prison camp.
Mikhail Platov (1883-1938) was the co-author (with his brother) of a composition published in 1910 that had been published numerous times in the Soviet press prior to 1937. The problem caught the eye of Lenin when it was republished in a German paper. In letter to his brother, Lenin commented on the problem which he described as a beautiful bit of work. Lenin's praise meant nothing. Platov was arrested in October 1937, the exact charges never being made public. There was no trial and Platov was sentenced under Article 58 to ten years in a labor camp. He survived only a few months in the camp, dying in early 1938.
Sergei Kaminer (1908-1937) was a problemist who once defeated Botvinnik in three consecutive games. Botvinnik was thirteen and Kaminer was sixteen at the time. There were no hard feelings and the boys became good friends. Thirteen years later during Botvinnik’s 1937 match with Levenfish in Moscow, a distraught Kaminer, by then a well-known problemist who specialized in helpmates, was afraid he was about to be arrested visited Botvinnik in his hotel room. He handed Botvinnik notebooks full of finished and unfinished compositions. Of course, Botvinnik balked at taking them, but Kaminer insisted because he was fearful that the notebooks, his life’s work, would be lost. Kaminer was indeed arrested a few days later and subsequently disappeared into the gulag. His notebooks? Botvinnik claimed he sent them Kaminer’s relatives, but somehow the books disappeared forever.
Pavel Neunyvako (1897-1940) was a hero of the Soviet Civil War who had learned to play chess while in the Red Army, but he was attracted composition and published a number of his studies in the 1920s, while rising in the Ukrainian Party organization. He became chairman of the All-Ukrainian Chess Section in 1933 and when the controversies over composition arose, he used his position to defend Ukrainian problemists. It got him arrested in 1938 and exiled to Alma-Ata, where he continued to compose. He was rearrested and shot in 1940.
What happened to Mikhail Barulin after he challenged Botvinnik? Nothing immediately and his home was a meeting place for problem composers. According to Barulin’s daughter, one of the members was arrested in early 1941 and he reportedly told his interrogators that the circle was often the occasion for anti-Soviet jokes. One by one the members were arrested. Barulin was finally arrested in November 1941 and refused to sign a confession or denounce other problemists. He died in prison in 1943.
That rat Botvinnik never disavowed the 1936 article that began the purge of the problem composers, not even later when it would have been safe to do so. Instead, Botvinnik justified himself, claiming that he was only responsible for the parts dealing specifically with chess while his co-author had written the political stuff. As late as 1986 Botvinnik claimed the article’s criticism about chess problems seemed quite principled and reasonable.
Below is a problem by Arvid Kubbel published in Sovremenoye Slovo in 1917.