Susan Polgar and Lev Alburt

I was a Soviet defector. Chess was my door to freedom
Lev Alburt
Escaping to America was always my dream. Being a chess grandmaster allowed me to do just that

The Day Stalin Died was the happiest day of my life. Lessons had been cancelled and, ignoring a strict order to return home immediately, I strolled the eerily empty streets of Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea. I was elated, feeling in my bones that things would change for the better. I was seven years old.

In the lobby of my school there was, of course, Comrade Stalin’s statue. Our teachers lived in constant dread lest some kid sneeze at the statue, touch it, make a rude gesture in sight of it. (Whole families disappeared in those days for lesser crimes.)

Fast-forward to 1956, the year of the Hungarian uprising. To keep the populace vigilant, our local bosses spread rumors about the looming Nato invasion. Excited, we – a small group of pre-teens – decided to help our liberators by greeting them with maps locating army barracks, KGB and Communist party HQs. Later I found out that many adults shared those admittedly naive hopes. After all, isn’t western safety best guaranteed by our freedom? Helping us, they help themselves. So we thought.

Alas, the liberators never came. Still, I – and many others – continued to love the west, and especially the United States of America.

At 14, a Soviet youth was expected to join Komsomol, the Communist youth league, and to stay there until 27, at which point the most ambitious would try to join the source of all privileges, the Communist party. The proudest feature of my “Soviet” life was that I’d decided to avoid Komsomol and, for many years, despite many pressures and some temptations, stuck to this decision.

Unknowingly I was trying to follow Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s future appeals: “Do Not Lie! Do Not Participate In Lies! Do Not Support Lies!”

As a 19-year-old chess master, I was able to earn good money without constantly lying like Communist party hacks, and without risking jail like underground entrepreneurs. Several years later, I was allowed to travel abroad to play there in chess tournaments. My door to freedom began to open.

I am not a hero. I didn’t dare to fight the Soviet regime from inside. The utmost I could do was “not live by the lie”, and that, I felt, wasn’t enough. I had to go to America to join what I thought of as my team. (Today, American victory in the cold war appears predestined. In the 70s, however, the opposite movement prevailed, as country after country went red.)

Full article here.