Viktor Korchnoi: Chess Grandmaster, Soviet Defector, Pugnacious Competitor
June 13, 2016, 5:00 am
Almost anything associated with the Cold War appears to be an anachronism these days. Today’s college graduates never saw the hammer and sickle fly over the Kremlin, the deadly wall that cut Berlin in half, or defectors leave home in search of that most precious human commodity, liberty.
Even for those of us with a few more years under our belt, such memories are fading. Still, 1989 remains an extraordinary moment. The political earthquake began as reform communists took control of Hungary and opened the border to Austria. More tremors occurred as Poland held free legislative elections in which the communists were routed. The quake reached a climax with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Aftershocks included the Christmas Day execution of the particularly odious Romanian dictator and dictatress Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.
The Soviet Union lasted another two years, but it was only a shell of its former totalitarian self. No longer did its citizens have to hope for a trip to the West for an opportunity to leave everything behind. Today the countries that pen their people in are few — North Korea, Eritrea, and Cuba, among the most obvious.
But that’s not the world in which Viktor Korchnoi, who died last week, grew up. He was born in Leningrad in 1931 and survived the 872-day siege during World War II. His father died fighting the Nazi invaders. That experience seems guaranteed to coarsen any life. However, he displayed an aptitude for chess, winning the Soviet junior championship in 1947. The USSR enjoyed a stranglehold on the world championship from 1948 to 1972, when American Bobby Fischer dramatically upended Boris Spassky.
Korchnoi was not just a good chess player. At one point he enjoyed the highest ranking in the world. In 1975 he lost a close match, essentially the semifinals, to countryman Anatoly Karpov. Since Fischer refused to defend his title, Karpov was declared champion, making his match with Korchnoi the de facto title fight.
Twice more Korchnoi played Karpov for the title. But in the meantime Korchnoi had defected from the Soviet Union. He never was a compliant Soviet citizen. Stubborn, uncompromising, even rude, he was no Communist model. Eventually Moscow tired of its ungrateful star and denied him permission to travel abroad. The regime promoted his great rival and former friend, Karpov, even threatening Soviet grandmasters who might help Korchnoi train or invite him to participate in tournaments.
Such restrictions threatened to kill a chess career, which is why they were such effective punishment for anyone thought to be a flight risk, or simply uncooperative. When he finally was allowed to play in Europe in 1976 he failed to take the flight home. He admitted his defection was about career, not politics, but that was irrelevant to the Kremlin. He immediately became a non-person at home and a target of Soviet fury overseas.
He was old, in chess terms, when he defected at age 45. Yet he continued to knock on the championship door.