Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Petr Izmailov's Story is a Cautionary Tale About Marxist Theory in Practice

Have you heard of Petr Izmailov? I consider myself a well-informed student of history in general and chess history in particular, but I had never heard of Petr Izmailov until very recently. A new book titled Petr Izmailov--From Chess Champion of Russia to Enemy of the People: The Truth About My Father tells the story of a chess player who at his peak was among the 50 best chess players in the world (according to calculations made by Jeff Sonas, who invented the Chessmetrics rating system). The book's authors are Nikolai Izmailov (Petr's 87 year old son), and Grandmaster Mihail Marin, who provided annotations for Petr Izmailov's games.

Petr Izmailov won the 1928 Russian Soviet Federation Championship and thus qualified for the preliminary round of the prestigious Soviet Union Championship. Izmailov earned his master title by finishing =1st-2nd in his semifinal group, ahead of future World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik--who Izmailov defeated in their head to head encounter. However, even though Izmailov now had the right to participate in the Soviet Union Championship Finals, he did not play. Contemporary Soviet media accounts provide conflicting reasons for his non-participation, but there is evidence to suggest that the authorities did not consider him to be an appropriate Soviet champion (Izmailov came from a family of priests, which was not desirable in a country determined to destroy religion).

In 1936, the NKVD (Soviet secret police) arrested Izmailov. On April 27, 1937, he was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to death by shooting. The verdict was final and not appealable. Izmailov was killed the next day. His widow Galina was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment in labor camps, and Nikolai--who had not yet turned three--was sent to an orphanage, where he spent a few weeks before being saved by his grandmother, who raised him. Nikolai did not see his mother again until the mid-1950s.

Petr Izmailov was one of the victims of the Stalinist purges. Precise victim counts are unknown and probably unknowable at this point, but estimates range from several hundred thousand to over one million people murdered. 

In 1957, the Soviet Union "rehabilitated" Galina, and then she submitted an application to have Petr "rehabilitated" as well. In the book, Nikolai includes a copy of his father's "rehabilitation" certificate.

Not only did the Soviet Union murder Petr Izmailov, but for five decades his name was written out of the country's official chess history. He was also stripped of his master title, which was supposed to be a lifetime award. Galina passed away on February 27, 1987, at a time when Petr's name was still erased and consigned to the proverbial "memory hole."

In the late 1980s, a few articles appeared about Petr, and over the past several decades Nikolai assembled all of the available archival materials and games to publish a book in tribute to his father. One of the book's appendices is titled "Bullet Chess in Tomsk." Bullet chess is a form of chess in which each player has one minute to complete the entire game, but here the title refers to actual bullets: the bullets used to execute many of the best and brightest chess players from Tomsk (Petr Izmailov's home town), and from across the Soviet Union. 

From 1997-2013, Tomsk hosted an annual memorial tournament honoring Petr Izmailov. Over the years, some of the participants included Grandmasters Rustam Kasimdzhanov, Sergey Karjakin, Alexander Morozevich, and Ruslan Ponomariov. 

Nikolai recalls that at the first memorial tournament, the chief arbiter told him that he had overheard some spectators asking, "Who is Izmailov?" That question inspired Nikolai, who had already done a lot of research, to write the book. He concludes the Afterword by stating, "I don't know whether I really managed to answer the question of that chess fan I mentioned at the very beginning of this book: 'Who is Izmailov?' If I did, at least in part, then my work hasn't been in vain."

Socialism is based on fatally flawed Marxist doctrines, and the implementation of those doctrines leads to dire, evil consequences. That is not opinion or rhetoric: that is historically verifiable fact. As I wrote in The Danger of Marxism, "Without exception, every country that has tried to reach the 'higher stage of communism' ends up mired in a stage of despotism and misery. Capitalism is by no means a perfect economic system, but Marxism has proven to be an unmitigated disaster. The introduction of Marxist economic ideas into a country's policies and the introduction of Marxist historical critiques into a country's mainstream intellectual life foreshadow the end of prosperity and freedom for that country."

Supporters of socialism fall into two broad categories: those who know the truth but believe that "in order to make an omelet (a socialist utopia) you have to break a few eggs (repress, arrest, or kill all opponents)," and those who are "useful idiots" who are unwilling or incapable of understanding the implications and underpinnings of Marxist theory.

Idealistically hoping to make the world a better place is no excuse for failing to learn and apply the lessons of history. If you don't know what happens when a country puts Marxist theory into practice, then read George Orwell's 1984, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.

If you want to understand this on a personal level--to understand how this devastated one family, and left a young boy without a father--then read Nikolai Izmailov's tribute to the father he never knew but always missed and never forgot.

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