Checkmate: Russia’s War on Ukraine Shatters the Chess World | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW
“Gens una sumus” is the Latin motto of the world chess federation, FIDE, which translates to “We are one family”. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens to tear this family apart.
Instead of showing their skills on the chessboard, many well-known Ukrainian chess players, like Oleksander Sulypa, are now protecting their country – with a firearm if necessary.
“I defend my land against enemies and ‘peacekeepers’. The truth will win!” wrote the captain of the Ukrainian national chess team on Facebook.
His professional chess colleague, Pavel Eljanov, also does not leave his native country.
“I am with my family in relative safety in western Ukraine,” the grand master, from besieged Kharkiv, told DW.
He is trying to come to terms with the situation and supports the sanctions against Russia and Belarus announced by FIDE on Wednesday.
Individual players from the countries concerned will however still be allowed to compete under the flag of the world federation.
“The ban on team competitions is quite clear,” Eljanov said. He would find a blanket ban on individual Russian players too harsh at the moment, he added. Some of his colleagues, however, disagree.
In an open letter, 28 Ukrainian grandmasters demanded the complete exclusion of Russia from international competitions and the resignation of FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, a native of Russia.
The conflict particularly affected the chess world because Ukraine and Russia are absolute heavyweights.
Not only do they produce exceptional individual players, but for decades they have almost always been among the top three nations in the Chess Olympiad, the most important team competition.
“The common roots of this passion for chess go back to the Soviet era,” explained DW chess expert Holger Hank. “That’s why the ties between the two countries in the field of chess are very close.”
Call from Russia: “Stop the war!”
After the outbreak of war, Russian players asked how Eljanov was doing and offered to help him. This attitude does not seem to be an isolated case. In chess, unlike other sports, there are also voices in Russia that have taken a public stand.
“We are for peace. Stop the war! read a written appeal to President Vladimir Putin signed by 34 great Russian masters – including vice-world champion Ian Nepomniachtchi.
FIDE chief Dvorkovich is under pressure as he has had close ties to the Kremlin in the past. The 49-year-old was part of Russia’s political elite until 2018. The economist, considered a liberal, was Russia’s chief negotiator at G-8 meetings and deputy prime minister for six years.
“Wars are the worst things you can face in life… including this war,” he said in an interview with US internet portal Mother Jones. “Wars don’t just kill priceless lives. Wars kill hopes and aspirations, freeze or destroy relationships and connections.”
He said his thoughts are with Ukrainian civilians.
Chess chief Arkady Dvorkovich served in the Russian government until 2018
Such remarks are risky for him personally. “He could be prosecuted for this assessment,” said DW Moscow correspondent Juri Rescheto.
“He uses the word ‘war’, which under a new media law can be interpreted as discrediting the Russian armed forces and punishable by up to 15 years in prison.”
The most powerful man in the world chess federation, who is seeking re-election as FIDE president in May, is unlikely to care only about the election campaign.
Eljanov is nonetheless skeptical.
“In another interview, he made critical comments about economic sanctions against Russia, so his response is still somewhat mixed for me,” he said.
Chess expert DW Holger Hank agrees: “It’s a tightrope walk. Dvorkovich apparently wants to be re-elected president of FIDE this summer and is therefore publicly distancing himself from Putin.”
The best player Karjakin fumes against Ukraine
For Ukrainian grandmaster Eljanov, it’s not just about the Russian FIDE president. He thinks chess celebrities who support the attack on Ukraine should face permanent consequences.
It clearly refers to former world champion Anatoly Karpov, who sits as a deputy in the Russian Duma and voted for the attack on Ukraine, as well as the best player Sergey Karjakin.
Karjakin, 32, was born in Ukraine but has played for Russia since 2009. Six years ago he lost his challenge to world champion Magnus Carlsen.
On Twitter, Karjakin has campaigned against Ukraine since the start of the war, presenting it as the aggressor and mocking the victims of the war.
“He should no longer be allowed to play at international level,” demanded Eljanov.
Such cases should not obscure the fact that large parts of the chess world, including those in Russia, oppose the war and show solidarity with Ukraine. Asked about the guiding motto of FIDE, Eljanov does not hesitate for a second: “I feel it 100%”.
Since the outbreak of the war, he has received hundreds of messages and offers of help “mainly from Europe, but also from beyond”, he said. “It means a lot to me.”
This article was originally published in German.