Andrei Filatov on Chess, Art and Russian Culture

Billionaire and chess coach Andrei Filatov*

Kommersant has published a very insightful interview with billionaire entrepreneur and chess master Andrei Filatov. One of the main sponsors of the 2012 World Chess Championships, Filatov discusses chess as a tool for promoting culture and art, the undervaluation of Russian and Soviet art, and the future of philanthropy among Russia’s super-rich.

On Chess as a promotional tool:

“The first big question was the return to state funding of chess. The match will be held at an iconic museum. Why? […] Holding such tournaments can attract the attention of millions of people, promote the culture of its city, its country, improve its image and attract tourists, increase interest in our art. Chess is a unique and cost-effective tool for promoting the country, culture and ideas, and I’d like to believe that the state will see that.

During Soviet times, of course, chess was highly valued by the state as a part of the cultural front of the Cold War. Russian/Soviet dominance of chess didn’t just grow out of a natural aptitude or popular interest in the game, it was a top-down effort, organized largely by Soviet Prosecutor General Nikolai Krylenko. He called chess, “a scientific weapon in the battle on the cultural front,” and told the Congress of Chess Players, ” We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess,’ like the formula ‘art for art’s sake.’ we must organize shock-brigades of chess players, and begin the immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess,” (Stalin, Boris Souvarine, as quoted here).

While Filatov certainly doesn’t advocate the same oppressive methods as Krylenko (one of the engineers of the purges) he does share the same perspective on chess as a tool for promoting culture. When asked if any other wealthy Russians have followed his example, Filatov responded, “Rather, I am a successor. Do you know that this idea was already realized? And do you know by whom? Stalin. In 1935 a tournament was held at the Pushkin Museum. The Soviet government demonstrated to the world that the Soviet Union had not sold off Russian cultural heritage.”

A Letter from the Front – Aleksandr Lakitonov 1947*

On Art:

Filatov believes that this cultural heritage is deeply undervalued. He makes an interesting comparison between the French Impressionist and Russian Realist schools:

Not a single country experienced more serious upheavals in the twentieth century than Russia: the war with Japan, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, World War I, the Civil War, the Great Patriotic War, famine, repression… all the experiences, these incredible emotions, are visible in the works of Russian artists. Certainly French Impressionism is beautiful. But when Russian Impressionists depict life, there is a different intensity of emotions. Think of “Bathing of a Red Horse” by Petrov-Vodkin. Or Laktionov’s “Letter from the Front” at the Tretyakov Gallery.”

While I may not agree with his choice of examples, I certainly agree with Filatov’s assertion that Russian painting is undervalued. And his comparison of the Russian and French Impressionist schools does a good job of standing in for  larger differences between Russian and Western artistic traditions. The French impressionists produced beautiful experiments in form and color, but the thematic content of their work was much less daring; if it can be said to have any social meaning, it is that leisure time, if you are wealthy, is very enjoyable. To contrast, the work of Russian painters at the same time dealt with class, the urban migration of the peasantry, the need to preserve a rapidly dying Russian folk culture, the conflict of western and eastern forces on Russian culture, revolutionary rumblings, spiritual chaos, etc.

Which isn’t to say that Russian art is interested in content while western art is interested in form. The wildest formal developments of the turn of the century came from Russia in the work of the suprematists and constructivists, which were anything but playful experiments. They set as their goal nothing less than a total restructuring of civilization.

On Philanthropy:

Filatov concludes his interview with a hopeful eye towards a more generous future for Russia’s super-rich. The modern Russian state doesn’t support the cultural institutions built up during Soviet rule. No one could or should follow in the footsteps of Stalin. But perhaps today’s Russian industrialists will begin to follow in the footsteps yesterday’s Russian industrialists and commit their fortunes to the arts and society.

For many entrepreneurs this may be some kind of example. We have thousands of wealthy people. And if those wealthy people did the same, we would be living in a different country. And society’s attitude towards entrepreneurs would change.”

* Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Update 5/16

Filatov has been involved in an annual event that combines chess and art in his native region of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. Link