“She turned her woman’s head into a man’s head, for she could.” (line 20,034) The Epic of Manas (Volume One) speaking of Kanykei of Samarkand.
Gadzooks by the bucket load! The time has absolutely blitzed by since our March 2021 chessay in which we cunningly deduced – just like Sherlock! – that the shaman, Bakai, a Merlinesque advisor and guardian of the legendary Kyrgyz warrior-king, Manas, represented the bishop in many of the traditional folk-art chess sets that began to emerge from Soviet controlled Kyrgyzstan during the early 1970s. Ironically, this carefully orchestrated ‘Manas Revival’ (which would inadvertently aid in the formation of an independent Kyrgyz Republic in 1991) was the brainchild of the Kremlin itself, who pushed the powerful image of the home-grown hero like a political pawn, taking full advantage of his “connective power and imagery” (to use the party line) as a national symbol of “unity and solidarity” across this distant and restless outpost. Meanwhile, the somewhat overshadowed Manas Chess Revival, as I like to think of it, shook itself to life around the same time, mimicking the veritable plague of Epic of Manas statuary that popped up in parks and city squares all across Soviet Kirghizia, virtually overnight.
In keeping with the 1970s revival, during the summer of ‘74, the recently expanded Frunze Airport was renamed the Manas International Airport (with the careless initialism, M.I.A.). More military than commercial, it was hastily abandoned by the Soviets after the collapse of the USSR in ‘91 (pics 2 and 3 above) and was swiftly renamed once again, this time by the U.S. Air Force who leased the “Bad Ass Manas” Air Base (as it was quippishly called by Allied Forces) from the newly formed Kyrgyz Republic as a ‘Transit Centre’ for the duration of the Afghan War – much to the chagrin of neighbouring Russia and China, I might add! Concurrently, other large-scale construction projects like the National Philharmonic Building and the Manas Statuary Complex, located on the freshly tarmacked Manas Avenue in downtown Frunze got underway in the summer of 1978; gigantic flower gardens were planted, fountains were installed, and picturesque seating areas were created, all overlooked by the all-seeing eyes of four large granite busts of immortal Kyrgyz manaschis, legendary chanters of The Epic of Manas.
Towering over these Kyrgyz warblers directly outside the music hall there stands three bronze statues mounted on tall, angulated concrete columns in the Brutalist style of architecture – so inescapably Cold War Soviet (pic 4 above). One of these likenesses represents the khan’s counselor, Bakai. He stands to the left of the dominating equestrian statue of Manas, the serpent-slaying “champion of the people” straddling his trusty charger, Ak-kula (or ‘The Special One’), whom scholars compare to Alexander’s Bucephalus. (pic 5 below)
On the immediate right of Manas, and a tad more elevated than Bakai, stands the Khan’s better half, the “beautiful and clever” (one may even venture ‘canny’) Kanykei of Samarkand, the headstrong daughter of the ruler of Bukhara (in modern day Uzbekistan). “A wife different from other women…” as The Epic oozes “…that even his most despised enemies praise.” And as reflected in many Kyrgyz sets, the revered “mother of the people,” who ruled the 40 nomadic Kyrgyz tribes “with the head of a man” during her husband’s campaigns, wears a simple ceremonial toilet (pic 6 below) offering a bowl of traditional kymyz to her flock; a spunky, bacteria-laden beverage of fermented mare’s milk that has a reputation for being “hard on the stomach” of tourists. And as one unfortunate National Geographic writer once discovered, “… can quite easily land you in hospital – if you can find one, that is.” Both hints taken. Thank you kindly, sir!
Latrine references aside, we now, without a piddle of a doubt, have our chess king (Manas), our queen (Kanykei), bishop (Bakai) and knight (Ak-kula) and as Sargent Lewis once said to Inspector Morse, “even the chippy could wrap this one up, sir!” Well, not so fast there, Lewis. We still have the Kyrgyz version of the pawns, or chubaks, to delve into and also the matter of some strangely shaped rooks, which will be addressed in due time. But for now, let’s rejoin the untrampled trail of the enigmatic Manas Chess Revival, which reveals much about the production and distribution of folk-art chess pieces throughout the entire Soviet Union – and even further afield…
THE MANAS CHESS REVIVAL
When Moscow’s All Union Council of Ministers demanded stats on folk-art and crafts production from across the USSR in 1967 the distant S.S.R of Kirghizia “replied flatly,” as the US academic Kathryn Dooley noted, stating; “There are no specialized enterprises or workshops for the production of artistic items in the republic.” To remedy this sorry situation in August 1968 – simultaneously kicking off both the ethnic and chess revivals – a decree was issued by the Soviet Ministry of Local Industry ordering the immediate formation of a Kyrgyz Folk Artistic Crafts Union expressly for the production of kyyal (an acronym of sorts for ‘Kyrgyz-manufactured goods’), or as I understand it in my baggus hurricani; imaginatively hand-crafted, homemade items reflecting the traditions and ancient culture of the Kyrgyz people. Thereby, a Kyyal Association is basically a collective term for the regional manufactories of locally produced goods (the words ‘Made in Kyrgyzstan’ spring to mind), and these homegrown workshops could spring up anywhere…as indeed they did.
In the spring of ‘69, the hastily founded FACU, as we’ll refer to it, or The Association of Folk Artistic Crafts Union, commenced operations, as the academic Dooley gleaned from interviews with ex-kyyal workers; “on the first floor of a residential house in Frunze,” (pic 7 left) overlooking the ancient Bishkek bazaar on the Great Silk Road. “At first…” as one kyyal employee recalled, “…the Association had almost no equipment, apart from sewing machines and some small metal and wood-working machines…” the latter of which was almost certainly a lathe, adding insightfully, “…the workplace conditions between 1969 and 1973 at the Kyyal Factory, if it could be called such during these uncertain years, were not ideal.” The use of the terms “not ideal” and “uncertain” in these early days are revealing, as it smacks of a dysfunctional work environment and frequent shortages of basic materials (such as paint, for instance) that had to be scavenged from other factories. A give-and-take relationship described as “an interrelated ecosystem that existed between the manufacturing industries.” This communal policy of sharing materials between different workshops is important in regard to chess sets manufactured by the Frunze Kyyal, as it could explain the inconsistent and eclectic colour schemes of these hand-painted chessmen, as a FACU artisan explained, “It’s how we survived…”
…let’s say we didn’t get a certain paint [colour] or raw material. Usually the process would stall, but we were expected to continue working with the materials available. And, you know, at the end of the month we were paid bonuses if we created something from the leftover materials of other factories.
We therefore gather that any rigid colour-control protocol for chess artisans of the Frunze Factory, especially in these formative years, must have been extremely flexible – bordering on the non-existent! They just knuckled down and made the best of whatever leftover paint colours and materials they could source. Another example of the Kyyal’s ‘artistic license’ is the imaginative use of chiy or decorative reeds, as seen here in the popular women’s magazine, Kyrgyzstan Ayaldary (Women in Kyrgyzstan, April 1976). The discarded off-cuts from these decorative chiy mats, pennants and wall-hangings were incorporated into several Kyrgyz chess patterns. (pic 8, left and 9, 10 below). And to my super-sensitive nostrils, this definitely has a whiff of the aforementioned bonus-making incentives, as one can quite easily imagine a wily chess-artisan creatively making use of the “ecosystem” waste of their sister industries to add a few more rubles to their monthly wage packet – or the Monthly Plan, as the Soviets called it.
With additional funding from Moscow in 1975, however, these “uncertain” conditions soon improved. In the Kyyal’s heyday, which Dooley loosely dates to “between 1974-1985,” the FACU employed close to 2500 craftspeople and admins; a predominantly female workforce of skilled craftswomen (called saimachy), home-based artisans (young mothers or ayaldars), master wood craftsmen (djigach usta) and grunt workers (or oykz – apprentices/children) who were employed at regional subdivisions dotted all along the Great Silk Road. For instance, according to the Kyrgyzstan Ayaldary (July 1978), by 1973, the Kyyal Union had opened manufactories at Naryn, specializing in carpets, horsecloth and wall-hangings; Osh and Uzgen (clothing, satins, silk) and remote Balykchy, a former collective farm, on the western shore of Lake Issyk-Kol (lit: ‘the water that never freezes’), where wool, felt and wood products destined for the Frunze manufactory were processed. With this expansive workforce the “Kyyal Artistic and Productive Union…” as Dooley informs us, was able to boost its production of “local goods and souvenirs” by manufacturing “handmade kalpaks, traditional ornamented horsecloths, women’s handbags woven from reeds decorated with dyed wool, and chess sets with pieces carved [turned and painted] to resemble the heroes of the Kyrgyz epic poem, Manas”.
Fortunately for us, some of these early ‘Manas’ (Kyrg: Манас) sets, shown here with their original boxes, were photographed with the then Kyyal manager, Dzholdoshbek Kachkynbekov during the spring of 1973, perfectly posed in the midst of a well-staged inspection. (pic 11 above) The set in the foreground is hazy, but note the royals, bishops and pawns all have arms attached, limbs that disappear on later Manas patterns.
The queens also have delicate wooden braids added, barely discernible in the photo, but shown here in a similar set (pic 12 above left), which like their slender arms often broke loose, as these pieces awaiting restoration show. (pic 13 above right) In the smaller Manas sets (and we’ll get to these beauties later) the arms and braids are painted on and only the mounted shields are retained. We’ll revisit this integral snap again as our chronology unwinds. In the meantime, having established a deeper understanding of the official term ‘kyyal’ and exactly when these kyyals commenced operations let’s now dig into the meat and potatoes of this chessay – the chess sets themselves, their intended market and the Kyrgyz folk-artists who skillfully brought them to life.
THE KYYAL FAMILY OF FOLK-ARTISTS
On the website kyrgyzjier.com discussing the tradition of woodworking, it relates that the “djigach usta,” a tight-knit group of master wood-turners and carvers, “worked without drawings or stencils” and these “patterns were passed on from generation to generation,” much like the manaschis passed on the verbal story of The Epic of Manas. Going on to say, “Having learned these patterns in childhood, craftsmen reproduced them by memory, adding or varying details as they wished.” And it’s my firm belief that the artisans of the Kyyal enjoyed much of the same freedom. Let me elaborate…
Since our March 2021 chessay I’ve amassed a collection of over a dozen Kyrgyz and Kazakh folk-art chess sets (hence the somewhat lengthy delay for Part Two) and a sizable photographic library documenting many other Central Asian patterns, too. A fitting starting point to our discussion on Kyrgyz folk-artistry is one of the jewels of this collection, which we can compare side-by-side to a similar example from the library, allowing us a candid insight into just how much ‘freedom’ the eye-wateringly creative Kyyal artisans enjoyed.
I pulled the trigger on the following “1960s Soviet” set (seller’s sigh-worthy date) within seconds of seeing it online. The pieces were in a wonderful condition apart from the aforementioned missing braids/arms and some minor finial/paint work on the rooks. Already aware of the Kachkynbekov photograph, I knew these would have been manufactured around the same time, and to date, have only seen one Kyrgyz set that outshines them. I’ve come to refer to this particular Manas pattern as ‘The Elders’ as both kings are white-haired, somewhat of a rarity, as the early Manas kings usually sport a short black beard – as we’ll discover. Let’s now compare the Chess Schach example to the other ‘Elders’ pattern from the library, beginning with the white pieces. (pics 15,16 below)
THE ELDERS: (c.1974-79) King; 14.2cm (5½ inches), wt. 27g, base 3.4cm, wood: poplar, 2mm brown felt.
Left: Chess Schach Collection. Right: Library Stock
The white kings wear a tall kalpak quartered by thin, vertically painted lines that mimic the four cuts of felt used to make the traditional Kyrgyz headwear. The patterned motif on the hat differs on each king. From the neck up they’re pretty much identical, the intricate webbing of the neck-guard being the trademark of this early pattern. Both kings wear a chapan, a long dress coat traditionally embroidered with brightly coloured silk and metallic thread. And here the sets differ. The artist (almost certainly female) is given free-rein to choose from any of the countless ‘embroidery’ motifs that adorn just about everything in Kyrgyz society (pics 16,17,18 below).
The library-stock (LS) king sticks with the same armour-plated (fish-scale) chest pattern as the bishops and pawns, whilst the Chess Schach example (CS) imitates lacework cleverly creating a layered 3D-like effect that continues down onto the lower torso. I believe these ‘tweaks’ are the artisans expressing themselves – a ‘trademark’ signature, you might say, that would be instantly recognizable as the work of ‘so-and-so’ within the Frunze Kyyal.
Take the circular shields, for instance, which I’ve sketched out here for clarity. (pic 19, left) The kings, bishops and pawns of the CS set employ matching patterns for each piece but vary in colour each side. The LS artisan, however, uses six different patterns for the kings, bishops and pawns, making a total of NINE unique shield motifs between the two sets – and we’re standing on the very tip of the iceberg here!
There was either a manual of these traditional shield patterns to choose from or the artisans created their own distinct ‘signature’ designs from memory, tapping into the many thousands of motifs that had surrounded them in everyday life since childbirth, and I strongly favour the latter. Also, perhaps living in an authoritarian society oppressed by the Soviet thumb this immersion into the miniature world of Kyrgyz heraldry may have been a way of reconnecting with their nomadic tribes of the past – a tiny slice of freedom, of cultural identity, of escapism, if you will…placing a tootsie or two outside of the Iron Curtain…
The black kings also vary, (pics 20,21 above) not only in shield motifs but almost from the finial down. The king wears a grand sankele (a unisex fur-brimmed felt hat, as opposed to a tall kalpak) and an alternative colour is introduced onto the nether-regions of the CS chapan, but why? (pics 22,23 below) Were they short of paint as the former Kyyal employee touched on earlier? Or did the artist decide to bring the yellow hues of the upper body down into the lower half of the tunic for balance? Or was it just a whim? A 1970s mystery shrouded in an enigma that will remain unsolved.
Again, to my mind this is purely the artist expressing herself as was customary amongst the craftswomen of the Kyyal. A subject brought to the fore on the informative site, Arts and Crafts in Kyrgyzstan, “… girls are taught embroidery at a very young age. They are schooled by their mothers, as they were by their own mothers going back generations, and those who became saimachyars (master craftswomen) could embroider from memory without need of a guide. They improvise and sometimes vary patterns taken from other traditional motifs.” So we are seeing a pattern here (pardon the pun). The female artists of the Kyyal simply simplified these memorized embroidery patterns to add some well-needed bling to the simply turned Manas chess pieces, letting their minds and brushstrokes meander as one along the way – all so perfectly in tune with their natural nomadic tendencies.
Turning our attention to the knights, we see further signs of these meandering improvisations with both colour and technique. The crescent-shaped torsos of the two sets are decorated in a similar fashion, but both sets differ slightly in form and paint patterns. The CS crescent is carved in a compact arc, while LS is more slender and elongated. Accordingly, the number of swirls and waves representing the horse’s mane vary, three or four waves on CS and five swirls on each side of LS. The patterns terminate with the same large swirl but differ above. Again, it seems there were certain guidelines the artist had to stay within, but she could flaunt her fine-artistry skills (was even encouraged to do so, perhaps) with her own interpretation of the traditional ethnic patterns and colours of the Kyrgyz tribes. And like elsewhere, I adopt the feminine pronoun for I can’t imagine a male artist (as men of this era were cut out for more masculine tasks, like arm-wrestling and drinking games) adorning the historically roguish knight with such long, lush, ladylike lashes! An effeminate knight!! Now there’s a first! Another deft touch is the frieze circumnavigating the rim of the knight’s pedestal that reflects the mane of each set; waves on CS and swirls on LS. These two ancient patterns, on closer examination, are subtly carried through onto the shields of the kings and the domes of the rooks, deftly uniting the backline as one. Quite ingenious, if you ask me…
This brings us nicely onto the rooks, which in these early sets (and by this I refer to the Kyyal’s first decade of operations, from 1969-1979) are influenced by three different cultures, those of Europe, Russia and Central Asia. The Kyrgyz tower has a decidedly European flavour and is gently carved with shallow grooves emulating brickwork. Instead of the familiar crenelated turret, however, the top of the rook is fashioned after the ornate lotus-domed minarets that are strewn across Central Asia. (pic 24 below) Varying forms of these Arabesque minarets also occur in other Manas sets, which we’ll discuss shortly. But for now, let’s retrace our footsteps and explore the very earliest sets produced by the Kyyal.
THE KYYAL’S EARLY YEARS
There are no colour examples of the ‘73 Kachkynbekov set (KS) in the library, but we do have two similar “Manas Chess” patterns distributed, as this label informs us, (pic 25 right) by “The Ministry of Local Industry of the Kirghiz S.S.R.” and decorated by the same artisans of “The Folk Artistic Crafts Union” or “Kыял” (Kyyal) in Frunze. The Etsy dealer, based in Rustov-on-Don in Southern Russia, dated this set “Vintage 1974 Soviet” and although they undoubtedly mistake the encrypted code “PCT Kyrg 350-74” for the exact year of manufacture, I’ll jump onboard with their guesstimation and would date the set c.1974-79, slightly later than KS, for reasons explained momentarily. We’ll begin with a black and white image to compare the sets on a level playing field. (pic 26 below)
We see that the rooks of the Rostov-on-Don set (RoD) are turned in the same simple manner as KS; a cylindrical upright pillar topped with an onion-shaped dome, more associated with the bishops of many Soviet sets, but especially the popular 1950/60s Mordovian pattern seen here (pic 27 left). Intriguingly, both domes, like the CS and KS sets, are segmented into seven equal portions, a bafflingly specific number (why not simply four or eight?) that may represent “the seven wisdoms of Manas,” wholesome virtues which are drummed into unruly Kyrgyz schoolchildren even today. The knights and bishops vary from KS. The bishops completely, while the diminutive knights (H: 7cm minus the plume finial) are more crescent-shaped, their muzzles carved in greater detail. The conical pawns look very similar to KS, both in shape and detail (white wearing kalpaks, black wearing sankeles). The Kachkynbekov pieces can be seen much more clearly here in this recently unearthed image from the same 1973 photo-shoot. (pic 28 right, sourced Sergei Kovalenko) The white king’s shield pattern and general shape of the pieces lead me to believe this is the exact same set as the one displayed in the foreground, just rearranged on the same board with a ‘..Манас..’ box used for a backdrop. Like the RoD set, the kings wear the rotund battle-helmets I associate with the very early Kyyal sets (c.1969-74) and have the same bi-coloured, vertically striped neck-guard as RoD. The artistry of both sets is minimalistic if compared to The Elders. The same busy shield motif is employed for both sides of the RoD set and only the kings differ from the pawns and bishops of KS. Again, this may have been a conscious decision to ramp up production for the mass market, but nevertheless, these sets weren’t cheap as we know from the RoD label. The price of “37 rubles and 65 kopecs” accounted for just under one half of a Kyyal artisans ‘Monthly Plan’ in the early 70s, ruling them out of the ‘intended market’ equation.
A strange phenomenon worthy of mention is the height of the king’s shield that rests upon the breastplate compared to those of the RoD and CS kings that are placed much lower. This curious shift-of-position seems to have occurred around 1974-75, perhaps allowing the artisans a larger canvas area to showcase their skills. Another possibility is that both the shields and chapans were lowered on later patterns to aid stability as these lofty, unweighted 5½” royals were prone to topple. Moreover, the thick, uneven 2mm felt bases (possibly made from horse-hair) on these sets doesn’t help with their stability and in later Manas patterns this felt is replaced with thin velvet pads (that brought with them another set of problems!). More evidence may well come to light, but to date, this ‘lowering of the guard’ helps distinguish the very early Kyyal sets (1969-74) from those manufactured from the mid-70s on.
The queen’s headwear in these early Manas sets varies considerably. My take on this is that the white queen wearing a heavy ceremonial elechek that envelops both head and neck, represents the nomadic tribes based in the cooler, mountainous climes of the north, while the black queen dons a lighter sankele representing the southern tribes of the warmer Osh region, bordering Uzbekistan. These elecheks (pic 29 left) are worn by both queens in later sets and denote a wealthy woman of high birth – and in true Kyrgyz fashion, the taller the elechek the higher you stand in society. In antiquity, the same garment was worn from marriage to death and typically consisted of up to 30 metres of silk (!), which on the noblewoman’s death was then used as a funeral shroud. Gloomy stuff. So let’s brighten things up by adding some blush to their cheeks – quite literally! And BOOM!! What a swirling magnificence of colour we have before our eyes! (pic 30 below)
The anonymous artisan uses a heroic kaleidoscope of colours on this set, seemingly at random for both sides, suggesting that folk-artistry was of more importance than functionality to the powers that be. As mentioned, the detailing is toned down and of a lower standard if compared to The Elders, also suggesting there were different ‘grades’ or ‘standards’ for Manas chess sets (much like those of the former Soviet Union). Indeed, the sets we’ve showcased thus far were categorized as “сувенир” or ‘souvenirs’ by the Ministry of Local Industry and would have varied in price depending on the size of the pieces and the workmanship involved. Souvenirs for who, you may be wondering? And your curiosity is thoroughly merited, as the Soviet Republic of Kirghizia wasn’t exactly on the bucket-list of too many western tourists in the 1970s! Raising the question of exactly what market were these ‘souvenir’ Manas sets intended for?
Our friend, Kathryn Dooley, addresses the “souvenirization” and “rationalization” of traditional Kyrgyz goods (mainly felt hats, wall-hangings and women’s clothing) and the gradual shift to a market economy after the ‘91 collapse in sleep-inducing detail. But without doubt, the commercialization of locally made goods sold all along the ancient routes of the Silk Road (including chess sets, of course) most certainly did occur from the mid-1970s on, when the game was on the world’s radar due to a certain Reds vs. Yanks showdown at Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972. Meanwhile, back in the good ‘ol U.S.S.R in ‘68 the aforementioned powers that be running the Kremlin’s Ministry of Industry had loftier ideas, ordering “…provisions for the production of unique, high quality objects for museum display [with] the goal of increasing exports and developing craftsmanship into a form of ‘high art’ of international renown.” A goal that the cash-strapped and dysfunctional Kyyal somehow miraculously achieved just a few years later, producing an absolutely stunning “Manas Exhibit” that took centre-stage at The Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts in 1970.
To paint a broader picture, the year 1970 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin, “the greatest force behind the Russian Revolution” as The New York Times reported in February of that year. (pic 31 right) In the article “A Big Year in Soviet Union” they report that around “2 million tourists, mostly from Socialist countries” were expected in the hubs of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other major cities. Tourism, as they note, was fast becoming a “major industry” in Russia, forewarning (with a smack of yanky sarcasm) that Americans and other foreign visitors interested in “Leniniana” for “whatever reason” would be “less than enthusiastic about Soviet achievements in the hotel field…” adding, with a twist of cutlery, that “…the restaurants are still a crying shame.” WHAT! No burgers, no KFC!? Ignore those General Tours travel deals! But seriously, there is absolutely no coincidence regarding the Kremlin’s decree of August 1968 ordering the “immediate formation” of the Kyrgyz Kyyal and the upcoming surge of tourists expected for Lenin’s anniversary celebrations two years later. The Kyyal artisans, in no uncertain terms, were “directed” to manufacture “Leniniana” as well as other “unique, high-quality objects” such as the Manas chess sets (read; eye-candy) for this eagerly anticipated influx of foreign and homeland visitors – all accompanied by their bulging wallets, of course….
The celebrations marking Lenin’s birth were held right across the Soviet Union. And as part of the celebrations, in the summer of 1970 an exhibit entitled “Царская игра” or ‘The Royal Game’ was put on display at The Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts (est. 1935) in the heart of downtown Frunze. With unspeakable fortuitousness of the very lucky kind, in a recent correspondence with the well-respected super-sleuth of Soviet and Tsarist Era chess sets, Sergey Kovalenko (and I’m desperately trying to contain my excitement here!), a rare colour photograph of what has to be the Holy Grail of Kyrgyz folk-art chess sets came to light. This illuminating photograph was taken three years prior to the Kachkynbekov snap and unveils an immaculately painted Manas chess set unlike anything I’ve ever clapped eyes on before (or am ever likely to!). And once again, I thank my generous friend, the ‘chess-detective’ Kovalenko, for discovering and sharing these wonderful images that bring this whole chessay together. Given that the Kyall Factory began operations in the early months of ‘69 this would have been one of the first, if not the first Manas projects the Kyyal artisans were “directed” to work on by their Kremlin overlords – no doubt, with the Birth of Lenin centenary celebrations front of mind.
Let’s allow our eyeballs to salivate over the image for a moment. (pic 32 above) The first thing that caught my attention was the precision of the artisans. Take the webbed neck-guard of the king, for instance – it’s absolutely flawless! Also note the pristine white beard of Bakai – it isn’t a mellowed yellow, but as white as fresh snow! We also see the rooks in their full glory, topped with lotus-shaped domes whose vibrant turquoise and purple hues reflect the blue-glazy domes seen throughout Central Asia (pics 33,34 below). The black queen (if we can call Her Majesty so, as there’s very little ‘black’ on her person!) bears a striking resemblance to the RoD example, but is more svelte, shapely and refined – let’s just spit it out – she’s drop dead gorgeous! The kings also sport the now-familiar scaled breastplate pattern which is repeated on Bakai’s neck-guard in a juxtaposed red on green, so quintessentially Kyrgyz! The white array in the background is hazy, but it’s impossible to miss the enormous elechek of the queen. She exudes authority – even from afar! This magnificent specimen was obviously delivered to the Museum of Fine Arts straight off the Kyyal’s factory floor. The brilliant array of colours sing out, not yet dimmed by time or the inevitable yellowing that brings with it a different form of attractiveness that captures the hearts of modern day collectors like you and I.
Before parting our oculus from this set, we’ll cast them for a moment over the traditional ram’s horn motifs that adorn the shields. I must say I enjoyed a good game of ‘spot the difference’ when scrutinizing the eleven shield patterns of the black pieces and you’re welcome to join in too. At first sight we notice the shields of the pawns are of different colours, some red some blue – a rarity in itself! A second glance reveals there’s an unbalanced number of three red shields and five blue ones; looking closer, we see these shades of blue vary slightly and that none of the blue shields are in fact the same; re-examining the red shields, we see that these too, are all slightly different – as are the red motifs on each of the bishops’ shields! Yet all are cleverly related to each other via the common theme of the ram’s horn motif that subtly runs throughout the whole set. Truly an object fit for “museum display” as the Ministry of Industry so requested! And needless to say, if ever there was a perfect example of the ‘artistic license’ granted to the early Kyyal artists, we are looking at it here – pure, unleashed creativity in the raw! My jaw literally dropped to the floor on first sight of these chessmen and should a clear photograph of the white side surface (or, God forbid, an actual set itself!) I guarantee my jaw will attack the floor once more…
Okay. I’ll give your oculi (and my digitus) a break at this point in the conversation. We’ll be rejoining the story of The Manas Chess Revival in our upcoming February chessay, so you’ve not long to wait! The chessay is near to completion, but I too am waiting on the arrival of a very important piece to this fascinating folk-art conundrum (and yes, it’s a Manas chess set!). Once it drops, you’ll be the first to know!
Until next time, Good Schachers, check you later and have a wonderful 2023!
All rights reserved, Alan W. Power, The Chess Schach. January 2023.
Culture in Soviet Central Asia, 1945-1985. Kathryn Dooley, Harvard
Uni. (dissertation) 2016
The Silk Road: A New History, V. Hansen (Oxford Uni. Press 2012)
Kyrgyzstan beyond ‘Democracy Island’ and ‘Falling State’ (Johan Engvall, 2015)
Arts and Crafts in Kyrgyzstan; factsanddetails.com
Kyrgyzstan Ayaldary; various issues from 1972-79
Museum of Fine Arts, Bishkek; artmuseum.kg
National Geographic; various issues on Central Asia and The Stans
The Epic of Manas; various English translations
Note: Should you need specific conformation of any quotes used in this chessay please contact us at email@example.com and we’ll forward the source and page numbers in due course.
Alexander Chelnokov, Soviet/Tsarist Era collector, for kind help with translations and jolly good info all round – and for inadvertently introducing me to the Manas chess pieces! Sergey Kovalenko, Soviet/Tsarist Era chess historian and collector, for so kindly sharing photos and guiding me through the confusing world of Soviet Era chess labels – someone should really write a guide to these! Yes, that’s a hint, Sergey! And last but not least, to my friend, the inspirational Chuck Grau, U.S. collector and Soviet aficionado, whose site sovietchesssets.com serves as a priceless (and ever growing!) source of invaluable information on all things Soviet.
With a special thank you to the chess historian, Sergey Kovalenko, for his help prying open some impenetrable Russian archives and to Alexander Krylov, owner of the Etsy store TrueNixie for sharing his original photos.
Pic 1 (Header); National Geographic Traveller, Nov 2005 credit: Stephen Lioy
Pics 2 & 3; Relics of Soviet Past, The Spokesman Review (Colin Mulvany)
Pics 4, 5, 6; anon. Kyrgyzstan tourists (see tripadvisor.com)
THE MANAS CHESS REVIVAL
Pic 7; wikipedia.com
Pic 8; Women in Kyrgyzstan, April 1976. (Dooley, p146)
Pic 9; archives of Olga Borisova, Etsy store; MatildaRussianShop
Pic 10; The Chess Schach
Pic 12; courtesy of Alex Krylov, Etsy store; TrueNixie
Pic 13; The Chess Schach
THE KYYAL FAMILY OF FOLK-ARTISTS
Pic 14; The Chess Schach
Pic 15; courtesy of Alex Krylov
Pic 16, 17 & 18; Wikipedia.com
Pic 19; The Chess Schach Shields
Pic 20; The Chess Schach
Pic 21; courtesy of Alex Krylov
Pic 22: The Chess Schach
THE KYYAL’S EARLY YEARS
Pic 23: courtesy of Alex Krylov
Pic 24; Wikipedia.com
Pic 25 & 26; archives of Olga Borisova
Pic 27; The Chess Schach
Pic 28; Sourced by Sergey Kovalenko, riamediabank.ru
Pic 29; wikipedia.com
Pic 30; archives of Olga Borisova
Pic 31; NY Times archive, newyorktimes.com
Pic 32; Sourced by Sergey Kovalenko, riamediabank.ru
Pics 33 & 34; alamy.com
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