Russia and Ukraine have faced off on the battlefield in the six months since Moscow’s forces crossed the border and invaded their neighbour.
Now a Ukrainian grandmaster is shifting the fight to chess as he seeks to harness international sympathy for Kyiv and dislodge his Russian opponent from leading the governing federation.
Andrii Baryshpolets, 31, a grandmaster for nearly a decade, said the war was the spur for him to run for the presidency of the International Chess Federation, Fide, an organization “tied to the Kremlin” that has been under continuous Russian leadership for nearly 30 years.
“There wasn’t even a decent public discussion of whether we as a chess world can afford a president who is a Russian politician, given the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he said in an interview. “I immediately realized we were in deep trouble as a chess world.”
Fide president Arkady Dvorkovich, who has led the federation since 2018, is a former Russian deputy prime minister.
The vote on the new president takes place on Sunday at Fide’s general assembly in Chennai, India. Representatives from nearly 200 member countries will cast secret ballots to elect a leader to a four-year term.
Baryshpolets, born in Kyiv but based in the US, is campaigning alongside Peter Heine Nielsen, a Danish grandmaster who coaches the world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway.
They believe Fide’s links to the Kremlin pose moral, practical and reputational problems for the federation and the game. “For decades, the Russian Federation has been using Fide as a soft power to whiten its reputation,” reads a petition they are circulating to support their grassroots campaign.
“It’s an archaic structure which is corrupted inside,” Baryshpolets said. “It’s corrupted because that’s the way the Kremlin keeps control.”
He expressed concern about how this affected the game’s ability to attract sponsors. “Whoever wants to partner with Fide, they immediately see that the organization is highly tied to Kremlin and Russian politics,” he said.
Chess has intersected with geopolitics before, most notably when the American Bobby Fischer took on the Soviet chess machine to win the 1972 world championship in Reykjavik, at the height of the Cold War.
Just as Russian players dominated the elite competitive echelons during the 20th century, so Russian politicians have controlled its administration for decades.
From 1995 to 2018, Fide was led by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former president of the Republic of Kalmykia who claimed he was abducted by aliens and that chess was a “gift from extraterrestrial civilizations”. In 2015, he was sanctioned by the US for his financial support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Dvorkovich defended the successes of his Fide tenure, which included increasing the popularity of chess online, the record number of teams competing in the ongoing Chess Olympiad — although the suspended Russian team is not among them — and boosting Fide’s finances.
“The fact that I’m Russian should not be a reason to stop supporting chess and Fide,” he said.
He has previously questioned the invasion, one of the few high-profile Russian officials to do so, and lost his job as chair of the Skolkovo Foundation, a science and technology center outside Moscow, after expressing sympathy with Ukrainian civilians caught up in the conflict .
He recognized the difficult position the war had placed him in. “It’s really tragic, and for me as well, personally,” he said. “But the chess family should continue to be a family, and hopefully a happy family. There are lots of conflicts in the world now.”
The Baryshpolets-Nielsen campaign is a budget effort, consisting mostly of Zoom calls and internet entries. “I don’t think we’re favourites, let’s put it like that,” Nielsen said. “It will be seen as a pretty sensational thing if we manage to pull it off.”
Baryshpolets took a rosier view: “I’m super optimistic,” he said. “It’s clear we have a choice between the future and the past.”