Read Zugzwang Online

Authors: Ronan Bennett


BOOK: Zugzwang


To Molly

Derived from the German,
(move) +
(compulsion, obligation). In chess it is used to describe a position in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse.


St Petersburg, March 1914

































A Note on the Author

By the Same Author

St Petersburg, March 1914

On a raw March morning, on the Moika Embankment near Politseisky Bridge, two men accosted the respected liberal newspaper editor O. V. Gulko. Witnesses later told the police that the taller of the two appeared to berate Gulko in an agitated manner and that Gulko, evidently perceiving himself to be under physical threat, became anxious and attempted to extricate himself from this unwanted attention. The same young man then produced a knife and his companion a revolver. A shot was fired.

Gulko did not fall dramatically but, according to the same witnesses' accounts, slowly folded into a sitting position, as one who suddsenly feels faint might ease himself to the ground in order to give his senses time to revive – except that in this case a large hole had been torn in Gulko's abdomen and blood was spotting the frozen snow on which he sat.

The assailant with the revolver ran off, perhaps under the impression that his work was done but more likely because he had lost his nerve. If so, his companion was made of sterner, or at least more unpitying stuff. He was dressed in workman's boots, long leather coat and astrakhan hat – a fashion popular among certain of the city's students who liked to affect a revolutionary air. By now passers-by were beginning to recover from their initial immobilising shock, but before they could go to the aid of the stricken man his attacker made
several hysterical thrusts. He then fled, making good his escape by reason of his youth and athleticism, the crowds on the Nevsky, and the trepid nature of common humanity in such circumstances.

The affectation of the murderers' dress led to speculation that Gulko had been assassinated by one of the Socialist Revolutionary Party's so-called fighting squads. But if so, why? The fighting squads were certainly active and unpredictable, but it would have taken a logic warped a degree too far for even these fanatical spirits to mark Gulko, who was no friend of the autocracy, as an enemy to be smitten like the Amalekite. Suspicion also fell on that other force of unpredictability and fanaticism, the Black Hundreds, but though Gulko was a Jew he was, like myself, barely so. Others whispered that he had been killed by German agents or a jealous husband. But in truth no one had the least idea of the murderers' identity or motives, and so, uncertainty being to the rumour mill what the scent of food is to an empty stomach, all of St Petersburg talked of little else – at least until the next spectacle upon which people could lavish their consideration should come along.

This duly arrived in the shape of the sensational St Petersburg chess tournament, a glittering occasion held in the ballroom of P.A. Saburov's magnificent house on Liteiny Prospect. The competition's distinguished benefactors, whose munificence provided the generous appearance fees and still more generous prizes, included the tsar himself, who subscribed one thousand roubles to the prize fund. Thousands paid to attend and watch their heroes. As a keen amateur player, I would have gone in any case to watch the games, time permitting. But there was another reason for my interest. I had recently begun to treat the great Avrom Chilowicz Rozental, that sad, shy man. Then thirty-two years old and at the height of his powers, Rozental was
the clear favourite. He had defeated Lasker in 1909, Capablanca in 1911. The year 1912 was his alone: his spectacular run of triumphs at San Sebastian, Bad Pistyan, Breslau and Warsaw made him one of the most talked-about celebrities of the age. His introversion only added to his air of mystery. Across Europe, princes invited him to their palaces, gentlemen to their clubs, and fashionable hostesses to their dinner parties. At that time there was in his play – I know this will sound preposterous to those who do not love the game, but I stand by my comparison – something of the decisive, organic simplicity of a Mozart clarinet concerto, or the classical lines of Quarenghi, or the streamlined flight of the
as it passes over Lake Ladoga on its summer migration to the south.

And yet, tragically, Rozental's genius was flawed by acute psychological instability. At our very first meeting, arranged by a mutual friend, the renowned Polish violinist R.M. Kopelzon, Rozental apologised for his mere presence in my office, declaring himself to be utterly unbearable to his fellow human beings.

Kopelzon had begged me to help Rozental achieve sufficient psychological equilibrium to enable him to participate in the competition. I hesitated, for it was evident my new patient was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown and I doubted anything could be achieved in so short a time (our first meeting fell on 3 March; the tournament was scheduled to start on 21 April). I advised Rozental to withdraw but this he refused to contemplate. There was simply too much at stake. Chess was his life. Were he to win, were he even to finish second behind the reigning World Champion Dr Lasker, he would certainly have claimed the right to play a match for the crown. The outcome, given their respective powers at that time, would not be in doubt: Lasker was a worthy and great champion but he was past his prime, whereas Rozental
had not yet fully come into his. Born in the remote settlement of Choroszcz in Poland, the youngest of twelve children from an impoverished family, speaking only Yiddish and Hebrew until he was almost twenty, Rozental seemed destined to become the third World Chess Champion, feted everywhere from Berlin to New York, Tokyo to Buenos Aires. The St Petersburg tournament of 1914 was the most important competition of his life, and I could not refuse to do for him what I could.

Nothing is ever ordinary or routine to the psychoanalyst. Each patient has a personal history – which is just that:
, highly particular – and his needs are individual and specific. Nevertheless, when Rozental came to me I assumed I would be dealing with the kind of repressed trauma that is the everyday fare of my profession. When our sessions began I had no idea that the two events in which Petersburgers had so much of their febrile imagination invested – Gulko's murder and the series of ingenious slayings that took place daily in the ballroom of Saburov's house – were directly connected in the person before me. The chess world can be bitter and unattractively petty, but it is rarely the stage for intrigue, if one discounts the gamesmanship of rivals and the interminable bickering over the conditions under which World Championship matches should be held. But as my analysis of Rozental progressed, I came to understand that there was much more at issue than the mere winning of a tournament, however prestigious.

Not that the competitors who came to St Petersburg to play chess were aware of this. Professionals habituated to long journeys by train and steamer taking them from country to country and city to city to ply their trade, they had, wherever they found themselves, little occasion to stray outside the itinerant chess player's triangle of hotel, tournament hall and restaurant. Since at St Petersburg these were of the most
luxurious standard, they could be forgiven for thinking the city's founder was exaggerating only a little when he claimed it to be the promised land. St Petersburg
magnificent and monumental. But it is also horribly squalid, and where magnificence and squalor co-exist there will always be envy, rage, cruelty, paranoia and violence. Just as a superficial glance at a chessboard on which a game is in progress will reveal little of the fierce struggle implicit in the arrangement of the pieces, so the tourist delighting in the treasures of the Hermitage, the glories of the Summer Gardens or the exotic wares on display at the Gostinny Dvor will likely be oblivious to the vicious currents coursing through the very streets he meanders in such innocent admiration. Of the eleven players who took part in the great tournament of 1914, only Rozental came fully to understand that cruelty and violent death were not just part of St Petersburg life in the way they are routinely in any great capital but were the very essence of a city stalked by revolution.

Rozental came for no other reason than to play chess, but through no fault of his own he became embroiled in conspiracy, betrayal and, ultimately, murder. I should properly say
, for Gulko's was not the last. I did what I could to help but it was not enough. Rozental's guileless nature made him susceptible to the machinations of his more unscrupulous friends, and the concerter of Gulko's death turned out to be as powerful as a Tartar warlord, and just as ruthless. He cared nothing for the innocents who strayed into his path, and he crushed them with the same icy calculation with which chess masters exchange the pawns cramping their game.

Rozental did not perish in the street like Gulko; his end was neither dramatic nor violent, but it was just as poignant. At St Petersburg, history passed the great Avrom Chilowicz by and life subsequently broke him in pieces. He was to finish his
days as he had begun them, in poverty and grief – and all because of half a dozen barely inferior arrangements of a handful of carved boxwood and ebony pieces on a chequered board of sixty-four squares.


Gulko was murdered on the morning of 14 March. Five days later my secretary came into my office. She was about to go home for the evening and we had already bid each other goodnight. I was waiting for one of my regular patients, who was due at seven, and was using the time to catch up on my notes of an appointment with Rozental earlier that day.

Minna murmured an apology for the interruption; I could see at once that something was wrong.

‘There is someone to see you, Doctor,' she said. ‘A policeman.'

Minna uttered the word with disdain; she was not at all well off but she was a terrible snob.

In the small outer office where Minna worked I found a slightly built man of about thirty-five. He held his hat before him and his dark hair fell in an unkempt fringe over his eyes.

‘Dr Spethmann?' he said. His voice was thin and slightly nasal.

‘Yes,' I answered him, politely but also somewhat warily.

‘I am Inspector Lychev. I wonder if I might speak with you privately.'

I was curious. The work of the psychoanalyst is not unlike that of the detective: both involve bringing to the surface what is being withheld or hidden, with the obvious difference that the former deals in unconscious inhibition, the latter in very deliberate evasion and concealment.

‘Of course,' I said. I turned to my secretary. ‘I shall see you in the morning, Minna.'

Minna hesitated for a moment, appearing reluctant to leave me alone in Lychev's company, before skirting around him in an attempt to put as much distance between them as was possible in the cramped confines. She pulled to the outer door very gently after her; to Minna, noise or disturbance, however slight, was anathema.

‘Please,' I said to Lychev, showing him into my office.

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