Study of the Month - Alexander Petrovich Kazantsev: A life between science, fiction, and science-fiction

by Siegfried Hornecker
8/27/2022 – On 30 June 1908, just after 7 AM (all dates correspond to our Gregorian calendar), an explosion occurred in the harsh forests in Siberia near the Tunguska river. The explosion happened over an area that is nearly unpopulated, so apart from an estimated 80 million trees (and, we suppose, the wildlife in that area of 2150 km²) only three humans died in the event that would likely have been a major catastrophe if it had happened over a densely populated area.| Photos: Pixabay

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Alexander Petrovich Kazantsev: A life between science, fiction, and science-fiction

by Siegfried Hornecker

Let us travel a bit. Now we are in Akmolinsk (later known as Zelinograd, Aqmola, Astana, and Nur-Sultan), a small Russian Fortress and settlement established in 1830 (unbeknowingly just a bit west of the Scythian grave of the Golden Man and others, known as "Issyk kurgan"). What today is Kazakhstan is at the time of the Scythians part of their empire north of Parthia and Arabia, east of the Roman Empire. In the 15th century the Khazakh Khanate is founded, and later Russia takes control, so by 2 September 1906, just around 22 months prior to the Tunguska event, Akmolinsk lies in Russian Kazakhstan, the fortress likely is slowly growing into a city (33,209 inhabitants by 1939).

The main two ways of raising the population are immigration and birth. Alexander Petrovich Kazantsev (2 September 1906 - 13 September 2002) is no exception. Born in Akmolinsk, he studied in Tomsk and after graduating from their Polytechnic University made his income at the Soviet Research Institute of Electromechanics. Writing a movie script in 1936, he must have been disappointed to see this script not turned into the proposed Arenida. But his setback is our gain, as Kazantsev reworked his story and published it as Пылающий остров (literally "Blazing Island", often called "Burning Island") in 1939/1940. So far our information stems from various Wikipedia articles in German and English. (Yours Truly must intervene: It seems that while both Wikipedia and Vallée - see below - talk about the same Institute where Kazantsev studied, by 1930 it was actually named Dzerzhinsky Siberian Technological Institute since 1925).

Was the Tunguska event caused by aliens?

In 1992, Jacques Vallée's book "UFO chronicles of the Soviet Union: A samizdat" detailed "An evening with Alexander Kazantsev" in its ninth chapter. According to this, Vallée with Martine Castello visited Alexander Kazantsev in his apartment near Moscow University in January 1990. Tunguska researcher Alexis Zolotov already was in Kazantsev's cozy study at that time.

Vallée further wrote that Kazantsev, already a prolific science-fiction author at the time, in 1946 put forth the theory that aliens caused the Tunguska explosion with an antimatter-fueled spaceship. This led to controversy and debate. In 1959, Zolotov and Kazantsev came into contact, and a 1975 expedition indeed found a strange metal near the Varta River that looked manufactured, consisting of rare elements fused together, including 67 percent caesium, 10 percent lanthanum, and neodymium. It remained a mystery how those components were fused together. The talk about the magnetic anomaly of the found object in Kazantsev's apartment in January 1990 led to a talk about Russian engineers Tsander and Karalin, the latter of whom supposedly by 1910 was close to using superconductors. After some more talk, the subject changed to the January 29, 1986 crash of an object near Dalnegorsk.While the Dalnegorsk object apparently had a sophisticated technological system, no evidence of extraterrestrial origin was found by the group that analyzed the object. Kazantsev remained in contact with these researchers.

The evening went into general talk about UFOlogy afterwards, while Kazantsev remained an appreciated host, serving cognac and showing a small collection of Japanese statuettes with goggles and a breathing apparatus. This closes Vallée's account on the evening.

Certainly Kazantsev would have enjoyed the new American "glasnost" about UFO encounters, with the United States admitting that flying objects of unknown origin - now called "UAP" or "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena" - have been sighted over 400 times in the past 50 years.

So was the Tunguska explosion caused by extraterrestrials? The thesis put forward by Kazantsev in "Explosion" is just one of many, and nowadays even volcanic activity is not disregarded as cause of the Tunguska explosion. Many scientists believe an asteroid with the power of around 2 to 5 megatons of TNT exploded above the region. As a comparison, the Hiroshima bomb had a power of around 16 kilotons of TNT, i.e. only around 0.3 percent of whatever exploded above Tunguska. This also shows that if whatever happened at Tunguska would have happened above a city and densely populated area, an unprecedented catastrophe for mankind would have happened.

Alien theories

Human civilization, or rather humanity itself, was supposedly descending naturally from other animals, an unknown ancestor of both apes and humans. Other theories exist about how humans or life itself came into existence on Earth. Theories of panspermia - the accidental or intentional "infection" with life from other planets - might set the cause of the very first traces of life, the primordial life, as having come from other planets, solar systems, or even galaxies. The question how biological life came to exist in the first place remains unanswered, only the place of origin would be moved away from Earth with this theory. Religious texts might attribute the creation of life to a divine origin, such as the Bible speaking of an almight God, but also later of the Elohim who visited the Earth. Were those ancient aliens in human form that due to their advanced technology were mistaken for gods? Many events in the Bible have happened in one form or another, most notably the great flood. If those visits also happened, they would be identical to the "ancient astronauts" theory. Those two topics (panspermia, ancient astronauts) are just two ideas that are replicated in science-fiction literature. Alexander Kazantsev wrote some science-fiction and also non-fiction books, we refer to Wikipedia for a small list. I don't know if Kazantsev wrote about the both themes above, but he believed in the "ancient astronauts" theory, from what I gathered from the Vallée book.

Let us look at a Russian article in English language quickly. We learn that Russian science-fiction greatly influenced a filmmaker in the United States. Mainly the works of Ivan Efremov (1908 - 1972) were the heavy inspiration for this young screenwriter with the name of George Lucas when he produced a kind of science-fiction fantasy movie "Star Wars". After the perestroika, Lucas traveled to the Soviet Union where he wanted to meet another movie maker, Pavel Klushantsev. What impressed Lucas about Klushantsev? Well, he had created a science-fiction movie in 1962 titled Планета бурь ("Planet of Storms"). The story was not written by Efremov another Russian science-fiction author. If you followed the article so far, you can easily guess that said author was Alexander Petrovich Kazantsev. So we can infer that George Lucas indirectly was a fan of Alexander Kazantsev.

Another two interesting details from the life of Alexander Kazantsev is told by Wikipedia. The 1939 World Fair was held in New York City. Our hero was part of the Russian crew that traveled to the event and built the Russian pavilion. He remained in New York City for a few months. If you followed the timeline, that was during the time when Kazantsev was writing his revision of the unpublished Arenida, which was published as his debut novel in the same or following year.

The tensions escalated in Europe. Adolf Hitler (German Empire) and Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union) waged a fierce war, and in 1941 Kazantsev joined the Russian Army. He was decorated and became a colonel, and as the war was won, he settled in Peredelkino, a dacha complex for writers to the southwest of Moscow. Later, he must have moved into Moscow, as Vallée visited Kazantsev in an apartment near Moscow University in 1990. Vallée had to climb stairs to that apartment, which sounds unlike a dacha. Furthermore Dmitri Turevski confirmed to Yours Truly that "Peredelkino is nowhere near the MSU".

Returning to Vallée's book, he writes that in 1966 his correspondence with Kazantsev started. In the year that followed, an article by them was published in a student magazine for scientific speculation, but it was picked up by the newspaper Trud. The book gives the source for the article:

Alexander Kazantsev and Jacques Vallee, “What Is Flying in Our Skies?” Young Technology Magazine, no.8 (1965) and Trud, 24 August 1967.

This points towards the Young Technology Magazine trailing with its publications, or a typo in the source, as the article in issue 8 (1965) was published in 1966 or 1967. In any case, after the big newspaper Trud reprinted the article, wide recognition of the article followed together with discussions about its contents. This might have fit into the times (pun intended) at the early Space Age, as the controversial newspaper "New York Times" published an article by its author Henry Kamm on 10 December 1967: "A Soviet Astronomer Suggests World Study of Flying Saucers". This was about a discovery of Soviet astronomer Cholomitsky who thought he found intelligent signals from a source in the Pegasus constellation. A committee was formed to investigate those signals, Kazantsev was one of its vice-presidents.

Those and more stories show that Kazantsev had a lifelong interest in not only science-fiction, but also science and UFOlogy. Likely many more details could be written about here, but after all our articles are about chess. And there one question about aliens will remain unanswered...

Would aliens enjoy endgame studies?

Another important event in Kazantsev's life is not mentioned by Vallée, and only discussed without a date by Wikipedia. In 1926, Kazantsev published his first chess endgame study. Of course - would Yours Truly write about one of the most famous science-fiction authors of the 20th century if there was no relation to our monthly topic? Possibly, but not here. The works of the young master were ambitious, but also often broken. However, in 1933 the following beautiful study was published in "64" as part of a match between Moscow and Leningrad, a thematic tourney.


Alexander Kazantsev, Moscow Leningrad match. "64", August 1933.

White to move and win.

The top priority is creation of a passed pawn, but then Black will defend by bringing his knight closer - via c3 and d5 to e7 or e4 to d6, planning to stop the pawn from respectively g6 or f7. Two routes to h8. How can White prevent this?

Obituaries for Kazantsev were printed in EG 146 (October 2002), page 643, and EG 147, page 687. Most of the short obituary in issue 146 is reprinted below:

A composer of spectacular studies in perfect harmony with his science fiction writings, he was in at the start of the FIDE PCCC and present at Piran in 1958, but never President.

The FIDE PCCC is the Permanent Commission of the FIDE for Chess Composition. This is nowadays succeeded by the World Federation for Chess Composition.

The obituary written by John Roycroft in EG 147 offers different life data than Wikipedia: 6 September 1906 - 14 September 2002. Roycroft writes about Kazantsev that "little is known about his private or public life". He assumes Kazantsev to be part of the nomenklatura establishment, as Kazantsev was allowed to travel abroad and was a member of the retroactively despised Writers' Union with ongoing publications of his chess and science-fiction works. This seems confirmed (among other things) by the 100,000 copies first edition of Caissa's Gift in 1983, Roycroft continues. Despite having composed only around 70 endgame studies, their content was of high quality. Natural settings were used to show artistic renditions, but this opened the door to analytical flaws, accounting for a high number of modifications and corrections in the databases. As of October 2020, there are 154 entries in the database of Harold van der Heijden (and six more by V. Kazantsev). As of January 2003, when the obituary was published, there were 100 entries.

Kazantsev co-authored The Soviet Chess Study (1955). This is, according to Roycroft, Kazantsev's enduring legacy in chess, apart from the endgame studies. In the 1983 book Caissa's Gift Kazantsev's endgame studies and science-fiction works appear, as well as guest authors Alexander Gurvich and academian B. A. Zakharov.

Kazantsev's natural settings, even if often incorrect, invited readers from all playing strengths to replay them. At the same time, he set himself high standards. Those are reflected not only in his endgame studies, but in science-fiction also, both of which converged within days of Kazantsev's death when Andrey Visokosov published an own science-fiction story named Parallel Universes with a Ryabinin endgame study. A fitting hommage to the lifelong author of both genres. Moscow's at the time nearly new periodical "The Chess Week" published the story.

Note: The titles of books were translated by John Roycroft in the EG article, so I can only give the translated names. Caissa's Gift is Dar Kaissi (2nd edition from 1983) but in Cyrillic.

The dark side of the moon

While the article was nearly finished, more information in Russian language came to light that portrays Kazantsev in a far less positive manner.

Ant Skalandis writes in "Братья Стругацкие" ("The Strugatsky Brothers", not to be confused with the book of the same name from late 2011, officially 2012, by Dmitry Volodikin and Gennady Prashkevich, which focuses also strongly on the fantasy works and contains different information about the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) that Kazantsev denounced other science-fiction authors and had a strong distaste for western science-fiction. As an example, in 1963 he verbally attacked Genrikh Altov and Valentina Zhuravlovya. In the following years, he had a bad relationship towards the Strugatsky Brothers. From the beginning, the relationship to Ant Skalandis was one of mutual rejection. In 1966 Kazantsev denounced the inclusion of foreign works in the World Fantasy Library. A decade later, in 1976, it became known to what degree Kazantsev and Kolpakov were brainwashed by Soviet propaganda, when their denounciations written to "Pravda" came to light. The content of which, even if just hinted at in the book by Skalandis, is too heavy to repeat here.

We took this information from page 152 to 154 of an online available version of the book alone.

All in all, it seems that Kazantsev, away from writing and composing, was a deeply troubled personality, one that he himself did not recognize. He blindly believed in the superiority on Soviet science-fiction, and fantasy also. But there he passionately fought against even western influences.

We begun our article with Kazantsev's science-fiction views on aliens. We end it being alienated by Kazantsev's views on science-fiction. Or rather we end it with some of his endgame studies, which should be enjoyed regardless.



Siegfried (*1986) is a German chess composer and member of the World Federation for Chess Composition, subcommitee for endgame studies. His autobiographical book "Weltenfern" (in English only) can be found on the ARVES website. He presents an interesting endgame study with detailed explanation each month.


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