The man who was Dr. Zhivago: Fedor Bohatirchuk

by André Schulz
11/27/2017 – Even chess players hardly remember Fedor Bohatirchuk although the Ukrainian-Canadian doctor and chess master led a life worth remembering. He lived in turbulent times, and he was a strong chess player with a life-time score of 3½-½ against Mikhail Botvinnik. He also inspired Boris Pasternak to the character of "Doctor Zhivago". Today, Bohatirchuk would celebrate his 125th birthday.

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"You will not win against Botvinnik again"

Fedor Parfenovich Bohatirchuk was born November 27, 1892, 125 years ago. But most sources give November 14, 1892, as Bohatirchuk's date of birth. This discrepancy is probably caused by the differences between the Julian and the Gregorian calendar. After the Russian Revolution the more precise Gregorian calendar was used in the Soviet Union but before the revolution the Julian calendar which lags 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar was better known in Russia. This difference is also the reason why the so called "October Revolution" (which according to the Julian calendar broke out on October 25, 1917) took place in November (November 7, 1917) if one follows the Gregorian calendar.

Bohatirchuk was born in Kiev, which today is in Ukraine but back then was part of the Russian Empire. There have been different ways to transcribe Bohatirchuk's name from cyrillic but in this article we follow the writing used in the ChessBase Mega database and the name on his grave.

Bohatirchuk learnt to play chess when he was 15 years old. At the beginning of his chess career Bohatirchuk visited a couple of tournaments with Mikhail Chigorin who was Bohatirchuk's chess teacher for a short time before he died in 1908. 1910 Bohatirchuk won the City Championship of Kiev for the first time, ahead of Efim Bogoljubow. In 1914 José Raúl Capablanca visited Kiev and won an exhibition match against the young master.

More than a 100 games against Alekhine

Bohatirchuk was one the Russian players who played at the Congress of the German Chess Federation in Mannheim 1914 when World War I broke out and the Russian players were interned by the Germans. However, Bohatirchuk was soon released and sent to Switzerland with Alexander Alekhine, Peter Saburov and N. Koppelmann. From Switzerland the Russians made their way to Genoa where they waited about a month for a ship that would bring them back to Russia. While waiting, they played a lot of chess and Bohatirchuk later said that this month in which he played more than a 100 games against Alekhine had been better for his chess than all other matches and tournaments.

Between 1923 and 1934 Bohatirchuk played in six USSR Championships (1923, 1924, 1927, 1931, 1933, 1934) and in 1927 he won the tournament together with Romanovsky, ahead of players such as Botvinnik and Dus-Chotimirsky. In 1925 he took part in the first great international chess tournament played in the Soviet Union, Moscow 1925, and finished 11th of 21 participants. Bogoljubow won ahead of Lasker and Capablanca.

In 1926, Bohatirchuk wrote the first chess book in Ukrainian, titled "Shahy". He also was an active member of the Chess Federation of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.

Nikolai Krylenko speaks

In the early times of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Botvinnik received the most support from the government. In the course of his chess career Bohatirchuk played four times against the future World Champion, winning three times and drawing once. The defeat of the future chess star against Bohartirchuk in the international tournament 1935 in Moscow was particularly painful for Soviet chess officials. Botvinnik was supposed to win the tournament to demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet working class but after his loss against Bohartirchuk Botvinnik only shared first with Salo Flohr. Lasker finished third, Capablanca fourth.


After Bohatirchuk's win against Botvinnik Nikolai Krylenko, the People's Commissar of Justice and Prosecutor General, who had been a fighting comrade of Lenin and was the head of organised chess in the Soviet Union, said to Bohatirchuk: "You will not win another game against Botvinnik." A prophesy that became true because Bohatirchuk was never given another opportunity to play in a tournament in which Botvinnik played. He was not invited to the grandmaster tournament in Moscow 1936.

Krylenko was a powerful — and feared — politician in the Soviet Union. He actively participated in the Show Trials and political repression of the late 1920s and early 30s, but in 1939, during the Great Purge, he himself was arrested, tortured and executed.

After finishing school, Bohatirchuk studied medicine in 1912 and during the Civil War after the Russian Revolution he directed a military hospital. Later he became professor for anatomy at the Institute for Physical Education and Sport in Kiev. His work did not leave him much time to take part in chess tournaments outside of Kiev. The local party reprimanded him for these absences because he allegedly did not do enough to support the development of the Soviet talents and to promote the cultural life of the USSR. Bohatirchuk saw no other way to escape this dilemma than to give up tournament chess. After a tournament in Kiev in 1938, he took a long break from tournament chess.


24.Qxg7+ Kxg7 25.Nxe6+ Kh6 26.Bg7+ Kg6 27.Ne7#

On June 22, 1941, the German Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union, and in September 1941 the Germans occupied Kiev. Bohatirchuk became director of the Ukranian Red Cross which was, however, not officially acknowledged because the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention. Bohatirchuk and his team took care of Soviet prisoners of war who were treated miserably by the Germans. Because of these activities but also because he allegedly had hidden a Jewish colleague, the sister of the chess player Boris Ratner, Bohatirchuk was arrested by the Gestapo in February 1942 and kept for one month in Gestapo headquarters in Kiev before he was finally released.

Bohatirchuk in his laboratory

In December 1943, the Red Army advanced to Kiev. Bohatirchuk left the city with his family and fled to Kraków. Here Hans Frank resided as Governor-General of occupied Poland. Since the 1920s, Frank had been part of Hitler's inner circle and later he became his personal lawyer. As Governor-General Frank terrorised Poland, plundered the country, and was directly involved in the mass murder of Jews in extermination camps such as Belzec, Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibor. After being found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials, Frank was executed on October 16, 1946.

Hans Frank plays chess | Photo: Ullstein-Foto

Frank was interested in arts, music and philosophy, and he was also a great chess fan. In the occupied countries he had organised chess courses, simultaneous events and chess tournaments with German masters and with foreign grandmasters who lived in the German sphere of influence, among them Keres and Alekhine. In February Bohatirchuk played in the 5th Championship of the Government-General in Radom. Such championships had already been played in Krakow, Krynica-Zdrój, Warsaw, and Lublin, sometimes with elite players. In 1941 and 1942 Alekhine had won these tournaments. At the championship of 1944 in Radom, Bohatirchuk finished second behind Bogoljubow, who was also from Ukraine and a long-time friend of Bohatirchuk. In 1944, Bohatirchuk played a simul in Prague against eight Czech talents — Cenek Kottnauer and Ludek Pachman among them — and beat them 7½-½.


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At the end of World War II Bohartichuk who was a member of the Ukrainian National Council joined the Russian Liberation Army of general Vlassov. This army consisted of volunteers, Russian emigrants, prisoners of war and slave labourers who joined the German Wehrmacht to fight against the communist Red Army. After the end of the war the members of the Vlassov army were handed over to the Soviet Union. Bohatirchuk could escape this fate but afterwards was seen as an enemy of the state by the Soviet government. His games were erased from Soviet text and tournament books, though some of them could later be reconstructed from other sources. Bohatirchuk fled to Berlin, to Potsdam and then to Bayreuth to escape the advancing Soviet army. He also lived in Munich, for a time, and in chess tournaments he used the alias "Bogenhols".

Fedor Bohatirchuk | Photo: Russiangrave

In 1946 Bohatirchuk took part in the Klaus Junge Memorial in Regensburg. Junge was an enormously gifted young German player who was also an officer in the German Wehrmacht. A few days before the end of the war he was killed in action when he and a small group of soldiers had tried to stop English tanks which were advancing towards Hamburg.

Bohatirchuk won the Memorial ahead of the Baltic master Elmars Zemgalis and Wolfgang Unzicker from Germany. In 1947, Bohartirchuk played a tournament in Kirchheim-Teck in which he finished third behind Paul Troeger and Walter Niephaus. In May 1947, he finished sixth in a ten-player international tournament in Kassel. Bogoljubow came clear first.

In September 1947, Bohatirchuk played his last tournament in Germany — in Stuttgart — where he shared fourth place. In the first years after World War II a number of other so-called "Displaced Persons" were living in Germany, among them a number of strong chess players. They played in a couple of tournaments after the war but then left Germany one by one to emigrate to Australia, New Zealand, the USA or Canada.

Edgars Zemgalis, for instance, went to the USA, while Bohatirchuk emigrated to Canada in 1948 and settled in Ottawa, where he quickly established himself as a doctor. He taught at the Universtiy of Ottawa as professor for anatomy of radiography and published numerous medical studies.

In 1955, the British Radiological Society awarded him with the Barclay medal. After 1960, he was a honorary member of the Canadian Radiological Society. Bohatirchuk was also politically active. In 1952 the "Ukrainian Democrats" voted him as their chairman. He was also editor-in-chief of the magazine "Skhidnyak" published by the "Association of the Federal Democrats of Ukraine". In his autobiography, Moi zhiznenny put k Vlasovu i Prazhskomu manifestu ("My living route to Vlasov and Prague Manifesto"), which appeared in 1978, Bohatirchuk explained and justified his collaboration with the Nazis as a member of the Vlassov army. A reprint appeared in 2017.

In 1949, CHESS magazine published a letter by Bohatirchuk, in which he criticised the development and the role of chess in the Soviet Union. One claim of Bohartichuk was that chess in the Soviet Union served to entertain the people in a harmless way to keep them away from politics. For this letter Bohatirchuk was attacked by several sides, among others by Robert Wade and Ludek Pachman, though Bohatirchuk also found people who defended his letter. Pachman in 1949 was still a staunch communist, but later, when he had become opposed to communism and a dissenter, he apologised for his attacks.

In 1949, Bohatirchuk played his first Canadian Championship and finished second. In 1951, when he was already 59 years of age, he finished third. At the Chess Olympiad 1954 in Amsterdam where Bohatirchuk played for the Canadian team, FIDE wanted to award him the title of International Grandmaster but the Soviet Chess Federation intervened and stopped this idea. But Bohartirchuk was given the title of International Master. Bohatirchuk now focused more and more on correspondence chess and in 1963 and 1964 he won the Canadian Correspondence Chess Championships, and in 1967 he became International Correspondence Chess Champion.

He also worked as a chess coach and supported the young Canadian Laurence Day (*1949). Day became an International Master and played in 13 Chess Olympiads for Canada. Laurence Day also indicated that Boris Pasternak took Fedor Bohatirchuk as an inspiration for the character of Doctor Zhivago in his famous novel. Pasternak himself was a good chess player:


Boris Pasternak wrote his only novel between 1946 and 1955 and, in 1958, was given the Nobel Prize for Literature for this work. But pressure from the Soviet government stopped Pasternak from accepting the award.

The greater part of the novel is set in the era of World War I and in the time of the civil war after the Russian Revolution and the novel poignantly describes the sufferings of the people living in those days — too poignantly for the Soviet government. In 1965, Hollywood turned the novel into a movie which won five Oscars.

In 1970, Boris Spassky met Fedor Bohatirchuk and was impressed by his personality. Back home he told Mikhail Botvinnik of this meeting and his impressions. But Botvinnik's memories were different. "If I met him I would hang him in the middle of town with my own hands." 

Bohatirchuk's grave | Photo:

Bohatirchuk died September 4, 1984 in Ottawa. He was buried in the Pinecrest Cemetery.


Translation from German: Johannes Fischer


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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