The tragic fate of Vladimir Petrovs

by André Schulz
10/5/2018 – Vladimir Petrovs had a tragic life. He was born in 1907 and became one of the strongest players in Latvia. His biggest success was the international tournament in Kemeri 1937 where he finished joint first with Reshevsky and Flohr, ahead of Alekhine and Keres. When Germany occupied Latvia in WW II he fled to Moscow but after critical remarks about the commuist regime he was arrested and in August 1943 he died in a Soviet labour camp. | Photo: Vladimir Petrovs with his wife Galina (

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An unknown master: Vladimir Petrovs

Latvian chess players know Petrovs but outside of Latvia this strong and talented player is hardly known.

Petrovs was born September 27, 1907 (though some sources give 1908 as the year of his birth) in Riga where he grew up in difficult circumstances and times. Since 1795 Latvia had been part of the Russian empire but on November 18, 1918, after the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I, the country declared its independence. From 1919 to 1920 Latvia was then ravaged by a civil war in which three major fractions fought: German Freikorps, Soviet troups, and Latvian units that supported the civil government. In the summer of 1920 Latvia finally achieved independence after signing treaties with Germany and the Soviet Union, and in 1921/22 the independence of the country was also recognized by England, France, the USA, and Latvia joined the League of Nations.

Vladimir Petrovs' father was a shoemaker who had a small shop, Petrovs' mother was working as a housekeeper. Vladimir Petrovs himself went to grammar school and received a good education. At the age of 13 he and some friends learned chess from the Latvian player Viktors Rosenbergs a Latvian chess legend who once won against Alekhine in a simul. In 1923 Petrovs joined the chess club of Riga, and a year later, in 1924, he won the reserve tournament of the 1. Latvian Chess Congress. In 1925 Petrovs started to study law in Riga but he never finished his studies because he focused more and more on chess.

In 1926, Petrovs won the Championship of Riga. Petrovs had a positional style, and he was inspired by games of strong Latvian players such as Hermanis Karlovich Mattison and Fricis Apsenieks. In 1926 Petrovs finished second at the 2. Latvian Chess Congress but in 1930-1931 he finally won the tournament. In 1931 he became Latvian Champion and in 1934 he shared first with Fricis Apsenieks at the Latvian Championship. Petrovs did not want to have a play-off and gave the title to Apsenieks but in return, they agreed that Petrovs would play first board at the next Olympiads. In 1935 became clear first at the National Championship.

Since the first official Chess Olympiad in 1928 Petrovs had been part of the national team and he played in all Chess Olympiads up to World War II, the last one in Buenos Aires 1939. At the Chess Olympiad 1931 in Prague he was the best player on board one, and in 1939 he won bronze on board one (+8, =11).

In 1937 he played in Kemeri, a spa near Riga, where he shared first place - his greatest success.

Kemeri 1937 - Final Standings

Rk. Title Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Pts.
1 GM Samuel Herman Reshevsky   ½ 1 1 0 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 0 0 ½ 1 1 1 1 12.0 / 17
2 GM Salo Flohr ½   ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 12.0 / 17
3 GM Vladimirs Petrovs 0 ½   ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 ½ 12.0 / 17
4 GM Paul Keres 0 ½ ½   ½ 1 ½ ½ 0 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 11.5 / 17
5 GM Alexander Alekhine 1 ½ ½ ½   1 ½ 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 11.5 / 17
6   Endre Steiner 0 ½ ½ 0 0   1 1 0 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 11.0 / 17
7 GM Saviely Tartakower ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0   1 ½ 0 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 10.5 / 17
8 GM Reuben Fine 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 0 0   ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 9.0 / 17
9 GM Gideon Stahlberg ½ ½ 0 1 ½ 1 ½ ½   0 ½ 1 0 ½ 1 0 ½ ½ 8.5 / 17
10   Vladas Ivanovich Mikenas 0 ½ 1 0 1 0 1 ½ 1   0 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 8.0 / 17
11   Fricis Apsenieks 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 0 0 0 ½ 1   ½ ½ 0 1 1 ½ 1 7.5 / 17
12   Eero Book 1 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 1 ½   1 1 0 1 1 ½ 7.5 / 17
13   Ludwig Sr Rellstab 1 0 0 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 1 ½ 0   1 0 0 1 ½ 7.5 / 17
14   Teodors Bergs ½ 0 0 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 1 1 0 0   1 0 1 ½ 6.5 / 17
15   Salo Landau 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 1 1 0   1 1 1 5.5 / 17
16   Movsas Feigins 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 ½ 0 1 0 0 0 1 1 0   ½ 1 5.5 / 17
17   Wolfgang R Hazenfuss 0 0 0 0 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ 0 0 0 0 ½   0 3.5 / 17
18 IM Karlis Alexander Ozols 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 0 1   3.5 / 17

Reshevsky and Flohr advocated to give the winners cup to Vladimir Petrovs — and the Latvian president Karlis Ulmanis gave Petrovs the trophy. For his game against the German master Rellstab Petrovs also received a silver cup donated by the family of Aron Nimzowitsch — for the best game of a Latvian player against a non-Latvian master.


After his success in Kemeri the international chess press and the other players saw Vladimir Petrovs as "Grandmaster" though this was not yet an official title at that time.

However, Petrovs could never really repeat his success in Kemeri. At the strong eight-player-tournament on the Semmering and in Baden near Vienna in 1937 he finished last. However, in a match between Latvia and Estonia he defeated Paul Keres 1½-½ on board one.

Petrovs vs Keres

At the International Tournament in Lodz 1938 Petrovs shared third place with Erich Eliskases and Gideon Stahlberg. Tenth place went to Mieczysław Najdorf. At Margate 1938 Petrovs again shared third place, this time with Alexander Alekhine and Rudolf Spielmann. However, he managed to beat the World Champion in a fine game.


But at the 2nd International Tournament in Kemeri, in March 1939, he finished in the middle of the field. But immediately after the Olympiad in Buenos Aires he won a tournament of the "Club Espanol" in Rosario (Argentina).

During the Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires 1939 World War II began. The English team left immediately after hearing the news but most of the other teams stayed in Buenos Aires and finished the event. A lot of players also stayed in Argentina after the Olympiad but Petrovs returned to Latvia which soon was in political turmoil. In 1940 Soviet troops occupied the country and in 1940 Latvia was forced to give up its independence and became part of the Soviet Union - which led to political purges and deportations.

As Latvian Champion Petrovs was invited to the Soviet Championships in 1940 where he finished in the middle of a strong field. In June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Petrovs played in the semifinals of the Soviet Championships in Rostov-on-Don but the tournament was aborted. Petrovs and his countrymen Alexander Koblenz and Janis Fride tried in vain to return to Latvia which had been occupied by the Germans. Petrovs went to Moscow where he took part in the city championship at the end of 1941. He became second. Later, Petrovs was evacuated to Sverdlovsk where he played another tournament and again finished second - behind Ragozin.

During this tournament, Petrovs probably made derogatory remarks about the situation in Lativa after the communist takeover. He was denounced and on August 31 the NKVD arrested him. Petrovs was accused of anti-soviet statements and interrogated for two weeks. After five more months in prison he was sentenced to ten years hard labour and on February 3, 1943 he was sent to the Gulag in Workuta where he died on August 26, 1943 from pneumonia. His name was more or less erased from Soviet chess publications. His wife Galina tried her whole life to find out what had happened to her husband but for a long time his fate remained unknown. Only in 1989, when the files of the KGB were opened, he was rehabilitated.

In 2012 Alexei Shirov organised a Petrovs Memorial tournament in Riga to honour the Latvian player.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.
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lajosarpad lajosarpad 10/10/2018 11:53

I do not know about Putin being a notorious totalitarian and war criminal. Stalin certainly was a dictator and a war criminal. I do not think it is a good idea morally or scientifically to tell that the Russians did not distance themselves from Russia's totalitarian past. I understand you have a factual data of a poll (a link would be helpful), where Stalin was the most outstanding person in history. One of the meanings of the word "outstanding" is standing out, being different from others. With this meaning, Stalin was outstanding indeed. If the meaning of "outstanding" in this case is "exceptionally good", then they might have a nostalgia of the success the Red Army had against the invading army of the third Reich. In any case, not all Russians were asked, so we cannot know for 100% absolute surety that Russians collectively did not distance themselves from their totalitarian past. Not to mention the fact that only a relatively short time passed since then and there was brainwashing for many decades.
Poulsen Poulsen 10/10/2018 09:02
@fons3: you take offense of this article, because neither you as russian (I presume) nor Russia as a nation has ever really distanced yourself/itself from Russia's totalitarian past. Neither in words nor in deeds. Unlike f.x. Germany. In a 2017 poll in Russia Stalin was voted a clear first as 'the most outstanding person' in world history. Putin came in as a shared second. You guys hail notorious totalitarians and war criminals as 'outstandig' - and at the same time complain about Russia bashing - really??
lajosarpad lajosarpad 10/9/2018 05:05
I do not see any problem in sharing a chess story where the Soviet Union was responsible for the death of the chess player. We should be allowed to talk about facts.
psamant psamant 10/9/2018 12:23
Even the timing is not coincidental. It is, as Macauley mentions, "the anniversary of Petrovs' death". I don't see any Russia bashing here. In WW2, the Soviet Union as well as most other countries did a lot of things they wouldn't normally do. No point in hiding those or deleting them from history. I think the article is also important to a chess site because of the games that it provides which I loved to play through. Alekhine's king walk towards the end was amazing! If I didn't know it was Alekhine, I would have guess that some weak player was playing from the black side!!!
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 10/8/2018 05:58
@fons3, chessbase has been publishing articles on obscure players for a long time. Typically the players are very strong, in this case clearly a GM. It's silly for them to avoid publishing such articles when there is contemporaneous negative news. What do you expect, for them to wait x years to publish it? When would that be? I think you are being swept up in what you suppose to be a massive anti-Russia propaganda campaign; to me the timing is coincidental.
fons3 fons3 10/8/2018 10:56
Why exactly did they drag up old history, about some obscure player that nobody has ever heard of before (but who happens to have been put in a labor camp by the Soviet Union), at this time, in the current climate?

Seems to me ChessBase is being swept up by this massive anti-Russia propaganda campaign that is currently being pushed through the mainstream media, and it does not surprise me, after all 99% of the population is happily being duped by this nonsense.

(And btw the fact that it was published in multiple languages does in no way contradict anything, although I'm willing to believe the author had no malicious intentions.)
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 10/8/2018 05:14
I am also perplexed by the comments of @fons3. Was there something factually incorrect in the article?

But this tragic story shows the importance of being politically-active for chess-players, when it is safe to do so. Chess has been closely related to politics. Ignoring politics opens the door for abuse.
turok turok 10/8/2018 12:59
let us just remember it is up to the peoples in any country on how they choose to live or not and to stand up or not and allow it to happen. Any country can try and liverate another but if the people themselves for wehatever reason decide not to stand up how can another country really do anything but occupy because once they leave those same peoples will succumb to the same or worse peoples. That is sad but true.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 10/7/2018 01:53
I do not understand how can anyone act as an Apologist of the Soviet Union in regards to an article about a great player who was killed by the Soviet Union??? If modern Russia is similar to the Soviet Union, then we should bash it whenever possible. If not, then the current article is not a bashing of Russia. The primary victims of the Soviet Union were Russians. They suffered from the start till the end, but Eastern and Central Europe had its share of suffering at the hands of the animals the totalitarian regime transformed the soldiers of the Red Army into. There were many many many victims killed brutally and no female was safe from rape, regardless of social status, political views and age. If the United States of America is doing the same - which I doubt, looking at the scale and brutality of the Red Army - then the inhumane conduct of the Red Army and the Soviet Union is not lesser brutal or unacceptable, is it?
macauley macauley 10/7/2018 10:46
@fons3 - How exactly are you supposed to talk about chess history then? When it involves players from the Soviet Union, the history of the Soviet Union is relevant. When current US foreign policy has any relevance to chess news, you can be sure we'll mention it. But it's an absurd comparison. This has nothing to do with "Russia bashing" — it's history — as you say — "from a state that does not exist anymore". This story was published in German six weeks ago ( in connection with the anniversary of Petrovs' death, and we just didn't get around to translating it at the time. End of story.
fons3 fons3 10/7/2018 02:34
@ BeachBum2: In the meantime the US is actively waging war on half the world, right now, as we speak, in the present time, but let's not talk about that, no, let's drag up old history from a state that does not exist anymore. (And it's not the first time either that ChessBase is doing this.)

That is the point.
oputu oputu 10/6/2018 12:09
sad way to go. perhaps he should have thought a few moves ahead and kept his opinions to himself. what is the cost of your "opinion", which no one would even listen to?
BeachBum2 BeachBum2 10/6/2018 04:00
Russian bashing?? Assuming the story is true (and it likely is), this is one of the millions of tragedies from that horrible time. So called communists murdering anybody who dared to speak up or could be suspected of doing so. As a person who was born in USSR (though, thankfully, I moved out of it many years ago) I think Russia should officially apologize for terror it inflicted on Baltic republics, eastern Europe. Though I have people who suffered from communist regime even in "actual" Russia, where I lived.
US Senate asked Russian government to apologize for the occupation - but Russian authorities maintained that BS that hey "voluntarily " joined USSR.
With current crooks in Russian power - it is unlikely to happen. But it will happen tough - sooner or later.
fons3 fons3 10/6/2018 03:38
Yes, we don't have enough Russia bashing in the mainstream media.
Nice to see ChessBase joining the effort.
artegall artegall 10/6/2018 02:17
Good story. The usual tragedy of narrow political ideology leading to murder.