Chess Grandmaster, Cold War Dissident and Proud Jew: This Refusenik Is Making His Boldest Move Yet

Boris Gulko was one of the best-known Russian Jews to be denied an opportunity to leave the Soviet Union. The only chess grandmaster to ever beat Kasparov three times is now moving to Israel

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Boris Gulko, left, and Nigel Short shaking hands as Donald Trump looks on before the quarterfinal of the World Chess Championship in Trump Tower, New York, 1994.
Boris Gulko, left, and Nigel Short shaking hands as Donald Trump looks on before the quarterfinal of the World Chess Championship in Trump Tower, New York, 1994.Credit: Rick Maiman / Sygma via Getty Images
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
New Jersey

FAIR LAWN, New Jersey – It’s not every day that two chess grandmasters move to Israel, although at least Boris Gulko and his wife Anna know what to expect.

If everything goes according to plan, early next year the Gulkos will move to Israel, where they have already bought an apartment in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood. It will surely be a less dramatic arrival than 32 years ago when, after seven years of trying, the couple was finally granted visas to leave the Soviet Union and become Israeli citizens.

“We spent a month in a merkaz klita [absorption center] in Jerusalem,” Boris Gulko recalls about his time in Israel in the spring of 1986. “It was the most exciting month of my life! I was reborn and didn’t stop smiling the whole time. After living my whole life in the Soviet Union, I was finally a free man for the first time in my life.”

But freedom wasn’t everything for an ambitious and accomplished chess player who had yet to turn 40. “I soon realized I wouldn’t be able to live as a professional chess player in Israel and so moved to the United States,” he tells Haaretz, speaking in his modest house in Fair Lawn, northern New Jersey.

Now 71, Boris Gulko is finally ready to leave the chessboard behind – at least professionally. And he hopes his four American granddaughters will join him eventually, saying, “My dream is that one day they will make aliyah and live there as well.”

‘Jewish feelings’

Boris Gulko enjoyed an illustrious career in chess. At 29 he was a grandmaster (the highest honor awarded by the world chess federation, second only to winning the world championship) and is the only male chess player to win both the Soviet and American championships (the Russian title in 1977; the U.S. title in 1994 and 1999). He is also the only player to beat fellow grandmaster Garry Kasparov no fewer than three times.

Grandmaster Boris Gulko at his home in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, November 2018. "I was living in a country of villains."Credit: Tzach Yoked

For seven years, from 1979-1986, Gulko was a "refusenik" in the Soviet Union: "The seven lean years," he once told Haaretz. Before that, from 1972-1979, he was a rising star in the Soviet world of chess, winning the 1977 USSR championship. "But they had a problem with me, because of the worldwide support I received. In such a situation, they couldn't make me disappear, and so they made do with attempts to wear me down. Not a month passed without my being invited for a few days with KGB interrogators. I entered and left the interrogations regularly," he recalled in 2005.

Boris and Anna Gulko are in some ways the king and queen of chess. They first met at a chess club in the Soviet Union some five decades ago, and Anna (born Anna Akhsharumova) also went on to be a grandmaster, winning two Soviet titles, in 1976 and 1984, and the U.S. championship in 1987.

As he talks about his eventful life, Gulko also keeps an eye on the living room clock, making sure he has enough time to prepare before Shabbat arrives. Anna, meanwhile, is busy in the kitchen, cooking for Shabbat. They have been members of their local Orthodox shul for many years and both wear head coverings. It is a far cry from their formative years in the Soviet Union.

Boris Gulko grew up in a secular home in the small town of Elektrougli, some 45 kilometers (28 miles) east of Moscow. “Communism and religion didn’t go together. In the Soviet Union, if you were religious you couldn’t be a member of the Communist Party or find a good job,” he recounts. His parents were both engineers, and while neither was particularly religious – the family didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays – Gulko describes them as people with “Jewish feelings.” He also remembers his father reading Torah stories to Boris’ sister.

He first learned he was Jewish at age 3, when he says he “went outside and a group of kids attacked me and called me ‘Jew.’ When I came back home, I asked my parents what it meant and they told me I was Jewish. I wanted to know if there were any privileges that came with being a Jew, and was very upset to learn that I’m going to suffer from something I have no control over and that comes with no benefits,” he smiles.

Born in 1947, Gulko says he vividly remembers the first time he realized the true nature of his homeland – a country that, more than 60 years on, he still describes as an empire of evil. “It was 1956, three years after [Joseph] Stalin’s death, and [Nikita] Khrushchev, the new leader of the Communist Party, sent a secret letter to all members of the party with information about the horrible crimes committed by Stalin.”

Gulko’s father worked in a brick factory, which was where he and his fellow party members heard Khrushchev’s infamous letter. Boris recounts that when his father came home that evening, “he gathered the whole family around the dining room table and told us how Stalin murdered 40,000 officers before World War II. That’s why we lost 27 million people during the war, while Germany, which lost the war and fought against a coalition of armies, lost only 5.5 million. Because of Stalin, we entered the war with almost no officers. My father told us how Stalin murdered millions and millions of innocent people for no reason – decent Russian citizens,” Gulko says.

Boris Gulko during a chess match in the Soviet Union, April 1973.Credit: Sputnik / Kaufman Boris / AFP

After his father finished his talk to the family, he went to the kitchen, took the portrait of Stalin that was standing on top of the oven and proceeded to smash it on the floor. “It was broken into many small pieces,” Gulko recalls, eyes glowing as if the experience were only yesterday.

Boris Gulko’s father never experienced life outside of the Soviet Union, but passed on his disdain for communism to his son. “Living in the Soviet Union, he didn’t know much about other ideologies such as capitalism, for example, but he knew life was horrible in the country – both materially and spiritually – so he figured there must be something better elsewhere,” says Boris Gulko. “But he was mostly busy working hard and trying to make a living.”

If 1956 had opened the 9-year-old Gulko’s eyes to the harsh realities of life in his homeland, an even louder wake-up call arrived in the summer of 1968 – when he was already one of Russia’s top chess players. He says this when he first realized he could no longer live in a country that in many ways, as he describes it now, wasn’t much better than Nazi Germany.

“I was 21 and playing an international tournament in [the former] Czechoslovakia,” he recounts. “Prior to that trip, I already knew I was living in a bad country – I just didn’t realize how bad we were.” Then, on the morning of August 21, he awoke in his room in Prague to the sound of bombing and jets flying overheard. He switched on the TV “and heard the news about the invasion led by Russia and its satellites. A few minutes later, some of the local chess players came to me and told me their country was occupied, that they were now under Russian control. For the first time, I truly realized I was living in a country of villains.”

Gulko, who was studying psychology at Moscow University at the time, decided to share his feelings with his fellow students. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him nearly a decade later. “When I came back from Czechoslovakia, I gathered some friends and students and told them what I saw during the trip. I didn’t know back then that there was at least one KGB informer in each group of students,” he says.

A hate-hate relationship

As Gulko’s career as a chess player developed in the 1970s, his actions away from the chessboard were starting to make him a marked man. He appeared at a few events in support of Soviet dissidents, noting that because he was “already a famous chess player, the KGB agents recognized me right away.”

But his first major falling-out with the Soviet authorities came in 1976 when another famous Russian player, Viktor Korchnoi, defected to the West after playing at a tournament in the Netherlands. As a result, Russia’s grandmasters were all ordered to sign a letter expressing their disgust at his actions.

“Only four grandmasters refused to sign the letter,” Gulko recalls. “One of them [Boris Spassky] was living in France and had nothing to lose; another [Mikhail Botvinnik] had already retired many years before; one was David Bronstein, whose career was finished as a result of his refusal to sign; and the last one was me. It was a huge risk. In the Soviet Union, many times it wasn’t about what you did, but rather about what you refused to do. And after I didn’t sign the letter, I was suspended for a year and couldn’t compete at any tournament.”

When he was finally allowed to compete again, in 1977, Gulko won the Soviet chess championship for the first time – only to realize he was still being punished for his actions.

“I lived in a country that was officially anti-Semitic,” Gulko declares. “Because of that, and because they knew about my feelings toward the Communist Party, they decided not to send me to almost any important international chess tournaments. I mean, what’s the point in being the champion if you can’t play in big tournaments? You could say that, by then, I hated my country and my country hated me.”

At the height of his success, and after appearing in the 1978 Chess Olympiad, Gulko decided it was time to leave the Soviet Union.

Garry Kasparov (R) competing against Anatoly Karpov during the 1984 World Chess finals in Moscow. Boris Gulko is that rarest of chess players: he holds a positive (3-1) winning record against KasparovCredit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

“I didn’t know I wanted to move to Israel,” he reflects. “But strangely enough, I submitted my papers to the immigration department on May 14,” the date marking Israel’s declaration of independence. “After that, I was forbidden from participating in all tournaments, not just internationally,” he adds. Gulko became one of the most famous refuseniks of the era, joining thousands of other Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate from the country.

Looking back, he describes this period of his life in numbers: Seven years as a refusenik; three hunger strikes; 24 days without food; and one month of demonstrations, in 1986, in one of Moscow’s main squares.

It became a daily ritual: “Every day we were arrested and released after three hours – since the police weren’t allowed to hold anyone for more than three hours without explaining why,” Gulko says. “One night we were held for nine hours, so every three hours they moved us from one police station to another.”

It was during his years as a refusenik that he became not only a Zionist but also discovered Judaism.

“During our seven years as refuseniks, we read a lot of Zionist and Jewish literature,” says Gulko. “The refusenik community brought us lots of books about Israel and Judaism from the United States. For me, it was an opportunity to get some Jewish education for the first time in my life. And while this time was very bad for my career, I always say it was an important time for me spiritually. I even remember that during our month of demonstrations, we made sure not to protest on Shabbat,” he adds.

Gulko’s religious observance became more pronounced in the United States – but it did not happen overnight. “When my son was 12, we sent him to live for a year with my sister in Jerusalem,” Boris Gulko recounts. “He went to a religious public school in Israel and when he returned said: ‘From now on, we eat only kosher food.’ For me it was a slow process. First I went with him to synagogue only on Friday night, but slowly I became more and more religious.”

Years of denials

Back in May 1986, after their month of protests and arrests, Boris and Anna were summoned to the government offices.

“My wife was waiting for me outside while I was talking to the woman inside, who asked me to fill out some papers and come back again the following day,” Boris remembers. “I kept asking her why and if I was permitted to leave the country or not. But she didn’t tell me. She just kept asking me to go and come back again the following day. When I left her office, my wife – who was listening behind the closed door – told me the lady had said more than once that we were allowed to leave, but I didn’t hear her. After so many years of denials, I just refused to realize we were free to go.”

Three days later, they were on a plane to Israel, unaware that just a few months later they would be on the move again, this time to the United States.

In America, Boris Gulko was free to compete again, winning the U.S. championship twice. In between, he was named grandmaster-in-residence at Harvard University and enjoyed a winning record (3-1) against the legendary Kasparov.

“The first time we played was in 1978 and it was a draw – a very difficult one for me. Already then he was a very strong player,” Boris Gulko says. “Three years later, in 1981, I beat him in the national championship. The second time I won was in 1982, when we played each other in the USSR team championship. The third and last time we played was in 1988, in an international tournament in Spain. By then he was already considered a genius, but I guess I wasn’t that bad a player myself.”

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