Interview: Kosteniuk On Federation Change, ‘There Cannot Be Winners In Wars’

Interview: Kosteniuk On Federation Change, 'There Cannot Be Winners In Wars'


GM Alexandra Kosteniuk has transferred federations to Switzerland and will no longer represent Russia. You can read more about the federation transfer in this news article. The interview below focuses on the personal consequences of the federation change and the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The 38-year-old grandmaster is one of the best women chess players in history. She was the 10th woman to earn the grandmaster title, in 2004, and was the women’s world champion from 2008 until 2010. Kosteniuk is also a two-time Russian women’s champion, a European women’s champion (also two-time rapid and three-time blitz champion for European women), and a 10-time gold medalist in team competitions playing for Russia (at three Olympiads, two Women’s World Team Championships, and five European Team Championships). 

In 2021, she won the inaugural Women’s World Cup and Women’s World Rapid Championship, while also taking silver in the Women’s World Blitz Championship. In 2023, she won the second leg of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix, which is part of the qualification cycle for the FIDE Women’s Candidates Tournament 2024. She is number seven on FIDE’s list of the world’s top women. 

Kosteniuk is the 12th women’s world chess champion, a grandmaster, educator, advocate for peace, streamer, and mom.

Personal Consequences Of Federation Change

Any plans to move to Switzerland?

“I don’t know. We’re quite flexible. I mean, the main reason that I’m staying and I’m residing right now in the south of France [is] because my daughter attends a tennis academy there and she’s been there for three last years. … But other than that, we are not really attached.”

She mentioned that the weather is good and that her home is conveniently placed near an airport—an important consideration for professional chess players who travel often. She added: “We’re chess players and so it can change any minute, any second. … It’s very hard nowadays to make any plans. Since [the] pandemic, we kind of got told that we should not really plan ahead for so many months or years, so we take it day by day.”

How do you feel about the change? Are you sad to leave your country? 

“It’s a mixture of feelings. If I’m in an optimistic mood, I would say that, okay… it was a wonderful chapter, 20 years on the Russian national team, but it’s over and now there is another one, another chapter: me playing for the Swiss national team. It was not really expected and… I never thought it would happen this way, but that’s of course quite a sad feeling, to tell you the truth, and I think it’s a wound that I’m going to require more time to somehow get over… to accept it because it’s still too emotional and too early, I think, to say and comprehend [it].” 

Kosteniuk spoke slowly and clearly throughout the whole interview, but she noticeably slowed down even more as she talked about the “sad feeling,” choosing her words carefully—as if she were discovering the feelings anew by speaking them into existence.

She went on: “The decision that I took, it’s not an easy decision for me, but for several reasons I felt that I cannot leave everything as it was. So I needed to act somehow, to send a signal that I’m not accepting what’s going on.” 

The decision that I took, it’s not an easy decision for me, but for several reasons I felt that I cannot leave everything as it was.

—Alexandra Kosteniuk

Consequences Of The War

It’s impossible to talk about the federation change without talking about the war. Kosteniuk hasn’t been quiet about her feelings regarding the matter, which has hung like a dark cloak or an ice age over the world for one year now. Kosteniuk transferred to the effectively “neutral” FIDE flag, no longer representing Russia, in March 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Some Russian players have voiced opinions about the war, while others haven’t. Kosteniuk was one of the 44 Russian chess players to publish an open letter to Vladimir Putin on March 3 last year, expressing solidarity with Ukraine and stating: “We support peace. Stop the war.” She has also posted several times on Instagram, calling the war a “nightmare” and that she hoped the violence “will end soon and that all the actions that are happening now will not lead to huge irreversible consequences for all humanity” (translated from Russian).

There are several other posts. In one of them, a long criticism of the war and wars in general, she stated an idea that resurfaces in this interview: “It is frightening and painful for me to realize that, despite the fact that [then] on the calendar it’s 2022, people have not learned how to live peacefully” (translated from Russian). 

Image: Kosteniuk’s Instagram.

How has the war affected you? What’s it been like in the last year?

“Well, it’s been a very hard year, of course. Now, you know, words have different values, and I cannot compare my situation, which is, okay, difficult personally for me, but I cannot imagine what some other people are going through. [It’s] not comparable, right, when I’m talking about how difficult it was. I fully understand… that people are getting through much worse right now, and it’s actually a tragedy to witness such a situation in the 21st century. Who could’ve imagined, I mean, such things can start and go on?”

… it’s actually a tragedy to witness such a situation in the 21st century. Who could’ve imagined, I mean, such things can start and go on?

—Alexandra Kosteniuk

“My whole life kind of turned around quite a lot because, well, I remember that one of the… best times of my life [was] January 2022 after a wonderful year of 2021. I won quite a lot of tournaments, and I was working for, ChessComRu. … I was very happy when in July 2020 offered me this job, and I’ve been enjoying every single minute of that, and then, yes, February 24th came. The war started, got banned in Russia, and I was not able to continue, you know, broadcasting Russian.” 

Coming back to the bigger picture, she resumed: “We’re living in this nightmare. … We are witnessing quite a tragic situation. … The [Russian] government decided to accept some laws that wouldn’t allow people to go and protest and to say they are against this war and, well, they just putting those who continue doing such stuff in jail, and that’s very sad because people outside of Russia they often complain about Russian citizens not being active, not going on protests, not saying that they are against this war, you know. 

“I compare it to myself with a situation, when you are a hostage, nobody is complaining that you as a hostage are doing nothing. It’s just almost impossible to go against armed forces.”

Other Russian players have left—and are leaving—the country as well. Kosteniuk’s husband, for one, plays for France, and her former national teammate, IM Alina Kashlinskaya, plays for Poland. GM Alexandr Predke, who is number 55 in the world, has represented Serbia since March 3, the same day that Tregubov and Kosteniuk transferred. The most recent flight was by GM Evgeny Alekseev on March 9 to Israel. 

The very best Russian players, like GMs Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alexander Grischuk, Sanan Sjugirov, Daniil Dubov, and Vladislav Artemiev, continue to represent their homeland. (GM Sergey Karjakin is not included on this list because he’s no longer listed as an active player.)

Nepomniachtchi (left), the Russian number-one and world number-two, will play for the world title next month.

Other strong Russian GMs, like Vladimir FedoseevAlexey Sarana, and Nikita Vitiugov, currently play under the FIDE flag. Although they have not changed federations to a different country, they have criticized the war

To avoid paying the fee to transfer federations, many players have changed to the FIDE flag and planned to wait two years, after which the fee would be waived. As part of the Russian Chess Federation’s transfer from the European Chess Union to the Asian Chess Federation, however, the fee is now waived for Russian players who move to a European chess federation.

We may see more Russian players transfer to European federations in the coming weeks and months as a result of this recent change.

How do you see the future of Russian chess, which has had such a long history?

“The minute my transfer was official, the very next day [the] Russian Chess Federation announced that they found a very good substitute and they don’t have any problems with me switching to another federation, which is apparently, okay, it’s halfway true.”

Making the switch from “we” to “they” when speaking about the Russian national teams must be difficult for her, as she illustrated in this statement: “We have many strong players and a women’s team. … If they are able to play and to compete in the near future, then we will fight for gold medals as usual.

“But still, I think the development of chess in Russia, somehow, will be connected to the situation. I mean [the] overall situation in Russia. It cannot live, you know, separately; it’s going to be affected. If [the economy] will go down, then somehow it’s going to influence the players.”

She mentioned that there are significant difficulties for players who are staying in Russia, such as bans and fewer invitations—she did not mention it explicitly, but Russia and Belarus were not allowed to participate in the Chess Olympiads in 2022, for example. 

“Not everyone has a chance to leave or switch federation[s]… and they don’t really have to because it’s their country. And right now we really need to separate those two issues. I mean, the country and the government. People who are in power to make decisions and who should be responsible… and chess players. Okay, I hear people complaining that somehow the government using those players for the image, and I say, come on, let the government spend all the money on sports and on chess… if they want to.” After a pause, she said: “It would be better than spending millions on weapons.”

Circling back to the future of Russian chess, Kosteniuk said: “I know Russia has always been one of the leading chess countries and… a player from the national team gets very, very good support from the Russian Chess Federation. So it’s one, I think, of the best countries in terms of supporting chess players. … The situation hasn’t changed yet, and I do hope that it’s not going to change any [time] soon and chess will always stay [as a] very important part of the social image.

“I was born in [the] Soviet Union, but it collapsed when I was just seven years old, and I was growing up in Russia, [which] was desperate at that time. … There was no money at all, no salary. I mean, my parents barely found the money for food, and I was earning money from a very young age playing chess. So I know what is it to grow up in a country [that] is in very poor economical shape, and in the last 20 years or so, Russia has been growing a lot… but now the situation is very hard and any war is already like a loss. It’s already very bad. Despite the outcome, there cannot be winners in wars.”

It’s already very bad. Despite the outcome, there cannot be winners in wars.

—Alexandra Kosteniuk

The “mixture of feelings” she described earlier is apparent as she concluded: “So it’s going to be very hard for Russia in general and for the Russian Chess Federation as well. … I only wish them the best, and I do hope that they will overcome difficulties and they are not going to lose their power, chess power.”

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