How Netflix got caught out erasing the achievements of Soviet women

The American streaming service and production company, NETFLIX, is facing a $5 million defamation lawsuit over its portrayal of the Georgian champion chess master Nona Gaprindashvili in its drama series The Queen’s Gambit, set in the 1960s.

In one of the scenes the fictional protagonist, a young American woman called Beth Harmon, plays against a Russian male opponent. During the match, which takes place in Moscow, a commentator says:

The only unusual thing about her really, is her sex. And even that’s not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”

A clip of the scene can be seen here. A seated female spectator watching the match in the scene is presumably meant to be real life Soviet chess master Gaprindashvili. We should assume from this that Gaprindashvili’s on-screen character would be overawed by the determination and skill of the American woman seemingly providing Soviet women with a demonstration in female emancipation. This presentation by NETFLIX is an insult to Gaprindashvili and an assault on historical achievements of women during the Soviet Union era.

In reality, Gaprindashvili was a trail blazer for women’s chess, not just in the Soviet Union, but across the world, playing male opponents from a young age. A detailed summary of her accomplishments can be found in her September 2021 complaint against Netflix. In fact, by 1968, the year in which the episode is set, she had competed against at least 59 male opponents, including grandmasters and world champions. In one game she competed against 28 male players simultaneously.

Gabprindashvili’s complaint against Netflix includes the following statement:

Netflix sought to create a drama in which not only did a woman triumph over men in an arena traditionally dominated by men, but also in which an American woman triumphed over Soviet men at the height of the cold war. To serve its dramatic purposes, Netflix gratuitously proclaimed to the world the egregious falsehood that Gaprindashvili never competed against men, and was not capable of the level of play of the fictional Beth Harmon. Because the truth would have undercut this narrative, Netflix cynically and deliberately chose to ignore it. This deliberate falsehood was highly offensive and defamatory, on multiple levels.

Gaprindashvili’s complaint states that the defaming comments about her were made with actual malice, this being defined as “…knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for truth or falsity…”

Netflix claimed the inaccuracy was a minor issue and that the drama was entirely fictional, but its attempt to have Gaprindashvili’s complaint dismissed was rejected in January this year by a U.S. District Judge, Virginia A. Phillips.

Netflix does not cite, and the Court is not aware, of any cases precluding defamation claims for the portrayal of real persons in otherwise fictional works… The fact that the Series was a fictional work does not insulate Netflix from liability for defamation if all the elements of defamation are otherwise present.

Why erase and denigrate female achievement and not celebrate it? Is this not the definition of sexism? This is not just the erasure of Gaprindashvili’s achievements, but concealment of a liberating truth: women under the Soviet Union could make progress in a way that Western capitalist economies would never allow them.

Netflix’s erasure of Gaprindashvili’s achievements hides the fact that within a short span of time, the Russian revolution of 1917 propelled the achievements and possibilities for women beyond the imagination of women existing under capitalism. Gaprindashvili’s accomplishments can be seen in the context of the historic achievements of women in the Soviet Union.

From the outset, women could vote, were encouraged to read, became literate, educated, trained and skilled. From the conditions of poverty and hunger that preceded the 1917 revolution, emerged a new era of socialist planned economy, elevating Soviet women’s standards of living, quality of life and social status.

An article by Georgian journalist and labour organiser Sopiko Japaridze published in September 2021 entitled “The Queen’s Gambit created a fictional female chess player. The Soviets created real ones” is recommended further reading on the subject from a contemporary perspective. 

Looking back to the origins of how such things were achieved in the USSR, on the occasion of the 1949 International Women’s Day, Stalin summed up the advances of Soviet women:

Soviet women are playing a more and more important part in socialist industry. Millions of women workers have mastered highly skilled trades, and are untiringly improving their qualifications and perfecting their skill: 280,000 women are engineers, technicians and skilled factory workers. Hundreds of thousands have been awarded orders and medals.

…Women collective farmers are waging an active struggle for the further advancement of agriculture. Many thousands of women have charge of collective farms, or lead field teams and manage stock-raising farms. Women collective farmers are successfully mastering advanced agricultural technique. Tens of thousands of women drive tractors, harvester combines and other complex agricultural machines…

Women are playing an enormous part in public education and in public health. The Soviet state highly values the fine work of women teachers, who are educating our youth in the spirit of high ideals, of love for our motherland, and of women doctors who safeguard the health of the population. Scores of thousands of women teachers and public health workers have been awarded orders and medals…

Forty-four percent of the total number of graduates from higher educational establishments are women. For outstanding work in the sphere of science, inventions, literature and art, 237 women have been awarded Stalin prizes…

The Soviet state assigns enormous funds to aid mothers with large families and unmarried mothers: 2,500,000 mothers have been awarded the order ‘Motherhood Glory’ and the ‘Motherhood Medal’. The title ‘Mother Heroine’ has been conferred on 28,500 women.”

By 1940 there were 4000 female train drivers in the Soviet Union. In 1942 women began to work on US railways, but they were put to cleaning the trains after men were drafted to fight the imperialist war. It would take almost another four decades before trade union activist, Karen Harrison defied prejudice to become the first British female train driver, and it was almost forty before India saw its first female train driver, Surekha Yadav.

In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space. She was recruited and trained in a programme set up by the Soviet Union government to ensure that the “first female in space was a Soviet citizen.”.

Under capitalism it has taken women in Western industrialised countries much longer to achieve such advances in training and education, and women in countries impoverished and enslaved by Western colonialist debt have yet to know them. Where education is accessible in Western capitalist countries, young women are required, as are young men, to take on crippling debt to pay for the privilege. That women living under capitalism, either in the Western hemisphere or outside, are burdened by debt is no coincidence. They are forced to carry the legacy of capitalism despite the diversity propaganda spewed by corporations that profit from their exploitation.

These disparities between advances of working class women under capitalism and those under a planned socialist economy are hidden from Western audiences. And so too the fact that with such advances come the possibilities of excelling. This Soviet Union saw the importance of bringing high culture to the masses and broad access to art, sport and intellectual activity from the outset. As commented by Lenin:

Young people, particularly, need the joy and force of life. Healthy sport, swimming, racing, walking, bodily exercises of every kind, and many-sided intellectual interests. Learning, studying, inquiry, as far as possible in common.”

Soviet women, like Gaprindashvili, were not handed their accolades on a plate: they proudly fought for them, but the conditions were created by the Soviet Union to allow such talent to flourish. Achievements of socialism are buried, erased, revised and smeared by Western globalist institutions but Gaprindashvili’s latest fight, for recognition of her historic role through her lawsuit, exposes the fact the truth will resurface.

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