Elena Akhmilovskaya Donaldson dies at 55; former Soviet chess player

Elena Akhmilovskaya Donaldson, who was once the world’s second-ranked women’s chess player and eloped in 1988 with the captain of the U.S. chess team when they were both playing at a tournament in Greece, has died. She was 55.

Donaldson, who earned the title of international women’s grandmaster, died Nov. 18 in her adopted hometown of Seattle, nine months after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

After settling with her new husband, John Donaldson, in Seattle, she went on to win the U.S. women’s chess championships in 1990 and 1994, and tied for first in 1993. More recently, she devoted herself to coaching young chess students, especially girls, in the Seattle area.

Born in Leningrad on Feb. 11, 1957, Donaldson learned chess from her mother in the Soviet Union. She attended a state university in Siberia, but before graduating left to play chess professionally.


In 1978, Donaldson won all 10 of her games at the Chess Olympiad, an international team tournament. She played for the Soviets again in 1986, when they won the tournament. That same year, she won the right to challenge Maya Chiburdanidze, another Soviet player who was the world women’s chess champion. Donaldson lost that match.

At that time, Donaldson was one of the only professional chess players who was also a mother, said her daughter, Donna Van Zandt. Donaldson became a single mother when she divorced her first husband in 1987.

Van Zandt remembers traveling to tournaments, where other chess stars took care of her while her mother played. Once, she said, her caretaker was world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Van Zandt said her mother lived a glamorous life as a Soviet chess star, owning a home and wearing fur coats.

But in the late 1980s, she left all that behind. She had fallen in love with John Donaldson, then captain of the U.S. men’s chess team. When both were playing in Greece in 1988, they married in secret and left for the United States before the tournament was over.

The couple eventually settled in Seattle, where John Donaldson worked for a magazine called Inside Chess.

About a year later, Elena Donaldson returned to the Soviet Union to retrieve her daughter, then 7, a trip that made headlines because it was a risky move by someone who had defected.

Donaldson’s second marriage lasted only a few years, but she stayed in Seattle, taught herself English, worked as an accountant and wrote software as she continued to play chess.


Donaldson married her third husband, Georgi Orlov, in 1995 after he moved to the Seattle area. They had first met in Moldova, when she hired him as one of her coaches.

Together, the couple ran a chess academy. Donaldson also wrote a chess column for the Seattle Times for many years.

Besides her husband and daughter, Donaldson is survived by a son, Nicholas Orlov, and a sister.

Shaw writes for the Seattle Times and McClatchy Newspapers.