On and off the chessboard, the ex-world champion is a fighter. Now the man who has led the struggle for Russian democracy talks to Standpoint
Garry Kasparov grew up knowing that coming second was not good enough. This will to win was one of the crucial factors behind the 22-year-old Soviet chess player becoming the youngest-ever World Chess Champion in 1985. He retained his title for 15 years. The ambitious, outspoken youth was seen by the West as the new face of Russian chess — and, more importantly, of the country that was ready for the first time in 70 years to say good-bye to communism and start moving towards democracy. The Cold War, both on and off the chessboard, was over. Kasparov and his fellow players no longer had to be part of it and could concentrate on the game in which they excelled.
Or so it seemed in the heady days when Gorbachev’s reforms awoke a sense of elation in many. That was not to last long. Immediately after retiring from professional chess, Kasparov returned to action — this time on a political battleground. He formed the United Civil Front, a pro-democracy movement, and took an active part in creating The Other Russia, an anti-Putin coalition. After Kasparov’s plans to stand as a candidate for the 2008 Russian presidential race were disrupted — no one was willing to rent him a hall large enough to hold his supporters so he wasn’t allowed to be a candidate — he remained the leader of the UCF, organising an online “Putin must go” campaign.
However, it was not in his capacity as a political opposition leader that Kasparov visited Britain in September. He came to support his former rival, Anatoly Karpov, from whom he wrested the World Champion title a quarter of a century ago. It was the illegal arrest of Kasparov at a Moscow demonstration in 2007 that brought the two old foes back together: Karpov tried to visit his former rival in prison to lend Kasparov what support he could.
I meet Kasparov after the press conference held in London last month to promote Karpov’s campaign for the FIDE (World Chess Federation) presidency. The incumbent, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has just lost his main political asset — the presidency of the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia. When one of the journalists talks about it as “resignation”, Kasparov is quick to correct him: “People don’t resign in Russia. He was kicked out.”
The eccentric Ilyumzhinov, who claims to have been abducted by aliens at one point, has led FIDE since 1993. During his reign, chess lost a lot of its glamour. Indeed, the championships are now held in places that, to quote Kasparov, “you need to be a very good student of geography to find on the map.” Desperate to be re-elected, Ilyumzhinov made exorbitant promises to national chess federations, of the type he would have to be “at least Russian president to fulfil”, as Karpov noted in his speech at the conference. There are, however, indications that Ilyumzhinov’s popularity is fading, both in Russia and worldwide.
When the event ends, Kasparov is torn between signing books, being photographed and giving advice to chess players. I start our conversation by apologising for returning to Russian politics now that his mind is busy with FIDE and related problems. “Not busy,” he interrupts, “I am absolutely immersed in this. We have to win.” However, he is soon talking about issues with which he has been out of touch for the last four months: his comrades-in-arms supported his decision to take a sabbatical. As for his enemies: “They are probably grateful to Karpov — he managed to take me out of the game for a while, after all.”
Vladimir Putin does not rule out the possibility of staying in power for another decade or longer. What does Kasparov think of Putin’s bravado? “Putin didn’t say anything new. It was probably the form his statement took that shocked, but the content was predictable all along. It became more or less clear, I think, in the middle of his second presidential term that he would never leave. You know the expression, ‘galley slave’ — I believe there is a certain Freudian subtext to it in Putin’s case. He is doomed to stay — he has nowhere else to go. He should have thought about this much earlier, but even if he ever was trying to solve this problem, to find an escape route, he failed.”
Parallels between the current regime in Russia and those of Stalin and Mao have been drawn frequently enough, but Kasparov is more subtle. “Putin has all the traits of a dictator, but he is different from that lot — he is, in essence, an oligarch. I’ve said before that what he really wants is to rule like Stalin while living like [Chelsea FC owner Roman] Abramovich. Power for him is the means, not the end.” It was the realisation that Putin, were he to become president for a third time in 2012, could potentially stay until 2024 that made people concerned. Kasparov would not ascribe too much significance to this date, insisting that the prime minister’s recent statement naturally follows from all he has said and done before. “That he was instrumental in making [the current President Dmitry] Medvedev his heir was quite logical, too — things like that have happened before. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a clever move. Sometimes a successor, instead of toeing the party line, becomes a hindrance. Medvedev has never created any problems for Putin, who in this instance showed himself a fine psychologist.”
Remembering why he failed to stand last time, Kasparov believes this to be another example of people being afraid of the authorities. He cannot see things changing dramatically in the near future. When asked if he is planning an attempt to participate in the next election, he replies: “What exactly do you call the next election? To me, it’s just a date, 2012 or some other, doesn’t matter, which is set by them and has nothing to do with our activity. It should be clear to everyone by now that there is no democracy in Russia. You don’t need to prove this point further by trying — and inevitably failing — to register as a candidate. Only those who are on the regime’s side — and I mean, totally, without a shadow of a doubt — will be allowed to do so. To take part in this farce would mean to accept their rules, to surrender, to lie down and think of Russia, so to speak — and we are not going to do that.” This must be hard for a natural-born winner to accept. However, Kasparov’s mood is defiant, not defeatist.
He stresses that his politics have nothing to do with his personal ambitions, and that he got involved in a business where you cannot win driven solely by the motto: “Do what you must, come what may.” Yet it takes a lot of courage to embark on something as uncertain and unpromising. “Yes, I was prepared for uncertainty. Then again, how do you define a victory here? A defeat? This is a different game played by very different rules and you have to take it as it is. I’ve always said to my colleagues: ‘We are in for a marathon race, which can become a 100-metres sprint at any moment. The starting signal will be given by someone else and we should be ready for it.’ So it’s difficult to talk about winning and losing given the nature of the game. However, I don’t consider our efforts to be a failure. The fact is that most of the ideas I came up with back in 2005 are still relevant, perhaps more than ever, in Russian politics. If you look at our programme published in 2006, it’s all in there. We used to be criticised by other opposition forces for being too unrealistic, but now those concepts have become part of the mainstream.”
Characteristically, Kasparov is reluctant to call his activity straightforward politics. The UCF is part political party, part human rights organisation and part social movement. “We try to use the existing social landscape in order to promote democracy as the only way forward. Our approach is to take a particular problem — for instance, that of the Khimki Forest — and work with it.” He is referring to the ongoing battle to save a park in a Moscow suburb, a legally protected eco-system that will be wiped out by the construction of the new Moscow-St Petersburg motorway.
“Our main and, for now, only activity should be propaganda. We need to demonstrate to the people of Russia that changes are needed. A moment must come — it would probably require a backlash of some kind — when the country is ready to embrace democratic ways.” Kasparov goes back to the question of settling for a successful career as a trainer and an entrepreneur, one of his interests being chess computer programs, and adds: “We all had high hopes in the early 1990s. Then it became obvious pretty soon that you couldn’t just step aside. You had to fight or leave the country. I chose to fight — and have been doing what I can ever since.”
Leaving the country would have been easy for someone like Kasparov. He has been repeatedly criticised by Russian nationalists for acquiring American citizenship — rumours he dismisses as disinformation propagated by Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth organisation that is often compared to the Soviet-era Konsomol or even the Hitler Youth. “Neither I nor my wife has an American passport. My daughter, the youngest, does — she was born in the States. But I never applied for one. Those thugs thought they could say anything about me, but when the case came to court their only excuse was that they meant another person, an American citizen whose name also happens to be Kasparov.”
Returning to the forthcoming FIDE elections, we talk about Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who has repeatedly been accused of accumulating an enormous fortune by unscrupulous means, and his statement that “a wealthy president is the best safeguard against corruption in the country”. Kasparov points out that the oligarchs who are running Russia these days made their money after they came to power: “This is what makes the whole difference. Russia can only serve as a counter-example in these speculations since it has no history of wealth going back a couple of centuries. On the other hand, I would have nothing against a leader who was well-off before, and not as a result of, starting a political career. Such wealthy people might be immune to corruption — at least, I’d like to hope so. At the same time, the temptation may be too strong even for them. The way I see it, corruption is about your personal attitude. For me, it’s simply unspeakable to steal, to bribe or take bribes — but then again, I am relatively poor compared to the ruling classes.”
In a country where at least 15 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, corruption is a serious problem. Although not suggesting it can be resolved immediately, Kasparov has a vision of future changes. “You have to explain to people that their financial troubles result from the lack of basic freedoms. Until this is understood, democracy will remain impossible. Sure, TV is a powerful weapon,” he continues, then quips with a smile, “of mass destruction. But at the end of the day, as domestic appliances go, a fridge is more vital.”