Putin-Kasparov: A Ruthless Game
The Continuing Fight for Russia’s Democracy
Putin’s full-scale invasion1 of Ukraine prompted me to revisit this article which I wrote in 2008. Since then, many more people were imprisoned, assassinated and killed under Putin’s regime.
As I was updating it, it was clear its themes only grew in importance. The past (and a very grim specific past) is not as far as it seems. The year 1980 is only as distant from today as 1938 was from 1980.
Considered the strongest chess player of all time, Garry Kasparov retired from professional chess in 2005 – after having achieved everything a chess player could2 – to focus on Russian politics. His possibly toughest match yet.
Democracy and freedom are fragile. There are many ways in which totalitarian leaders undermine or significantly weaken opposition, so they can stay in power, even without resorting to physical attacks:
Labeling the opposition as enemy-sponsored radicals threatening our way of life is often a convenient start which then justifies a harsher treatment in the name of defending the country’s or ethnicity’s interests.
Not allowing critics on air to get their message out is a key tactic to minimize the amount of discontent.3 A regime that controls or influences the media does not need to put energy into arguing with competing ideas (which could be difficult), and can concentrate on promoting solely its own narrative.
Legal obstacles and restrictions are another go-to option in the strategic arsenal of staying in power. These can range from prohibitive requirements to outright bans on groups of people.
Another strategy is to fabricate or stage false pretexts to shore up public support; or to manufacture your own narrative or opposition to detract from real threats.4
Kasparov has been a very outspoken critic of the Putin’s regime. Maybe too outspoken. “I do not talk in details – people who knew them are all dead now because they were vocal,” said a former KGB general about Kasparov in 2007. “I am quiet. There is only one man who is vocal, and he may be in trouble.”
The reason for Kasparov not being in the kind of trouble one would expect is his name. He is an internationally recognized figure frequently appearing in Western media. But he still remains a subject to some bullying: That same year (2007), he was detained during a demonstration and sentenced to five days in prison. In a bid to maximize the opposition, he worked with both left- and right-wing activists, which was a double-edged sword.
Kasparov is the author of the book How Life Imitates Chess, but the analogy has its limits. In chess, Kasparov would never keep playing in a position where the odds were so much against him6 because waiting for the other player to blunder is seen as unbecoming. In life – as he often explained in interviews – he feels he has to try and do something, or else become indifferent and leave the country. But the regime is not immune either. A sharply falling oil price has no effect on the chessmen, but it could well prove fatal for the government.
Does Kasparov recognize that the analogy between politics and chess is limited? Yes, he conceded: “In chess, there are rules.” I would add that another difference is that when I saw Kasparov play in 2002, I was sitting in a hall of silent spectators, but in this match with Russia – and especially in 2022 – we need not remain silent.
For more historical context and observations that are no less relevant today, you can check out this 8-minute interview with Gary Kasparov by Bill Maher in 2007 during Kasparov’s presidential candidacy.
In 2015, after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kasparov published the book Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.
That history books will need to differentiate between Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and this second invasion of 2022 is a reason enough for a pause. ↩︎
Garry Kasparov dominated the chess scene for 21 years. He holds many tournament records, and the news of his loss to Deep Blue during a rematch in 1997 spread beyond chess circles, heralding the eventual domination of board games by computers. ↩︎
This was written before the invention of the strategy of labeling inconvenient facts as “fake news,” which allows people using the tactic to mislead their audience even in the event they are exposed to the truth. ↩︎
The Russian apartment bombings are a lethal example of the first, while a then-new Russian party, Pravoye Delo (Right Cause), is an example of the second. It’s leader conceded, “It’s the reality in this country… These days you can’t form a party without the Kremlin.” ↩︎
Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the successor of KGB. ↩︎
In 2012, Jennifer duBois published A Partial History of Lost Causes, a novel which follows a young woman pursuing the exact same question – how do you keep fighting against impossible odds – and features a character with uncanny resemblance to Kasparov. It also touches on the responsibility for the Russian apartment bombings. ↩︎