My mother died in Moscow on December 25, at the age of 83. She meant everything to me, of course, but she was a remarkable woman in her own right, and I wanted to share a little about her and her life.
Klara Shagenovna Kasparova was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the Soviet Union, on March 19, 1937. Both of her parents were Armenians from Karabakh and she was the eldest of three sisters. She married my father, Kim Weinstein, at 23, not long after a memorable date at the Van Cliburn concert in Baku. They both loved classical music. They couldn’t afford to have children right away, and I came along in 1963. I wasn’t sure, but my cousin confirmed that they got married on December 25, 1960. Exactly 60 years after they married, they were reunited forever.
It was an unusual marriage at the time, a Jew and an Armenian, even in mixed Baku, which still had its unofficial ethnic partitions. You could say my mother’s family broke down barriers, as her youngest sister later married an Azeri, which was even more unusual. For my mother, personal qualities were everything, not ideology or ethnicity. She was totally indifferent to traditions of upbringing of any kind. Ironically, what helped bring my parents together was that both had die-hard Communist fathers. My paternal grandfather named his son Kim after the Cyrillic acronym for the Young Communist International, КИМ. My mother’s father named her after German Communist leader Clara Zetkin.
Her mother, however, stuck to her own original suggestion, Aida, which was always used in the family and by close friends. In fact, until she was 14, my mother didn’t even know that her legal name was Klara! My father was influenced by his staunchly anti-Communist uncle, so needless to say, he never called my mother Klara. I recall the stories of his younger brother, Leonid, about the many heated family arguments over Stalin and the Party. Meanwhile, my younger daughter Aida, who is 14 herself now, reclaims a family heritage.
My mother graduated with a silver medal in 1954. That she always remembered making that single mistake on her final exam tells you much about her, and probably about me. She was one of the very few female students at the newly opened engineering school in Baku. By the mid-1960s, she had her own lab with ten men working under her, despite her dual challenges of being both a woman and an Armenian, neither very appreciated in the Azeri-Soviet circles that dominated the Baku establishment. Her group designed oil-drilling equipment, and through this work she met my father, who was a chemical engineer. She had talent and drive and likely could have had an impressive career, but promotion would have meant joining the Soviet Communist party, which would have fatally split the family. As always, my mother chose family over herself.
That resolve faced a stern test when my father died of leukemia when I was seven. My mother could have tried to find a quick replacement to better guarantee our financial future, but that kind of compromise was unthinkable to her. We had modest life, but she fully believed that she and our extended family could provide me with everything I needed, and they did. Like single mothers everywhere throughout history, she simply worked twice as hard.
I was soon showing promise as a chessplayer, and my mother was always my greatest supporter. When she told me that I could become world champion, it wasn’t just because I was winning so much, but because she wanted me to know that she believed I could do anything. And so I believed it, too. Not only that I could do great things, but that I had a responsibility to try to achieve them. Above my childhood bed there was a sign in her beautiful handwriting with a mantra of the Soviet dissidents: “If not you, who else?”
My mother’s greatest strength was to provide strength to others, especially her family. At first, she could seem severe to outsiders, but she took great joy in the successes and happiness of those she loved. One of the reasons I kept playing in the occasional chess event during my retirement was because seeing me back at the board reminded her of the great old days, when we traveled the world together, conquering the chess Olympus.
She was a fixture on the professional chess circuit, watching my games and watching out for me in every regard. As fearsome a reputation as I may have had as “the Beast of Baku,” at the chessboard, my mother’s fierceness in defending my interests even as an accomplished world champion was even more formidable. But that fierceness was always in defense, not offense. She rarely spoke on the record to anyone about me or anything else. “I cannot lie, and I do not want to tell all the truth, because it could hurt people.”
Even after my exile from Russia in 2013, she kept our home in Moscow like a nest, ready for my return at any time. She couldn’t travel frequently anymore, and, due to the pandemic, we could not have our traditional summer family reunion here in Croatia. The last time we were able to meet was November 2019, in Vilnius at the Free Russia Forum.
My life has been turbulent, with many conflicts and dramatic twists, and my mother supported me at every turn. As I did all my life, I still spoke to her every day, at all hours from every corner of the globe, until she was unable to speak.
For someone who gave everything for her family her entire life, it was cruel to have her final days spent in the company of strangers, a situation all too familiar to many others during this terrible pandemic. But I know she would never have wanted anyone else to be at risk; even the thought of it would have made her furious. We believed in her recovery to the last, but 2020 is not a year for miracles.
I am bereft. She was my role model, my greatest champion, my wise counsel, and the strongest person I will ever know. She taught me not what to think, but to question everything. She raised me not to follow a particular path, but to work until the correct path became clear, and to trust my instincts when it wasn’t. Her example shows me, and all of us, that giving of yourself to others can be the greatest achievement of all.
My thanks to the many friends, acquaintances and complete strangers who have sent me personal notes and acknowledgments of condolence. It means a great deal to me and my family.
26 December 2020