Chess champion Garry Kasparov outplayed nearly everyone in the world for 22 years. Today the Russian grandmaster is taking on his most formidable opponent, President Vladimir Putin.
“Putin’s Russia is a virus. You don’t engage the virus, you have to contain it,” he told me.
Kasparov is one of four debaters Friday night in Toronto questioning the West’s response to Russia: ‘engage or isolate?’
He’s been fiercely critical of the west’s “failure” to effectively take on Putin. He likens the Russian leader’s political tactics and power to Adolf Hitler’s in the years leading up to the Second World War.
“Putin has his finger tip on a nuclear button,” says Kasparov. “The only thing he cares about today is staying in power, and staying in power for him means he must demonstrate himself as the only saviour of Russia.”
World chess champion at 22
Kasparov was 13 when he began touring, playing chess for the Soviet Union. His first shot at the world title, in 1984, pitted him against Soviet incumbent Anatoly Karpov.
It ended, after 48 games and six months, with no decision.
The next year Kasparov defeated Karpov, becoming the youngest ever world champion, and went on to master one opponent after another, until his retirement in 2005.
“My status as the world champion gave me an opportunity to speak openly about problems that, I believe, are harming the future of my country. Chess was a very important ideological tool for the communist regime,” he says. “Fighting for the world title, especially against Anatoly Karpov, a darling of the system, made me political.”
Kasparov has used that status to fight Vladimir Putin for 10 years, trying to mobilize opposition inside Russia, demonstrating alongside Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated on Feb. 27.
Outside Russia he spoke volubly about what he calls Putin’s dictatorship. In 2013, while travelling, he learned Russian investigators were looking for him to be a witness in a political case. Fearing he’d “go in as a witness and end up a suspect,” he didn’t return to Russia.
Kasparov moved to New York, working with a human rights organization and advocating for chess in primary schools across the world. And much of the time he focuses on the “tragedy” of Russian politics.
“Regimes like Putin’s do not allow robust opposition to function,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the middle class in Moscow recognizing Putin’s rule brings Russia to a dead end and there is no other choice but to rise up.”
But he has no illusions about when that might happen, if ever.