“In 2006, we said ‘[Putin’s] regime will not leave power through elections or the normal democratic process […]’
In the West, nobody wanted to hear it.”@Kasparov63 describes how the early warnings about Putin’s authoritarianism went unheeded.
— Persuasion (@JoinPersuasion) November 30, 2021
This article is a reprint. You can read the original interview at Persuasion.
By Yascha Mounk
In this week’s conversation, Garry Kasparov and Yascha Mounk discuss how he came to oppose the Soviet regime, why he quickly recognized the dangers posed by Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and what to make of illiberal tendencies on the left.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Garry, one of the things that really strikes me is that you were right on the big thing at every critical juncture. You were right about the Soviet Union. You were right about Putin. You were right about Trump. You may even be right about some of the transformations in America today.
How did you start getting interested in politics? You were a champion chess player. The incentive was to shut up about politics, to become a stooge of the regime like some other chess players were. How did you get drawn into distancing yourself in various ways, small and large, from the Soviet regime?
Garry Kasparov: First, I was right about many things. But I was wrong about many things. I’m not a Nostradamus. Everything I said was based on my experience, and the fact that I read tons of books. Also I had the chance, thanks to my Soviet education, both in school and also in life, to apply this knowledge to reality. It’s probably a much easier task for those who were born on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
As a rising star in the Soviet Union, I had to face a lot of challenges based on my race, my blood. I’m half Armenian, half Jewish, and the man I had to challenge [for the world champion title] was Anatoly Karpov, the darling of the system and the Russian champion. I always want to tease my American audience by saying I was born and raised in the deep south, right next to Georgia, which is technically correct: deep south of the USSR, right next to the Republic of Georgia.
Going back to the Soviet days […] I stayed in a house with my grandfather, who was a diehard communist, but my uncle was more of the classical Jewish intelligentsia. He introduced me to people that had a very opposite view of the Soviet Union. And also, I was a voracious reader. So that’s why I read a lot of books, and many of them, actually, probably all of them, were not available to me through public libraries.
Very quickly, I could see the gap between the official propaganda and story of the great Soviet Union and the reality. My first trip abroad was in 1976, when I was 13. To travel to France in 1976 was a big deal. I was probably the only person who did so from our neighborhood—and Baku was a big city, the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union, after Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev, with more than a million people. I became kind of a hero, not because I played chess, but because I saw something that nobody could actually imagine, except in watching movies.
Mounk: There was presumably a narrative about the Soviet Union being politically and economically superior to Western countries. As a 13-year old, you got to see Paris and you said, “Hang on a second…”
Kasparov: Absolutely. But in the Soviet Union, the average person on the street had very little doubt about the economic superiority of the West. There was a growing gap between official propaganda and people’s senses. They saw the reality of the long lines just to buy food or proper clothes. The whole system was based on the power of distribution. If you were connected to party or government structures, you had access to special shops where you could purchase normal things, but they were not available for the general public. And, of course, there was a black market.
Having said that, I don’t want to pretend that I wanted to become a hero. All I wanted was to become world champion. That’s it. I don’t want you to upgrade my story. It is what it was. In ‘79 and ‘80—while I was highly critical of the system, and we talked in the kitchens and had jokes about Brezhnev—all my mind was about winning the title, which meant I had to play by the rules, because I already had problems as I described—being half Armenian, half Jewish, and from Baku, trying to challenge [reigning world chess champion] Anatoly Karpov was a big deal.
Mounk: How did you come to have this reputation as somebody who’s critical of the regime?
Kasparov: I don’t think it took long for party officials in Moscow and the KGB to figure out that I will not be like Karpov, controlled by authorities and a loyal party soldier. If not for some lucky political changes in the Soviet Union—lucky from my perspective—I wouldn’t have made it to the very top because Karpov had many layers of protection before I could beat him at the chess board. I had to play by the rules. I attended official events, Komsomol events. In 1984, I had to become a member of the Communist Party. You had to play by the rules in order to actually challenge Karpov.
In 1984 I played my first match with Karpov. That was the longest match in the history of chess or any other sport. It took more than five months. And it was no result. While Karpov was winning in the beginning of the match, I picked up my game at the end. After game 48, when I had just won two in a row, they decided to close the match. That was a big scandal. And that was the first time where I took a stand. If you want to look at the beginning of my “dissident career,” that’s when we have a date: February 15, 1985.
Mounk: They think you are about to win this epic match.
Kasparov: I was still trailing five to three. But after losing five to zero and winning three games, especially the last two games, I had the initiative and Karpov was in terrible psychological shape. So I had a real chance of winning. And the Soviet authorities didn’t even want to consider this possibility. Let’s say my chances were 25-30%, as I myself anticipated. That was still too much for them to live with. So they called for the FIDE [chess association] president, who had a long history working with the KGB. He showed up and closed the match. I was there, and I said, “No, I’m not tired. I’m not exhausted. I’m here and I want to play.”
That was the first time I said something in public. The auditorium was packed with cameras. So I made a statement in front of the foreign press, which means in front of the world, challenging the decision of the Soviet authorities. That was the beginning. Basically, it reinforced the suspicions of top authorities about Garry Kasparov’s reliability as a good member of the Communist Party, because I didn’t hesitate. I just said, “No, I want to play.” Eventually the match was still closed. But the authorities had to actually announce a second match.
In May 1985, I had an interview with Der Spiegel magazine. I called FIDE an international chess mafia controlled by the KGB. Now, in 1985, Gorbachev had just taken over, but it was still the Soviet Union. And I faced disqualification because there was not just an uproar [about the interview]. It was more than a scandal. Again, I was lucky: the head of the ideological department of the Communist Party, Alexander Yakovlev, told me that when the matter went all the way up to the Politburo, he convinced Gorbachev, saying “What the hell? One Soviet grandmaster playing another Soviet grandmaster, why should we bother? Let them decide who is the best at the chessboard.” And Gorbachev said “guys, you know, we’re too busy. Just move on.” So that’s how I was saved.
When I became world champion, the dominant thought in my mind was “I did it. So many people never made it. So why should I keep silent?” It was like a duty. I had to show the other people that they could rise. The Soviet people had genetic memory of what happened to those who raised their voice in disagreement. But World Champion was a very sacred title. I was almost untouchable by Soviet standards. Chess was viewed as the most important ideological tool to actually prove the intellectual superiority of communism over the decadent West.
Mounk: In the mid to late 1980s, did you think the idea of communism was sound and the problem was the Soviet regime? Did you hope it could be reformed? Or were you already convinced of the superiority of something like free markets and liberal democracy?
Kasparov: You’ve pointed out the big debate in the Soviet Union. I grew up on the impression that things were probably not that bad: “Maybe we have to find a new clean version of communism. Maybe if you just go to the origins and you analyze it, you actually can make something out of it.” For me, and for many like me, the late 1980s was the time when these illusions died.
Fairly quickly, I shifted from the naivete of someone who believed in Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Soviet Union into far more radical opposition, recognizing that it’s not shortcomings. The whole system is rotten and had to be replaced. When Gorbachev talked about socialism with a human face, my response was, “Frankenstein also had a human face.” In 1989, I was already quite adamant in my opposition to communism. I was a member of the Communist Party from 1984, and I’m not proud of that. But I’m proud that in January 1990, almost two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I sent an official letter to the Azeri sports committee where I was registered, informing them that I was leaving, that I had no more illusions, that it was a criminal regime, that I just wanted nothing to do with it and to consider me gone.
And I immediately jumped into the pool of the newly-born politics. I couldn’t resist the temptation to become part of this very chaotic gathering in Moscow that ended up creating the first non-communist party in the Soviet Union since the Bolsheviks abolished the parties in the 1920s. […] In September 1990, I became the first Soviet athlete to announce I would no longer play under the Soviet flag. […]
In 2005, I stopped playing chess and decided to dive into the muddy waters of Russian politics. I publicly stated my opposition to Putin’s regime, and I made many warnings. Those are warnings I’m proud of, but they were not heeded. They were ignored. People said “that is radical.” In 2006, the organization that I founded, United Civil Front, had a congress and we published a document looking at the trends of Putin’s regime. We said “this regime will not leave power through elections or through the normal democratic process. It will not be changed by the ballot.” We were labelled radicals and told we were standing in the way of evolution. Inside Russia, many liberals thought we were cursed. And in the West, no one wanted to hear about it.
I remember in 2006 when Putin hosted the G8 meeting. It was impossible to explain [our concerns] to Americans or Europeans. Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov—who was one of the earliest defectors from this systemic opposition into the radical wing—no matter what we said, people looked at the TV screen and saw Putin sitting with Bush, Merkel, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi, and thought, “of course, he’s a democrat!”
So how could we beat this? How could we beat this picture and the state propaganda that had been trumpeting the fact that Putin was fully recognized as a democratic leader? Now we know we wasted very precious time. If the free world had seen the threat the way we saw it back in Russia, we probably could have stopped Putin from coming back after 2008. Maybe there was still a chance to force Putin out and at least to avoid the clear threat of a one-man dictatorship that was really looming on the horizon. We already had the Nord-Ost theater where gas was used to kill so many hostages. We had the Beslan school tragedy in which more than 300 people were killed. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in 2006. Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London. By 2007, we already had enough to recognize the danger of Putin’s staying in power.
Mounk: When I was a grad student at Harvard University, you came to speak there to present one of your books. I think this must have been around the time that Barack Obama ran for reelection, and it was striking because at this point you were in political exile from Russia. You were warning about Putin being a dictator, but also about Russia having expanded ambitions to be a spoiler on the international scene. This was around the time Obama had announced the reset with Russia.
Kasparov: In my book, Winter Is Coming, I talked about all the top American officials who became aware about the threat coming from the KGB and Putin after they left office. It’s amazing. You read their memoirs, whoever—Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, a long list. They all knew, but somehow when they were in office, they acted differently.
From my previous life, I already knew what the KGB was. I read enough books, and I saw the growing threat of Putin to the free world, not only to Russia, but also to neighboring countries, the rest of Europe, and eventually to America. And Putin was not shy in using his resources to bribe politicians. The fact is that he could buy former German Chancellor Schröder and many other politicians, though few of that caliber. Former Prime Minister of Finland Paavo Lipponen and now former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon are on a long list of politicians who decided to sell their souls and principles—if they had any—for Putin’s cash. That was a clear and present danger. Putin attacked the Republic of Georgia—technically Medvedev was in power, but I have no doubt that it was Putin’s push—to punish Saakashvili for his independent politics. It was not rocket science: Any country that tried to escape from the sphere of influence of the Kremlin would be subject to an attack. Thank God the Baltic states were under the NATO umbrella—though, these days, probably even NATO doesn’t offer full protection. But Ukraine was a clear target of Putin’s aggression. I had no doubt that he would look for any opportunity to spread chaos around the world, because that’s what he needed. You can’t blame him with hiding his intentions. You just had to follow what Putin had been saying all along. His speech in Munich in 2007 was a clear message to the world that he was going to depart from the arrangements of the post-Cold War and would restore Russian imperial power. Today, in 2021, we still have people saying that maybe we shouldn’t take these types of words at face value. We must, because with every success they become more emboldened. Dictators never ask “why?” It’s always “why not?”
Mounk: Tell us how you took some of the insights you developed in Russia, seeing the rise of Vladimir Putin, and applied them to the candidacy of somebody like Trump.
Kasparov: I think of Donald Trump’s ascent, and the KGB operations to help him get elected. I saw the Russian propaganda machine fully supporting Trump, and using the newly-built troll factories and fake news industry to help Trump to be elected. And whatever Trump’s relations with the KGB were in the past—I believe there were—it was clear that Putin thought that was a time to go for this final blow to divide America, to create in American democracy a friction it couldn’t heal. Trump was an ideal agent of chaos. It’s like an icebreaker, destroying the American political system. I don’t think Putin expected Trump to win, but I think he thought that Trump could do what he is doing now [sowing division].
Now, the new administration that needed to heal the damage caused by Trump demonstrated its impotence, or some would say incompetence, with the clear and present danger in dealing with Putin. The summit in Geneva was a disaster beyond imagination.
Mounk: How do you see the state of American democracy now?
Kasparov: I’m an incorrigible optimist by nature. I still believe American democracy is strong enough to survive this challenge. But the challenge is much tougher than I thought. In chess, you always look at trends—not just the current result, but where things are going. The latest trends are not looking good. It’s the polarization that bothers me so much. That’s why I founded the Renew Democracy Initiative, and I spent nearly five years working with people in the center trying to bring people from the left and right to just work together to build a strong coalition that could resist the pressure from radicals on the far left and far right. It’s not there yet. Both parties are under tremendous pressure from different forms of radicalism. On one side, we have a cult of personality. The criterion for being Republican now is loyalty to Trump. On the other side, their loyalty is to a concept, to ideology. It’s a principle to win debate by ending debate, and knowing that there are certain unchallengeable dogmas that you must obey. In the morning, you look at the New York Times and you’re horrified. In the evening, you hear Tucker Carlson. You have a plague and you have cholera.
How are you going to deal with that? Practically, I think the country needs a third party, because it’s no longer about debating small issues, like higher tax rates; it’s about preserving the country. My biggest nightmare is that in 2024 we will see Donald Trump running against a progressive. That’s what both sides hope for. Donald Trump cannot beat a reasonable Democrat, any moderate Democrat. Even a past-his-peak Joe Biden beat Trump. It’s the same story in reverse: any reasonable Republican will beat the progressive.
Mounk: The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei recently implied that American political correctness reminded him of the Cultural Revolution in China. What do you make of that comparison? Do you think the culture of ideological purity has an authoritarian streak? Or do you think that is a significant overstatement?
Kasparov: It’s something that threatens the free flow of ideas, the freedom of speech. Our recent RDI project was released on CNN, and it’s called Voices of Freedom. We brought together 52 dissidents from 28 countries that expressed their grave concerns about the current state of American democracy, looking at both sides—looking at January 6 and “cancel culture,” whatever name you want to use for this—to warn Americans about dangers to democracy. I was recently part of a debate on the Intelligence Squared platform called “Cancel Culture is Toxic.” It’s good that we’re debating it. It seems to me that the defenders of cancel culture have two contradictory arguments: that cancel culture doesn’t exist, and that those who have been canceled deserve it. It’s difficult to bring them together.
More and more of the Democratic party understand the risk of the party being hijacked by the radicals. Hopefully the latest elections in Virginia and New Jersey send a clear message. […] If Donald Trump is again the candidate, and the Democrats do not have a proper candidate to stop him, then American democracy could be in grave danger.
Mounk: What can those of us who are very worried about the prospect of Donald Trump coming back in 2024 do to minimize the likelihood of that outcome? And what can the world do to stand up for liberal democracy against its enemies, foreign and domestic?
Kasparov: Speaking about Trump’s chances to be reelected, there are two stages: one is whether he will be nominated. And until recently, I thought it would be impossible. After the vote in Wyoming, I’m not sure. Few are taking the side of Liz Cheney. That sends a very bad signal about the chances of Donald Trump not being reelected and re-nominated in 2024. Having the third candidate, unfortunately, is unlikely. I would love to see someone in the middle. Someone strong like young Schwarzenegger but born in America, just as a fantasy. I don’t see anyone on the horizon right now. The radicals need each other. I always say that the best fundraiser for AOC is Trump, and the best fundraiser for Trump is AOC.
As for global affairs? I don’t know if this administration can do it, but we are all waiting for this global summit on democracy. There’s no way that America can look inwards and just concentrate on domestic affairs. America must lead the world. Because if America walks away, we know what happens. When Yankee goes home, Putin, Xi Jinping, the Taliban, and Iranian mullahs all come in. They’re not just coming for regions that they want to control. Eventually, it hits America as well. I think now more people recognize it. There was [for example] a great article by Anne Applebaum. I hear the voices that confirm what I knew 15 years ago. But as we say in chess, better late than never.”