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Garry Kasparov has won more than two dozen world chess titles, emigrated twice, and launched movements to oppose two Presidents. Born in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, to an Armenian mother and a Jewish father, Kasparov fled that city when anti-Armenian pogroms broke out in 1990. He was twenty-seven years old and had held the world-champion title in chess for five years; he was famous and, by Soviet standards, wealthy. He chartered a plane to Moscow and took nearly seventy people with him.
Kasparov announced his retirement from chess in 2005, when he was still ranked No. 1 in the world, and declared that he would devote himself to politics. He started a movement called The Other Russia, a broad coalition united in its opposition to President Vladimir Putin. After a series of street protests and a failed attempt to put Kasparov on the ballot for the 2008 Presidential election, the movement sputtered along until the mass protests of 2011–12, in which the movement’s activists—and Kasparov personally—played a key role. In the political crackdown that followed the protests, Kasparov was forced to leave Russia.
He now lives in Manhattan; when he is not travelling for his many speaking engagements, he works in coffee shops. His latest political movement started over coffee, too. Called the Renew Democracy Initiative, it was formed by an ideologically diverse group of journalists, academics, and Kasparov, soon after the 2016 American election; signatories to its manifesto include Laurence Tribe, William Kristol, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Last month, the group published a collection of essays, called “Fight for Liberty,” in which members call for a centrist effort to reinvigorate liberal democracy. On the eve of its publication, Kasparov sat down with me at a coffee shop in Manhattan. (I have known Kasparov socially for a dozen years, and have written about him and his work in books and articles; I have also participated in his Free Russia Forum.)
This interview has been translated, from the Russian, and edited for length.
This is your second attempt at creating a broad opposition coalition.
We are asserting that some things are more important than ideological disagreements. The difference is, in Other Russia there were people who accepted our values out of necessity, whereas Larry Tribe and Bill Kristol don’t have a difference of opinion on what democracy is.
What is democracy?
It is the existence of democratic institutions that enable different people to express their points of view within a legal framework that sets the boundaries of the political process. That’s a very rough definition. We have suddenly discovered that this framework is on the verge of a breakdown. The system of institutions that functioned for two and a half centuries has rusted through, and we have to figure out how it’s all going to work in the twenty-first century. The book that we have just published is an expression of our collective consciousness, an attempt to show that these traditional democratic values can be adapted to the demands of the twenty-first century.
How long did it take to feel that you know this system and understand its institutions well enough to take a stab at reinventing it?
I’m not really reinventing it. But, (a), I have been living here long enough now, and, (b), I have always been interested in the political constructions of the world. You have to know when to act. Trump’s election was a catalytic event because a huge number of people realized that they have to become a part of the process, they have to vote, they have to protest.
I am fortunate to have friends on different sides of the political spectrum. I have another advantage: I am not an American citizen, and I can’t run for office. So, as the chairman of this organization, I cannot be suspected of trying to use it to advance my own political career. I am also difficult to place politically. I guess you could describe me as center-right, but, at the same time, I am a social liberal, and I have a lot of issues with the politics of the right.
The two-party system is doomed. It makes the world look too simple, too black-and-white. What’s happening with the G.O.P., and what I suspect will be happening to the Democrats, are reactions to the fact that the rainbow of people’s views in the twenty-first century cannot be fitted into two political parties. Some people remain loyal to the party structure, but those who think more actively start saying, “Wait a second, that’s not what we are about.”
We are living through the eighteen-fifties, in some sense. The Democrats split into the North and the South, and this reflected the main issues. But it’s instructive to look at how the Whigs split into Republicans and Know-Nothings. An anti-immigration party! A new political system was being born, even if it did revert to the two-party system. There have been some mighty third-party efforts since: in 1892, in 1912. The system was more complex until it was reduced to a total two-party algorithm. Though, at a few key points, a third force made a difference. In 1968, Wallace ended up helping Nixon by taking votes away from Humphrey. And there was 1992, and 2000—
Of course. It happens more often than people think. And now the model is crumbling. Europe has been undergoing this process for longer. It didn’t have a two-party system, but it had the socialists and the conservatives, and everything revolved around that. Now we see that disintegrating even in the most stable of societies, such as Sweden.
We have entered a period of chaos. Putin didn’t invent the chaos. He just sort of helped it along. Like any dictator, he is an opportunist. There is a war in Syria? Excellent. Obama has washed his hands of it? Great: I go in, displace people, they flee to Europe, this creates problems, the right rises.
They had been practicing for this since 2004–05. The Internet structures designed to influence people’s minds were under construction in Russia for ten years before they decided to meddle in the American election. [2004–05 marked the years of the Orange Revolution, in Ukraine, and of a series of protests called the Marches of the Dissenters, organized by the United Civil People’s Front, which was co-founded by Kasparov; both of these developments alerted the Kremlin to the potential of Internet-based organizing.]
I suspect that they made a conscious decision to create not a Chinese-type system of blocking access to information but its opposite: a flood of information. They created a deluge. For example, they create entire troll debates. You think that there is an argument raging on the Internet, when in reality it’s a script.
When a political system is unstable, something like this can play a serious role. It shouldn’t have been hard to imagine that Putin would decide that, since he has been able to influence Holland, England, Germany, and Italy, to say nothing of Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria, he would try his hand here. But everyone subscribed to the traditional mistaken belief that Putin is a regional player. Considering the resources Putin has, it was obvious that sooner or later he would challenge the world’s strongest country, because that’s his way to demonstrate his own invincibility.
How well thought-out do you think this strategy was here?
At first they were using Trump mostly as an icebreaker. They expected Hillary to win and wanted to discredit her completely. Trump was the perfect vehicle for discrediting not only Hillary but the entire electoral system. Putin’s great advantage is that, unlike Soviet propagandists, he is not selling an ideology. I call him the merchant of doubt. His message is, We are shit, you are shit, and all of this is bullshit. What democracy? Trump was the ideal agent of chaos.
Trump kept saying that the election will be rigged. This was the Kremlin line. I think their main script was that Hillary would win in a close battle and #ElectionIsRigged would be a hashtag that would discredit her. She would be paralyzed. She’d be facing a Republican congress, which would immediately begin impeachment proceedings.
And then they saw that they had a shot at the jackpot. In its last stages, the campaign changed. They started using WikiLeaks when they sensed that they had a chance of getting Trump into office.
At the same time, Putin held his annual Valdai Club meeting for foreign experts on Russia, and that year it was designed to build bridges with the Hillary Clinton Administration they were anticipating.
Some things take time, even in a dictatorship. Valdai was planned ahead of time. And I’m not saying they had any certainty. Hillary was their main expectation. But they saw that they had a chance. They are card sharks. They stow an ace up their sleeve and keep playing the game.
Later, they thought that they may be able to pull off something even bigger. If you analyze what was happening between November and January, during the transition period, you will see that they were getting ready for a grandiose project. Henry Kissinger played a role. I think he was selling the Trump Administration on the idea of a mirror of 1972, except, instead of a Sino-U.S. alliance against the U.S.S.R., this would be a Russian-American alliance against China. This explains the Taiwan phone call. [In December, 2016, Trump spoke on the telephone with Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, breaking decades of protocol and earning a rebuke from China.]
But it all went off the rails on December 29th, when Mike Flynn called the Russian Embassy. Flynn is a few weeks away from becoming the national-security adviser. And still he calls the Russian Ambassador. He calls to say, “Don’t do anything in response to the sanctions the United States has just imposed.” [The Russian foreign minister, Sergei] Lavrov has already announced that Russia will match the sanctions, Cold War–style: the U.S. has expelled thirty-five people and taken away two buildings, and we are going to do the exact same thing. And then Putin, effectively renouncing Lavrov, says, “You know what, we are starting a new life. We are not expelling anyone, and we are inviting American diplomats’ children to our New Year’s celebrations.”
A dictator can’t afford to look weak. He can act this way only if he is absolutely certain that Flynn is speaking for Trump. This means they trusted Flynn absolutely. The were sure that they were going to win in this situation.
Are you perhaps overestimating their intelligence? You are assuming that they had good reasons for trusting Flynn.
Let’s not underestimate Putin. He follows K.G.B. logic. Remember, when several countries expelled Russian diplomats, Putin went tit for tat. I think he even expelled a Hungarian. And yet he didn’t respond to the Americans that time. He was expecting to win big.
My conclusions come from looking at Kissinger’s trip to Moscow and, from what I see, his long-standing connections to Gazprom. It was obvious that China was being distanced and Trump was ready to give himself over to Putin. They were readying the ground for denouncing nato Article 5. This is the picture I get when I add it all up.
So why did it go off the rails?
I think it was the F.B.I. They knocked Flynn out, and then it wasn’t going to work. [On January 12, 2017, the Washington Post reported that Flynn had called the Russian Ambassador. The report was apparently based on an intelligence leak—the F.B.I. had been listening in on Flynn’s conversations with the Ambassador.] It turned out that the American political system has a certain reserve of stability; ironically, this stability is currently guaranteed by the intelligence services and the Pentagon. While the Republican Party has given itself over to Trump, the institutions that were always suspected of dictatorial tendencies are the ones resisting dictatorship. I think that at that stage they opted for all-out sabotage.
And that was about the time when you decided to step in.
I realized that we had to set some of our disagreements aside, because the very framework in which we could have these disagreements was under threat. I recently read Churchill’s book about the interwar period, “The Gathering Storm.” He talks about how the Western world stood by and watched as the forces that led to the catastrophe grew in Germany, but also in the U.S.S.R. and Japan and Italy—they kept thinking that it would just dissipate.
How useful do you find comparisons to the nineteen-thirties?
Why wouldn’t they be useful? Historical comparisons are always contingent and can be slippery, but they are necessary because they enable us to understand the nature of mistakes. Everybody says, “How can you compare Putin to Hitler?” But which Hitler? The Hitler of 1936? Sure you can.
What are the similarities?
Hitler was a respectable politician in 1936. Attempts to boycott the Olympic Games in Berlin had failed. Everyone came. It’s important to remember that Hitler had not always been as he was in 1941. Any dictatorship, including the Stalinist one, is formed over time. It’s not a military coup. It’s a gradual press.
In 1935, when Hitler decided to take over the Saar Basin—perhaps if France had sent a military division there, things could have gone differently. A dictator never asks, “Why?” He asks, “Why not?” Putin is also annexing territories gradually. He tests the waters. He didn’t venture into Syria right away. The chemical attack in 2013 was a sort of test. It showed that he can intervene there.
Ukraine was also a test. [Immediately following the Olympic Games in Sochi, in February, 2014, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, occupying the Crimean Peninsula and establishing a puppet separatist regime in the eastern part of Ukraine.] That went over just fine. Putin’s dictatorship is different from twentieth-century dictatorships in that it is driven primarily by money. It’s not imperialism in its purest form. He doesn’t have the desire to attack and conquer everyone. He has no ideology. He sows chaos: break up nato, break up the European Union, create chaos in America. In the end, he is concerned only with maintaining his own power, and his own power depends on demonstrating his might and uniqueness to his own guys, his own henchmen and cronies.
What do you think of comparisons between Trump and Putin?
Their backgrounds are different. Putin is not a public person; he is a K.G.B. agent. He is underhanded in everything he does. Trump acts openly and brazenly. Sure, he has to disguise things, but he does that by piling on lies and fake information. I think Trump envies Putin his ability to do things that Trump can’t do by definition. Putin doesn’t have to be concerned with the media or with parliament. Trump resents wasting his precious time on speaking to the press. And then he has to push things through, lobby for them—all that takes time. I think the way Trump acts around dictators comes from his feelings of a sort of inferiority: he’d like to be like them, but he can’t. If he is reëlected, it will be a tragedy—nothing will rein him in.
What specifically are you worried about?
He will do what he wanted to do and hasn’t been able to yet. He can destroy nato. He can push the situation to the point of chaos.
You started by talking about institutions that are not holding up. But a lot of people are looking around and saying, “It’s been two years and the institutions are still standing.” What do you think?
That they are still standing shows that they were built well. But we have learned many things, such as how much of the institutional cement is actually tradition. In everything Trump does, he uses the loopholes of the system, and we see how many of them there are. Many things began long before Trump—for example, the shift of power from the legislative to the executive branch.
The Supreme Court situation is extremely dangerous. When Trump said that he would stick with Brett Kavanaugh all the way, I wrote that his saying so was a small problem; the big problem is that Kavanaugh will stick with Trump all the way. For the first time we have a Supreme Court Justice, a fairly young one, who is not only partisan but loyal to the President who appointed him. Now imagine the following setup: Democrats have taken Congress and have started investigating Trump and issued a subpoena for his tax returns, which is something they can only do on national-security grounds. Trump challenges the subpoena, and the Supreme Court issues a 5–4 decision. Is that going to be legitimate? Imagine any 5–4 decision involving Trump in which Kavanaugh casts the decisive vote.
The Supreme Court is the institution that saved America in 2000. Everyone realized that the election was a dead heat, but the court decided. Now imagine a repeat of 2000 in 2020. What will happen in the streets? How can this institution pass final judgment?
Distrust in the system is growing. It’s important that Kavanaugh was confirmed by fifty votes that represent forty-four per cent of the country.
So there seem to be three things you want to reform: the two-party system, the balance of powers, and the federal system.
It’s not that I want to reform them. Let me put it this way: a country that has legitimately elected Trump has to consider its political system. How could Trump have won an entirely legal election? If I’d suggested this was possible three years ago, people would have laughed at me. But something is going on.
Something besides Russian interference?
Absolutely. Putin gave things a nudge, but the process was under way. And it may be that we are lucky it was Trump. It might have been someone worse, with more-rigid ideological concepts. Trump’s goals are ultimately personal: he is a businessman. He has no ideology that could plunge the country into a long-term catastrophe.
I was just leafing through a book called “The Wonderful Future That Never Was.” It’s a collection of articles from Popular Mechanics, from 1903 to 1969. People were predicting so many different things—the country was boiling over with ideas. Now try reading what people are saying about what will happen in ten or twenty years. We have gone from utopia to dystopia. Trump is a reflection of our unconscious, in a way. People fear the future, and then a man comes along and says, “I’ll take care of everything.” We have to find a way to restore our spirit of exploration.
You are raising two children here now.
Three of my children are here, but Polina, who is twenty-five, is a graduate student in philosophy. So I am raising two, yes.
They are twelve and three. Are you not afraid of the future?
I am an incorrigible optimist by nature. The future is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe this firmly. I am fervently in favor of resuming space exploration. We have to start living in the algorithm of exploration again. That’s what made this country what it is, and the world, too.
What made you move to New York?
I moved here permanently in February, 2013. I had to. [My wife] Dasha and I had been living here sporadically since 2004. We had a place here. Aida was born here, in 2006. We were paying taxes here. But, when you get a call from the Investigative Committee [Russia’s central detective agency], asking you to come be interviewed as a witness, you realize you have to give it some thought. The late Boris Nemtsov knew this well, so he used to say, “When you enter as a witness, you exit as a suspect. If you exit at all.” Too bad he didn’t heed his own advice. [Nemtsov, a Russian politician and Putin opponent who had been threatened repeatedly with prosecution, was assassinated, in Moscow, in 2015.]
What was the investigation?
It was one of the cases stemming from the protests of 2011–12. I happened to be abroad when we got the call, and I never went back.
Soon after, you started the Free Russia Forum, an organization for political activists in exile.
In December we are going to hold our sixth conference, in Vilnius, Lithuania. You say that it’s an organization of exiles, but it’s actually about fifty-fifty: émigrés and people coming from Russia. I am always amazed at the civic courage of the people who come from Russia, because this is a gathering that Channel One covers as a congress of the enemies of the people.
It’s still growing. Marat Guelman is starting to organize a culture track. [Guelman is an art curator and former Putin campaign strategist living in exile in Montenegro.] Ideally, this sort of discussion would be happening in Russia. We organize a live broadcast so that people in Russia can watch something that they ordinarily can’t access. We talk about the sanctions. This time we are going to talk about the church schism. We talk about Putin’s wars. We talk about how the state should be constituted and we discuss the mistakes of the past. It’s important to look back on the last twenty-five years. What happened that led to the 1993 Russian Constitution, which virtually made Putin inevitable? We need these kinds of discussions so that if a window opens up—as I think it will—we have an accumulation of intellectual capital that will allow us to avoid making the same mistakes.
What kind of window do you see opening?
Dictatorships fall unexpectedly. There are many things that can go wrong: we don’t know which way the Syrian conflict will go, and the sanctions are starting to make them feel the squeeze, and the oligarchs are malcontent, and the country is reforming the retirement system.
The church schism is a very serious topic. In effect, it constitutes the end of the Russian concept of religious autocracy. An 1686 decree guaranteed Russia’s primacy in the Orthodox world. Now Ukraine, Belarus, and a couple of Russian regions are splitting off—they are returning to Europe after three hundred and thirty years.
In other words, Russia is being isolated. The world’s attitude toward Putin has finally changed. You can see that when the minister of defense of the Netherlands says that they are in a state of cyberwar with Russia. England has stopped just short of saying that. And even in America, Trump hasn’t proved to be that useful: sanctions keep putting the squeeze on. I’m not saying the sudden collapse of the system is going to happen tomorrow—it might take a year or two, but less than five, I’m sure.
I recall that when you and I spoke in 2006, you were sure that the system was at the edge of collapse.
There was one thing I couldn’t predict, and that’s the amount of money that flowed into Russia following the financial crisis of 2008. The West addressed the financial crisis by printing a giant amount of money, and a lot of that money went to Russia, as payment for oil. Also, to be honest, I had overestimated the West’s ability, or, rather, its desire, to intervene in Russia. Back in 2007 it was still possible to influence Putin. He wasn’t yet the Putin of 2014. Russia was more integrated into the world.
Then there was 2011. One of the reasons the protest movement choked up was that there was no discord in the élites. Élites split when they can see that the rest of the world wants change. But in reality the world didn’t want things to change. And now the outside world itself is unstable.
But don’t you think that the reason no cracks appeared in the élites has to do with the nature of a mafia state, which makes everyone dependent on the don?
I don’t think things were so clear in 2011. How dependent were these people? They keep their money in the West, after all. I can imagine a scenario in which things would have worked out differently. But that would have required more decisive action on the part of the protesters.
If you had to do it over again, as one of the leaders of the protest, what would you have done differently?
I think we had a chance on December 24th. [On December 24, 2011, more than a hundred thousand people came out in Moscow and in dozens of other cities and towns around Russia, comprising the third and largest protest in three weeks.] The special forces were hiding out in the pedestrian underpass. No one was prepared to take responsibility for dispersing the protesters. In Moscow we had a hundred and twenty thousand people in the street. We had the option of laying siege to the building of the Central Election Commission and demanding that election results be annulled. Another was the Maydan option. [Maydan means “square” in Ukrainian. Kasparov is referring to protests in Kyiv, in 2004 and in 2013–14, when months-long occupations of the city’s main square succeeded in toppling the government.] I think we could have gotten ten thousand people to stay.
Instead, we went on holiday break. Leaders of the protests took their planned vacations; I came to America to see my kids. Our mood was, We’ll come back and come out again. We should have maintained the revolutionary momentum. On February 4th, we had an even bigger crowd, but, by that time, they were prepared for it. They’d plugged up all their holes, put a stop to any internal boat-rocking. They did their job, and we didn’t do ours.
They cracked down, but now their scorched-earth approach is going to backfire. Whatever protest comes next, it will be spontaneous and will come out of nowhere, or everywhere at once. And it will seem like all of that is happening without the opposition doing anything, because they’ve eliminated the opposition. The thing is, young people keep coming out to protest. They’ve forced me out of the country, they’ve killed Boris Nemtsov, they’ve been jailing Alexey Navalny. And still things are happening. That means there are things that people want that the regime can’t give them.
You really are an incorrigible optimist.
I’m not saying that I know how it ends. I just said that the system is unstable. That doesn’t mean that things will be good tomorrow. There are different ways they can play out.
I believe that anything is better than Putin because that eliminates the probability of a nuclear war. Putin is insane. He is an aging paranoid dictator who may be losing power. Anyone who replaces him, any new system, however ugly it may be, will aim to reach some understanding with the West. They have their financial interests, if nothing else. The greatest danger today stems from Putin, both because he is uncontrollable and because his staying in power serves to encourage the worst impulses of all the Saudi, Arab, and other dictators. So, if Putin goes, that will be a positive.
Back in Russia, you had a team of bodyguards and you consumed only food and drink that had been kept securely. Do you feel safe here?
Safe? No. But what can I do? I walk the streets but I don’t have tea with strangers. And I don’t accept invitations to countries where the government may be motivated to make a friendly gesture toward Putin. I get enough invitations to countries where I’m not under threat.
Tell me about your chess work.
That’s the fun part. Fortunately, in America there is a city called St. Louis. And there is the Sinquefield family, and Rex Sinquefield, whose Saint Louis Chess Club spends millions of dollars a year to promote chess. There is a children’s chess boom in America. You don’t see it on television but it’s there. I work with them a lot. Twice a year I hold sessions for gifted children.
I want chess tournaments to be a commercial enterprise and chess to be a professional game. For now I feel optimistic. I play a little bit when I go to St. Louis. But I realize that I can’t compete with the leading chess players today.
Are you doing them a favor by playing?
No, I enjoy playing. It’s a place where the chess culture is like it used to be in the Soviet Union. Everyone there respects the game. That makes me feel comfortable playing there, even if I know that I can no longer win.
How does the greatest chess player in history feel being unable to win?
You can’t really maintain the level of concentration. I can play a strong chunk of a game, or I can win one game in a beautiful way. But, on the whole, that’s not my life anymore. You can’t come from a different life at fifty-five and beat a thirty-year-old, or even a forty-year-old who does nothing but chess. I’m an amateur, and I feel comfortable with that.
Masha Gessen, a staff writer, has written several books, including, most recently, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.