Twenty-five years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, plenty of repressive regimes live on. Today, the free world no longer cares.
By GARRY KASPAROV
Dec. 16, 2016
A quarter-century ago, on Dec. 25, 1991, as the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned after a final attempt to keep the Communist state alive, I was so optimistic for the future. That year and the years leading up to that moment were a period when anything felt possible. The ideals of freedom and democracy seemed within the reach of the people of the Soviet Union.
I remember the December evening in 1988 when I was having dinner with friends and my mother in Paris. My family and I still lived in Baku, capital of the then-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, where I was raised, but I had become accustomed to unusual freedoms since becoming the world chess champion in 1985. I was no longer accompanied by KGB minders everywhere I went, although my whereabouts were always tracked. Foreign travel still required special approval, which served to remind every Soviet citizen that this privilege could be withdrawn at any time.
My status protected me from many of the privations of life in the Soviet Union, but it did not tint my vision rose. Instead, my visits to Western Europe confirmed my suspicions that it was in the U.S.S.R. where life was distorted, as in a funhouse mirror.
That night in Paris was a special one, and we were joined by the Czech-American director Miloš Forman via a mutual friend, the Czech-American grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek. We were discussing politics, of course, and I was being optimistic as usual. I was sure that the Soviet Union would be forced to liberalize socially and economically to survive.
Mr. Forman played the elder voice of reason to my youthful exuberance. I was only 25, while he had lived through what he saw as a comparable moment in history. He cautioned that he had seen similar signs of a thaw after reformer Alexander Dubček had become president in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Eight months after Dubček’s election, his reforms ended abruptly as the U.S.S.R. sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia and occupied the country. Many prominent Czechs, like Messrs. Forman and Kavalek, fled abroad.
“Gorbachev’s perestroika is another fake,” Mr. Forman warned us about the Soviet leader’s loosening of state controls, “and it will end up getting more hopeful people killed.” I insisted that Mr. Gorbachev would not be able to control the forces he was unleashing. Mr. Forman pressed me for specifics: “But how will it end, Garry?”
I replied—specifics not being my strong suit—that “one day, Miloš, you will wake up, open your window, and they’ll be gone.”
It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet. The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.
The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones.
Ronald Reagan’s warning that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” was never meant to be put to the test, but it is being tested now. If anything, Reagan’s time frame of a generation was far too generous. The dramatic expansion of freedom that occurred 25 years ago may be coming undone in 25 months.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was the end of watch for the anti-Communist coalition formed by Harry Truman after World War II. A year later, baby boomer Bill Clinton was making jokes with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin and it was time to party, not press the advantage. The U.S. had unrivaled global power and influence, more than at any other time in history. Yet instead of using it to shape a new global framework to protect and project the values of democracy and human rights—as Truman had done immediately to put Stalin in check—the free world acted as though the fight had been won once and for all.
Even worse, we made the same mistake in Russia and in many other newly independent states. We were so eager to embrace the bright future that we failed to address our dark past. There were no truth commissions, no lustration—the shining of light on past crimes and their perpetrators—no accountability for decades of repression. Elections did nothing to uproot the siloviki, the powerful network of security and military officials. The offices and titles of the ruling nomenklatura changed, but the Soviet bureaucratic caste remained as power brokers with no accountability or transparency.
The reforms in Russia enacted by a dream team of national and foreign economists were piecemeal and easily exploited by those with access to the levers of power. Instead of turning into a free market, the Russian economy became a rigged auction that created an elite of appointed billionaires and a population of resentful and confused citizens who wondered why nothing had improved for them.
We in Russia naively equated democracy with wealth, as if the ballot box functioned like an ATM—and we looked on enviously as many of our former Warsaw Pact brethren enjoyed the benefits of massive Western investment. With so few strings attached to the loans and credits Russia received, it was easy for the well-connected to game and profit from the system.
President Yeltsin saw no advantage in building robust institutions that might challenge his authority. This led to corruption under his administration. But it had far more severe consequences when someone far more ruthless replaced him.
When Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, he found few obstacles capable of resisting his instinct to remake Russia in his own KGB image. He also found a Russian public that felt betrayed by the promises of democracy and afraid of the violence and corruption we saw all around us. Mr. Putin’s vulgar rhetoric of security and national pride would have worn thin quickly had the price of oil not begun to skyrocket in the new millennium.
A rising cash flow enabled him to negotiate a Faustian bargain with the Russian people: your freedoms in return for stability. Few envisioned how far he would go in collecting on that bargain, but that’s always the trap with empowering authoritarians. Every step Mr. Putin took without consequences encouraged him to take another, and another.
Outside Russia, at every turn, Europe and the U.S. failed to provide the leadership the historic moment required. Russia was declared the successor of the U.S.S.R. with little argument, even being awarded a coveted spot in the G-7 in 1997. Mr. Putin first used that gift to validate his democratic credentials—and later to expose the hypocrisy of the leaders of the free world, who continued to indulge him as he ripped up Russian democracy root and branch.
Even today, members of the Western democratic establishment praise Mr. Putin as a “strong leader”—as he enters his 17th year of total power in an imploding Russia that millions have fled. The bedrock belief of the Cold War, that the U.S. and the rest of the free world would be safer and stronger by promoting human rights and democracy, has been abandoned in the West in favor of engagement and moral equivalence.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, every repressive state is repressive in its own way—but socialism has proved uniquely toxic. The utopian communist idea competed directly with capitalism and lost. Instead of admitting this failure, Soviet leaders squeezed the soul from their citizens by forcing them to perform in the macabre perversion of human nature that is totalitarian socialism.
Right-wing dictatorships like those of Taiwan, South Africa, Portugal and Chile made smooth transitions to vibrant democracy and the free market. Left-wing regimes have had a far harder time, as if socialism were an autoimmune virus that destroys a society’s ability to defend itself from tyrants and demagogues.
The story of human progress is striving, dreaming and sacrificing for a better future. Instead of believing that happy, successful individuals make for a successful society, socialism insists that a perfectly functioning system will produce happy individuals. When the system comes first, the individual becomes an afterthought. When the system fails, individuals are blamed for not surrendering to it enough. Recovering from a regime that restricts individual freedom is far easier than recovering from one that teaches that individual freedom is worthless.
The people I met in the West in the 1980s were intensely curious about the Soviet Union, even if they called us all “Russians.” Cold War enmity led to a great deal of mythologizing, but there was also sincere concern for the hundreds of millions of people living behind the Iron Curtain. Westerners often asked how they could help, something that is rarely heard in today’s environment of appeasement and isolationism. A time when dictatorship is not seen as a discrete problem—when in fact it is the dominant crisis that enables so many others, including war, terror and refugees. The architects of the Cold War understood that there could be no lasting peace unless the Soviet Union was contained and opposed at every turn. That lesson has been forgotten, along with so many others.
In the old days, I was also asked regularly why I did not defect instead of spending half my time fighting my nemesis Anatoly Karpov at the chessboard and the other half fighting with the Soviet authorities. My answer was always the same, that I wanted to change my country and improve things for everyone, not just for myself. I attempted to use the slight protection my fame provided me to speak out whenever I could. The same was true when I retired from chess in 2005 to join the opposition to Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on Russian democracy and civil society.
Today, I live in exile New York City, driven there not by the Soviets but by a bloodthirsty Putin regime that has no ideology beyond power and money. My medals and awards as a representative of the U.S.S.R. offered me some safety there, but today my name is being purged from the Russian record books.
A year after that 1988 dinner in Paris, Miloš Forman called me from Prague. He said, “Garry, you were right. I opened the window one morning and they were gone.”
Within two years, the U.S.S.R. would also vanish beneath my feet. Yet 25 years later, the thugs and despots are flourishing once again. They still reject liberal democracy and the free market—not because of a competing ideology like communism, but because they understand that those things are a threat to their power.
The internet was going to connect every living soul and shine a light into the dark corners of the world. Instead, the light has reflected back to illuminate the hypocrisy and apathy of the most powerful nations in the world. Crimea is annexed, Ukraine is invaded, ISIS is rallying, Aleppo is laid waste, and not a one of us can say that we did not know. We can say only that we did not care.
Globalization has made it easy for the enemies of the free world to spread their influence in ways the Soviet leadership couldn’t have imagined, while the West has lost the will to defend itself and its values. It’s enough to make you afraid to open the window.
Mr. Kasparov is the chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and the author of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped” (PublicAffairs, 2015).