The New Yorker hosted Garry Kasparov as an honored guest at its festival last year in New York City, and the magazine’s editor David Remnick interviewed him. Now, the magazine devotes a huge spread in its most current issue to laying out Kasparov’s vision for Russia. It’s another catastrophic blow to the PR campaign of Vladimir Putin, showing that the West is no longer the easy dupe of his neo-Soviet machinations. Now, we see right through him.
On a recent summer evening, the greatest player in the history of chess, Garry Kasparov, wrapped up an exhausting series of meetings devoted to the defeat of the Kremlin regime. After days of debate, a motley pride of unlikely revolutionaries—bearded politicos, earnest academics, and multigrained environmentalists—collected their cigarettes and left Kasparov’s apartment, divided and worn out. Little had been accomplished. Crumpled drafts of fevered proclamations lay scattered on the kitchen table. Puffy-eyed and unsmiling, Kasparov grunted a curt farewell to his comrades and went off to make yet another urgent telephone call.
Kasparov is forty-four. He was the world chess champion for fifteen years. Until his retirement, two years ago, his dominance was unprecedented. Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer—none came close. Chess has outsized meaning in Russia, and Kasparov at home was a cross between the greatest of athletes and a revered intellectual; with his status came celebrity, foreign investment accounts, summers on the Adriatic, an apartment along the Hudson River, friendships among Western politicians and businessmen, and the attentions of beautiful women. Now he has volunteered for grim and, very likely, futile duty. As the most conspicuous leader of Drugaya Rossiya (the Other Russia), an umbrella group of liberals, neo-Bolsheviks, and just about anyone else wishing to speak ill of Vladimir Putin, he is in nominal charge of opposition politics in a country that, in actuality, has no real politics except for that which takes place in the narrow and inscrutable space between the ears of its President.
Kasparov’s mother, Klara, shares his apartment and his travails. “It is like we are soldiers together in the ditches,” she once said. “Even when we are at a great distance, Garry and I can feel each other’s mood.” Like her son, Klara Kasparova is impossibly energetic, deeply intelligent, and a touch melodramatic. It had been a tedious few days of marathon jawing and internal spats. The Other Russia was scheduled to hold its annual conference the next morning at a Holiday Inn in central Moscow, but some of its leading figures had decided to boycott over the question of whether to unify immediately behind a single Presidential candidate for the March, 2008, election.
“All day and night, people running here and there, meeting, talking, drinking tea,” Klara Kasparova said, with a long sigh. Her dyed-red hair was askew, her face slack. “This apartment has been like Smolny.” A romantic analogy: the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, in St. Petersburg, had been the Bolshevik headquarters during the October Revolution. Lenin barely left the building in those manic weeks, and, when he did, he sometimes disguised himself in surgical bandages.
Kasparov’s redoubt in the Arbat neighborhood of Moscow is not nearly as elegant as Smolny, but the address is one of Soviet-era privilege and among the most expensive areas on the real-estate market. Government officials and members of the cultural élite were awarded apartments there. Kasparov was never obedient or politically reliable like his great rival Anatoly Karpov, but he didn’t lack for comforts. His kitchen has a flat-screen television, an Italian espresso machine, and other swish appliances that would surely have brightened Lenin’s late nights at Smolny.
Kasparov pocketed his phone and slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. He is handsome and athletic, but thicker than he once was, and his hair, black and curly when he won the world championship, is now graying and cropped close to his skull. Though the meetings had ended with a split, which Russia’s small opposition can ill afford, Kasparov seemed to thrive on the claustrophobic intensity of kitchen politics. “The intellectual brainstorming always takes place here,” he said. “We did it like this when I was playing chess and when I was beginning in politics, in the nineties. The kitchen tradition is part of our culture.”
Klara asked a maid to make coffee. The espresso came bolshoi trippio—enormous mugs of steaming caffeine. It became easier to see how Kasparov was able to work heroic hours and then, well after midnight, settle down at his computer to play “blitz”—five-minute-long games of chess. He plays anonymously, but the cognoscenti know his style of attack. They still feel his presence. Sinatra cannot sing anonymously.
Kasparov explained why Mikhail Kasyanov, who had served for four years as Prime Minister under Putin and was now angling to run as the opposition’s Presidential candidate, would skip the Other Russia conference. Kasparov, unlike Kasyanov, believes that the opposition can challenge the Kremlin only after it grows, from the bottom up; his argument, which prevailed, was that the Other Russia had to hold extensive Presidential primaries in the Russian provinces, with numerous debates and public meetings, before choosing its nominee in October. “What’s the point otherwise?” Kasparov said. “The only chance to capture people’s attention and get the crowds to come, to get engaged, is by demonstrating that we act democratically.”
Although Kasparov’s popularity ratings are higher than Kasyanov’s, they are both marginal in the Land of Putin. Even if Kasparov decides to run (and he probably will), the government would not likely register his candidacy, and, even if it did, he could not win. The point is to create an alternative, not to be deluded into thinking there is an open election that can be won. Besides, Kasparov is half Armenian, half Jewish—not exactly an ideal ethnic mix for a politician in a country with deep currents of anti-Caucasian and anti-Semitic feeling.
The details of Kasparov’s dispute with Kasyanov were, ultimately, of small moment. For all practical purposes, Putin will select his successor, much as his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, designated him—unless he forgoes his promise to stand down and changes the constitution to allow a third term. Although a great many Russians would not object if he were to declare himself, Mobutu style, President for Life, it seems increasingly unlikely that he will stay.
In recent years, Putin has insured that nearly all power in Russia is Presidential. The legislature, the State Duma, is only marginally more independent than the Supreme Soviet was under Leonid Brezhnev. The governors of Russia’s more than eighty regions are no longer elected, as they were under Yeltsin; since a Presidential decree in 2004, they have all been appointed by the Kremlin. Putin even appoints the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The federal television networks, by far the main instrument of news and information in Russia, are neo-Soviet in their absolute obeisance to Kremlin power. “Putin is no enemy of free speech,” Ksenia Ponomareva, who worked on his first Presidential campaign, told the St. Petersburg Times. “He simply finds absurd the idea that somebody has the right to criticize him publicly.” The business community must also obey the commands and signals of Putin’s circle. There are now nearly as many billionaires in Moscow as in New York City, but the arrest for fraud, in 2003, of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil magnate who had been the country’s richest man, was a clear, ominous signal that wealth is dependent on Kremlin approval. Khodorkovsky, who dared to fund opposition parties, pronounce his own political ideas, and attempt to cut pipeline deals with China without Kremlin permission, is now serving an eight-year term in Penal Colony No. 10, in eastern Siberia.
Kasparov is well aware of the perils of brazen independence. Since Putin took office, in 2000, more than a dozen Russian journalists have been murdered, as have several opposition politicians. The cases remain “unresolved.” When Kasparov is in Russia, he retains a security contingent that costs him tens of thousands of dollars a month. His wife, Daria Tarasova, and their baby often stay in an apartment in New Jersey. Oleg Kalugin, a former K.G.B. general who was Putin’s superior in St. Petersburg twenty years ago and now lives in Maryland, told me, “You can expect anything with this regime, and Kasparov has been very vocal and very personal in his criticism of Putin. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about something terrible happening to him. And where will the evidence be? Remember that Trotsky’s assassin, Señor Ramon Mercader, was sent to get him in Mexico by the K.G.B. and was secretly made a Hero of the Soviet Union. No one knew the truth for decades.”
When I asked Kasparov if he feared for his life, he nodded gravely and said, “I do. The only thing I can try to do is reduce my risk. I can’t avoid the risk altogether. They watch everything I do in Moscow, or when I travel to places like Murmansk or Voronezh or Vladimir. I don’t eat or drink at places I’m not familiar with. I avoid flying with Aeroflot”—the Russian national airline. “It doesn’t help in the end if they really decide to go after you. But, if they did, it would be really messy. And not just because of the bodyguards. There would be a huge risk for the Kremlin if anything happens to me, God forbid, because the blood would be on Putin’s hands. It’s not that they have an allergy to blood, but it creates a bad image, or makes it worse than it already is.”
While the Russian opposition squabbles in various corners and kitchens of downtown Moscow, Vladimir Putin glides serenely, from victory to victory, along a petrodollar slick. His popularity rating is pegged at around eighty per cent, and the image of Russia abroad and at home is no longer one of imperial dissolution.
Certainly, Putin has been lucky. Russia is second only to Saudi Arabia in petroleum production and leads the world in the production of natural gas. Without Russian gas, much of Europe freezes in its bed. Oil prices have nearly tripled since 2000. Real incomes and G.D.P. continue to grow. Unlike during the Yeltsin years, pensions and state salaries have, in general, been paid and have increased. A crushing multibillion-dollar foreign debt has been paid off. As recently as five years ago, knowing analysts would dismiss the shimmering signs of wealth in Moscow—the wildfire construction projects; the new hotels, luxury stores, and restaurants; the streets clogged with Mercedes-Benzes and Bentleys—and describe them as phenomena limited solely to a tiny, criminalized upper crust. Now nearly every big urban center, from Kaliningrad, in the west, to Vladivostok, in the far east, has seen considerable growth and the first signs of a middle class. Kasparov, though, points to the widening gap between rich and poor, persistent poverty in the provinces, and the absence of human rights as “the key reasons this regime will inevitably collapse.”
No less important than reversing the direction of the economy is that Putin has emboldened the national psychology. In the early years of the Yeltsin era, Russians devoured American pop culture, and the political class was eager to accept the counsel of the White House and Western economic advisers. In time, many Russians felt that Yeltsin was following America’s lead in everything from arms control to monetary policy. Now that the U.S. has foundered on so many fronts—in Iraq, on questions of torture and domestic surveillance—the Kremlin reacts severely to what it perceives as American lectures on democracy. A judo expert, Putin is often able to exploit the moral and executive disasters of the Bush Administration and flip America over his hip. Last February, at a Munich security conference, Putin criticized the United States for trying to establish a “unipolar” world. Putin has adopted a haughty, derisive tone toward the West. “Of course, I am an absolutely true democrat,” he remarked recently. “The tragedy is that I am alone. There are no such other democrats in the world. The Americans torture at Guantánamo, and in Europe the police use gas against protesters. Sometimes protesters are killed in the streets. We have, incidentally, a moratorium on the death penalty, which is often enforced in other G-8 countries. Let us not be hypocrites as far as democratic freedoms and human rights.” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told me that the West “wants Russia to somehow return to the nineties, when Russia was weak and could not resist. It is always comfortable to have a weak Russia next to wealthy Europe. But Russia is no longer on the brink of disintegration.”
Putin sees himself as the new tsar, who, after suffering the humiliation of a lost empire, has restored strength and confidence to Russia. With the price of oil at eighty-two dollars a barrel, there is a sense of global reordering. “People feel that Putin can speak up to the United States,” Tanya Lokshina, a human-rights expert, said. “He can give us an independent politics and we can even blackmail a lot of countries with our oil and gas.”
Early this summer, Putin went to Guatemala City, where he delivered a speech in English—a language he’d never spoken in public—as part of Russia’s campaign to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Russia won the Games, and now the state will invest twelve billion dollars in a new Olympic Village, in the southern city of Sochi. The spoils, Putin’s critics assume, will go to the Kremlin’s favored contractors. Alfa Bank, one of the biggest financial institutions in Russia, sent a chipper memorandum to its investors, titled “Let the Gains Begin.”
Kasparov and many other figures in the opposition believe that Putin might become the head of the International Olympic Committee—and thus occupy himself for four years before regaining the Presidency in 2012. “The I.O.C. is not the most transparent organization in the world,” he said. “He can definitely buy his way on.” Kasparov, like many others in the opposition, is convinced that Putin became a billionaire in office, perhaps the richest man in the country, and has entrusted Russian confederates to shelter his money in foreign banks. There is no proof of Putin’s staggering wealth, but, in Kasparov’s eyes, to question the proposition is to be hopelessly naïve.
Putin’s popularity as an avatar of Russian tradition and state power is partly a result of the dim view that most people now take of the Yeltsin era. Not long ago, I saw Aleksei Balabanov’s “Zhmurki,” or “Dead Man’s Bluff,” a gangster film that seemed to encapsulate in bloody caricature the general view of Russia in the nineteen-nineties as chaotic, corrupt, and violent. The film opens with a professor teaching an economics class in 2005 and explaining how, after the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union, in 1991, there was a “redivision of property”—the biggest in the history of humanity. This was a period in which the “so-called oligarchs” acquired their oil fields, gold mines, and banks.
“Does anyone know how?” she asks.
“Back then,” an eager student says, “you could make heaps of money from nothing.”
“And there were also criminal groups,” the professor adds, “which merged with the authorities and, in doing so, acquired their start-up capital.”
Then comes a title card (“The Mid-1990’s”) and a grisly scene in which a killer named the Professional is torturing a rival gangster in a morgue. (The film contains more torture than the collected works of Quentin Tarantino.) In the final sequence, a pair of sadistic hit men steal five kilos of heroin from their boss—their “start-up capital”—and run off to Moscow, where they exchange their leather jackets and pistols for dark suits and jobs in the Kremlin bureaucracy.
In today’s Russia, demokratia as it emerged in the nineties has been derisively called dermokratia: “shit-ocracy.” The notion of liberalism, too—a belief in the necessity of civil society, civil liberties, an open economy—has been degraded. Of all the pro-democracy activists and politicians of the late eighties and the nineties, the only one remembered fondly—if not very often—is the physicist and human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov. And that may be because he died in December, 1989, two years before the fall of the Soviet empire. The liberal parties that began in the nineties, such as Yabloko (Apple) and the Union of Right Forces, remain tainted by their connections to the Yeltsin era and no longer have seats in the Duma. “The state lets the opposition exist so long as there is no coalition,” Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Prime Minister, told me.
“You can scarcely find anyone in opposition, except for the Communists, just like in Yeltsin’s times,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recently told Der Spiegel. “If you take an unbiased look at the situation, there was a rapid decline of living standards in the nineteen-nineties, which affected three-quarters of Russian families, and all under the ‘democratic banner.’ Small wonder, then, that the population does not rally to this banner anymore.” Solzhenitsyn, who lives just outside Moscow, is eighty-eight, and in failing health. Although much of his work as a novelist and historian comprises a prolonged critique of Soviet power and the secret police, he speaks approvingly of Putin, who was a lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B. “Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people,” he said. “And he started to do what was possible—a slow and gradual restoration.”
Kasparov argues that Putin’s popularity is the phony popularity of dictators. “The support for Putin is a kind of passive resistance to change,” he said. “You cannot talk about polls and popularity when all of the media are under state control. I don’t want to give anyone any bad ideas, but with such a propaganda apparatus, backed up by an all-powerful security force, seventy-per-cent approval should be a minimum!”
Two great traditions have survived in Russia: the power of the secret police and the use of allegory as a means of truthtelling. In Putin’s Russia, the latter is one of the few effective means of describing the former.
Recently, Vladimir Sorokin, a writer in his fifties with a flair for surreal brutality, published a dystopian novel called “Day of the Oprichnik.” The oprichniki were the secret police of the sixteenth century, Ivan the Terrible’s K.G.B. In Sorokin’s depiction of an authoritarian Russia set in the year 2028, the ruler controls all destinies and information. The state’s well-being depends on oil and gas and the individual’s survival on unquestioning fealty to a bloody-minded despot and his circle of oprichniki. The state itself is profoundly conservative, traditional.
The allegory is easy to follow. Putin and many of his top officials in the Kremlin, ministers and advisers, come from the ranks of the K.G.B., many from his home city of St. Petersburg. Yeltsin made tentative attempts to reform the security services, but they failed. “The system of political police has been preserved,” Yeltsin admitted, “and it could be resurrected.” During the nineties, the oligarchs staffed their organizations with well-trained, well-informed ex-K.G.B. advisers, but Putin has reversed the hierarchy. The siloviki—the security men—are now more prevalent in the Kremlin than Harvard men were in the Kennedy White House. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on political élites, estimates that siloviki occupy more than sixty per cent of “high” and “upper middle” positions in the state. They run numerous Kremlin departments, bureaucracies, banking operations, and state corporations.
In a book-length interview about his life, “First Person,” Putin says that when he was stationed in East Germany, in the eighties, he was often idle as Communism itself was collapsing. He mainly drank the local brew—“you pour the beer into the keg, you add a spigot, and you can drink straight from the barrel”—and gained twenty-five pounds. But, as President, he has not hesitated to show loyalty to his erstwhile employer and enhance its power. “There is no such thing as a former Chekist,” he says, referring to the original name of the Soviet secret police.
Under Putin’s K.G.B. old-boy network, one of his colleagues in East Germany, Sergei Chemezov, has been installed as the head of Rosoboronexport, a state arms corporation. The two deputy heads of the Presidential Administration, Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov, are ex-spies from St. Petersburg, and they have placed former colleagues in leadership positions everywhere from the Ministry of Justice to the largest industries. Sechin himself is the chairman of the biggest state-operated oil company, Rosneft, and Ivanov chairs the board of directors for Aeroflot and Almaz-Antei, a producer of air-defense systems.
Some of the gaudiest events in recent Russian history—the murders, the arrests of disobedient business executives, the muscling of uncoöperative foreign companies—are thought by many to be tied to the K.G.B.’s successor agency, the F.S.B. (Federal Security Service), although the over-all structure of the regime, its mode of corruption, its strategic way of controlling society and the economy and dealing with the outside world, is many times more sophisticated than the bumbling of the late Soviet era. Putin is not a dictator—not in the Stalinist sense. He knows that to play in the global economy he must bring his resources to the marketplace and behave with a modicum of decorum. When anyone gets in his way, he can employ the F.S.B., but in a highly selective manner. In the modern world, the political use of the tax police or a single, well-publicized incident of mysterious brutality is far more effective than mass repression and the Gulag.
And, in the experience of Vladimir Putin, who can prove to him that stability and prosperity demand democratic politics? Without the trappings of democracy, China is hoping it will become the world’s biggest economy. Oil-rich and liberty-poor Iran and Venezuela are ascendant. And Russia itself is growing richer; with the foreign debt gone, a multibillion-dollar stabilization fund has been established as a hedge against lower oil prices. For the first few years of Putin’s reign, there were several liberal advisers in his retinue, but once oil prices began to rise, from around twenty-five dollars a barrel to more than three times that, and analysts determined that such prices were sustainable, a more assertively statist policy took hold. Liberal advisers were fired or marginalized, kept on only as decoration for Western eyes. And few complain.
“The vast majority of people enjoy the fact that for the first time in Russian history they have lived for fifteen years now without the constant pressure of totalitarianism in every aspect of their lives,” Vladimir Milov, an economist who left Putin’s government in 2002, said. “For example, you can travel abroad freely. The majority of people can’t yet afford to do this, but the most active and educated can, and this makes a huge difference. The authorities here let you exist so long as you don’t call them into question. In other words, the deal they offer is: You let us steal and we let you live.”
In 1989, in the midst of the reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, two well-known social scientists, Andranik Migranyan and Igor Klyamkin, published a dialogue in the weekly newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, in which Migranyan said, “Nowhere, not in any country of the world was there ever a direct transition from a totalitarian regime to democracy. There has always been a necessary provisional authoritarian period.” At the time, the liberal intellectuals of Moscow dismissed the article as reactionary. Now the Russians seem apolitical and willing to overlook the sins of a state run by K.G.B. instincts; most people want nothing more than to settle into private life.
Under Yeltsin, a small group of businessmen used their connections to the Kremlin to buy up state enterprises—oil companies, aluminum plants, transport systems—and made their fortunes. Putin instituted new rules: these oligarchs could keep their properties so long as they did not create political power bases outside the Kremlin. The Kremlin would not hesitate to nationalize the enterprise or put its ministers on the board of directors. “Gazprom is not a company,” Milov said. “It has a new wrapping, people in good suits and ties, but it is a classic Soviet enterprise. All you have now is an upper echelon that takes all the money.” Putin’s former chief of staff, Dmitri Medvedev, is, simultaneously, the first Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian government and the chairman of the board of Gazprom.
The March Presidential elections will be notable for which corporate groups have patrons at the top. “In the past seven years, Putin has skillfully balanced these clans, not allowing any single one of them to take too powerful a lead,” Yuri Dzhibladze, a human-rights activist, said. “He is the supreme arbiter. When he destroyed and split up Yukos”—Khodorkovsky’s oil company—“he distributed it all around. He is the check and he is the balance. When he leaves the Presidency, the problem will be that these groups do not get along.”
Putin has promised to propose one or more successors, but, rather than make himself an instant lame duck, he has avoided direct endorsements, using mystery as a political tool. On September 12th, Putin dissolved the government and appointed a relatively obscure bureaucrat, Viktor Zubkov, as Prime Minister. Zubkov promptly declared that if he succeeded “in doing something in the post of premier” he might run for President. Putin called Zubkov, who is sixty-six, a “brilliant administrator and true professional” but made no endorsement.
In the meantime, every political expert in Moscow, real and self-proclaimed, has a theory. Another strong candidate, some speculate, is the other first Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, a former defense minister. Ivanov spent two decades in the secret services, first alongside Putin in the Leningrad K.G.B.’s foreign-intelligence division, then in posts in Africa and Europe, and, finally, as a general at Moscow headquarters. He speaks English and Swedish, but he is not considered to be particularly enamored of the West. Medvedev, the other Deputy Prime Minister, is also a possible contender. And then comes a litany of potential candidates, including the railway minister, Vladimir Yakunin, who is thought to have worked for the K.G.B. when he was a diplomat at the United Nations, and various parliamentary loyalists, ministers, and regional governors. The essence of the election, however, is not the individual but the means. The winner will be a man of the inner circle—a Presidential, not a popular, choice.
“Here is how it will go: Putin will decide the successor and he will be elected without much struggle,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young (and very lonely) liberal in the Duma, said. “All the opposition will be put on as a show for stupid foreigners like you to demonstrate what a great democracy we are. And all the resources of the media will be employed to put on this show.”
Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist who worked as a senior adviser to the Cabinet until 2003, told me, “Even Putin doesn’t know what he’s going to do yet. He is just reacting to events, day by day. You might see him make some democratic-seeming moves toward the end of the year. He wants to legitimatize his power in the eyes of the West. There won’t be a third term. He wants to join the club of former Presidents: Bush, Chirac, and all the rest. At the same time, there are a lot of problems that are coming due and there is always the chance that the price of oil will drop. Winning the Olympics for Sochi marked the peak of his popularity. So why hang on?”
Yet stories persist that Putin may yet do so. According to a report in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a Kremlin working group is examining scenarios for constitutional change to allow Putin more terms. The pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, has well in excess of the two-thirds majority needed to alter the law. In the end, though, Putin will almost certainly prefer to maintain the patina of democratic procedure—“I have no intention to reduce everything I’ve done to zero”—and preserve a strong influence over his successor. When he was asked earlier this month about his desire to continue in public life, Putin, with characteristic vagueness, said, “I hope to be fit enough and I have the desire to do so. Any future President will have to reckon with that.”
Living in Moscow in the late nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, I spent many weekend mornings at various halls around the city—the House of Film, the Architect’s Union, the Writer’s Union—listening to Moscow intellectuals make speeches demanding that Gorbachev push reforms forward, faster. Kasparov’s political education took place at these meetings. He was at the zenith of his celebrity as a chess champion. Within a few years of Gorbachev’s rise to power, in March, 1985, political groups called nyeformali, or “informals,” were created, first in Moscow and then throughout the Soviet Union. The most important of these early groups was Moscow Tribune, a “discussion group,” dominated by former political dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Larisa Bogoraz, and Sergei Kovalyov and a range of shestidesyatniki, intellectual members of the sixties generation, who came of age after the death of Stalin. With Kasparov often sitting in the audience, they discussed history, economics, democratization, human rights, and ethnic problems in the Caucasus, the Baltic States, and Central Asia.
“The environment was different in 1987, 1988, 1989 than it is now,” Kasparov said. “There was consensus in Soviet society that the game was over. There was a demand for change. People were opposed to the old Soviet system, from the feudal republics in Central Asia to the Baltics, which were essentially part of Europe. The system had outlived itself. But there was no clear plan. There was a demand. Everyone recognized that oil prices were going down and the Soviet system would collapse. . . . Today, the majority of people don’t like what they feel and see, but there is a defensive layer: what if something else is worse? They remember it could be worse like it was when the economy collapsed in 1998, or when the Union collapsed, in 1991.”
One of the earliest ethnic conflicts under Gorbachev was the dispute in the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In those days, Kasparov split his time between his home town, Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, and frequent trips to Moscow and matches abroad. On January 13, 1990, he and his team of chess trainers were at a resort north of Baku, preparing for a match. The atmosphere throughout the region was tense. There had already been violence against the minority populations, especially against Armenians in the town of Sumgait. That evening in Baku, gangs stormed through Armenian neighborhoods, beating men, women, and children. They torched apartments and houses; there were rapes and stabbings.
Kasparov wanted to help his friends and relatives in Baku, but he was stuck; there were rumors that the gangs were headed to the resort where he was training and to other towns in the republic. A few days later, he was able to go to his apartment in Baku but had time only to grab some family pictures and childhood chess notebooks. The Azerbaijanis, together with the K.G.B., had shut down most flights, trains, and other transport out of Baku. Kasparov, however, was somehow able to arrange a chartered plane from Moscow. On the seventeenth, he filled all sixty-eight seats with other Armenians and left for the Soviet capital. When the violence subsided, almost all of the Armenians who still lived in Baku had fled. On January 20th, the Soviet Army, under Gorbachev’s command, moved into Baku not to save Armenians—it was too late for that—but to protect the leadership of the Azerbaijani Communist Party against a growing opposition. Kasparov, whose privilege allowed him to stay at the Regency Hotel in New York and the St. James Club in Paris, had become a refugee. He has never returned to Baku.
“I always believed that a city is not the stones, a city is the people,” he told the magazine New in Chess. “Baku is no longer the Baku where I was born and where I used to live. There are some gravestones at the cemetery. My father, my two grandfathers, and one grandmother were buried there. But it is just a matter of stones.”
The Moscow intelligentsia was ambivalent about Gorbachev. He had freed Sakharov from his forced exile in Gorky and gradually unfettered the press, the publishing houses, and the universities. But by 1989 many had grown impatient with his need to maneuver between the demands of the old élites of the Communist Party and the K.G.B. and the demands of the urban intellectuals who wanted him to abandon the entire Soviet system. Few were more unforgiving of Gorbachev than Kasparov. After the pogroms in Baku, he had met with Gorbachev and found him unmoved and “unimpressed” by his accounts of the bloodshed there. “All he could talk about was some new chief of the Azerbaijani Communist Party,” Kasparov said. “For him, it was all big picture. To sacrifice a single life did not seem to greatly matter.” When Kasparov travelled abroad, and when he wrote for Western newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, he denounced Gorbachev as a liar, a clever and desperate apparatchik, “the last leader of the communist state, trying to save everything he can.” Before the first Gulf War, Kasparov told anyone who would listen that the United States should drop an atomic bomb on Saddam Hussein. During the resistance in Moscow to the 1991 coup attempt, Kasparov took the conspiratorial position that Gorbachev had been behind the plot—that, in an effort to establish a national state of emergency and yet “keep his hands clean,” he had pretended to be under house arrest at his dacha in the town of Foros, in Ukraine.
“I guess I am fifteen years older now, more experienced,” Kasparov told me. “I was young and my political education was Soviet. I saw things in black-and-white, Communist and anti-Communist. Now in the Other Russia I find myself having to compromise with people who were my sworn enemies.” His newfound diplomacy, however, does not prevent him from comparing Putin’s Kremlin to “the Mafia” and “the Stalin regime.”
Kasparov says that he was “dead wrong” to support Yeltsin for reëlection to the Russian Presidency in 1996, even though it was a fairly open secret that Yeltsin, who had started a cruel and senseless war in Chechnya, was too addled to rule effectively. Rather than risk allowing Yeltsin’s opponent, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, to come to power, Kasparov was one of those who chose to ignore the fact that Yeltsin, supported by oligarchs hoping to maintain their status, returned to power in a crooked ballot.
“We knew it was neither a fair nor a free election,” Kasparov said. “But we so feared a Communist resurrection that I personally went to Communist strongholds—Ulyanovsk, Kursk, Kaluga—and campaigned. Then Yeltsin was elected and the country was looted by these men who put him forward.”
Kasparov is hardly a conventional politician. His appeal is the stubborn purity, almost naïveté, of his politics, the prestige of his former position as chess champion, and the public sense that he is an idealist. Even the leaders of the anti-Putin intelligentsia who argue with Kasparov recognize that he could easily have lived a comfortable life in Moscow or joined the flow of rich migrants to South Kensington, the Seventh Arrondissement, or the Upper East Side.
“The understanding of what an opposition is has been compromised in recent years—it’s a term used ironically or skeptically or dismissed entirely,” said Arseny Roginsky, the chairman of Memorial, a group devoted to human rights and historical memory. “This is the era of exposés and scandals, and everyone is seen to be crawling back to the Kremlin, for funding or whatever. This is the era of complete distrust. And so everyone’s opposition credentials are disdained or dismissed. Except for Garry. He is unique, really. No one doubts that he is in opposition to the Kremlin. He might be a good politician or a bad politician, but no one doubts his sincerity. In Russia today, you need to believe that an opposition exists—the image of an opposition, even. Kasparov is honest. As a little boy, part Jewish, part Caucasian, he had huge responsibilities. Now he plays a different game. And this earns him respect. It’s also important that he is so famous. He belongs to the world.”
“I don’t completely understand Garry, but he has huge reserves of energy and talent,” Ludmila Alexeeva, a sixties-era dissident and a leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a predominant human-rights organization, said. “Russia, historically, has had its share of idealists. And I would say that Garry is in that tradition.”
Kasparov’s demeanor hardly resembles Sakharov’s saintly carriage. After losing a match, he could be dismissive of autograph-seekers, rude to waiters, self-centered in the extreme; sometimes he would humiliate the grand masters who helped to train him, pouncing on a piece of dubious advice and showing them, move by move, just how feebleminded their suggestion was. Like anyone who has been the focus of admiration since kindergarten, Kasparov is ego-driven; people wait on him; friends, family, and wives (there have been three) know that his needs come first. And yet, for the most part, he is as generous as he is intelligent. Despite the single-minded attention he has given to an abstruse game of sixty-four squares, he is interested in everything from sports (soccer, especially) to literature (his favorite novel is Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” a celebrated example of allegory in the Soviet era).
Kasparov was born in 1963 in Baku. His father, Kim Weinstein, was Jewish, and his mother, Klara Kasparova, Armenian. When Garry was around six, he picked up an endgame puzzle in the newspaper and solved it, even though he didn’t yet know the rules of chess. “Since Garry knows how the game ends,” his father said, “we ought to teach him how it begins.”
The next year, Kim Weinstein died, of cancer. Garry started to play chess obsessively. In those days, chess was a Soviet obsession and the regime sponsored an elaborate network of chess academies; Garry started to train at one run by the former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. At the age of twelve, Garry was attracting national attention in chess, and he took his mother’s family name. “When I began to have public success at chess, it seemed natural,” he said. “My teacher, Botvinnik, himself of Jewish ancestry, added that it wouldn’t hurt my chances of success in the U.S.S.R. not to be named Weinstein.” The next year, he played his first tournament abroad, and by eighteen he was the Soviet champion, surrounded by admirers and under endless pressure to perform.
“The loss of my childhood was the price for becoming the youngest world champion in history,” Kasparov once said. “When you have to fight every day from a young age, your soul can be contaminated. I lost my childhood. I never really had it. Today I have to be careful not to become cruel, because I became a soldier too early.”
From the start, Kasparov’s sights were set on a single enemy—Anatoly Karpov. For more than a decade, their confrontations were the story of chess. Like heavyweight championship bouts, matches for the world chess championship have a way of taking on political meaning. Bobby Fischer’s psychodramatic match with Boris Spassky in Iceland, thirty-five years ago, was a Cold War epic (of a particularly neurotic type). In the popular press, it was not enough to say that Spassky failed to contend with Fischer’s brilliant and unpredictable openings; more comprehensibly, it was a triumph of American ingenuity over a sclerotic Soviet bureaucracy.
In 1984, when Kasparov made his first bid for the world title, the political drama was purely Soviet. The regime was in its last year before perestroika. Konstantin Chernenko, a career apparatchik, directed the imperium from his sickroom. His senescence was a symbol of the regime. The market stalls and store shelves were bare. The technological age had arrived—but not in the Soviet Union. Karpov, the world champion, was an exemplar of the Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko “era of stagnation,” an obedient member of the nomenklatura. As a player, he was a defensive artist, whose style, like Kutuzov’s in war, was to absorb and smother attacks and then destroy his confounded opponent. Like Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, he was a living symbol of official Soviet achievement.
Kasparov represented a new generation. At twenty-one, he was ironic, full of barely disguised disdain for the regime. He was a member of the Communist Party until 1990—his chess ambitions required it—but no one saw him as subservient. Rather, he was cast, in his challenge to Karpov, as a champion of the young and of the outsiders. His chess style was swift, imaginative, daring—sometimes to the point of recklessness. Karpov painted academic still-lifes; Kasparov was an Abstract Expressionist. He prepared thoroughly, but at some point, he once said, he played by instinct, “by smell, by feel.”
This first Karpov-Kasparov championship match, which began in September, 1984, coincided with my first trip to Moscow, and I attended several games at the Hall of Columns, the stately venue where Stalin had lain in state, thirty-one years earlier. Every morning, the two men entered from the wings and walked to a chess board at center stage. They sat hunched over the pieces for hours at a time, inches from each other, breathing the same overheated air, Karpov staring at his position, Kasparov staring at Karpov, or, at times, clawing at his hair, rolling his eyes, expressing his emotions with the eye-bulging theatricality of a silent-film star. In the balcony, nearly everyone was pro-Kasparov. They loved his anti-establishment glamour, his audacity at the board even when he lost.
Karpov dominated Kasparov in the early games, taking a four-games-to-none lead. He needed only two more wins to retain the title. The crowds began to thin out. Then Kasparov did something astonishing: in the course of a championship match, he learned to play at a new level. In Game 15, a turning point in the match, Karpov was up a pawn but could play only to a draw after an astonishingly long game—ninety-three moves. Kasparov was figuring out Karpov the way an astute hitter, after repeated, chastening strikeouts, figures out a pitcher. The next eleven games were draws. In Game 27, Karpov won once more, but, again, Kasparov kept forestalling the end—twenty more drawn games came and went, brutal and wearing—and then, suddenly, he took Games 47 and 48. It was now February. The score was five games to three, but the advantage had turned. Finally, the tournament authorities called it off, claiming that both players were exhausted. Kasparov was convinced that the chess establishment, backed by the Soviet authorities, had rescued Karpov. He was furious, but he had learned his opponent thoroughly. He had mastered him. The next year, again in Moscow, Kasparov won the title.
Between 1984 and 1990, the two men played five championship matches, and Kasparov had the edge, with twenty-one wins, nineteen losses, and a hundred and four draws. Like Frazier and Ali, the two openly despised each other, but through the ferocity of their battles and the differences in their styles they brought out the best in each other. Kasparov suffered through these battles. In defeat, he was capable of fugue states that lasted for days. And yet the crazy depth of commitment and passion, as well as the daring of his style, made him feel alive. “Chess for Garry was never a game,” Fred Waitzkin, his friend and biographer, said. “It was about living and dying, about redefining the art every time he played.”
Although Kasparov finally lost the title, to Vladimir Kramnik, in 2000, he remained the most highly rated player for another five years. “To be a world champion in chess, the amount of what you have to know, what you have to fit in your brain and master, is so big that it is incomprehensible to a normal person,” Waitzkin said. “You have to know more than a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon knows. You have to know more stuff than virtually anyone on earth. Then you have to have the facility of mind to process it and then forget it so that you are free to improvise and be imaginative.”
In the popular imagination, if not among chess aficionados, Kasparov’s one lingering rival was a retired lunatic—Bobby Fischer. Whenever I visited chess clubs in Moscow, players would ask about Fischer. Both of his parents, according to most sources, were Jewish, but since the early nineteen-sixties Fischer has been a vocal anti-Semite. After Fischer defeated Spassky for the championship, in 1972, his behavior grew more erratic. He lived in Tokyo and Belgrade, and finally moved to Iceland. When a Filipino radio station reached Fischer just after the September 11th attacks, he rejoiced. “I want the U.S. wiped out,” he said. “I’m hoping for a ‘Seven Days in May’ scenario, where the country will be taken over by the military, they’ll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews, execute hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders.” Fischer also accused Russian players, including Kasparov, of taking part in fixed games.
Kasparov is always careful to give Fischer his due as a player (“probably he was second to me”) and avoid the rest. But when Fischer played Spassky again, in 1992, Kasparov could not resist telling New in Chess that Fischer was “like [Bjorn] Borg playing tennis with a wooden racket. . . . Now he’s someone from the past. He doesn’t belong to our world. He’s an alien.”
Kasparov maintained his sanity and charm as champion, but, as he entered his forties, he lost patience with the game. The bureaucracies of world chess are so arcane that Kasparov, despite having the highest rating in the world, despite heavily publicized matches against computers, could not seem to get a rematch with Kramnik. He was sure that he was still the best player in the world, but he could not prove it.
“When I lost to Kramnik in 2000, it wasn’t easy to contemplate coming back,” he said. “I spent two years trying to recover my position, studying, playing. . . . I never lost my desire, but I really need to be at a cutting edge. I played the computer. I was looking around.”
Kasparov was having a hard time keeping his concentration. He had tried to add to his considerable fortune with various business schemes—the export of Russian sculptures, an attempt to buy GUM, the huge shopping complex across Red Square from the Kremlin—all of which failed. “I was a bad businessman,” Kasparov told me. “I’m a big-picture guy; I don’t like to stick around for the details.” By 2004, Kasparov was losing interest even in chess. “It was a year of unravelling,” he said. He had already been through one divorce, and now he was in the midst of a second.
“I didn’t want to leave the chess world on a down note,” he said. “But I wanted my son to see me onstage, just once, winning. The Russian championships were in Moscow in 2004, and my son turned eight. So I took him to the Rossiya Hotel and I won and he got to see the closing ceremonies and wore the medal around his neck.”
In early 2005, Kasparov planned to play one last tournament, in Linares, a chess center in southern Spain. He told only his mother and his third wife-to-be, Daria Tarasova, a business-school graduate from St. Petersburg, about his intention to quit. After clinching first place in the round-robin tournament, Kasparov lost his final game, to Veselin Topalov. There is a clip on YouTube of the closing half hour of that last session. Kasparov suffers more flamboyantly than Sarah Bernhardt. He mops his face with a handkerchief. He looks mournfully at the lights. When he resigns, you worry that he might do himself in. “I finally felt, I just don’t want to do this anymore,” he told me. “It was very strange. I’ve changed my routine and my focus but I haven’t lost my fighting spirit.”
Not long ago, Kasparov gave a speech at the Four Seasons restaurant to members and guests of the Hudson Institute, a neoconservative think tank. Among the guests were the broadcaster and former Nixon aide Monica Crowley and the ur-neocon Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary, who had just signed on as a foreign-policy adviser to Rudolph Giuliani.
Kasparov gave a version of the same speech that he had lately given in Washington and Toronto. There were a few notes of reassurance—“Putin’s regime is not a geopolitical monster”—but there was no shortage of stark warning. “The Cold War was based on ideas, like them or not,” Kasparov said. “Putin’s only idea can be concentrated into the motto ‘Let’s steal together.’ ”
When one of the guests asked what could be done to help the Russian opposition, Kasparov was careful not to inspire any old Cold War fantasies, saying, “We are not looking for support from the outside. What we want from the leaders of the free world is for them to say to Mr. Putin, ‘You cannot act like Lukashenko’ ”—the erratic President of Belarus—“ ‘or Mugabe or Hugo Chávez and still be treated as a democratic leader.’ ”
Kasparov speaks frequently to two sorts of audiences in the West: business groups, which seem to see him as another variety of an American crop—the executive coach—and conservative political groups. He is John Naisbitt with a queen’s-gambit twist. His conceit is that success in the boardroom requires the same sort of planning, strategy, and discipline as success on the chessboard. This is the sort of can-do hokum he pitches in a new book called “How Life Imitates Chess.” Kasparov is also popular among the American right. In 1991, he won the Keeper of the Flame Award from the Center for Security Policy, another neocon think tank. The award, which is given to “individuals for devoting their public careers to the defense of the United States and American values around the world,” has also gone to Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld.
Such an award does Kasparov no good at home. There is a centuries-long tradition in Russia of xenophobia. In the Soviet era, Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, and hundreds of others were accused in the pages of Pravda of working for the C.I.A., M.I.6, or the Mossad. Vladimir Kryuchkov, who was the head of the K.G.B. under Gorbachev and directed the August, 1991, coup, was constantly trying to convince Gorbachev that his most liberal adviser, Alexander Yakovlev, was acting as a covert “agent of imperialist intelligence agencies.” And so while Kasparov’s business-class ease abroad might be appealing to Americans, it makes him an easy target for Russians who have grown weary of what they sense to be the cultural and political arrogance of the West.
Putin has deftly exploited Russians’ traditional suspicion of the outsider. Boris Dubin, of the Levada Center, the country’s most independent and reliable public-opinion institute, said that in 1994 forty-one per cent of the population believed that Russia was surrounded by enemies; by 2003 the number was seventy-seven per cent. Putin is widely applauded when he lashes out at his neighbors—cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine, waging a kind of cold war with Georgia. In 2000, just before becoming President, Putin told a gathering of the F.S.B., “A few years ago, we succumbed to the illusion that we don’t have enemies and we have paid dearly for that.” Putin and his team have made it plain that Russia would not tolerate the sort of uprisings that have taken place in Ukraine and Georgia, and they have blamed those events on support from foreign groups like the National Endowment for Democracy.
Behind this newfound sense of confidence is also a shift in ideology. In the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras, the “gray cardinal” of ideological correctness was a severe, ascetic figure named Mikhail Suslov. Suslov spoke in the cadences of “State and Revolution.” Putin’s strategist, a smooth former business executive in his early forties named Vladislav Surkov, is interested solely in the power and independence of the Russian state, and relies on Russian nationalist philosophers like Yevgeny Trubetskoy and Ivan Ilyin. In 2005, Surkov gave a secret speech to a business group called “How Russia Should Fight International Conspiracies,” in which he proposed an ideology of “sovereign democracy.” The term was meant to insist that democracy comes in many forms, and that “Russian democracy” will develop in its own way and at its own pace. Russia, Surkov says in his speeches, must see through Western hypocrisy: “They tell us about democracy while all the time they are thinking about our hydrocarbons.”
Each morning at the Other Russia’s July conference at the Holiday Inn, the delegates were greeted by one of Surkov’s creations. Members of a pro-Putin youth group, Molodaya Gvardia—the Young Guard, a name reminiscent of Soviet times—staged demonstrations mocking Kasparov and his comrades. The Young Guard is the youth branch of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.
After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, two years ago, Putin’s Kremlin, led by Surkov, orchestrated the creation of a series of youth organizations modelled on the Soviet-era Komsomol. The largest of them, with ten thousand active members and capable of delivering a hundred thousand to its events, is called Nashi, or Ours. Nashi, like the Komsomol, organizes volunteer work and urges young people to quit smoking and drinking. But it also has a core of activists whose specialty is to harass the opposition. One of the questions on Nashi’s entrance exam for its summer camp was to describe Garry Kasparov. The “correct” answer was that he is an American citizen who has taken an oath of loyalty to undermine Russia in the name of the State Department. “Nashi was created, first and foremost, for disturbing our activities,” Kasparov said.
The demonstration in front of the Holiday Inn was made up of no more than fifty people, who wore red T-shirts and baseball caps and chanted, “Kasparov, Iyuda!” (“Kasparov is Judas!”). They threw fake American currency—thirty-dollar bills—and shouted slogans about “political prostitutes.” A small brass band played ironical funeral tunes.
At the Other Russia’s major rallies earlier this year, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the kids from Nashi and the Young Guard were joined by thousands of anti-terrorism and anti-riot troops. Hours after the rally in Moscow, television news covered the event only as a way to imply that it had been bankrolled by the U.S. State Department. That night, state television broadcast a French documentary, “Revolution.com,” which seeks to portray the influence of American nongovernmental organizations in planning and financing the revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Serbia. The Russian audience did not know (until the story came out in the daily newspaper Kommersant) that six of the film’s original fifty-four minutes had been cut; television officials had excised any criticism of Putin and the description of Nashi as a “secret anti-revolutionary ministry.” Kasparov has all but disappeared from state television. “And when I do appear,” he said, “they try to make a fool of me. Usually, they make sure to show me speaking English. That way, I seem like an alien, a tool of the foreigners.”
The first session of the Other Russia conference was a routine recitation of reports about the state of Russia and the state of the Other Russia. The second day’s gathering was held in a much larger hall and, along with delegates from many provincial cities, there also seemed to be several young men brazenly filming the audience, as if to accumulate a dossier. Alexei Kondaurov, a former general in the F.S.B. and now a member of the Duma, said, “I look around at this audience and I think there are people, um, observing us. Unofficially. After all, it’s my job to know this.”
It was a diverse conference, with environmentalists, liberals, human-rights activists, and, most of all, neo-Bolsheviks. In the parlance of today’s Russia, a liberal (like Kasparov) tends to emphasize legal rights, democratic procedure, a transparent market economy, and civil society. The neo-Bolsheviks, whose principal leader is the novelist and opposition figure Eduard Limonov, emphasize social rights and guarantees: pensions, salaries, eliminating the gap between the wealthy and the poor. The leftists outnumbered the liberal democrats, who were discredited by the failures of the nineties. “If there were free and fair elections, we would have our own version of Hamas being elected in Palestine,” Ilya Ponomaryov, a left-wing economist and a member of the opposition, said. “I think that what we would get in really open elections is either left-wing forces or nationalists.”
Kasparov has chosen to join forces with the leftists—even leftists like Limonov, who, in the past, has made common cause with neo-Fascists and anti-Semites—in the name of creating genuine elections and democratic procedures. “It was Garry Kasparov who introduced the notion of a consensus and a united front, even though our ideological differences are very serious,” Andrei Dmitriyev, a National Bolshevik Party leader from St. Petersburg, said.
Limonov is, at best, a problematic partner for Kasparov. In the seventies, he immigrated to the United States and modelled himself on Charles Bukowski—as dissolute in his prose as in his daily life. In his autobiographical novel, “It’s Me, Eddie,” contempt and self-pity are the prevailing emotions. He describes himself bumming off the American welfare system, taking women up to his residential hotel, disdaining his new countrymen (“because you lead dull lives, sell yourselves into the slavery of work, because of your vulgar plaid pants”), and drinking. Solzhenitsyn called him “a little insect who writes pornography.” In middle age, Limonov refashioned himself as a man of action and went to Bosnia, where he befriended the accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Returning to Russia in 1994, he founded the National Bolshevik Party. It was hard to know how seriously to take him. He recommended the Gulag for Russian liberals. He bought guns. He started an N.B.P. newspaper called Limonka, a pun on his name and the slang for “hand grenade.” Finally, in 2001, he was arrested for buying arms illegally and was imprisoned for more than two years. Limonov has softened his rhetoric since his release and, in Kasparov’s presence, he presents himself as a benign social democrat.
When we spoke during one of the breaks, Limonov told me, “This is a natural alliance to me. Look at the anti-Pinochet coalition or the situation in Russia before the Revolution. There was a range from the Bolsheviks to the bourgeois parties. So in exceptional situations it is natural for many different political forces to get together.”
Kasparov thinks that the liberals who keep their distance from Limonov are repeating a mistake of the early nineties. “You have to work with the people who live here,” he said. “We’re not trying to win elections yet. It’s all about having elections, real elections.”
One speaker after another came to the dais to offer a diagnosis of the Kremlin and its abuses. The Army was in ruins. The F.S.B. was omnipotent. The elections were a fraud. The economy was described alternately as a “kleptocracy,” “a gigantic laundering operation,” “a cartel,” “a brigade,” and “Saudi Arabia without Islam.”
Vladimir Bukovsky, a former political prisoner, gave a calm, stirring speech denouncing Putin’s “new Chekist regime.” Once again, he said, elections in Russia were a fraudulent formality, individual freedoms had been eliminated, and “a small Caucasian nation”—Chechnya—had been destroyed. “There are no citizens, there are subjects.” Bukovsky reminded everyone that it was important to unite in opposition to the Kremlin. When he was in a Soviet prison, he said, “we didn’t believe in a left opposition or a right opposition. We didn’t think about people’s beliefs. We all ate from the same bowl.”
The speech underscored the plight of opposition politics in Russia today: Bukovsky was not in the hall. Although he was one of several who had been proposed to run against Putin for the Presidency, he has lived in Cambridge, England, since his release from the camps, in 1976. His speech had been videotaped in his English garden.
The other potential candidates for President had their own problems. Viktor Gerashchenko, the former head of the state banking system, had extensive experience in the domestic economy, but he was an apparatchik. Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Prime Minister, is younger and less dour than Gerashchenko, but he acquired the nickname Misha Two Per Cent, for the alleged “tax” he levied on all deals crossing his desk when he worked in the finance ministry.
If one speaker had moral authority, it was Sergei Kovalyov, a biologist and former political prisoner. Now in his late seventies, Kovalyov wearily stepped to the microphone and informed the delegates that victory in the coming elections was impossible “without the approval of the Kremlin.”
“So what do we do?” he said. “A critical mass has to be built. Not too many people understand that democracy is dull, scrupulous work. . . . If there is no chance at all to win the elections, then the danger of participating in the elections is that it becomes a trap, a trick for government propaganda. . . . But what a real candidate can do is speak the truth about the regime to a maximum number of people.”
The trouble with Gerashchenko or Kasyanov, he said, is that they are “former nomenklatura” and they will have to spend the campaign answering for past sins. Bukovsky was “a gifted politician beloved by the dissidents of my generation,” Kovalyov said, but then added, with uncharacteristic sarcasm, “A candidate for President has to actually live in the country that he proposes to lead.”
At the end of the session, Kasparov invited questions from the floor. One woman, saying that she was a reporter for a business paper that no one seemed to recognize, suddenly started ranting at Kasparov, threw a cloud of thirty-dollar bills at him, and declared him an American agent. She was one of the demonstrators from the Young Guard. Kasparov was unflustered. “You know, I was getting disappointed,” he said, by way of adjourning. “I thought they had forgotten about us completely.”
Afterward, Kasparov, Limonov, and Andrei Illarionov, the most prominent of the liberal economists who once worked under Putin, left the hotel and drove to the downtown studios of the radio station Echo of Moscow. Kasparov and Limonov appeared first on a popular talk show hosted by the journalist and professor Yevgenia Albats. It had been a day of long speeches and internecine squabbles, and the overwhelming feeling was that opposition in Putin’s Russia was, if not entirely futile, then close to it. A supportive caller from the provincial city of Orenburg brought a smile to Kasparov’s face, but he was prepared to claim only small victories.
“We began as an absolutely hopeless movement,” he said. “Now we’re in the game.”
Even that was bold.
In the hallway, Illarionov told me that it would be a disaster to take part in the March elections. The opposition would be crushed and coöpted. “Garry has invested his energies and his day-to-day life in this, and I respect him very much,” he said. “But this is a mistake and will lead millions of people into a dead end.” His fear ran deeper than mere defeat. As a tsar, he said, “Putin reacts traditionally. And, if they have no real enemies, they create them. They need enemies. They cannot live without enemies. If all enemies are destroyed, then there is Yabloko, the Republican Party, the Right Forces, the Other Russia—they’ll finish these enemies. It’s a natural law of dictatorship.” The best that Kasparov could do, in the short term, was to establish the idea of an opposition in the narrow margins provided by the state.
As the summer wore on, however, it became clear even to Kasparov that the Other Russia could only put forward a “parallel” candidate, a symbolic one. At first, Kasparov was reluctant to be that candidate, but when he proceeded to win many of the Other Russia’s regional primaries in August and September he began to change his mind. “It seems I have no choice,” he said.
“The problem is, we are short of resources and we have too little time to create powerful momentum to overthrow the regime,” Kasparov went on. “But we do want to show that this regime is violating our basic constitutional rights. We want to use the campaign to publicize our ideas and tell the public that we are here. What we’re saying is, we won’t win now, but, when this regime collapses, be aware that we are here.”
One summer evening, I took the metro to my old stop, Oktybrskaya, where the familiar bronze statue of Lenin, pointing to the remote “shining future,” still stood. As I walked along the boulevard called Bolshaya Polyanka, I could see the House on the Embankment, a vast gray Constructivist pile that had accommodated much of the Communist Party’s political and cultural élite in Stalin’s day. During the purge of 1937, a third of the building’s residents were arrested and dispatched either to the Gulag or to the cemetery with a shot in the back of the head. A gigantic Mercedes emblem now rotates alluringly on the roof of the House on the Embankment.
After a while, I arrived at the October Chess Club, the most popular club in the city. Situated in a long basement room, the club was filling up with men and women of all ages taking their places at scruffy boards. International grand masters occasionally come for a game, but the players were the regulars, the enthusiasts. They were, in some cases, a peculiar lot. Alexander Pachulia, a plump and friendly teacher who is the deputy director of the club, told me, “Usually, chess people are not very attached to their regular careers. They are almost uninterested in anything other than chess. If we didn’t close up at ten, people would play until ten in the morning and die of hunger right in their chair.” The club is open year-round except for New Year’s Day and the Orthodox Christmas and Easter.
After the collapse of the Soviet system—and, with it, the subsidized Soviet chess system—many players pursued their careers abroad. As players from the former Soviet Union started showing up at tournaments under new flags, he said, “there was a feeling of loss.” Like several other denizens of the club, Pachulia acknowledged Kasparov’s genius as a player but was cool to him as a person and as a politician. “I rooted for Kasparov against Karpov in the eighties because of Kasparov’s anti-Communism and Karpov stood for Soviet power,” Pachulia went on. “But now we live in a different world. We need to be more assertive in the world. If NATO includes Ukraine and Georgia and other states on our border developing so-called democracy, that tells us that you”—the United States—“are putting arms on our borders. Democracy! Nonsense!”
Pachulia, like the majority of Russians, would prefer to see Putin remain President for at least another four years. To elect anyone else, he said, even one of Putin’s handpicked protégés, would be a risk that the country could ill afford. “Russia is gigantic and needs a strong hand,” he said. Kasparov’s politics and language were too foreign, and it made the players at the club dubious not only about his capacities as a politician but even about his loyalty to the Russian state. “The West needs someone to run Russia for them, someone to order around as their instrument, and they want to do that with Garry Kasparov,” Pachulia said. “The West is worried about the strength of Vladimir Putin.”