This article was originally published in March 2008.
Last November Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess master in history, was playing a very different game—one with far higher stakes. He was leading several thousand people in a march through Moscow streets in protest of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime. Before the march ended, Kasparov was arrested and detained; he was quickly tried, convicted and sentenced to five days in jail.
A founder of the opposition Other Russia Party, Kasparov has become one of the world’s most vocal critics of Putin. “He is destroying our country,” Kasparov has said. “Russia under Putin has become a lawless nation. Putin has betrayed our people. He has robbed our treasury. He mocks the constitution. He uses violence to stop those who oppose him. He has blood on his hands.”
Putin, a former KGB agent, succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 1999. In the ensuing eight years Putin has enacted sweeping reforms that have consolidated power in his hands. “It’s like Stalin,” alleges Kasparov, “but under the banner of democracy.” While Yeltsin was president, governors were elected throughout Russia, but now the Kremlin appoints them. The Putin administration controls almost all media, including all television stations. Evidence has been mounting that elections, including last December’s parliamentary elections, which Putin’s party handily won, are fixed. In addition, there have been numerous cases of human-rights violations and repression that recall the Soviet era, including the arrest of some of Putin’s highest-profile critics. One was the country’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon who funded opposition parties and spoke out against Putin. Russian authorities arrested Khodorkovsky and convicted him of tax evasion and fraud; he’s currently serving a nine-year sentence in a Siberian prison. The blood Kasparov refers to is that of a number of murdered opposition politicians and journalists. The two most famous cases are the suspicious deaths of Anna Politkovskaya, a Putin critic and respected reporter on the Chechen war who was gunned down in October 2006, and Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian KGB agent turned anti-Putin dissident who was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210.
Putin’s term expires in May 2008. Term limits prevent him from running for reelection in the upcoming March vote. For months there was speculation Putin would amend the constitution so he could remain in power, but at press time it instead looked as if he had hand picked a successor, one of his closest confidantes, Dmitry Medvedev, who announced his first action as president of Russia would be to appoint Putin prime minister. Some analysts have conjectured Medvedev could resign before his presidential term ends, clearing the way for Putin’s return to the presidency, a move allowable under the Russian constitution.
Last year Kasparov announced he would seek the presidency, though he admitted it was a largely symbolic move since he isn’t permitted on the ballot. “No one can run whom the Kremlin doesn’t want to run,” Kasparov says. “There’s a system in place that prohibits an independent candidate from appearing on the ballot.” Indeed, at press time Kasparov’s candidacy seemed to have been stopped in its tracks: His party was unable to rent a hall in Moscow for a nominating convention, a requirement under Russian law. Kasparov charged the Kremlin had pressed landlords to refuse to rent to his organization. But the derailment didn’t stop him from speaking out, writing editorials—often for The Wall Street Journal, for which he is a contributing editor—and leading demonstrations.
In December the news of Kasparov’s arrest quickly spread around the globe. Kasparov had recently met with the editorial board of The New York Times, which wrote, “Mr. Kasparov’s warning—that Russia’s grip on democracy is tenuous—was confirmed over the weekend by the arrest.” In Paris French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said, “I am surprised by this violence. To my knowledge the world chess champion was not a threat to Russia’s security.”
Kasparov is an unlikely dissident. In 1985 he was a national hero at the age of 22, when he became the youngest world chess champion in history. He held the title for an unprecedented 15 years, beating all comers, though he split two of the most watched chess matches ever—versus Deep Blue, an IBM supercomputer.
After retiring from professional chess, in 2005, Kasparov became a business consultant and motivational speaker, addressing corporate and business audiences about strategy and leadership philosophies summed up in his latest book, How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves—From the Board to the Boardroom. He also began his political career, motivated, he says, by the “frustration and anger one feels while helplessly watching the dismantling of democracy.”
Kasparov, from Baku, Azerbaijan, was born in 1963 to a Jewish father and an Armenian mother. He began playing chess at the age of six. His talent was such that his parents enrolled him in a chess academy. It paid off: At 18 Kasparov became the Soviet champion. In 1985 he took the world title from Anatoly Karpov and held on to it until 2000. He remained the world’s highest-rated player for five more years, but by 2004 Kasparov had begun his speaking and then his political careers.
With his third wife, Dasha Tarasova, a business-school graduate from St. Petersburg, Kasparov has a 15-month-old daughter. He also has two children from his previous marriages, and homes in New York, Paris, Moscow and Leningrad.
Playboy Contributing Editor David Sheff met Kasparov in Antwerp, Belgium a few days before protests scheduled in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “Kasparov is larger than life, a dynamic presence,” Sheff reports. “He moves constantly and carries with him a sense of urgency about the crisis in his homeland. During frequent breaks in the interview, he fielded phone calls and answered e-mails, most related to the upcoming protests. It’s clear that in Vladimir Putin, Kasparov has an opponent more formidable than any of the world’s best chess players.
“The interview completed, Kasparov returned to Moscow. Before leaving, he said, ‘I must be there on the front lines with the people. Russians must see there are some of us who will stand up to Putin. We cannot sit back idly and watch our nation stolen from us.’ Two days later he was arrested. We talked again the day after his release.”
Playboy: Did you expect to be arrested?
Kasparov: Let’s say it was not a complete surprise when 3,500 people met in Russia to express their disdain for a president who is destroying our nation. Thirty-five hundred people on the streets of Moscow are more than 100,000 in Europe or New York protesting the war in Iraq. In the West if the weather is good, you have a nice walk. But 3,500 people in Moscow, defending their constitutional rights, saying Putin must go? They are facing real risk. They are arrested and beaten. Don’t underestimate the courage of the people who join us to protest.
Playboy: Exactly what occurred?
Kasparov: About half of us went on to march to the Central Committee. On our way we were met by police. We were attacked and told to move back. We moved back, and still they came. They arrested me and others.
Playboy: What were the charges?
Kasparov: I was charged with organizing an illegal rally and disobeying police orders. I and other defendants were denied access to our lawyers. The court didn’t want to hear any evidence from the defense. They wouldn’t consider pictures, videos or testimony. They didn’t want to find out the truth. Only police officers testified against me. It was a joke. I was convicted right away, and there was a hearing two days later. At this time the judge refused to grant any defense complaints. They would hear nothing.
Playboy: How were you treated in jail?
Kasparov: It was obvious they didn’t want to inflict real physical damage. Most of the guards were relatively polite. Still, the prison cell was about three feet by two feet, possibly seven feet high. I was cut off from the outside world for five days. I could set no one, neither my lawyer nor my family. Only when I went to court for the hearing did I see my mother and friends who had come. Still, I was treated well because the guards were all supportive. They helped me. I sensed they helped because they were supportive of our work and they knew me from chess. I had been the intellectual pride of the country, and they knew I was in jail for one reason: because I want justice for all of Russia. They knew I had committed no crime.
Playboy: Did you consider a five-day jail term a light or severe sentence?
Kasparov: It is a severe sentence for someone who committed no crime. But I was lucky, I suppose, because I could have received up to 50 days. Next time it will be worse. The only thing I worried about afterward was that I didn’t want to cause trouble for those guards who were nice to me.
Playboy: Will you be reluctant to protest again after this experience? At what point will you cease to speak out, at least from within Russia?
Kasparov: At what point? When democracy is returned.
Playboy: Your protest was timed to coincide with Russia’s parliamentary elections, which Putin’s party won by a landslide.
Kasparov: Calling it an election is misleading the public. It’s a mistake to call it an election—this one or the presidential election coming up in March. It is the Kremlin’s plot to get the Russian people to give a stamp of approval on what they do. In some areas 97 percent or 99 percent of voters supported United Russia, Putin’s party. We know it is absurd. They said it was 99 percent in Chechnya and Dagestan, where there was little monitoring. Ninety-nine percent of Chechen votes went to United Russia? Come on. Putin is the architect of the second Chechen war, which destroyed Grozny, the Chechen capital. Ninety-nine percent voter support for Putin? We have gathered evidence of the many ways they rigged the election. They used administrative resources to bring enormous pressure on the public to vote the way they wanted. Two million people were forced to vote at their workplace, for example. They voted under the supervision of their bosses. Most polling stations had no booths with curtains, and 100,000 stations were under the control of the KGB—a KGB guy was standing there while you voted. Throughout Russia many voting places had what they called voting carousels—young people organized by the regime who came in and voted many times. Other Russia documented it. Some of our activists—very brave young men—signed up to be part of the Kremlin’s operation and gathered evidence.
Playboy: What can you do with it?
Kasparov: Just document it for the world, because there’s nothing we can do. The Russian legal system is immune to all these accusations. But what is important is that we will present substantial proof to the world. Europe immediately criticized the election, saying it was not free and fair. Putin and his friends are becoming reckless. They are becoming blatant, so they will not continue to get away with it. They must not. If we don’t stop them, we can have a funeral for Russian democracy. They have been killing it for seven years, slowly poisoning it. They are killing it, and everybody is watching it happen.
Playboy: After this election and your arrest, what do you anticipate for the upcoming presidential election now that Putin has named a probable successor?
Kasparov: We’ll have to wait and see. All I know is Putin’s regime is shaky now. No one can predict what will happen, not even Putin. The election itself will be meaningless, of course. It will be another landslide for Putin’s people. But I don’t think they can survive for long. There are groups within the Kremlin fighting for power. They will destroy one another. And then there will be a new era.
Playboy: Yet your charges fly in the face of every opinion poll of your countrymen. The results show an unprecedented majority of Russians strongly approve of Putin.
Kasparov: You trust polls in Russia?
Playboy: Don’t you?
Playboy: Do you have evidence of rigged opinion polls?
Kasparov: Would pollsters make numbers up to please the administration? Would they be told to do so? Look, what happens if you are called on the telephone in a place where people understand the KGB state still exists? “Hello, I am conducting a poll. What do you think of the president?” Is it safe to speak your mind? In Russia we live in a culture of fear and suspicion, so I don’t think it is possible to get a true poll result. What I know is, if you go to the Russian people, you hear dissatisfaction and anger. I have traveled from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad and from Murmansk to Sevastopol and have spoken to a lot of Russian people. They feel they’re being cheated. They see the corruption. The fake poll numbers are used to cover up a constitutional coup d’etat.
Playboy: But do you acknowledge things are much improved in Russia? Certainly you agree people are doing better than under the Soviet regime.
Kasparov: That’s what George Bush says too. That’s what Condoleezza Rice says. If you compare things to Stalin times, things are better now. Better than Stalin—is that how we are to judge? It’s better than 1975. It’s better than 1937. So what? Yes, it’s better, but we are in 2007. Look closely and you’ll see the truth. Yes, it is better—for Putin and his friends. Putin represents the ruling elite that had nothing before Yeltsin. His group was among the losers in the Soviet Union. Putin had a very low position in East Germany. He basically had to spy on officers. Even there he failed and was sent back to St. Petersburg. If not for the collapse of the Soviet Union, who would have known the name Putin? He was a low clerk. But because it may be better now than when we lived under Stalin, are we supposed to be silent and grateful? We were moving toward a democracy, and now that has been stopped. Meanwhile, things are not getting better; they are getting worse for people—the day-to-day things. Food prices went up 20 percent, 30 percent and then 40 percent, and they are still climbing. Some predict food prices will go up another 50 percent in a country where people spend not 10 percent to 15 percent of their budget on food, as people do in America or Europe, but 80 percent. The government can’t control the system because it’s completely corrupt. Even if Putin wanted to distribute the riches he’s stealing, the money wouldn’t make it to the people. The pyramid works only from the bottom to the top: It’s like a vacuum cleaner that sucks up money. If you send money from the top to the bottom, it disappears. The bureaucrats believe they have to benefit. It’s a system that’s not functioning even with money pouring into the country because oil is at $90 to $100 a barrel. Yeltsin was able to blame the low price of oil for the collapse of the economy—oil was $10 a barrel in 1998. Now the economy isn’t functioning and oil is $90 a barrel. We have reached the level where any public debate may topple the government in two weeks.
Playboy: How much blame should Yeltsin bear?
Kasparov: Oil prices have gone up 10 times since Yeltsin. So did the number of billionaires under Putin. You want to talk about oligarchs? You want to talk about corruption? But it can’t be compared to Yeltsin’s time. People talk about the oligarchs and billionaires Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky.
Playboy: Khodorkovsky is the oligarch serving a nine-year prison sentence for fraud. His supporters claim the charges were trumped up because he criticized Putin. Berezovsky, another oligarch, also reportedly gained Putin’s disfavor for opposing him. He escaped Russia and received political asylum in London.
Kasparov: Yes, but compared with what’s being stolen every day in Russia, they are just small-time thieves. The money was peanuts. When people understand the scale of the larceny compared with the hardship they face, they will no longer tolerate this government.
Playboy: If polls and elections are rigged, what can they do?
Kasparov: That is the essential question. There is no information because of the government’s control of the press. Dissent is shut down. As you see, people are arrested for protesting. From the late 1980s and from 1990 to 1991, people had huge expectations. But what did people expect? It wasn’t just freedom; Russian people had no idea about freedom. What they knew was that somewhere else—namely, the West—people had a much better life. People expected prosperity of unheard-of standards. Why? Because the West had democracy and we had a bad political system. At the end of the 1980s everybody knew Communism wasn’t working—at least there was a consensus in the country that it wasn’t working. But people had no idea about the significance of the change. They saw only that we had to remove the system and make a democracy and then everything would be fine. But everything was not fine. The magnitude of the change, the consequences and the suffering were not contemplated. Change came, but change looked ugly. After the euphoria there has been hardship, inflation and corruption. There were rich people in the old Soviet Union, but you couldn’t see them. Now suddenly you have capitalism in its worst form. The Russian people see the few who have billions, who have stolen their money. For most Russians, this is democracy. They saw we moved from one system to another system that didn’t bring them benefits. Some things may be slightly improved, but the overall majority of people in Russia still feel cheated.
People knew democracy worked in the West, but it didn’t work here. Why? At first they didn’t blame Putin and the government. They thought. Maybe it’s a conspiracy; maybe America did something to us because they were afraid of us. People look for elementary explanations. For a while the Russian people were fooled into believing it was a conspiracy from the outside, but they are now beginning to understand the truth. It began with Yeltsin and now it is Putin. Democracy has been painted as an enemy. Who is to blame? Putin. But he encourages us to blame America and democracy itself. It’s why we have a big fight on our hands to educate our people.
Playboy: Do Russians actually blame America, not Putin, for the nation’s problems? Or is this government propaganda as well?
Kasparov: Both. America and the West pay the price for democracy’s failure to provide better living standards for the majority of Russians, because democracy is their product. It works in America and the West, so Russians think it must be a conspiracy. They look at the oligarchs in Russia and blame American spies. People are not keen to look at themselves as the source of trouble. But they are beginning to see. They see through the lies and corruption. We must change their frustration into action.
Playboy: Is there any hope for free and fair elections?
Kasparov: Yes. From 1999 onward the quality of every election has gotten worse and worse. The opposition—from the left and the right—can never really challenge the regime through elections. If under Yeltsin a byzantine system coexisted with elements of democracy, Putin is putting the nails in the coffin of democracy. Now we are left with the corrupt Putin regime with its elements of a feudal system, Latin American dictatorship, oligarchs, a Mussolini corporate state and a Mafia. Where is the democracy? Gone. But the system will fail. It will collapse, or the Russian people will get to the point where they will no longer tolerate it. I wouldn’t give this regime more than two years, maximum.
Playboy: What will happen within the next two years?
Kasparov: People will continue to be dissatisfied. They will not accept this corrupt regime. I cannot tell you exactly what the change will look like, but there will be a change.
Playboy: Do you envision violent change, or might there be a peaceful revolution like the ones in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan?
Kasparov: The Other Russia organization is an alternative to revolution, but we don’t know the future. There may be a collapse of the country because the current stability is an illusion. Beneath, there’s a volcano ready to erupt. Eighty-five percent of the country is not doing well. Even most of the other 15 percent are feeling the ground is shaky. The banking system will collapse. The prosperity is an illusion. When the financial crisis hits here—and it is coming when all major financial institutions write oil their subprime credit papers—there will be a big money hole and money now in Russia’s banks will be recalled. Tens of billions of dollars will leave the country. So I am certain that in 2008 Russia will face a social and economic crisis. The infrastructure is collapsing, including the infrastructure of the oil export business. Money isn’t being invested, because everyone with access to money is hoarding it, depositing it in foreign banks. Meanwhile, the Kremlin gets more desperate and reckless. We have seen it has no allergy to blood.
Playboy: Whose blood? Do you directly blame Putin’s administration for the deaths of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, as well as those of opposition leaders who have been killed?
Kasparov: Those, and we have a lot of questions about other murders. The explosions in the apartment blocks in 1999, for example.
Playboy: Putin blamed Chechen rebels for the bombings, which killed 300 people. But former security agent Alexander Litvinenko blamed the FSB, the successor to the KGB. There is speculation that Litvinenko was murdered in London with a dose of polonium-210 because of this accusation.
Kasparov: There is evidence it was the FSB. They kill people; they don’t care. And Politkovskaya. It’s not a pretty picture.
Playboy: Do you maintain Putin directly gave the orders for those murders?
Kasparov: I don’t think it works this way. I think it’s Putin’s irritation: “Why are these people making a fuss, causing us trouble?”
Playboy: Are you saying his irritation is enough to cause a murder?
Kasparov: That’s the way the Mafia works. Someone takes care of a nuisance. The boss never has to say the words, right? They do whatever they want in Russia, and sometimes they do whatever they want outside of Russia.
Playboy: Who specifically commits murder? Does the Kremlin order the FSB to do it? Is it other former KGB agents working for individuals?
Kasparov: It’s not the Kremlin but a very small group, Putin’s inner circle, that conducts it. It’s a Mafia-style dictatorship. When we think of dictatorship, most people think about Stalin and Hitler. But it’s the 21st century, and you can have a different kind of dictator. You don’t need mass repression. You can do hand-picked repressions through assassination and arrest. You remove Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, this guy and that guy. You suppress here and there. You do what it takes to make sure you keep the balance.
Playboy: Don’t the perpetrators fear repercussions for such outrageous behavior?
Kasparov: What repercussions? Actually Putin and his cronies don’t understand why Litvinenko or these others are so important. If a foreign journalist or world leader criticizes them, they think, How can we let one person’s life stand in the way of our relations? That’s their mentality. If sometimes it doesn’t work, they think it’s a conspiracy. Putin thinks, What are they trying to gain by pointing to Politkovskaya? For them it’s a strategic move, like in chess.
Playboy: In your opinion does Putin actually believe it’s a conspiracy, or does he use that to explain away criticism?
Kasparov: He believes it’s a conspiracy. If somebody doesn’t want to play the game—if they don’t want to take the money—it’s a conspiracy, what else? If CNN runs a bad story about Putin, they firmly believe it’s because Condoleezza Rice called CNN. It’s the way their minds work. Their idea is that money talks. Their idea is that democracy and human rights are all tricks of America and Europe to promote their own geopolitical interests. Unfortunately, Bush has helped them.
Playboy: How has Bush helped them?
Kasparov: His arrogant actions in the past few years convinced them that’s the case. The war on terror, the war in Iraq, the Halliburton story, torture—they all prove these values are a cover-up. They prove to Putin and his people that the West doesn’t really care about them, either. It’s a big joke. Bush talks about promoting democracy in Iraq, but in Russia we see he doesn’t really care about democracy. He undermines it, betrays it. So it’s easy for the people in Russia to be cynical. “Yes, we’re as democratic as you are”—Russians say it with a wink. But as I say, this is beginning to change. The Russian people are beginning to see through Putin’s lies. He says there is great prosperity in Russia, that our country is doing so well, that the state treasury is flowing with money. People think, Then why is my life getting worse? That’s what they feel. It is sinking in. They see the bureaucrats getting rich. They start to understand maybe it’s not because of an American plot but because Putin is eliminating democratic freedoms. Maybe there’s a connection. It’s a very slow process of education. The moment the people make the full connection will be the end of Putin’s regime.
Playboy: Are the media controlled to the point that the average person doesn’t know the elections and polls are rigged? Do Russian citizens know about the murders?
Kasparov: The control of the media is tremendous. There are very few free media outlets available. We have one free radio station. A few newspapers may carry stories about Other Russia and other opposition to Putin. There’s no television that isn’t 100 percent controlled by the stale.
Playboy: In China the internet is a source of news that’s largely beyond the state’s control. How about in Russia?
Kasparov: Information on the internet is pretty free.
Playboy: Do you use the technology to challenge Putin’s regime, to organize and publish accurate news?
Kasparov: We have a very active web community, but the problem is, out of the 18 million people who have the Internet, only 10 percent use it for politics. The rest use it for shopping and entertainment. The internet is reliable, but as a political tool it is still relatively small. The only meaningful medium in Russia is television, and it is completely controlled. Basically, it’s a brainwashing machine. But we try to use the internet. Now we’re working on a website that will show how activists in Other Russia are losing their jobs, being sacked from universities every day. Relatives are threatened and some are arrested. We’re not just using words, saying, “The Putin regime is oppressive.” There is a Russian and English website, theotherrussia.org, where we will show the faces. For instance, we will show the face of a 20-year-old girl in Orenburg who is in jail for allegedly having two grams of heroin. She organized one of the rallies there. And we will show the saddest example for us: a member of Other Russia named Yury Chervochkin, a brave activist who died in the neurosurgery wing of the Burdenko research institute in December. He was 22 years old. The UBOP [Department of Fighting Organized Crime, another Kremlin police organization] Special Forces were implicated in his death. In November he was violently beaten in a suburb of Serpukhov. He was found unconscious. Contradicting witnesses, UBOP officers have claimed Chervochkin was found in a different place. But an hour before he was attacked he called in to the editorial offices of the Sobrok@ru news agency and told them he was being watched by four UBOP agents whom he recognized from previous encounters when he had been detained. That’s what’s happened with these people, yet they’re still fighting. It’s important for us to present to all of Russia and the West that this isn’t about Garry Kasparov or a few people in Moscow. It’s a vast country with a movement that is spreading. The regime is quite aggressive, arrogant and cruel. It’s not mass oppression—not Stalin, not gulags—but tough. Have you ever faced a police line ready to attack you? We have no other choice. I’ll be in the front row. If we’re arrested we reveal the true colors of the regime.
Playboy: Is the government immune to criticism from the West?
Kasparov: They balance very carefully what they can get away with. They attack the West and blame it for our problems; they blame democracy and a Western conspiracy against the Russian people and criticize the hypocrisy of Bush and the rest, but at the same time Putin can’t afford to break relations with the West. Where are the billions of dollars Putin and the others have stolen from the Russian people? The entire fortune of the Russian elite is not in Russia. It’s not in China, not in Iran, not in Libya. It’s in London, Riga, Prague, Brussels and America.
Playboy: Do you know how much money Putin has?
Kasparov: How much has he stolen from the Russian people? Is he in the same category as Bill Gates? We’ll see. He’s the king of the billionaires, so he must be the richest one.
Playboy: How do you view President Bush’s response to the charge that Putin’s people, if not Putin himself, are responsible for assassinations and arrests? How has Bush responded to the dismantling of democratic institutions, including fair elections, in Russia?
Kasparov: I’m not a big fan of President Bush, as you can guess, but it’s not only him. Look at Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac, Silvio Berlusconi—unlike Bush and Tony Blair, they were Putin’s business partners. They all supported him. But Bush and the others turn a blind eye, and meanwhile this strongman has thrived.
Playboy: How has Bush turned a blind eye?
Kasparov: He says nothing about most of the assaults on democracy in Russia. He says nothing to Putin and continues to do business with him. Putin is allowed to come to the G8. It should be renamed the G7+ 1. Again and again no one says anything against Putin.
Playboy: In fact, criticism from the West is increasing. The last election was denounced.
Kasparov: Putin is immune unless he hears a firm reaction from the top man. He doesn’t care about clerks, even Condoleezza Rice. Only a message from the top counts. Everything else is a game. When Putin made some of the statements that implied he could stay in office for a third term, he didn’t hear anything from Bush. There was no reaction. President Bush, you stuck up for him; you looked into his eyes. Why are you silent now? Instead, what does Putin hear? Condoleezza Rice says, “We’d rather have him inside than outside the tent.”
Playboy: She’s not the only one. Bush and many politicians and political strategists say engagement will ultimately lead to openness and transparency, the rule of law, freedom of the press and the other characteristics of a functioning democracy.
Kasparov: This philosophy has never worked before. Churchill said, “No matter how beautiful the strategy, occasionally you must check the results.” For seven years, with engagement by the West and with the influx of capitalism, Putin destroyed all democratic institutions in Russia. So we all remember that Bush said he looked into Putin’s eyes. Putin looked into Bush’s eyes as well. He saw he could push Bush’s limits. Every time he pushes he tests the waters. He pushes and Bush does nothing. Putin is a psychologist. He knows how to manipulate. He is on all sides—the West and Iran and Hezbollah.
Playboy: In fact, Bush and Rice have expressed hope that Russia can help stabilize the growing problem with Iran and other Middle Eastern nations.
Kasparov: Putin exploits tension in the Middle East and creates more.
Playboy: Why would he create more?
Kasparov: Putin needs high oil prices. If oil goes down, his regime collapses. It’s why he sells weapons to Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas. This past year Putin seemed to increase his ties to enemies of the U.S. and the West. He has been supplying Hamas in Palestine and selling military equipment to Sudan, Myanmar and Venezuela, and missile technology to North Korea. Why?
Playboy: Indeed, why?
Kasparov: It’s two ways of making profit. One is cash. These industries are all controlled by his guys, so there’s lots of cash. But he also backs these regimes to create tension in these oil-rich regions. The more tension, the higher the oil prices. He needs tension because it muddies the waters, and he thrives in muddy waters. If you look at the places of instability around the world, you’ll always find Putin’s traces. Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Hugo Chavez—they keep the Middle East boiling. It’s a very rational policy if you need high oil prices. Putin is a KGB guy. He looks at your eyes and he smells whether he can move further or if he should go back. Now he thinks, We have so much money, we can dictate our terms. For his attacks on the values of the West and on democracy, he has been rewarded with polite comments and now the Sochi Olympics. It’s the triumph of Russian corruption over international institutions. See, Putin, as a psychologist, is much smarter than Bush. Putin realized all these big guys were not as strong, not as smart—he could easily outplay them. Basically he does what he wants, manipulates them and does more of what he wants. He keeps oil prices high, keeps tension in the Middle East, becomes a necessary ally but on his terms.
Playboy: Has anyone in the West stood up to Putin?
Kasparov: Putin’s biggest disappointments were in October of last year, a day or two after Politkovskaya was murdered. He was in Germany and offered a big deal to German chancellor Angela Merkel: Russia has gas, and Germany would be the distributor. Responding to the murder, Merkel said no. Putin was devastated. Next there was a meeting in Finland, and the European countries turned down a similar proposal. He was stunned because he believes everything and everyone has a price. The EU’s Organization for Security and Cooperation refused to come to Russia to monitor this past December’s parliamentary elections because Putin was not cooperating with visas and they would have been restricted. This shocked Putin. These are very good signs. Finally some of the Western leadership is showing they have reached their limits and won’t play his game. Putin’s fundamental dilemma, the problem that cannot be resolved, is that he wants to rule like Stalin and live like Abramovitch.
Playboy: You’re referring to Roman Abramovitch, the oil tycoon and 11th-richest man in the world.
Kasparov: Yes, and Putin wants to rule like Chavez or the Iranian mullahs and be all-powerful and at the same time be welcomed with open arms at the Bush ranch in Texas.
Playboy: But assassinations of journalists and opposition leaders? The arrest of business leaders? At what point will he no longer be welcomed by Bush in Texas?
Kasparov: I don’t know.
Playboy: Many people speculated Putin would try to change the constitution so he could run for president again. What was your view?
Kasparov: I didn’t know. I don’t think Putin knew what he was going to do. He knew he couldn’t violate the constitution, so he has looked for a compromise. He wants to stay in power but doesn’t want to lose his credibility in the West. He has had to be careful. He cannot fully alienate the West because, as I said, he and his friends must have access to their money and property in the West. They have to play a game. It’s why Putin is getting nervous. I don’t know what scenario will unfold, so we’ll wait. In chess if your opponent has an overwhelming material advantage, you let him make the move. Then you create a strategy based on that move. So we wait and see how the game unfolds.
Playboy: If the Putin government is determined to stop its enemies, why are you allowed to continue to travel the globe, criticizing the regime? Why are you allowed to lead demonstrations?
Kasparov: Our demonstrations are disrupted. Each time they bring in the police. Three thousand or 5,000 demonstrators are met with 10,000 police. Almost all demonstrations end with arrests.
Playboy: Why would the government show such force against relatively small demonstrations? If they control the polls, elections, police and courts, what’s the risk to the regime if people like you protest? You’re like gnats on an elephant.
Kasparov: Because next time there would be 100,000. Instead, people are scared, and the government has to keep this fear going. Fear is their only weapon.
Playboy: How worried are you personally? Do you take some consolation in the fact that, other than your brief arrests, you haven’t been targeted?
Kasparov: It’s not the end of the story.
Playboy: Do you take for granted it would be politically disastrous for Putin’s regime to have you harmed?
Kasparov: It’s a tough choice for them. If something goes wrong with me or my family, I don’t think there’s a chance for them to say they aren’t guilty. For many Russians, I’m a symbol of national pride. I was the Soviet champion even for the left wing, even for the nationalists. I’m not Garry Kasparov, half Armenian, half Jewish born, but the Soviet champion, the man who was on top of the world of chess, the pride of the nation. To tell the public I’m an agent of foreign influence doesn’t work.
Playboy: How do you protect yourself?
Kasparov: In Russia I have armed bodyguards. The government can’t get as close to me as they could to Politkovskaya.
Playboy: Could you push too far?
Kasparov: How do I know? Shall I stop pushing? That is what they want, but instead we’re continuing.
Playboy: Why did you run for president if you knew the Kremlin’s regulations would prevent you from appearing on the ballot?
Kasparov: These elections are deciding nothing in Russia. I was running to help change the mentality of the Russian public.
Playboy: Were you disheartened when you had to withdraw from the race?
Kasparov: Of course not. Life goes on in Russia, as we have come to expect. One of the many requirements designed to keep people out of the race is a meeting with 500 supporters, whose names must be notarized at the meeting. To hold our meeting, we made a contract with a cinema, but they broke it. We had many other refusals. We asked to rent space, the people said yes, and then we got calls: “I’m sorry, it won’t work out. We cannot rent to you.”
Playboy: How do you know Putin’s people were behind this?
Kasparov: The theater owner claimed he had technical problems, but he had other events immediately before and after our meeting was scheduled. There were no technical problems. There was a visit or call from someone. There was a warning. At other venues we heard, “Certainly we have a place for rent,” but when they heard who we were, they said, “Not for Kasparov.” It’s not surprising the government would prevent us from being an official candidate, but we will continue. We will campaign door-to-door. We will protest.
Playboy: How do Western politicians respond when you tell them about these conditions in Russia?
Kasparov: Many are beginning to come around. Foreign journalists are looking with a closer eye.
Playboy: Have you been able to raise these issues with President Bush?
Kasparov: I had 30 seconds to talk to Bush at a conference in Prague. I said, “Mr. President, when you talk to Dr. Putin, make it public. He hates daylight. You can’t negotiate behind closed doors with him. He’s a KGB guy. You must bring your difference to the public because it is the only way to expose him.” Bush isn’t listening.
Playboy: Are any of the U.S. presidential candidates bold enough to challenge Putin?
Kasparov: None are talking about Russia. The current debate doesn’t make me happy. It is sad because people in Russia and Eastern Europe believed in America. America symbolized democracy and respect for human rights. Now political necessity has replaced America’s fight for those values.
Playboy: Could it be argued that, by protesting, you’re playing into the Kremlin’s hands? They can claim Russia allows dissent.
Kasparov: First of all, as I have said, our rallies are always interrupted with clear violations of our constitutional rights. They aren’t allowing protest. And they aren’t allowing real elections, which the world is finally seeing. Yet Bush says nothing because the laws are made by a “democratically elected government.” I could argue that, in 1935, the democratically elected German government made some regulations about Jews: Of course it shouldn’t jeopardize business relations between U.S. corporations and German financial groups! It’s just a domestic affair. If you start investigating the regulations imposed on us by Putin’s puppet parliament, you’ll find none of us can participate in political life the same way you can in the West.
Playboy: Before you were stopped, did people in Russia even know you were running for president? Did they know the Kremlin’s rules prevented you from getting on the ballot?
Kasparov: Very few. Some knew in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, two documentaries were released that revealed the truth about me and Other Russia: We’re American spies. These are Soviet-type documentaries, the same kind they made about Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky. Thanks to these documentaries, people knew about us.
Playboy: Have the documentaries discredited you?
Kasparov: [Laughs] They were so Soviet-style, people recognized what was behind them. Now there’s a book by one of those Kremlin guys about Putin’s enemies. There are several key enemies; one is me. Well, if this were chess, the opponent has exposed himself—his true self is revealed. Often it’s his fatal move.
Playboy: Much of your thinking—your business theories and politics—comes back to chess. Have you considered challenging Putin to a chess match?
Kasparov: I don’t think he knows chess. He relies on brute force.
Playboy: Do you still follow chess?
Kasparov: I follow chess for fun.
Playboy: In your view, who is the best up-and-coming player?
Kasparov: The most talented kid under 20 is Magnus Carlsen from Norway.
Playboy: Do you still play?
Kasparov: I play for fun. Old habits die hard. I relax by looking at the game, moving the pieces, following some competitions, going online to watch my ex-colleagues make mistakes.
Playboy: Do you miss the intensity and the pressure?
Kasparov: I have a lot of intensity and pressure from elsewhere now.
Playboy: Like sports, is chess generally for the young?
Kasparov: In the pre-computer era, experience played a very important role. You learned when you were a kid. Now with computers you can learn in a few years more than Bobby Fischer learned in his entire life. Much of chess is about energy, freshness and your ability to withstand pressure, so yes, it is for the young.
Playboy: You have said IBM cheated in the final Deep Blue match, in which you were defeated. Do you have proof?
Kasparov: At the end of the day it’s “I say, they say,” but I have reasons to think they cheated.
Playboy: What reasons?
Kasparov: I wrote about them in my book, but basically these matches were important to IBM. They got a lot of attention.
Playboy: A Newsweek cover story on one of the matches was titled “The Brain’s Last Stand.”
Kasparov: I won the first time in 1996 and then lost the rematch. I tried to have a third match that would settle it once and for all, but IBM refused. During the match the computer did not play moves it would logically have played. I believe there was human control. Was it worth it for them to cheat for a win worth billions of dollars in free publicity?
Playboy: That sounds like sour grapes. In fact, computer scientist Feng-hsiung Hsu has described your charges as “the unsportsmanlike whining of a sore loser.”
Kasparov: I am guilty of this. But there is proof. When you start going through the games I played with Deep Blue, but using new and much more advanced computers, Deep Blue’s moves show a superior quality except at a crucial moment. Suddenly the machines are still machines, while Deep Blue shows human flexibility. So I am fairly certain IBM cheated, though of course there is no hard proof because immediately after the match IBM shut down Deep Blue and dismantled it. So no one will ever know for sure. But I wonder why they would destroy it if they had nothing to hide.
Playboy: You have said you paid a high price to become chess champion, that you lost your childhood to chess. Do you resent it?
Kasparov: Lust is too strong a word, but I couldn’t enjoy years with no responsibility. I was still riding a bicycle and playing sports but felt different from other kids. I matured way in advance.
Playboy: You once said chess is usually accorded either too much or too little respect by people who don’t play. What did you mean?
Kasparov: Actually, both of those feelings can be mixed in one person. Many people give chess too much respect because of the complexity and intellectual nature of the game, but they also disrespect it for the same reasons; it can seem like a game for freaks. In fact chess is neither. It’s a game. An aptitude for playing chess is no more than an aptitude for playing chess.
Playboy: Why are there relatively few women chess players?
Kasparov: Tradition. How many women composers are there? Architects? Things are changing in this. We have Judit Polgar, who proved a woman can make the top 10, though she didn’t come even close to number one.
Playboy: Do chess masters have groupies?
Kasparov: No. I think chess is low-key compared with other sports, so there’s very little publicity, except for the Fischer–Boris Spassky match and when I played Karpov or the computer. Otherwise it’s low-key with a relatively small amount of money available. So women…maybe they aren’t that impressed with me. [laughs]
Playboy: Is your life in politics more or less stressful than your life playing chess?
Kasparov: More now. We are playing for human lives.
Playboy: Facing upcoming protests and the near certainty of more arrests, are you afraid?
Kasparov: Yes, I feel scared. It’s terrifying. But people who are on the streets with us recognize there’s no other way. I’m scared, but I feel very proud, too. We know the risk. In spite of it, having these few thousand people following you shows your work is not wasted. And I think we will win. The problem is, destroying Putin’s regime is only part of the work. If we succeed and bring democracy back to Russia—if we save the country from disaster—what then? We must rebuild. We must start again. But winning this is no certainty. Every day I know we may well lose the country. It’s like an illness that has gone too far, a cancer. I hope it’s not too late to treat it.
Playboy: Does your wife worry about your political work?
Kasparov: She’s supportive but knows the risks we face.
Playboy: Your mother?
Kasparov: It’s not that she’s thrilled—she recognizes all the dangers—but she knows someone has to take a stand. I have to do it. It’s like a forced move in chess.
Playboy: Do you take extra precautions because of your young children?
Kasparov: I am as careful as I can be, but I fight for what I believe in for them.
Playboy: Is your family’s life curtailed because of security concerns?
Kasparov: I feel much better outside Russia because I don’t need bodyguards. But look, I can’t destroy my life thinking about it all the time. In New York I love walking with my wife. In Russia I go with bodyguards.
Playboy: Are your phones tapped?
Kasparov: Everything’s tapped. As far as I understand, though, Skype [an internet telephone service] cannot be intercepted, so we use it to talk. But who cares? I believe some people in the organization are also working for the government. What can you do? I’m telling all the people in the organization, “Don’t hide.” Our only strength is publicity. We must be open in part to distinguish ourselves from our opponents. To a degree it makes life easier when you don’t have to hide because you ain’t.
Playboy: The truth is, you don’t have to live in Russia. You could probably have a very nice life with your family in New York, Paris or elsewhere.
Kasparov: Why “probably”? Of course I could.
Playboy: Yet you choose to stay in Russia. Why?
Kasparov: It may sound pathetic, but there are just things you must do. I always believe I do things that could make a difference. At a certain point I had to think about my future engagements after my chess career. I wanted to be useful. It’s my nature. I have to fight. I can’t see the injustice, especially if it’s in my country, and do nothing. Facing Putin’s regime—watching him destroy my country—I had a choice to make. I could either emigrate or stay. Emigrating is wrong. This is my country. I want my country to succeed. My country is in trouble, so I won’t leave. Putin wishes I would. He would like to expel me. Maybe instead I should try to expel him.