GARRY KASPAROV'S GAMBIT: The greatest chess player in modern history on how the Soviet Union lost to the free world.

AuthorGillespie, Nick

IF THE SOVIET Union was notoriously incapable of producing blue jeans, smokeable cigarettes, and durable cars in the numbers its citizens craved, it was unrivaled at producing world-class chess grandmasters. From the end of World War II until the Evil Empire dissolved in 1991, all but one world champion--the American Bobby Fischer, who claimed the title in 1972 from one Soviet and surrendered it to another in 1975 when he refused to defend his crown--represented the USSR. None was better than Garry Kasparov, who became world champion in 1985 at the tender, record-setting age of 22 and held the title until 2000. Widely considered the greatest chess player in modern history, he held the global top ranking for a total of 255 months between 1984 and his retirement in 2005.

Yet Kasparov was never a pliant supporter of the system that produced him--far from it. Born in 1963 to parents who were Jewish and Armenian, two minorities regarded as suspect, and raised in the relatively provincial city of Baku, Azerbaijan, he grew up feeling alienated from the Soviet Union's cultural and political centers in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Because of his chess prowess--which he emphasizes was greatly nurtured by the same government that immiserated and imprisoned so many of his countrymen--he was able to travel abroad for competitions, and he describes youthful trips to France and Germany as nothing short of revelatory. The casual "abundance" of what used to be called "the free world" "just felt different," he says. "I could immediately see the quality of life. ...It was different and it was more natural." Beyond the Iron Curtain, he encountered the anti-communist works of George Orwell and was able to read exiled dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn's suppressed indictments of totalitarianism.

Kasparov joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1984 but was critical of the regime during that decade. In 1990, he joined the Democratic Party of Russia and became increasingly outspoken in favor of human rights, representative democracy, and limited government. In post-Soviet Russia, he used his celebrity and influence to spearhead attempts to build civil society and conduct fair elections, emerging as a leading critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He aborted a run for president in 2007 only after authorities made it impossible for his followers to meet. By the early 2010s, he had been arrested for participating in unauthorized antigovernment demonstrations and was widely believed to be the author of a popular petition demanding Putin's resignation. Today he resides in New York City and Croatia with his wife and two of his children; they cannot return to Russia for fear of persecution.

Kasparov continues to lobby for freedom, in the former Soviet Union and beyond. Since 2011, he has served as the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, an organization that focuses on reform in closed societies such as North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and several former Soviet republics.

In September, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with the chess grandmaster in New York about what it was like to be the beneficiary of a catastrophically failed Soviet system and what lessons the world--especially American democratic socialists--should remember three decades after its collapse.

Reason: Can you describe where you were when you first realized that the Soviet Union was finished for good?

Kasparov: Believe it or not, I cannot recall my whereabouts on December 25, [1991]. The reason for that is probably that I was not surprised. I knew that the Soviet Union was dead long before they lowered the Soviet flag and raised the Russian flag. Somehow, I felt, even in the late 1980s, that the end was near.

I remember speaking in Germany, I think in 1987, for a group of German businessmen, just a chess presentation. They asked me about [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, perestroika, and about the future--whether [the reforms] would last. I stunned them by saying, "Absolutely," because I believed the Soviet Union was moving in one direction. The system just couldn't sustain the pressure of time. So I knew that the whole concept of the Iron Curtain would no longer hold.

I had a few moments like that in the next couple of years, because I always believed that things would go faster. And after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, I was the one who said that reunification of Germany would be in the agenda very soon, while people said, "Oh, no, it's impossible because of the historical memories. And other European nations might be against it." But again, it all happened, because the time was right for the Soviet Union to be gone.

Also, inside of the Soviet Union I had a lot of connections. I was a world champion, and being the chess world champion in the Soviet Union, this would give you not just privileges but a lot of authority. I could speak out and my voice was heard, even though I was young. I became a world champion at age 22 in 1985. In 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, I was just 26. And I was 28 when the Soviet Union collapsed. But I always played chess relying on my intuition. And my intuition kept telling me, "It's over. It's over."

Did the Soviet Union collapse from within or without?

It's a combination of factors. You cannot simply say it's the pressure from within or pressure from outside. It's a combination, but the pressure from outside was a very important factor. [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan's fantasy about "Star Wars" [the American missile defense program formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative] played a significant role in the Soviet Politburo deciding to open up.

If we remember it now, this is what Gorbachev said when he was elected in March 1985. When he talked about perestroika, it was about the military-industrial complex. It was all about matching American technological prowess.

The idea of the Star Wars was like a thorn in the minds of members of the Politburo. That's why Gorbachev desperately tried to convince Reagan to drop it. The real beginning of the democratization could be marked...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT