Garry Kasparov: the greatest Soviet chess champion on the horrible system that created him
Raison‘s December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of this evil empire, and part of our efforts to make sure that the the disastrous consequences of communism are not forgotten.
While the Soviet Union was notoriously incapable of producing durable blue jeans, smoking cigarettes, and cars in the numbers its citizens desired, it was unmatched at producing world-class chess grandmasters. From the end of WWII until the dissolution of the Evil Empire in 1991, all the world champions except one – American Bobby Fischer, who claimed the title in 1972 to a Soviet and won it. surrendered 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 and record age of 22 and held the title until 2000. Widely regarded as the greatest chess player in the world. In modern history, he held the world’s number one spot for a total of 255 months between 1984 and his retirement in 2005.
Yet Kasparov was never a docile supporter of the system that produced him, far from it. Born in 1963 to Jewish and Armenian parents, two minorities considered suspicious, and raised in the relatively provincial city of Baku, Azerbaijan, he grew up feeling alienated from the cultural and political centers of the Soviet Union in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Because of his chess prowess – which, he points out, was greatly nurtured by the same government that miserable and imprisoned so many of his countrymen – he was able to travel abroad for competitions, and he describes his youth trips to France and Germany as nothing short of revealing. The occasional “abundance” of what was once 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 read the totalitarian indictments of exiled dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Kasparov joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1984, but criticized 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 fame and influence to lead attempts to build civil society and hold fair elections, thus becoming one of the main critics of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He aborted his presidential bid in 2007 only after authorities prevented his supporters from meeting. In the early 2010s, he was arrested for participating in unauthorized anti-government protests and was widely regarded as the author of a popular petition demanding Putin’s resignation. Today he resides in New York and Croatia with his wife and two of his children; they cannot return to Russia for fear of persecution.
Kasparov continues to push for freedom, in the former Soviet Union and beyond. Since 2011, he has been president 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, RaisonNick Gillespie spoke with the chess grandmaster in New York City about what it was like to be the beneficiary of a catastrophically failed Soviet system and what lessons the world, especially America’s Democratic Socialists, should learn from three decades after its collapse.