At just 22 years old, Garry Kasparov became a world chess champion. A Russian intellectual and sporting icon, Kasparov played chess up to fifteen moves ahead, even toppling IBM’s super computer Deep Blue in their first of two encounters. Often considered the game’s all-time great, he spent two decades at the top before quitting in 2005 to help lead the democracy movement against Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin. In September 2001, Putin gulled Washington by being the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush and declare his support for Bush’s “war on terror.” Bush later said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw “a good soul.”
Kasparov, however, knew that Putin was wreaking havoc in Chechnya to cement his reign of terror. In 2009, Kasparov, who has long dismissed the fallacy that Putin is legitimately popular in Russia, was jailed for five days for protesting Russia’s 2008 elections, which many nationals believed to be rigged. In his March 2010 Playboy Interview, he noted “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.” Two years later, Kasparov spent another five days in a Russian slammer after being arrested for protesting outside Pussy Riot’s show trial sentencing.
Winter Is Coming, Kasparov’s 2015 book detailing Putin’s rise and his threat, came out in paperback the day Donald Trump was elected. “It took just eight years for Russia to go from jubilant crowds celebrating the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 to the ascendance of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin to the presidency. Then it took Putin another eight years to corrupt or dismantle nearly every democratic element in the country,” reads one sharp, prescient passage. I phoned Kasparov on Thanksgiving Eve at his New York City home, where he has lived in self-imposed exile since 2013. Kasparov, who now chairs the Human Rights Foundation and is known for his brusque charisma and flashes of mordant wit, brought his fierce intellect, intense presence and forceful style as we discussed the fear of a Trump presidency and a Republican-controlled government moving social issues back to the 17th century.
After Trump’s election, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a state-run news agency that “there were contacts” with the Trump team, saying “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage.” Do you believe Russia is responsible for Trump’s election?
The whole story of the rise of Donald Trump is extraordinary. Putin believes that if you’re strong enough and if your opponent is not responding, you can go as far as you want. For Putin, who’s always looking for an opportunity to show his strength and militancy, attacking the American political system was the highest prize of all. Now, President Barack Obama is very much reaping the harvest of his weak foreign policy because Russia tried to demonstrate its political might by attacking the very foundation of American democracy. It’s a fact that Russia definitely helped Donald Trump to be elected by revealing all these emails that were hacked, stolen from John Podesta and the DNC. Maybe Russia went even beyond that.
Extraordinarily, the NSA Director Michael Rogers said that there was “a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.”
I agree that’s extraordinary. You have one of the top security chiefs of the United States pointing at Russia. Clearly it’s Russia. If this is correct, that means it comes as close as one can imagine to a declaration of war. The very mechanism of American democracy—the foundation of power—was in danger by interference of a hostile foreign power. And what did Obama do? Nothing.
Where are the Democrats? I’m surprised Chuck Schumer isn’t demanding a full-scale congressional investigation.
Shouldn’t this be a bipartisan national security issue?
I’m surprised Chuck Schumer isn’t demanding a full-scale congressional investigation. Where are the Democrats? I understand Hillary Clinton’s campaign is demoralised, but still, I want to hear more. It’s quite serious. It’s so amazing that it’s Democrats who were targeted by Putin.
During the election, you described Trump’s links with Putin as “very sinister” and slammed him as Putin’s “perfect agent.”
We could suspect Trump having some kind of ties with Russian oligarchs because we know there was a massive infusion of foreign money to save him from bankruptcy in 2008 and 2009. I believe that’s one of the reasons he hasn’t released his tax returns, which I think is wrong. It’s morally and ethically wrong. The question is, what percentage of his money did come from Russia? Maybe it was an investment, maybe there were other strings attached.
Trump denounced every opportunity to blame Putin and blame Russia for the hacks and attacks on the American electoral system. Even after being briefed by American intelligence, he didn’t want to denounce Putin. For somebody who was inconsistent in almost everything, being so consistent in defending Putin raises my suspicions.
Trump had, for a while, Paul Manafort as his Campaign Manager and Manafort was an agent of Putin’s Ukranian puppet Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort won the Republican Convention, secured Trump’s nomination and crushed #NeverTrump. Again, [I have] questions. But as someone who is always looking for tangible evidence, I understand that it could also be Putin’s belief in Trump. Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, would be the perfect agent of chaos. NATO, the European Union, treaties, agreements—[these are] things that prevent a dictator from going wild. Trump’s deals with Putin could help Putin ruin the institutions that have provided security to Europe and the world. It seems Putin expects Trump to behave like a dealmaker who doesn’t care about values and America’s role as leader of the free world. They’re both egotistical oligarchs.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence recently went to see Hamilton on Broadway in New York, where fellow attendees booed him and the cast addressed him personally. Afterward, Trump intemperately attacked cast members and producers. How did you react to that?
The President-elect of the United States giving a lecture to an actor who just expressed his views on stage?! It’s a free country. If you don’t like it, you walk away. I’m an optimist. I understand Americans want to give Trump a chance: they hope the magnanimity of the office will change his nature. But I have my doubts. So far, the leopard doesn’t change his spots. I worry Trump will shoot down the first amendment.
You sharply defend anti-Trump protestors on your Twitter account saying, “This ‘the protesters are paid by CIA/Soros/Jews’ garbage is the same attack used against us in Russia. And probably by the same people!” What’s your advice to anti-Trump protestors?
There are always similarities between people who are opposing freedom—whether here [in the USA] or there [in Russia], they always look for conspiracies. The normal inclination of free people is to protest if they don’t like something. Protesters should campaign to amend the constitution so presidential elections are decided by the popular vote. The Electoral College is ridiculous. Someone in Ohio doesn’t deserve more of a say than someone in New York.
It seems VP-elect Mike Pence and some fellow Republican social conservatives go along with Trump’s Putin connection as their political voting records share similarities with Putin’s suppression of women, the LGBT community and sexual freedom in general. What do you think?
This is a big problem of the Republican party. Trump lost the popular vote. It’s two million votes that he lost by. The millennial vote clearly shows that the country’s moving into the 21st century. I was always troubled to find my spot in American political life because socially I’m very liberal. But I’m a fiscal conservative, for a strong national defence.
There’s nothing that can be more alien in my eyes than fighting things like abortion rights and minority rights, LGBT rights and other issues on the social front in the 21st century. Those wars are gone. You have to look into the future.
The fact is that some elements of GOP have sympathies to Putin. It tells me they look at the world through a very narrow window. This is the problem: they still have too many people fanatically believing in some ideas. Vladimir Putin doesn’t share their beliefs on other issues. It’s narrow-minded, it’s stupid and it will have bad consequences.
One problem in America is that the two-party system is totally exhausted now. The coalitions are too big and that’s why the Republican Party can find these obscure elements that believe that they can move things back to the 17th century. Obviously, it’s a substantial faction if they can influence elections. It’s quite tragic that you have a considerable portion of the U.S. population still looking to implement the wrong ideals of the past in the future.
Jeff Sessions is Attorney General, Steve Bannon is Chief Strategist, General Michael Flynn, who trousered loot from Putin and Turkish dictator Erdogan, is National Security Adviser. Should we be scared?
Sessions is an elected senator and I respect the institution. I disagree with many of his positions, especially on the social side. I don’t give any legitimacy to Steve Bannon. He’s a different creature. Real danger comes from Bannon and his like. We have reasons to suspect Michael Flynn of playing into Putin’s hands. Though he recently called Putin a thug, maybe he meant that as a compliment? He always admired Putin for being a “strong guy.” Flynn’s totally obsessed with this idea of fighting Islamic terrorism with Russia. Putin did nothing to fight Islamic terrorism. The KGB supported Islamic terrorism during the Soviet days to attack Western influences. Putin didn’t bomb ISIS in Syria. He bombed Assad’s opponents. Maybe some of them are not very good guys, but they are definitely not ISIS. I don’t feel comfortable with Michael Flynn being so close to the President’s ear. I’m worried.
Yes, the Putin regime will fall. The collapse of the regime will lead to the collapse of the country.
In Winter Is Coming, you write about what you’ve coined as “the gravity of past success.” In chess, each victory pulls down the victor slightly and makes it harder to put in maximum effort to improve further. Did this rule apply to Hillary Clinton in 2016?
Absolutely. The way the Clintons stopped campaigning two or three weeks before the Election Day tells you that they were thinking about governing. My mother used to tell me “the game is not over till the clock is stopped.” Hillary Clinton was prematurely talking about cabinet positions. She virtually ignored Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. She could have had Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren campaigning there [until the end]. I didn’t see them there. She believed she would win and didn’t want to have to owe anybody anything. If the Democrats had picked Joe Biden as their nominee, he would have won in a landslide against Trump.
Making the whole Democrat party the hostage of Hillary Clinton was wrong. She was the wrong candidate. She was the candidate of the status quo, with too much baggage from the past. The fact that she lost to Donald Trump shows how weak she was as a candidate.
The last time you spoke to Playboy in 2010, you said, “It’s my nature. I have to fight,” Will you still fight?
Absolutely. I’m fighting for what I believe is right. Defining the image of the future is most important. I understand I’m 53 years old so it’s unlikely I will be the one who will implement the changes. Whether I’m talking about geopolitics and how winter is coming, or the free-market versus socialism, or AI and our role in this new robotic society, I believe that I have the experience, expertise, knowledge and analytical abilities to help people shape this future in their minds.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Do you agree with him?
Absolutely, the past always returns in one form or another. There are periods in which the past even becomes the dominating factor in the present. Right now we are going through a moment like that because we don’t have a vision for the future. With nothing new on the horizon—no serious investment in space travel or deep sea exploration or anything along those lines—we are looking to the past for ideals. Putin, ISIS and the Iranian theocracy share in common that they are effectively reviving values from the past and having such success because they are not being countered by equally powerful forward-looking forces. I think Ronald Reagan put it most concisely when he said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” We are responsible for reaffirming the values we cherish in the present and finding a path for them into the future, because they are always in danger of being brought back into oblivion. As the motto of Soviet dissidents went, “Do what you must, and so be it.”
Critics of the Putin regime like Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litivineko, Boris Nemtsov and many other lesser known names were brutally murdered. As a dissident, does this scare you? In Russia, you walked with armed bodyguards.
I’ve never had security in New York City or anywhere outside of Russia. Of course these things scare me, but I don’t think being fearless is a sign of courage or intellect. The question is how well you control your fear—that’s my definition of bravery. I try not to let it dictate my life and choices. Within reason of course, which is why I don’t travel to Russia nowadays, as that would be a guaranteed one-way ticket.
During an interview, journalist and anti-Putin activist Masha Gessen told me, “I think the tragedy of living in a police state is that it has a way of killing everything, so you get very little variety and there’s a great paucity of cultural conversation and the [ensuing] lack of cultural production.” She left Russia in 2013 because she felt “hopeless.” Do you remain confident that the Putin regime will fall?
Yes, the Putin regime will fall. We know from history the fall of these regimes is always a surprise. My concern is that I could agree with Masha that Russia in its current form has no future. The collapse of the regime will lead to the collapse of the country. I almost guarantee it. How will Russia re-emerge? I don’t know. The longer Putin stays in power, the fewer chances Russia has as a state to survive and play the role that it deserves.
The transition from Putin to whomever replaces him will not be peaceful—which doesn’t mean that we have to stick to Putin because he is the devil we know. The longer he stays in power, the more disruption he will cause to whatever is left of Russian society. Dictators who stay in power too long basically turn their countries into political deserts. And unfortunately animals or trees that can survive in deserts are the most rigid and not the nicest ones.
It’s a problem in the West that very few people understand what it is to live in a police state. Even in the United States, all these things in the Bill of Rights aren’t guaranteed. Maybe this is the big lesson from Trump? People have to be more active in defending their future. Young people need to vote more. Maybe we should see more participation from Silicon Valley. They have immense power. Where are they in this current political turmoil?
What do you hope new readers take away from reading Winter Is Coming, briefly?
Winter Is Coming is a reminder that we must be constantly vigilant and prepared, so winter doesn’t kill us. History doesn’t end.