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 handpicked 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 thederailment 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 see 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 young 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'état.
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.