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«Winter Is Coming», Garry Kasparov

Well before the Wall came down, it was clear to many of us on the «wrong» side of the Iron Curtain that major changes were inevitable. We had no idea what shape they would take, or where they would begin, but it was quite a novel experience for most Soviets to talk seriously and openly about anything to do with political transformation or a new direction for the country. And we weren’t sure if the democratic reforms were real or simply a «one party democracy» distraction to help Gorbachev shore up power against the Soviet old guard and to buy time for his failing economy. People in the street talked about the ethnic violence that was already accompanying many of the republics’ independence movements. We wondered whether or not millions of people would starve before economic reforms finally took place.

On March 26, 1989, the USSR held its first real election since its formation in 1922. The newly created Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union was intended to put a democratic face on the Supreme Soviet, the body that still held the real power. But the Communist Party only won 85 percent of the seats (instead of the usual 99.9 percent), and among the independent insurgents was Boris Yeltsin, who won the Moscow district overwhelmingly over Gorbachev’s candidate.

Ironically, the USSR’s limited experiments with democracy had their greatest early impact outside of the Soviet Union, in Poland. The sight of an actual election in the USSR, however sloppy and superficial, provided the Poles with the impetus for their own much more comprehensive experiment. Instead of adopting Gorbachev’s dreamed of socialist reform, Poland overthrew its Communist masters completely and the rest of the Warsaw Pact nations quickly followed Poland’s example.

The current despots of many former Soviet states lived through and understand the dangers of the free speech «cracks in the wall» dilemma and have worked very hard to avoid it in their own nations. Putin and other ex-Soviet autocracies view what happened in Gorbachev’s regime as a negative case study. This is why they react so harshly against political criticism on a tiny blog or a single protester holding a sign.

Modern dictatorships have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. They know that explosive energy will build unless there is a release valve. So they’ve created space for a strange kind of controlled dissent. The Echo of Moscow radio station and website are permitted to broadcast and publish material critical of Putin while smaller and less compliant outlets for dissent like my Kasparov.ru news service are banished from the Russian Internet. I was the chairman of Echo from 1991 to 1996, when it was independent. Now, while it still maintains an opposition character, it is owned by the media arm of state energy giant Gazprom and operates knowing it can be shuttered at any moment.

Similarly, protest rallies can be registered and may take place, but organizers and participants may still find themselves prosecuted. It’s all part of the elaborate modern ballet of pseudo-democracy and pseudo-choice that also includes elections with predetermined outcomes and every television channel with a slightly different position on how very well Putin is handling everything.

The «color revolutions» associated with the pro-democracy movements in Georgia in 2003 (Rose) and Ukraine in 2004 (Orange) also provoke fear among the autocrats, who take preemptive countermeasures against youth movements, NGOs with foreign connections, and seemingly minor platforms for free speech like indie radio stations. But it is the Soviet experience that truly scarred Putin and the rest and that continues to shape their worldview and their behavior. And it is only my own experience as a Soviet and Russian citizen that allows me to understand Putin’s moves and motivations.

It is very difficult to describe life in a Communist state to those who never lived in one. The human spirit is a resilient creature and tends to adjust to circumstances as best it can so as not to lose all hope. There is also a solidarity in deprivation, which is why stories of the affluent West had such subversive power in the USSR. It is much harder to maintain stoicism in the face of adversity when you find out your neighbors are doing much better than you are. That is human nature, the underpinning of free-market consumer capitalism, and why Communism was, and remains, such a perverse and alien thing.

In the summer of 1989, at the time of the Playboy interview, my own audacity was a product of youth, success, travel, and a life spent a healthy distance from Moscow. I turned twenty-six that year and had been the world chess champion since 1985. I was a national sports hero in the chess-crazed USSR and was still living in my hometown of Baku, Azerbaijan, one of the trans Caucasian republics along with Armenia and Georgia that make up the furthest-flung points of the far-flung Soviet empire. (As I like to joke when speaking in the United States, I was born in the Deep South, right next to Georgia.) Jutting out into the Caspian Sea twelve hundred miles from Moscow, Baku felt like the distant colonial outpost it was.

From there, from my training camp on the sea speaking to the interviewer, I had the confidence to say:

Everyone has the same kind of normal human aspirations. There may be two political spheres in the world today, but normal lifestyle exists in only one of them—and that is not here in the Soviet Union. Life here is what I could call a distortion of normal life. It’s like living in a house of mirrors. Well, the only way out is to smash those mirrors. For years, I had the feeling that something was wrong around us here in the Soviet Union; when I traveled in the West, the feeling only got stronger. I am looking for the same thing that everyone else is: a normal life, where a person can live well and express himself well. It’s very important for me to try to bring the normal life to my people. The daylight.

I am proud of those words today, since they show I have been consistent in my fight. Twenty-six years later I am still devoted to bringing «the normal life» to those living in the house of mirrors of dictatorship. The tragedy is that this fight is still necessary in Russia, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There were plenty of myths and misunderstandings about the dissolution of the USSR at the time, but this was to be expected. The same Western experts, politicians, and pundits who failed to foresee the fall of the Berlin Wall until Germans were streaming across the border were also blind to how quickly the forces Gorbachev unleashed with his reforms would spin out of his control.

My fame and outspoken nature frequently afforded me the opportunity to discuss politics with people far above my «rating» in the field. I was always surprised by how much they overestimated the stability of Communism in Europe and of the USSR itself. It was as if they had forgotten that a wall built by human hands could be torn down by those same hands.

A few cases stand out in my mind. In October 1989, I attended a party where I discussed the future of Europe with Henry Kissinger and Jonathan Bush, the then-president’s brother. They laughed and only humored me a little when I said there wouldn’t be any Communist regimes left in Europe by the end of the year. They could tell I was just a typical young know-it-all, basing my wild opinions on optimism and the smell of change in the air instead of years of scholarship and analysis. And maybe they were right, but so was I.

Early in 1990, after a promising meeting with the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal that led to lasting cooperation, editor Bob Bartley got me an invitation to speak at the RAND Corporation in Los Angeles. There, the head of RAND said I should meet his friend Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s national security advisor and a veteran hand, having held the same post under President Ford in the seventies. At that White House meeting I also met Condoleezza Rice, a Russia expert who was then the director of the Soviet desk at the National Security Council.

They asked me about Boris Yeltsin, who had become Gorbachev’s main critic and rival in Russia. They called Yeltsin a loose cannon and a drunkard, and I could only reply by asking if they wanted to hear about his character or his political future. It shocked me that these experts seemed completely unfamiliar with the political terrain in Russia, where Yeltsin was clearly rising and Gorbachev was flailing and falling. It was clear they only spoke to their good friend Gorbachev and other people inside the Kremlin—after all, that’s where the power and the nuclear weapons were.

I did a better job holding my tongue in this more formal encounter, but I was amazed at how calm and oblivious they seemed to be about what I was sure was a tidal wave of change coming in Eastern Europe and the USSR. They were far more interested in the mechanics of Gorbachev’s reform proposals than the fact that everybody in the streets from Berlin to Vladivostok now felt willing and able to complain openly about their political leaders. I told Scowcroft that Yeltsin was sure to be elected to lead the Russian Supreme Soviet in May, and that he would use this mandate to continue to challenge Gorbachev. I don’t think he believed me, and I understood he and the White House were more concerned about keeping a good relationship with Gorbachev than anything else.

The focus on the Kremlin and Gorbachev’s concerns meant overlooking the broadly destabilizing impact of Yeltsin’s battle of «Russia versus the USSR,» as Scowcroft admits in the 1998 book he wrote with President Bush. «In retrospect, when Yeltsin started to reject the authority of the Union and the Party and to reassert Russian political and economic control over the republic’s own affairs, he was attacking the very basis of the Soviet state, shaking its political structure to the roots.» Exactly so, and he was successful. Not bad for a loose cannon!

In April 1990, in a car ride across the French countryside, I told an interviewer, Fred Waitzkin, who would go on to become a biographer, «Communism is dead. Next year, in 1991, the Soviet Union will not exist. Definitely. Mark my words. Next year, there will be no more evil empire. We will have private property in my country. Many of the republics will have their independence.» When he recounts this conversation in his book Mortal Games, Waitzkin adds that to him my predictions seemed «gratuitous, even frivolous» because they were so out of touch with the conventional wisdom of the day.

I suppose it was around this time that I began to develop an immunity to the rolled eyes and raised eyebrows of interviewers, experts, and politicians, an immunity that continues to serve me well today. My track record certainly isn’t 100 percent, but I would rather speak my mind than censor myself because of what others may think of me, especially about important topics. I had no qualms about shouting about the eminent death of Communism and the need for the West to press harder for democratic reform in the USSR every chance I got.

I was particularly enraged about how Gorbachev was treated like a champion of freedom in Western Europe and America when, as I said to Waitzkin that night in France, «Gorbachev has succeeded in convincing the West that his is the fight of a decent man for a better future. This is a lie. He is the last leader of the Communist state, trying to save everything he can.»

This was indeed the case, and remains so today, despite a Nobel Peace Prize and over two decades of Gorbachev’s revisionist spin. But I also had personal reasons for my hostility toward the man who became the first and last president of the Soviet Union.

Tensions have always been high between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but the wide scale of interethnic violence was unprecedented in Soviet times. As the regional independence movements gained momentum, protests and violent rhetoric also increased. Soviet hegemony kept conflict between the two territories at a standstill, but when Moscow turned a blind eye the region erupted both politically and in violence. A pogrom against Armenians in Sumgait in February was followed by two years of feuding and Armenian emigration. As would happen in Baku, the official Kremlin response was muted and then, when violence started, very late to arrive with force. As one writer darkly joked at the time, British forces got to the Falklands faster than police and troops arrived in Sumgait.

In 1988, the Armenian population of my home city of Baku was around a quarter million. By January 1990, the only remaining Armenians in Baku were mostly mixed families, including my own. Violence erupted in the city and for seven long days and nights, groups calling for the expulsion of all Armenians from Baku terrorized the city and its surroundings. Over a hundred people were killed and close to a thousand were injured. I was fortunate enough to be able to charter a plane and help family and friends and as many others as possible to escape under the cover of night.

It was an entirely preventable tragedy. Eleven thousand Soviet interior troops were stationed in the city, but they were not ordered to intervene. It wasn’t until nearly a week after the attackers had run out of targets that General Alexander Lebed brought the Soviet troops in and martial law was established. By that point, almost all of Baku’s remaining fifty thousand Armenians had fled. It is impossible to imagine that the attacks could have been so efficiently targeted in a city the size of Baku without comprehensive inside information and coordination.

I believe Gorbachev wanted the outbreaks of violence to consolidate direct control over these hot spots in the Soviet empire. He let the violence run its course, then he sent in the troops to crack down on everyone and to install leaders loyal to Moscow by force. The Baku pogrom led to my only meeting with Gorbachev, in the Kremlin a few days after Lebed’s army entered Baku on January 20. I wanted to talk about the 120 people who had been murdered and the tens of thousands who had been displaced. What was he going to do about the unfolding military confrontation between Azeris and Armenians? But Gorbachev ignored this line of discussion and kept asking me who should become the new first secretary of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan.

I continued to do what I could to help draw attention to what was happening in the USSR. I announced I would sell the winner’s trophy of my 1990 world championship match with Karpov if I won and would use the money to create a fund for Armenian refugees from Baku, which I did. It came out to around ten million rubles, $300,000 at the time. My mother and I basically ran this fund out of our home in Moscow, putting me in personal contact with countless refugees. Their painful stories hardened my antipathy for Gorbachev.

An earlier incident around that 1990 match, my fifth match in a row against Karpov and split between Lyon and New York, revolved around which flag was going to appear next to my name during the games, the Soviet hammer and sickle or the revived prerevolutionary Russian tricolor. This may sound incredibly trivial, I admit. But to me, and to a Soviet culture obsessed with symbols, politics, and chess, it was a big deal. The Soviet Union would still exist for well over a year and the match organizers in New York were very worried about politicizing the event or upsetting the Soviet authorities. After all, this wasn’t a Rocky movie with an American underdog; it was two Russians. (As Americans in particular tended to call all Soviets, however inaccurate it often was. American world champion Bobby Fischer once boasted he was going to «beat all the Russians» at a tournament, when in fact his opponents were Estonian, Latvian, and Armenian!)

Of course politicizing the match was what I wanted and I stuck to my demand and got my wish, for a while. After four games, both flags were removed from the table due to protests from the Soviet delegation. I switched to wearing a prominent Russian-flag pin for the rest of the match. As much as I loved chess and as much as chess had done for me, I had always known that there were more important things in life. I was lucky that my «disloyalty» to the chess goddess Caissa rarely cost me as dearly at the chessboard as it might have. Despite the trauma of Baku and the distractions of Russian politics taking up so much of the time I should have been preparing for Karpov, I managed to edge out another world championship victory. And I did it representing to the white, blue, and red flag of democracy and rebellion.

Even the Western critics who admit Gorbachev never desired the end of Communism or the USSR give him credit for «not sending in the tanks» as the Iron Curtain unraveled and the Soviet republics spun off from Moscow like water off a top. I will deny Gorbachev even this small point of honor, however. First off, he did use military force in several places, especially the Baltics. Yes, he could have ordered Soviet troops to shut down elections, arrest opposition leaders, and fire on protestors. But would they have listened? Even had some of them obeyed Moscow’s orders and massacred thousands, it would have sealed Gorbachev’s own violent end—and he was nothing if not a survivor.