Soviet Union

Garry Kasparov's Gambit

The greatest chess player in modern history on how the Soviet Union lost to the free world.


Reason'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 that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.

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 anti-government 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 clearly by the end of 1986, after Gorbachev failed in Reykjavik to convince Reagan to drop Star Wars.

Then Gorbachev, after coming back, recognized that they would need to do something to open up the energy of society and do something to make the USSR more competitive. He called [the nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei] Sakharov, who was in the city of Gorky in exile, and brought him back to Moscow. That's the end of 1986.

By the beginning of 1987, we saw the changes in the Politburo. The rise of Alexander Yakovlev, the man who was the real ideologue behind the democratization. And again, I have no doubt that it was the combination of these factors—pressure from outside, but also the inability of the Soviet system to compete against new technologies. They required more engagement of talent, and working the old way didn't help.

Why did Gorbachev decide to open up instead of closing down even more?

Again, they needed to be competitive. The system didn't function well. And they didn't have other alternatives. When people say, "Oh, there was a Chinese alternative," I don't think this suggestion would stand rigorous analysis. China had a massive rural population. It's like a reservoir. They could bring people in. They could rely on these people to form the army, police. The Soviet Union, especially the European part, was urbanized. They needed to find a way to satisfy this population. And it was more and more difficult to keep people misinformed about what's happening in other parts of the world.

Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall in 1989: Were those events widely understood and seen in the Soviet Union?

Absolutely. By that time, the Soviet Union was quite—I wouldn't say free, but it had a lot of press that could go after sacred cows of the communist regime. We followed the news, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a really big event. It was symbolic, but symbolism is a very important part of any dictatorship. It sends a signal all over the place.

I first met [Czech-American film director] Miloš Forman in 1988. It was organized by a Czech grandmaster who wanted us to be introduced to each other. We had dinner in Paris, and Miloš was very skeptical about perestroika and about everything that was happening in the Soviet Union. I was very optimistic. And he kept asking me, "Garry, tell me how you think it could happen. Twenty years ago it was Prague. And before '68 it was Hungary. Didn't work." And I said, "Miloš, I don't know. But I can tell you one day you'll open your window and you'll find out they've gone."

After the collapse of the Czechoslovakian communist regime, one morning, I don't recall where I was in the world, but I got the telephone call. "It's Miloš. You know, Garry, you were right. I opened the window and they've gone."

Then at the very end of 1989, we had the Congress of Soviet Chess Players, which actually was another sign of democratization, just going away from the Soviet Sports Ministry. In the middle of this meeting, we got news from Romania about the revolution. I stopped the meeting, saying, "Now I've got to congratulate the Romanians. They toppled the last communist dictatorship," and it was a big ovation.

So it's about the mood. People didn't want to go with the old regime. The gap between public expectations and the ability of the regime to serve them was too great to close.

Do you remember when Reagan called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire"? Were you kind of like, "He's onto something," or was that a calumny against your country?

The Soviet propaganda did not push the message. It was briefly mentioned, but they did not want Soviet people to actually start chewing on it.

Let's talk about the system that produced you. The Soviet system famously was bad at producing goods like cars or blue jeans, but it did produce chess champions, and it produced you, in particular. You were the world's youngest chess champ at 22. Before we get to the Soviet thing, tell me what it felt like to be 22 years old and to be the best goddamn chess player on the planet.

That was a hilarious moment. Because as you said, chess was a big thing in the Soviet Union. Winning the world title, becoming the world champion, that was like entering the legend. I grew up as a kid reading these books. And for me, it was all about, you know, gods or at least high priests serving the goddess of chess. The fact that I could enter this pantheon, it was just hard to explain.

But I also recognized, after becoming the world champion, that I could actually do something to help my country, because I had my voice to raise. Somehow it's a paradox. The Soviet system always nurtured world champions. The system was proud of it. Chess had huge state support in the Soviet Union, because it was viewed as a very important ideological tool to prove intellectual superiority of the communist regime over the decadent West. So it was very important for the Soviet regime to demonstrate that intellectually, it's way ahead of the rest of the world, because they knew that they couldn't compete in doing cars, or jeans, or producing quality food.

That's why when Bobby Fischer crushed Soviet players and became world champion, that was a moment of panic. And that's how Anatoly Karpov, my opponent, my nemesis, the man I played five world championship matches with, was raised—he was a great talent, but he received phenomenal support from the highest echelons of power, because the Soviet Union needed this title back.

And then he beat Viktor Korchnoi, right? Who was a defector.

Yeah, he beat Korchnoi in '78. He played two matches with Viktor Korchnoi, who had defected, which boosted Karpov's standing as the hero of the system, a soldier of the Communist Party. He was congratulated by [General Secretary Leonid] Brezhnev himself. That turned my match against Karpov as a challenge against the system.

That's also interesting because a lot of people, famous people who rooted for me, they saw the change on the Chess Olympiad in 1985. Garry Kasparov, a half-Armenian, half-Jewish boy from Baku, beating the Russian champion was a sign that change was possible. Again, it's very difficult even just to grasp this moment, but I remember some of them were crying. Famous artists—these are people who just were well known in the country. I had a lot of friends. I was very young, but they treated me as one of their own. And they said, "Wow. It's possible." And I think millions of my fellow citizens shared the same feelings. If Karpov could be toppled by this young kid from Baku, maybe the whole system is no longer invincible.

So when you became a chess champion, you are at the apex of Soviet society. You are a national hero. The messages that you wanted to send—how did you do that? Because we see even today, when somebody like LeBron James or Michael Jordan says something political in America, they get in trouble. What were the messages you were trying to send, and how did you have to do that within the context of the Soviet Union?

Unlike LeBron James, I'm not on the payroll of any dictatorship. I was 22, then 23 in '86. So I was very busy playing matches with Karpov, but I didn't have any political agenda. It was too early to become a dissident. I knew that the system was doomed. It had to change. How? I had not the slightest idea how. I just knew everything was going—it was like a one-way street.

I became more acute with my political statements in '88, '89, when I joined the nascent pro-democracy movement in the Soviet Union. In late '88, I met Andrei Sakharov, actually in Paris. His first trip abroad, because he always lived in secrecy and then was in exile. We met there, and I was truly impressed by his clear-cut ideas about the future. I thought that it was time for me to play a more aggressive role as a role model, because I knew I was somewhat protected by my title. I could speak freely. I could afford more than ordinary citizens, even prominent citizens. I could travel around the world. I was financially independent already.

If I remained silent that would be a bad message to millions of my fellow citizens. If I could speak out, and if I could just—not even with a very clear and articulate message, but something just about the future, about us getting involved—that would send the right message and could encourage them, not maybe all of them, but many, to join the pro-democracy movement. To recognize that, "Wow, our chess world champion is speaking against power abuse of the system, is talking about changes, is talking about democracy, elections. Maybe we should also join." So I knew that that was an important contribution. Again, it sounds very chaotic, because I had no plan. But I always felt that my title and the uniqueness of my position as the chess world champion from the Soviet Union almost forced me into these kinds of confrontations with the regime.

You've talked in the past about how you started to have doubts when you were traveling abroad at age 13. Can you talk about what was it like? Your day-to-day existence in the Soviet Union, was it pleasant? And then you go abroad, and you're like the Buddha, who leaves the family compound and starts to see poverty, old age, and disease? How did you start to realize the world you were living in in the Soviet Union was not the only thing that was possible?

Yeah. If you want parallels with Buddha, it's exactly reversed. Because I saw the other side of the world, the world of copious [riches] and abundance. So it was contrary to the Soviet Union, the world of deficit.

I grew up in a family where I had access to books and information that were not available in public libraries. My father died when I was 7, but his younger brother, my uncle, brought me into these circles of Jewish intelligentsia in Baku. I had my doubts, and I remember having debates with my grandfather, my mother's father, who was a member of the Communist Party since 1971.

He also was a bit concerned about the way things were working in the '70s. He'd spent his life working for the Communist Party and for the state. And he wasn't sure that his life was spent well, because it was not what he expected, not what he believed when he started his life journey. But we still had a lot of debates. We had in our small apartment, in the dining room, a big political map of the world. He was also very political, just having a few Soviet magazines where we could read about foreign politics. And so between these two worlds—my uncle and the Jewish professors, and my grandfather—these ideas were just boiling in my head.

I also had good analytical skills. I could look around. The Soviet Union had many movies already, a few American, but mostly Italian, French. And there was the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, BBC, Deutsche Welle. So I knew about the existence of the other side of the world, but when I could travel at age 13 and return, wow. It sounds so trivial. "OK, big deal. You traveled to France." My 6-year-old son has already traveled to so many countries. He was in France, Estonia, Croatia. And my 15-year-old daughter has already visited half of Europe—she was born in America, of course.

I think in my neighborhood in Baku—and Baku was the fourth-largest city in the Soviet Union after Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev, [with] over a million inhabitants—when I say neighborhood, it's just a very large part of the city. I think I was the only one who visited a capitalist country. I became not a hero but someone unique. "Forget chess. He went to France and he came back." Because to be sent to a capitalist country, I mean, you had to go through so many layers of due diligence. They had to vet you before you were allowed to go. And of course my mother couldn't travel with me, because that was a rule. It's like a hostage rule. The family must stay [behind] to make sure that the talent, by accident, by spontaneous emotional decision, is not asking for political asylum.

Do you remember what it was about France that…?

I could immediately see the quality of life. It's so different. I could see the way people lived. It was different and it was more natural. This world was built on a very different foundation, but it felt right. All of the minor details, from the airport to other places.

In 1980, I was 17. I was already one of the top players, and we flew to Germany. I had to play the under-20 world championship with one of the coaches—not my coach; one of the Soviet chess officials. And I just recently discovered in my mother's archive my diary I wrote at 17. I already had quite an experience traveling, and still I was quite shocked. So it's the effect of the world, of this abundance. I inevitably came to the conclusion that the regime that was so [far] behind the free world would face challenges that it couldn't cope with.

You have talked a lot about how in the Soviet Union there was an ongoing myth of "good Lenin, bad Stalin." How did that filter into your thought, particularly as you got older?

Yeah, it's very important to analyze the stages of Soviet mythology, because every dictatorship is mythology. It's like a religion: Ideology has to be built on cult. It's not just an invention of the Soviet communists. Go back to the early days in every country and you had a propaganda machine, though primitive during revolutionary times, that tried to convince people of certain things that were contrary to their previous beliefs. The Soviet Union started with Lenin and Lenin's cult. Stalin used it. And then after Stalin's death, the Communist Party bosses tried to separate. They were very cautious. They revealed Stalin's role in the big terror, but they always tried to make [those out to be] excesses, to keep the system from criticism.

There were also attempts to rehabilitate Stalin. This is in the late Brezhnev years. There was more [said] about Stalin's role in World War II. But then, during Gorbachev's years, Stalin became the No. 1 target. And they desperately tried to keep Lenin out of that, but it was impossible, because more and more people looked: "Wait a second. The things [are] connected."

The irony is today, in Putin's Russia, the roles are reversed. Stalin is the big hero. Lenin is just ideology; Stalin is a pure cult of power. Putin's dictatorship looks at Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, and those figures of Russian and Soviet history as the role models. Because Stalin at the end of the day just didn't care very much about ideology. Yes, he was a communist leader. But it's power, it's terror, it's spreading the influence, building empire, expanding it. And that resonates very much with the modern Russian dictatorship.

What was it like to encounter the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn? I understand you read those while abroad. What was that like, when you're traveling under the aegis of the Soviet system that produced you and that is paying your bills, and then you're reading this incredible critique of the system?

I read Solzhenitsyn at age 18. I already knew about the existence of his works. They had been, of course, banned in the Soviet Union. But we could hear parts of that on radio, on the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Liberty. You could read some of it as samizdat. But in full, I read it in 1981.

Solzhenitsyn's importance was to demonstrate that it was not about excesses of the system. It was not about bad Stalin. It was about the system itself. It's a system built on terror, on denial of fundamental human rights, on ideology that doesn't stop at anything to promote its most aggressive agenda. And it was a very important contribution to my education. It was like a milestone. And you keep adding things. It's not just Solzhenitsyn. It's a long list of authors not as known, but they helped you to understand that the system was beyond repair. It helped to crystallize my views. And that's why, by the end of the '80s, I knew that I was anti-communist.

These feelings are getting only harder with time, because I'm seeing now the revival of it and I'm terrified to see that many Americans have sympathies toward communism without even understanding what they're talking about.

Can you explore that a little bit more? What sympathies do Americans have with communism?

Communism and socialism are things that America never experienced, but they [have] become popular because people don't recall what happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago. And of course, that was ancient history.

I spoke to many American audiences when I had my book, Winter Is Coming, published [in 2015]. Younger audiences, I think many of them, they couldn't even tell apart the Cold War and the Trojan War. It's just something that belonged to ancient history.

Let me play devil's advocate: There's no question that socialism, both as a concept and as a set of policies, is more popular now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. How would you talk to somebody like AOC—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.)—or another democratic socialist in America, who would say, "You know, what I want is free health care for everybody; what I want is a minimum wage that is $15 or $20; what I want is equal opportunity for all"? How is that like socialism under the Soviet Union? Or what lessons from history are contemporary socialists in America forgetting when they push a progressive agenda?

First of all, I'd like to quote Winston Churchill. There are many quotes, great quotes from this greatest politician of the 20th century, if not all time. "Socialism is the religion of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy."

Let's start with semantics. I don't know whether AOC understands it. Probably she's too young. Maybe she does, but many of the followers do not. Bernie Sanders definitely does. This is not a man who just embraced socialism by accident. Someone who decided to have his honeymoon in the Soviet Union just has a stronger affection to Soviet socialism.

Now, they call themselves "democratic socialists" and pretend that they are like the social democrats in Europe. But the reverse of those words actually makes a great deal of difference. It's very important which one is the noun and which one is the adjective.

So the social democrats in Europe, in Scandinavian countries or in Germany, they are trying to do exactly what you said. They are trying to find some kind of social harmony. We can agree or disagree with their program. Some of them are more on the right, some of them are more on the left, but again, they all act within the limits. It's about improving conditions for individuals within the system, fighting for better deals for working people, and looking for certain social and health benefits.

The moment you reverse the words and say "democratic socialist," the emphasis is on socialism. And the suggestions that came from this far left in America, they go way beyond simple improvements of working conditions or health care benefits. They attack the very foundation of this country, saying this country was built on evil. Bringing together all issues, from environmental to racial issues, and using them. In Britain, for instance, many of these green activists are called "watermelon politicians." They're green on top, red inside.

So I could smell it, that their agenda goes way beyond simple improvements of the conditions for working men and women and offering equal opportunities. There are equal opportunities in this country. The American political system or American economic system, it's not perfect, but nothing is perfect. It still offers more opportunities for people of all races and genders, and coming from all different quarters, than any other country in the world. And the radical suggestions that are being received from the far left, they, in my view, just are aimed at dismantling America as a global factor.

Also, speaking about rights and protecting minorities here, they turned a blind eye to the worst dictators in the world. The same people who are arguing about police brutality in America are willing to close their eyes to the Uyghur genocide or to the narco-state in Venezuela or to slavery that still exists in Africa. And that's a big problem, because it diminishes America's leadership role in the eyes of people like me and millions of others who are just confused that America is now going against itself.

So how do you address the Republican side of that? On the left, people seem to be stupid about history—they haven't learned the lessons of history or they don't understand the continuity between controlling the economy and controlling people. On the right, you have this rise of really stark nativism and of a kind of "America alone" idea. How do you convince those people that immigrants like you are not a threat to the country but are rather its future?

Again, it's historical ignorance. It's just ignoring the fact that America was built by immigrants and always benefited from immigration. But that's not the only sin of the modern Republican Party. The party is still very much beholden to Donald Trump, and they try to turn a blind eye on power abuse during Trump's years.

If we look at both wings of American politics, one could get desperate. You don't know where to go. This country now is forced to choose at every election for the lesser evil. This country that was built on striving for excellence, and all of a sudden, it's "This is bad, but this is worse." The last two elections were just about who's worse. That's a really bad sign. That's how democracy dies, when it's being attacked simultaneously from both sides.

People say, "Oh, Hitler won elections in Germany." He never won elections. His best result was around 38 percent in 1932. But the Communists made nearly 16 percent, which means that the majority of Germans voted against democracy.

Right now, I see that in America. It becomes not even partisanship. It's tribalism. "I belong to this tribe, and whatever happens on the other side, it's bad." And every time that we have a crisis here, you hear people pointing fingers. I wouldn't call it double standards, but it's the purest form of hypocrisy.

When Democrats and the Biden administration, who own this crisis in Afghanistan, point at Trump, it's hypocrisy: You were in charge. But then the Republicans say, "[Joe] Biden blew it up," ignoring the fact that Trump signed the deal with the Taliban. And we can look at every complaint [this way] now. Trump was in office and you saw outcries on the left, "Oh, executive orders, terrible. How can he do that?" Biden comes into office and the same people demand, "Now you have to sign everything. Undo Trump's executive orders." That's not the way to move forward.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. The full video version can be viewed here.