Soviet Union

Garry Kasparov: From Communism's Last Chess Champion to Freedom Fighter

30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its greatest—and last—chess champion reflects on the awful system that produced him.


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The Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago in part because its government-run economy was incapable of producing the blue jeans, cigarettes, and automobiles that its citizens wanted.

What it was great at was producing champion chess players.

From the end of World War II until the Evil Empire dissolved in 1991, all but one world champion—the American Bobby Fischer—represented the USSR.

None was better than Garry Kasparov, who became world champion in 1985 at the record-setting age of 22. Widely considered the greatest chess player in modern history, he held that title for 15 years.

As a chess prodigy, he traveled abroad for competitions and 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. Beyond the Iron Curtain, he encountered the anti-communist works of George Orwell and was able to read exiled dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's suppressed indictments of totalitarianism.

As the '80s progressed, he publicly questioned the Soviet system. 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 critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. 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.

As chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, Kasparov continues to lobby for freedom in the former Soviet Union and beyond. In September, Reason spoke with the chess grandmaster in New York about what it was like to be the beneficiary of a catastrophically failed system and what lessons the world—especially American democratic socialists—should remember three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Kevin Alexander. Edited by Ian Keyser. Intro and Graphics by Isaac Reese. Production assistance by Regan Taylor.

Music Credit: "Elevation" by Stanley Gurvich via Artlist

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