Tuesday, November 6, 2007


He could still be down on the board. Garry Kasparov, the Azerbaijan-born and Russian-raised grandmaster could still be living out his life on the chessboard, where he was better than anyone, ever. He could lose the long hours of a Moscow winter to slashing bishops and sliding castles.

Or he could be in Manhattan, drinking imported anything and chatting away nights with the smart and stylish and elite, occasionally popping his head up to toss an Op-Ed hand grenade at the Kremlin in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

Kasparov, 44, rich and brilliant beyond our imagination, could live the rest of his days in the fantasy life of chess of the real-life fantasy of the idle rich. Or he could, like most Russians, just close his eyes and shut his damn mouth.

Instead Garry Kasparov, a man who did not take losing well and lost rarely, a man who always thought he could make that one move to swing the game in his favor, is going to run for president of Russia. And he's going to lose.

. . .

Seven in 10, or so it's said. Polls say that 70 per cent of Russians are in support of their current president, Vladimir Putin, whose term is due to end in March of 2008. It is likely that those same seven in 10 would support Putin to stay in office another four years, if not forty.

My introduction to Putin, the first story I'd heard of him after he was elected president, is a funny one. Bob Kraft, owner of the NFL's New England Patriots, was meeting with Putin. At a photo op, Putin asked to look at Kraft's Super Bowl ring. Kraft slid it off his finger and handed it to Putin, who admired it for a few moments, smiling. In full view of the camera, Putin dropped Craft's ring into his pocket.

The media ate it up, and Kraft later tried to stamp out any controversy by insisting that the ring was "a gift." With what I now know about Putin, perhaps he offered Craft a gift in exchange: I keep the ring, you keep your finger.

Putin, an ex-K.G.B. agent who had been Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, was pitched as a stoic pragmatist on his way into office. On his way out he should be cast as a power-hungry thug.

Under his rule Russians have lost the right to elect their regional governors, and Moscow and St. Petersburg no longer get to elect their mayors. Both of those duties are now carried out by the Kremlin. In the December elections for the Duma-–Russia's parliament–-citizens will now have to vote for parties and not individuals. Putin's party, United Russia, will undoubtedly crush all others and assume a near-unanimity, with a few token liberals thrown in just to satisfy some silly little document called the Russian Constitution. And in case they don't win, Putin is now handcuffing the efforts of an international election oversight group. I think the next step here is Putin counting the votes himself and announcing the winners. And what better place to announce them than his own media outlets: the Kremlin now controls the major newspapers and television stations.

Russian billionaires who've mistakenly thought they were powerful enough to criticize Putin have been forced to sell their companies, and some have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges. As one former staffer spins it, "Putin is no enemy of free speech--he simply finds absurd the idea that somebody has the right to criticize him publicly."

So, too, do his cops. They have a habit of pulling over motorists for no particular reason, and allowing them to go when they offer a bribe. Kirill Formanchuck decided to start filming his interactions with police. For his trouble, he was thrown in jail, where he says a few men, unprovoked, beat him. He believes he was beaten by policemen; true or not, supervising cops were in no hurry to help. Now Formanchuk is in a hospital with a swollen face and injuries to his brain and skull. He got off easy.

Since 2000, more than a dozen journalists and Putin critics have been murdered in the most professional of manners. Notable among the dead are Anna Politkovskaya, the subversive and talented reporter who was about to publish another article in her series about Russian brutality in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was murdered in cold blood, three in the chest and one in the head, last October.

A month later, Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-K.G.B. man living in London, was poisoned with the rare and highly toxic substance polonium. Litvinenko was a critic and conspiracy theorist to the extreme, accusing Putin of everything from hired killings to pedophilia. On his deathbed, he dictated a note that referred to his killer as "You" until the second to last line. "You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

Justice in these matters has been slow and uninspired. In Politkovskaya's case, 10 men were arrested in July of this year, among them a former officer in the F.S.B., the modern K.G.B. The Kremlin asserted that it had nothing to do with the killing, and that it had in fact been carried out by its enemies just to hurt Russia’s reputation. And if you believe that explanation, I have a distant relative in Nigeria who needs your help. Meanwhile, Russia has refused to extradite Andrei Lugovi, British investigators' prime suspect in the Litvinenko killing.

Of course I would never accuse Putin of being involved in these cases. Not to his face. But the president's brutality has not just come in the form of gloved hands and silenced pistols. Chechnya, the fingernail-sized region in the southwest corner of Russia, declared its independence in 1991. It was punished by a Russian invasion. The Chechens fought bravely, and finally in 1996 Russia withdrew. Left to their own devices Chechnya's new leaders did little to help the public, but, thoughtfully, allowed a radical and militant brand of Islam to prosper.

As prime minister, Putin was the driving force in Russia's re-invasion, which began in 1999 and didn’t last long. The Russian military’s actions were either sloppy or criminal: civilian houses were obliterated, entire villages wiped out. In 2000, the newly-elected president Putin decided that tens or hundreds of thousands of dead Chechens--depending who you ask--was enough, and declared "victory." The legacy of Chechnya was an occupying force of Russian soldiers, a puppet government with Putin holding the strings and a bunch of angry and armed insurgents. (See: IRAQ, U.S. INVASION OF.)

The Russian soldiers are still in Chechnya, some of them accused of atrocities against civilians; the Kremlin-friendly president was assassinated in 2004; the surviving Chechen militants have pursued a ruthless brand of terrorism in Russia. Putin's security forces have not helped.

In 2002 a Chechen group held hundreds of Russians hostage in a Moscow theater. Putin's elite soldiers, his best and his brightest, killed 129 hostages when they decided to fill the theater with poison gas. Then 2004 Chechen terrorists held about 1,100 Russians hostage in a school, many of them women and children. First Russian officials lied that only 354 hostages were in the school. With hostages still inside--indeed, being held up to windows as human shields--a Russian tank fired mortar shells into the school. (Go ahead, read that one again.) In total, 331 hostages died, 186 children among them, and an unknown number of terrorists escaped.

Putin counts among his friends Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust denier and lunatic-about-town who calls the shots in Iran. Putin seems to be on the short list of people who want Ahmadinejad to go nuclear.

When the U.S. was fiddling around with its useless missile defense system, Putin pulled out of a treaty that would limit the number of troops Russia can pool at its European border. (To which I would say, "I wonder what you’re going to do with those troops, Mr. Putin.") He also floated the idea of aiming a new group of missiles at various European targets. (To which I would say, "My, what big teeth you have grandma.") We're not in another Cold War, but I believe we've just dipped below room temperature.

Bogus elections, state-owned media, critics imprisoned and murdered, bad cops, bad soldiers, dangerous friends and a certain enthusiasm for starting World War III. Will the three in 10 Russians that don't like Putin please mention something to the seven that do?

You wanna' know how great it is in Russia? The country has a negative population growth. You know, like North Dakota. For Christ's sake, Botswana is growing.

One of the two things that Putin's got going for him are his predecessors. Mikhail Gorbachev's crowning achievement was allowing people to say "glasnost" and "perestroika" without going directly to a Siberian prison, and letting a wall be torn down in Berlin. (Which, honestly, he couldn't even see from his office.) Other than that, he was about as progressive as his birthmark was attractive.

Then came Boris "Don't light a match near my drink" Yeltsin. Putin's unwavering eyes and unflushed cheeks suggest a certain--how do I phrase this?--sobering lucidity that just may not have been there with Yeltsin.

Putin's other great advantage is that Russia has oil. A lot of it. For years, the country's best-known exports were vodka, sexpot blonde tennis players and furry hats. Now, Russia produces nine million barrels of oil a day, many of which are then scattered across Europe, sold at a high price.

And in terms of price, oil is now approaching the black truffle range. But I'm not sure that any president should get much credit for oil. Putin had nothing to do with the deaths of wooly mammoths that expired in Siberia a million years ago and now go for $96-a-barrel. (Although, I'm sure he could have made a few calls.)

The one thing even I must give him credit for is, unlike Hugo Chavez in Venezuala, Putin is saving and not spending the money. Russia has piled up $413 billion in the last few years. If you're an economist or a foreign investor, this kind of piggybank for a rainy day thinking comforts you. But if you're like me, and you consider Putin to be unfriendly-to-hostile depending which day you catch him, you might begin to imagine the worst that someone could do with $413 billion.

Unless he rewrites the constitution, which he might, or invokes some obscure loophole--which he might--officially, Putin's regime ends next March. Realistically, he has no desire to give up the centralized Russian government. He built it up, and he still wants to use it. The purpose of power is power.

He'll probably hand-pick a successor from his inner circle, and that guy will win in a landslide. Putin will take a position, perhaps going back to prime minister, that gives him a direct phoneline to the president's office and a nice salary. There will be no balance to the central Russian government, no check on its power. Except for the name on the door, nothing will change.

. . .

Sometimes when an athlete reaches a certain level of success, they'll walk away from their sport and try out something different. There are exceptions, but usually the results are disastrous. This unfortunate impulse is to blame for Michael Jordan's baseball career, Magic Johnson's talk show, and Carl Lewis, national anthem warbler.

But Garry Kasparov, politician, is no whim. He's been obsessed with politics since the mid-80s, when he first started speaking out against the government. His 1985 victory over Anotoly Karpov was seen as a landmark meeting of Russia's Communist past and its democratic future, and Kasparov embraced this representation. (As far as symbols for Soviet strength, Karpov ranked right above the hammer and a few notches below the sickle.)

Kasparov is also not new to the state of affairs in today's Russia. He has for some time taken an active role in the Other Russia, the wide-ranging and young political party that seeks to get everyone opposed to Putin under one big tent. Besides, Kasparov did not choose to run; he was chosen, and in resounding fashion, by the Other Russia delegates in late September. So now he's running, and running right into the teeth of the Kremlin.

He's saying, and has been saying, the kinds of things about Putin that have made other people disappear. He says these things knowing that the next time he looks out his peephole he may be looking into the chamber of a loaded gun, that his next restaurant meal could be the corned beef and polonium on rye. Oleg Kalugin, Putin's boss from his time at the K.G.B., said, "I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about something terrible happening to (Kasparov)."

Though supporters might call him an idealist, critics have cast Kasparov as foolish, putting himself and his family in danger. So how smart is Garry Kasparov? The answer to that question could begin and end with the oft-told story of a six year old Garry solving a chess endgame puzzle in a newspaper. . .before he knew how to play chess. But I'll offer another one.

While researching a profile on Garry, a New York Times reporter told a bystander that he met Kasparov when the writer's son earned a draw with the grandmaster during an exhibition two years earlier. Hearing this, Kasparov counted off the first 20 moves of that game. That's some Rainman shit.

But his intellect includes both the depth of memory and the breadth of curiosity. He loves soccer, literature, and, of course, politics, and can and will discuss nearly anything at length.

In some cases brilliance spins its owner deeper and deeper into his own mind, burning off things like logic and compassion along the way. (See: FISCHER, BOBBY.) But Kasparov's genius is more extroverted, more accessible. As it was with chess, his politics are refined over coffee with friends, not just in a meeting between his own neurons.


"I am the raider, the soldier that uses a parachute and attacks the back of a front."
- Garry Kasparov, 1990

It's called check.

In chess, the final move, the culmination of all the ones before it, is called checkmate. The king is trapped, endangered where he stands and with no move that would save him. But before checkmate comes check. It simply means that the king is exposed. Some piece has him in his sights and the king or one of his subjects must make a move that will protect him. Check announces that one player is attacking and the other is defending.

Garry Kasparov, the grandmaster, thrived against defensive players. He was aggressive on the attack and aggressive on the defense. So when he organized a protest march through St. Petersburg in March of this year, he would have recognized the strategy. In its preparation for the march, Russian police drew back to surround the governor's office. Typical, thought Kasparov: "They protect themselves." As a player he'd have attacked without mercy and left wooden figures and another man's pride in his wake. As a politician he led 5,000 protestors into the heart of the city, where 130 of them were arrested.

There are no moves that will make Kasparov become Russia's next president. There is no checkmate scenario. There is no positive endgame. Kasparov will run on principal, and he will lose on principal.

But there will come that moment. This is Kasparov, after all. I know it will come. He'll shuffle here and slide there, positional actions that won't merit attention until they've built to the final move. Kasprov will make eye contact with the king and match Putin's cold stare with one of his own. Check.

(Notes: This column was informed largely by two great pieces. David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote a great story on the build-up to Kasparov's run, and C.J. Chivers’ award-winning and heart-stopping account of Russian hostages in The School, which first appeared in Esquire magazine.)