Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Taking a Stand: Garry Kasparov

BBC Radio 4's Taking a Stand profiles people who have taken risks and made sacrifices to stand up for what they believe in. Presenter Fergal Keane met the Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, to discuss his move into politics.

Kasparov in Moscow
Garry Kasparov says his goal was to make a democratic statement
On first meeting Garry Kasparov I become convinced that our interview will be a difficult encounter.

He does not come across as one of life's warmer souls. There was a perfunctory handshake but not even a glimmer of a smile before he disappeared into another room to prepare himself.

How was it then that an hour later I was the one insisting that yes we had everything we needed for the interview while he offered contact numbers and emails and talked us all the way to the door and beyond?

The answer to the question is the most famous name in modern Russia: Vladimir Putin.

Garry Kasparov was one of the most exalted names in Russia when he made the most fateful decision of his life.

It would lead to him being arrested, beaten and thrown into jail. The mention of Mr Putin's name produces a remarkable transformation from brooding chess genius to a master of rhetorical fury.

"Putin's regime is doomed," he declares. "My country will pay a huge price for having this regime ruin the country, looting it, destroying it."

Life after chess

Mr Kasparov was often spoken of as the greatest chess player of all time but he retired from the game in 2005. At that point he had money and immense prestige and could have enjoyed an easy life.

"I had been thinking about my future, not necessarily political future…I was approaching 40 and I had to think about something where I could make the difference."

BBC RADIO 4: TAKING A STAND
Fergal Keane
Fergal Keane speaks to Garry Kasparov for Taking a Stand on BBC Radio 4
Listen on the BBC iPlayer

His political turning point came in 2004 with the Beslan school massacre when Russian security forces stormed a school where a Chechen gang had taken hundreds of people hostage.

A total of 334 hostages, including 186 children, were killed. Kasparov saw the crisis and its bloody resolution as symbolic of his country's decline.

"Every day of Putin's rule changed my country for worse. And at a certain point I had to make a conscious decision whether I leave my country or I fight... seeing this country, my country brought to misery by this corrupt, inadequate regime was beyond my ability to tolerate. And certain events, of course, contributed to my decisions and the last one was Beslan".

The emerging dissident

Mr Kasparov was not entirely new to politics. As an international chess prodigy in the Soviet era he was one of the regime's gilded youth. He brought honour to his people and could expect to be well rewarded.

Beslan Victims
The Beslan massacre was pivotal in Kasparov's decision to enter politics

But by the time the Soviet Union began to break up he was already known as someone 'unreliable' in his political outlook.

Kasparov had got to know the dissident Andrei Sakharov and mingled with other thinkers and doubters.

"I had no illusions about the future of the Soviet regime. I saw it from inside because chess was a highly politicised game.

"Despite my young age, I was quite experienced already at the end of 80s politically, and I could see the limitations of the Soviet regime and the limitations of Gorbachev's so-called Perestroika."

Mr Kasparov watched the disasters of the Yeltsin era give way to the assertion of an authoritarian state under Putin.


I had no illusions about the future of the Soviet regime. I saw it from inside because chess was a highly politicised game
Garry Kasparov

Last year he made a bid to stand in the presidential election but withdrew as it became clear the outgoing President's supporters would make an effective campaign impossible.

For one thing they prevented him from hiring a venue where he could gather the 500 supporters necessary to nominate him to go forward for election.

"Yeah, I had a signed contract with one of the halls in Moscow and they simply cancelled the contract and my attempts to challenge in the court later on ended up with no result.

"Russian courts didn't see any damage done to me by cancellation, abrupt cancellation with no explanations."

Competing with Putin

The truth is that Vladimir Putin has enough popularity to win elections even without resort to skulduggery. Russians welcome his strong leadership and his willingness to stand up to the West. He has also overseen an economic boom that has helped lift many people out of poverty.

And with control of Russia's state and economic apparatus he is the man the West must do business with.

Mr Kasparov says his goal was to make a democratic statement.

"I don't think we should use the words 'consensus', 'elections', 'political system' because the moment you try to compare Russian situation with what is called politics here in the United Kingdom or in Europe or in the United States, people could be misled.

Vladimir Putin
Russians have welcomed Mr Putin's strong leadership
"We are not trying to win elections; we're trying to have elections."

During our interview he twice refers to Mr Putin in the same breath as Adolf Hitler.

He is not making a direct comparison between the two but instead recalling how Western nations appeased the Nazis in the 1930s.

I put it to him that it is the kind of language that could easily get him into serious trouble at home.

"There are a lot of people... [who] believe that [the] Russian state today is in this dangerous transition to some kind of Fascist regime.

"I don't think that we can easily mark Putin's regime with a label from the past, but it has elements."

Mr Kasparov has been beaten and arrested, and some other opponents and outspoken critics of the Russian leadership over the years have been killed in unexplained circumstances. Is he ever worried about his personal safety?

"If I feel that it's a direct threat, physical threat to my life and the life of my family, I may consider temporary evacuation. But I have to continue because I still have some protection.

"But what about these activists, the people from the middle of nowhere who kept fighting the regime under these terrible circumstances? And if something happens to them, we may not even know in few days before the news hit the Internet."


Fergal Keane's interview with Garry Kasparov was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Taking a Stand. The programme was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 09.00 GMT on Tuesday, 13 January 2009.

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