Cover of book: Winter Is Coming

Garry Kasparov
Winter Is Coming

Garry Kasparov, son of a Russian Jewish father and Armenian mother, emerged from the Caspian Sea city of Baku as a chess prodigy to become world champion in 1985, at 22 the youngest to have won that title. He stayed at the top of the game for nearly 20 years until his retirement, a dominance challenged in 1996 when he was beaten in a match with an IBM supercomputer known as Deep Blue. 

His post-chess career in politics has brought him up against another cold intelligence: Vladimir Putin. “I had the feeling of sitting down to a chess game in progress, with my side facing checkmate in every variation,” Kasparov writes. 

Kasparov says his book’s bleak title is a warning. Putin is a monster who feeds on weakness, and the Western world has been too unwilling to recognise the threat he is.

The former KGB agent in East Germany was an obscure functionary in the 1990s, until August 1999 when, following a bloody raid by Chechen separatists into neighbouring Dagestan, the ailing Yeltsin installed him as prime minister with a mission to get tough. The following month, massive explosions destroyed four apartment blocks in Russian cities, killing about 300 people and instigating public outrage, which supported Putin’s launch of a new war in Chechnya. Yet an apparent fifth bombing attempt, in a city called Ryazan, almost disrupted the narrative. Local police found its perpetrators linked to the FSB, a successor security service to the KGB. When Hitler’s goons staged the burning of the Reichstag, at least the building was empty. 

Yeltsin abruptly resigned on December 31, 1999, and made Putin acting president – the real millennium glitch, it turns out. 

Putin set about eliminating the risk of removal. First went media tycoons Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, their assets seized and themselves chased into exile, for daring to show Putin’s callous reaction to the sinking of the submarine Kursk. Mikhail Khodorkovsky stayed to fight Putin, and ended up imprisoned in Siberia for 10 years while his oil and gas empire Yukos was sequestered.

If these oligarchs had looted the public assets of the Soviet Union under Yeltsin, it was not as if Putin was reforming the system, just putting it into trusted hands. As commentator Andrei Piontkovsky says, Putinism was “the highest and final stage of bandit capitalism”. When Putin came to power in 2000, Russia had no billionaires on the Forbes list. By the time his first presidency ended in 2008 it had 87, more than Germany and Japan combined. “Russia’s biggest export was corruption, not oil or gas,” Kasparov writes. “Putin’s oligarchs invited foreign investors and companies to partake in sweetheart deals in Russia and cleaned their money in London and New York IPOs [company floats] with the help of eager Western banks and politicians looking for a cut.”

Along the way were two more acts of Chechen terror, suspiciously aggravated. The siege of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre in 2002 ended when security forces stormed in, killing all the Chechens while 130 hostages died from a mysterious disabling gas. 

In 2004 at Beslan, other Chechens took more than 1100 hostages in a school auditorium. Would-be negotiators were turned away, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was slipped a poison en route that nearly killed her. The building caught fire and collapsed, killing a reported 334 inside, including 186 children, and injuring 700 others. A flame-thrower and grenades, fired from nearby buildings, started the fire.

Two weeks later Putin announced the 83 regional governors would henceforth be appointed by him, not directly elected, while Duma members would be appointed from party lists rather than being individually elected, and restrictions were put on foreign funding of civil society groups. He brought back the Soviet national anthem, albeit with different words, and reinstalled busts of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Soviet state terror. In 2008, he made Dmitry Medvedev his dummy president, to get around the two-term limit, before taking the job back in 2012.

Those critics who did try to run against him, such as Kasparov, found they got no media coverage and could not hire venues for meetings. Others got jailed on spurious charges: the punk rockers Pussy Riot in 2012, the “data dissident” Alexei Navalny in 2013. The really troublesome ones just got killed: Politkovskaya gunned down in her apartment lobby, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko poisoned with polonium-210 in London, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov shot in the back outside the Kremlin.

Kasparov is scornful of Western leaders taken in by Putin, such as George W. Bush, who declared: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy ... I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The Obama years he dismisses as constant appeasement. Putin is adept at offering something − nuclear arms limitation, help with the Iran nuclear deal, and now a Syrian political solution − to get the West to avert eyes from what he’s doing in Georgia and Ukraine, and shrink from hard military responses. Kasparov thinks a John McCain presidency would have put Putin on the backfoot.

This has made Kasparov a darling of the US right, as columnist in The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation speaker, though in his conclusion he appears almost liberal in advocating spending on education as well as the use of arms to fight despotism abroad, and his first tool against Putin would be targeted individual financial sanctions against members of his “KGB Inc” to deny them havens for their looted fortunes. In 2012 the US congress passed a law, named for murdered lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, to do just that, but it’s been diffidently applied by the Obama administration.

The focus and aggression Kasparov showed at the chess table, and in his disputes with chess administrators, is evident in this strident polemic. It will strike many readers as “unrealistic” to expect democracies to gear up for military confrontation and regime change any way other than reluctantly when softer methods, such as an engineered oil price collapse, might clip Putin’s wings. But maybe that’s naive, and winter is coming.  JF

Atlantic, 384pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 5, 2015 as "Garry Kasparov, Winter Is Coming".

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Reviewer: JF

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