Erasing Kasparov

Article excerpt

Byline: Masha Gessen

A dozen middle-aged men sit around a U-shaped conference table in a converted apartment in central Moscow.

It is April 2012. Bloggers, magazine editors, activist academics, and one world champion of chess, they are the men behind the scenes of the Russian protest movement (there are women, too, but this evening they happen to be absent). They do not look nearly as young, feisty, and hipsterish as the world's media have painted them; they look tired and dispirited and lost. This is because they have no idea what happens next. Vladimir Putin is about to be inaugurated as Russia's president again, after winning an election widely regarded in Russia as rigged entirely in his favor, and the prospect of another six years of President Putin--perhaps even 12--has put a chill on the protest movement and, it seems, on the country as a whole. Three different groups within the protest movement have scheduled three different protests, and no one in the room has any idea whether any of the tens of thousands of people who took part in the winter's protests will come out again.

"The Facebook events are barely getting any hits," says a magazine editor.

"Back in the winter, we were riding a wave, and this is different," says another.

"If we are going to cancel any of these protests, we need to make the decision today," says a blogger.

This is when they all look at the chess champion. Wearing a sport coat and American-style trousers, Garry Kasparov looks like a businessman who has come home from work and fallen asleep at the dinner table. Or perhaps like a chess player who has closed his eyes while he contemplates his next move. He lifts his eyelids and takes a straw poll. None of the protests are canceled, which says more about the men's indecision than about their intransigence.

"We are engaged in a psychological duel right now," Kasparov will tell me after the meeting. "The regime wants to show that the huge protests in the winter were a fluke, and we need to show that things will never be the same again. We are not going to be able to get rid of Putin right now, but at this point it's only a matter of time."

How much time? A couple of years at least, claims Kasparov. How will it happen? There is no telling--nor, he insists, is it important. "What seemed like a monolith begins to crumble--and then it's gone."

I first heard him say that seven long years ago, in May 2005, soon after he announced that he was leaving professional chess to devote himself to politics. He formed an organization called the United Civil Front, and took to the road hoping to start a chapter in each region.

It seemed like a brilliant move at the time. A year into Putin's second term as president, Russia seemed, briefly, on the brink of change. Putin's administration had badly bungled pension reform, and people responded by coming out to protest by the thousands. Opinion polls showed his popularity slipping for the first time since he came to power. It seemed reasonable to assume his luck would run out: oil prices could not stay at $50 a barrel forever, and once they started slipping, Russians would wake up to the restrictions Putin had placed on their freedoms by monopolizing the media and effectively abolishing most elections. Then there would be a revolution. The only thing missing from this scenario was a man to lead the revolution. This is where Kasparov would step in.

As the top-ranked chess player of all time (even though he has not played a tournament for more than eight years, he still retains the honor), Kasparov was officially in possession of the best brain in Russia. He was famous. He was universally loved and respected. He also had the money to fund his own campaign for leader of the revolution. He was, in other words, perfect.

For Kasparov, it was the beginning of an entirely new life. He had been a professional chess player since the age of 12, and he had spent his life in chess fighting the establishment: first the Soviet chess establishment, which did not fancy having a Jewish-Armenian upstart from Baku unseat a loyal Communist ethnic Russian as the world champion, and later, the World Chess Federation, from which he split in a controversy over corruption in 1993 and with which he never fully reconciled. …