On a recent summer evening, the greatest player in the history of chess, Garry Kasparov, wrapped up an exhausting series of meetings devoted to the defeat of the Kremlin regime. After days of debate, a motley pride of unlikely revolutionaries—bearded politicos, earnest academics, and multigrained environmentalists—collected their cigarettes and left Kasparov’s apartment, divided and worn out. Little had been accomplished. Crumpled drafts of fevered proclamations lay scattered on the kitchen table. Puffy-eyed and unsmiling, Kasparov grunted a curt farewell to his comrades and went off to make yet another urgent telephone call.
Kasparov is forty-four. He was the world chess champion for fifteen years. Until his retirement, two years ago, his dominance was unprecedented. Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer—none came close. Chess has outsized meaning in Russia, and Kasparov at home was a cross between the greatest of athletes and a revered intellectual; with his status came celebrity, foreign investment accounts, summers on the Adriatic, an apartment along the Hudson River, friendships among Western politicians and businessmen, and the attentions of beautiful women. Now he has volunteered for grim and, very likely, futile duty. As the most conspicuous leader of Drugaya Rossiya (the Other Russia), an umbrella group of liberals, neo-Bolsheviks, and just about anyone else wishing to speak ill of Vladimir Putin, he is in nominal charge of opposition politics in a country that, in actuality, has no real politics except for that which takes place in the narrow and inscrutable space between the ears of its President.
Kasparov’s mother, Klara, shares his apartment and his travails. “It is like we are soldiers together in the ditches,” she once said. “Even when we are at a great distance, Garry and I can feel each other’s mood.” Like her son, Klara Kasparova is impossibly energetic, deeply intelligent, and a touch melodramatic. It had been a tedious few days of marathon jawing and internal spats. The Other Russia was scheduled to hold its annual conference the next morning at a Holiday Inn in central Moscow, but some of its leading figures had decided to boycott over the question of whether to unify immediately behind a single Presidential candidate for the March, 2008, election.
“All day and night, people running here and there, meeting, talking, drinking tea,” Klara Kasparova said, with a long sigh. Her dyed-red hair was askew, her face slack. “This apartment has been like Smolny.” A romantic analogy: the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, in St. Petersburg, had been the Bolshevik headquarters during the October Revolution. Lenin barely left the building in those manic weeks, and, when he did, he sometimes disguised himself in surgical bandages.
Kasparov’s redoubt in the Arbat neighborhood of Moscow is not nearly as elegant as Smolny, but the address is one of Soviet-era privilege and among the most expensive areas on the real-estate market. Government officials and members of the cultural élite were awarded apartments there. Kasparov was never obedient or politically reliable like his great rival Anatoly Karpov, but he didn’t lack for comforts. His kitchen has a flat-screen television, an Italian espresso machine, and other swish appliances that would surely have brightened Lenin’s late nights at Smolny.
Kasparov pocketed his phone and slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. He is handsome and athletic, but thicker than he once was, and his hair, black and curly when he won the world championship, is now graying and cropped close to his skull. Though the meetings had ended with a split, which Russia’s small opposition can ill afford, Kasparov seemed to thrive on the claustrophobic intensity of kitchen politics. “The intellectual brainstorming always takes place here,” he said. “We did it like this when I was playing chess and when I was beginning in politics, in the nineties. The kitchen tradition is part of our culture.”
Klara asked a maid to make coffee. The espresso came bolshoi trippio—enormous mugs of steaming caffeine. It became easier to see how Kasparov was able to work heroic hours and then, well after midnight, settle down at his computer to play “blitz”—five-minute-long games of chess. He plays anonymously, but the cognoscenti know his style of attack. They still feel his presence. Sinatra cannot sing anonymously.
Kasparov explained why Mikhail Kasyanov, who had served for four years as Prime Minister under Putin and was now angling to run as the opposition’s Presidential candidate, would skip the Other Russia conference. Kasparov, unlike Kasyanov, believes that the opposition can challenge the Kremlin only after it grows, from the bottom up; his argument, which prevailed, was that the Other Russia had to hold extensive Presidential primaries in the Russian provinces, with numerous debates and public meetings, before choosing its nominee in October. “What’s the point otherwise?” Kasparov said. “The only chance to capture people’s attention and get the crowds to come, to get engaged, is by demonstrating that we act democratically.”
Although Kasparov’s popularity ratings are higher than Kasyanov’s, they are both marginal in the Land of Putin. Even if Kasparov decides to run (and he probably will), the government would not likely register his candidacy, and, even if it did, he could not win. The point is to create an alternative, not to be deluded into thinking there is an open election that can be won. Besides, Kasparov is half Armenian, half Jewish—not exactly an ideal ethnic mix for a politician in a country with deep currents of anti-Caucasian and anti-Semitic feeling.
The details of Kasparov’s dispute with Kasyanov were, ultimately, of small moment. For all practical purposes, Putin will select his successor, much as his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, designated him—unless he forgoes his promise to stand down and changes the constitution to allow a third term. Although a great many Russians would not object if he were to declare himself, Mobutu style, President for Life, it seems increasingly unlikely that he will stay.
In recent years, Putin has insured that nearly all power in Russia is Presidential. The legislature, the State Duma, is only marginally more independent than the Supreme Soviet was under Leonid Brezhnev. The governors of Russia’s more than eighty regions are no longer elected, as they were under Yeltsin; since a Presidential decree in 2004, they have all been appointed by the Kremlin. Putin even appoints the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The federal television networks, by far the main instrument of news and information in Russia, are neo-Soviet in their absolute obeisance to Kremlin power. “Putin is no enemy of free speech,” Ksenia Ponomareva, who worked on his first Presidential campaign, told the St. Petersburg Times. “He simply finds absurd the idea that somebody has the right to criticize him publicly.” The business community must also obey the commands and signals of Putin’s circle. There are now nearly as many billionaires in Moscow as in New York City, but the arrest for fraud, in 2003, of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil magnate who had been the country’s richest man, was a clear, ominous signal that wealth is dependent on Kremlin approval. Khodorkovsky, who dared to fund opposition parties, pronounce his own political ideas, and attempt to cut pipeline deals with China without Kremlin permission, is now serving an eight-year term in Penal Colony No. 10, in eastern Siberia.
Kasparov is well aware of the perils of brazen independence. Since Putin took office, in 2000, more than a dozen Russian journalists have been murdered, as have several opposition politicians. The cases remain “unresolved.” When Kasparov is in Russia, he retains a security contingent that costs him tens of thousands of dollars a month. His wife, Daria Tarasova, and their baby often stay in an apartment in New Jersey. Oleg Kalugin, a former K.G.B. general who was Putin’s superior in St. Petersburg twenty years ago and now lives in Maryland, told me, “You can expect anything with this regime, and Kasparov has been very vocal and very personal in his criticism of Putin. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about something terrible happening to him. And where will the evidence be? Remember that Trotsky’s assassin, Señor Ramon Mercader, was sent to get him in Mexico by the K.G.B. and was secretly made a Hero of the Soviet Union. No one knew the truth for decades.”
When I asked Kasparov if he feared for his life, he nodded gravely and said, “I do. The only thing I can try to do is reduce my risk. I can’t avoid the risk altogether. They watch everything I do in Moscow, or when I travel to places like Murmansk or Voronezh or Vladimir. I don’t eat or drink at places I’m not familiar with. I avoid flying with Aeroflot”—the Russian national airline. “It doesn’t help in the end if they really decide to go after you. But, if they did, it would be really messy. And not just because of the bodyguards. There would be a huge risk for the Kremlin if anything happens to me, God forbid, because the blood would be on Putin’s hands. It’s not that they have an allergy to blood, but it creates a bad image, or makes it worse than it already is.”
While the Russian opposition squabbles in various corners and kitchens of downtown Moscow, Vladimir Putin glides serenely, from victory to victory, along a petrodollar slick. His popularity rating is pegged at around eighty per cent, and the image of Russia abroad and at home is no longer one of imperial dissolution.
Certainly, Putin has been lucky. Russia is second only to Saudi Arabia in petroleum production and leads the world in the production of natural gas. Without Russian gas, much of Europe freezes in its bed. Oil prices have nearly tripled since 2000. Real incomes and G.D.P. continue to grow. Unlike during the Yeltsin years, pensions and state salaries have, in general, been paid and have increased. A crushing multibillion-dollar foreign debt has been paid off. As recently as five years ago, knowing analysts would dismiss the shimmering signs of wealth in Moscow—the wildfire construction projects; the new hotels, luxury stores, and restaurants; the streets clogged with Mercedes-Benzes and Bentleys—and describe them as phenomena limited solely to a tiny, criminalized upper crust. Now nearly every big urban center, from Kaliningrad, in the west, to Vladivostok, in the far east, has seen considerable growth and the first signs of a middle class. Kasparov, though, points to the widening gap between rich and poor, persistent poverty in the provinces, and the absence of human rights as “the key reasons this regime will inevitably collapse.”
No less important than reversing the direction of the economy is that Putin has emboldened the national psychology. In the early years of the Yeltsin era, Russians devoured American pop culture, and the political class was eager to accept the counsel of the White House and Western economic advisers. In time, many Russians felt that Yeltsin was following America’s lead in everything from arms control to monetary policy. Now that the U.S. has foundered on so many fronts—in Iraq, on questions of torture and domestic surveillance—the Kremlin reacts severely to what it perceives as American lectures on democracy. A judo expert, Putin is often able to exploit the moral and executive disasters of the Bush Administration and flip America over his hip. Last February, at a Munich security conference, Putin criticized the United States for trying to establish a “unipolar” world. Putin has adopted a haughty, derisive tone toward the West. “Of course, I am an absolutely true democrat,” he remarked recently. “The tragedy is that I am alone. There are no such other democrats in the world. The Americans torture at Guantánamo, and in Europe the police use gas against protesters. Sometimes protesters are killed in the streets. We have, incidentally, a moratorium on the death penalty, which is often enforced in other G-8 countries. Let us not be hypocrites as far as democratic freedoms and human rights.” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told me that the West “wants Russia to somehow return to the nineties, when Russia was weak and could not resist. It is always comfortable to have a weak Russia next to wealthy Europe. But Russia is no longer on the brink of disintegration.”
Putin sees himself as the new tsar, who, after suffering the humiliation of a lost empire, has restored strength and confidence to Russia. With the price of oil at eighty-two dollars a barrel, there is a sense of global reordering. “People feel that Putin can speak up to the United States,” Tanya Lokshina, a human-rights expert, said. “He can give us an independent politics and we can even blackmail a lot of countries with our oil and gas.”
Early this summer, Putin went to Guatemala City, where he delivered a speech in English—a language he’d never spoken in public—as part of Russia’s campaign to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Russia won the Games, and now the state will invest twelve billion dollars in a new Olympic Village, in the southern city of Sochi. The spoils, Putin’s critics assume, will go to the Kremlin’s favored contractors. Alfa Bank, one of the biggest financial institutions in Russia, sent a chipper memorandum to its investors, titled “Let the Gains Begin.”
Kasparov and many other figures in the opposition believe that Putin might become the head of the International Olympic Committee—and thus occupy himself for four years before regaining the Presidency in 2012. “The I.O.C. is not the most transparent organization in the world,” he said. “He can definitely buy his way on.” Kasparov, like many others in the opposition, is convinced that Putin became a billionaire in office, perhaps the richest man in the country, and has entrusted Russian confederates to shelter his money in foreign banks. There is no proof of Putin’s staggering wealth, but, in Kasparov’s eyes, to question the proposition is to be hopelessly naïve.
Putin’s popularity as an avatar of Russian tradition and state power is partly a result of the dim view that most people now take of the Yeltsin era. Not long ago, I saw Aleksei Balabanov’s “Zhmurki,” or “Dead Man’s Bluff,” a gangster film that seemed to encapsulate in bloody caricature the general view of Russia in the nineteen-nineties as chaotic, corrupt, and violent. The film opens with a professor teaching an economics class in 2005 and explaining how, after the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union, in 1991, there was a “redivision of property”—the biggest in the history of humanity. This was a period in which the “so-called oligarchs” acquired their oil fields, gold mines, and banks.
“Does anyone know how?” she asks.
“Back then,” an eager student says, “you could make heaps of money from nothing.”
“And there were also criminal groups,” the professor adds, “which merged with the authorities and, in doing so, acquired their start-up capital.”
Then comes a title card (“The Mid-1990’s”) and a grisly scene in which a killer named the Professional is torturing a rival gangster in a morgue. (The film contains more torture than the collected works of Quentin Tarantino.) In the final sequence, a pair of sadistic hit men steal five kilos of heroin from their boss—their “start-up capital”—and run off to Moscow, where they exchange their leather jackets and pistols for dark suits and jobs in the Kremlin bureaucracy.
In today’s Russia, demokratia as it emerged in the nineties has been derisively called dermokratia: “shit-ocracy.” The notion of liberalism, too—a belief in the necessity of civil society, civil liberties, an open economy—has been degraded. Of all the pro-democracy activists and politicians of the late eighties and the nineties, the only one remembered fondly—if not very often—is the physicist and human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov. And that may be because he died in December, 1989, two years before the fall of the Soviet empire. The liberal parties that began in the nineties, such as Yabloko (Apple) and the Union of Right Forces, remain tainted by their connections to the Yeltsin era and no longer have seats in the Duma. “The state lets the opposition exist so long as there is no coalition,” Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Prime Minister, told me.
“You can scarcely find anyone in opposition, except for the Communists, just like in Yeltsin’s times,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recently told Der Spiegel. “If you take an unbiased look at the situation, there was a rapid decline of living standards in the nineteen-nineties, which affected three-quarters of Russian families, and all under the ‘democratic banner.’ Small wonder, then, that the population does not rally to this banner anymore.” Solzhenitsyn, who lives just outside Moscow, is eighty-eight, and in failing health. Although much of his work as a novelist and historian comprises a prolonged critique of Soviet power and the secret police, he speaks approvingly of Putin, who was a lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B. “Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people,” he said. “And he started to do what was possible—a slow and gradual restoration.”
Kasparov argues that Putin’s popularity is the phony popularity of dictators. “The support for Putin is a kind of passive resistance to change,” he said. “You cannot talk about polls and popularity when all of the media are under state control. I don’t want to give anyone any bad ideas, but with such a propaganda apparatus, backed up by an all-powerful security force, seventy-per-cent approval should be a minimum!”
Two great traditions have survived in Russia: the power of the secret police and the use of allegory as a means of truthtelling. In Putin’s Russia, the latter is one of the few effective means of describing the former.
Recently, Vladimir Sorokin, a writer in his fifties with a flair for surreal brutality, published a dystopian novel called “Day of the Oprichnik.” The oprichniki were the secret police of the sixteenth century, Ivan the Terrible’s K.G.B. In Sorokin’s depiction of an authoritarian Russia set in the year 2028, the ruler controls all destinies and information. The state’s well-being depends on oil and gas and the individual’s survival on unquestioning fealty to a bloody-minded despot and his circle of oprichniki. The state itself is profoundly conservative, traditional.
The allegory is easy to follow. Putin and many of his top officials in the Kremlin, ministers and advisers, come from the ranks of the K.G.B., many from his home city of St. Petersburg. Yeltsin made tentative attempts to reform the security services, but they failed. “The system of political police has been preserved,” Yeltsin admitted, “and it could be resurrected.” During the nineties, the oligarchs staffed their organizations with well-trained, well-informed ex-K.G.B. advisers, but Putin has reversed the hierarchy. The siloviki—the security men—are now more prevalent in the Kremlin than Harvard men were in the Kennedy White House. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on political élites, estimates that siloviki occupy more than sixty per cent of “high” and “upper middle” positions in the state. They run numerous Kremlin departments, bureaucracies, banking operations, and state corporations.
In a book-length interview about his life, “First Person,” Putin says that when he was stationed in East Germany, in the eighties, he was often idle as Communism itself was collapsing. He mainly drank the local brew—“you pour the beer into the keg, you add a spigot, and you can drink straight from the barrel”—and gained twenty-five pounds. But, as President, he has not hesitated to show loyalty to his erstwhile employer and enhance its power. “There is no such thing as a former Chekist,” he says, referring to the original name of the Soviet secret police.
Under Putin’s K.G.B. old-boy network, one of his colleagues in East Germany, Sergei Chemezov, has been installed as the head of Rosoboronexport, a state arms corporation. The two deputy heads of the Presidential Administration, Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov, are ex-spies from St. Petersburg, and they have placed former colleagues in leadership positions everywhere from the Ministry of Justice to the largest industries. Sechin himself is the chairman of the biggest state-operated oil company, Rosneft, and Ivanov chairs the board of directors for Aeroflot and Almaz-Antei, a producer of air-defense systems.
Some of the gaudiest events in recent Russian history—the murders, the arrests of disobedient business executives, the muscling of uncoöperative foreign companies—are thought by many to be tied to the K.G.B.’s successor agency, the F.S.B. (Federal Security Service), although the over-all structure of the regime, its mode of corruption, its strategic way of controlling society and the economy and dealing with the outside world, is many times more sophisticated than the bumbling of the late Soviet era. Putin is not a dictator—not in the Stalinist sense. He knows that to play in the global economy he must bring his resources to the marketplace and behave with a modicum of decorum. When anyone gets in his way, he can employ the F.S.B., but in a highly selective manner. In the modern world, the political use of the tax police or a single, well-publicized incident of mysterious brutality is far more effective than mass repression and the Gulag.
And, in the experience of Vladimir Putin, who can prove to him that stability and prosperity demand democratic politics? Without the trappings of democracy, China is hoping it will become the world’s biggest economy. Oil-rich and liberty-poor Iran and Venezuela are ascendant. And Russia itself is growing richer; with the foreign debt gone, a multibillion-dollar stabilization fund has been established as a hedge against lower oil prices. For the first few years of Putin’s reign, there were several liberal advisers in his retinue, but once oil prices began to rise, from around twenty-five dollars a barrel to more than three times that, and analysts determined that such prices were sustainable, a more assertively statist policy took hold. Liberal advisers were fired or marginalized, kept on only as decoration for Western eyes. And few complain.
“The vast majority of people enjoy the fact that for the first time in Russian history they have lived for fifteen years now without the constant pressure of totalitarianism in every aspect of their lives,” Vladimir Milov, an economist who left Putin’s government in 2002, said. “For example, you can travel abroad freely. The majority of people can’t yet afford to do this, but the most active and educated can, and this makes a huge difference. The authorities here let you exist so long as you don’t call them into question. In other words, the deal they offer is: You let us steal and we let you live.”
In 1989, in the midst of the reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, two well-known social scientists, Andranik Migranyan and Igor Klyamkin, published a dialogue in the weekly newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, in which Migranyan said, “Nowhere, not in any country of the world was there ever a direct transition from a totalitarian regime to democracy. There has always been a necessary provisional authoritarian period.” At the time, the liberal intellectuals of Moscow dismissed the article as reactionary. Now the Russians seem apolitical and willing to overlook the sins of a state run by K.G.B. instincts; most people want nothing more than to settle into private life.
Under Yeltsin, a small group of businessmen used their connections to the Kremlin to buy up state enterprises—oil companies, aluminum plants, transport systems—and made their fortunes. Putin instituted new rules: these oligarchs could keep their properties so long as they did not create political power bases outside the Kremlin. The Kremlin would not hesitate to nationalize the enterprise or put its ministers on the board of directors. “Gazprom is not a company,” Milov said. “It has a new wrapping, people in good suits and ties, but it is a classic Soviet enterprise. All you have now is an upper echelon that takes all the money.” Putin’s former chief of staff, Dmitri Medvedev, is, simultaneously, the first Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian government and the chairman of the board of Gazprom.
The March Presidential elections will be notable for which corporate groups have patrons at the top. “In the past seven years, Putin has skillfully balanced these clans, not allowing any single one of them to take too powerful a lead,” Yuri Dzhibladze, a human-rights activist, said. “He is the supreme arbiter. When he destroyed and split up Yukos”—Khodorkovsky’s oil company—“he distributed it all around. He is the check and he is the balance. When he leaves the Presidency, the problem will be that these groups do not get along.”
Putin has promised to propose one or more successors, but, rather than make himself an instant lame duck, he has avoided direct endorsements, using mystery as a political tool. On September 12th, Putin dissolved the government and appointed a relatively obscure bureaucrat, Viktor Zubkov, as Prime Minister. Zubkov promptly declared that if he succeeded “in doing something in the post of premier” he might run for President. Putin called Zubkov, who is sixty-six, a “brilliant administrator and true professional” but made no endorsement.
In the meantime, every political expert in Moscow, real and self-proclaimed, has a theory. Another strong candidate, some speculate, is the other first Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, a former defense minister. Ivanov spent two decades in the secret services, first alongside Putin in the Leningrad K.G.B.’s foreign-intelligence division, then in posts in Africa and Europe, and, finally, as a general at Moscow headquarters. He speaks English and Swedish, but he is not considered to be particularly enamored of the West. Medvedev, the other Deputy Prime Minister, is also a possible contender. And then comes a litany of potential candidates, including the railway minister, Vladimir Yakunin, who is thought to have worked for the K.G.B. when he was a diplomat at the United Nations, and various parliamentary loyalists, ministers, and regional governors. The essence of the election, however, is not the individual but the means. The winner will be a man of the inner circle—a Presidential, not a popular, choice.
“Here is how it will go: Putin will decide the successor and he will be elected without much struggle,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young (and very lonely) liberal in the Duma, said. “All the opposition will be put on as a show for stupid foreigners like you to demonstrate what a great democracy we are. And all the resources of the media will be employed to put on this show.”
Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economist who worked as a senior adviser to the Cabinet until 2003, told me, “Even Putin doesn’t know what he’s going to do yet. He is just reacting to events, day by day. You might see him make some democratic-seeming moves toward the end of the year. He wants to legitimatize his power in the eyes of the West. There won’t be a third term. He wants to join the club of former Presidents: Bush, Chirac, and all the rest. At the same time, there are a lot of problems that are coming due and there is always the chance that the price of oil will drop. Winning the Olympics for Sochi marked the peak of his popularity. So why hang on?”
Yet stories persist that Putin may yet do so. According to a report in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a Kremlin working group is examining scenarios for constitutional change to allow Putin more terms. The pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, has well in excess of the two-thirds majority needed to alter the law. In the end, though, Putin will almost certainly prefer to maintain the patina of democratic procedure—“I have no intention to reduce everything I’ve done to zero”—and preserve a strong influence over his successor. When he was asked earlier this month about his desire to continue in public life, Putin, with characteristic vagueness, said, “I hope to be fit enough and I have the desire to do so. Any future President will have to reckon with that.”
Living in Moscow in the late nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, I spent many weekend mornings at various halls around the city—the House of Film, the Architect’s Union, the Writer’s Union—listening to Moscow intellectuals make speeches demanding that Gorbachev push reforms forward, faster. Kasparov’s political education took place at these meetings. He was at the zenith of his celebrity as a chess champion. Within a few years of Gorbachev’s rise to power, in March, 1985, political groups called nyeformali, or “informals,” were created, first in Moscow and then throughout the Soviet Union. The most important of these early groups was Moscow Tribune, a “discussion group,” dominated by former political dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Larisa Bogoraz, and Sergei Kovalyov and a range of shestidesyatniki, intellectual members of the sixties generation, who came of age after the death of Stalin. With Kasparov often sitting in the audience, they discussed history, economics, democratization, human rights, and ethnic problems in the Caucasus, the Baltic States, and Central Asia.
“The environment was different in 1987, 1988, 1989 than it is now,” Kasparov said. “There was consensus in Soviet society that the game was over. There was a demand for change. People were opposed to the old Soviet system, from the feudal republics in Central Asia to the Baltics, which were essentially part of Europe. The system had outlived itself. But there was no clear plan. There was a demand. Everyone recognized that oil prices were going down and the Soviet system would collapse. . . . Today, the majority of people don’t like what they feel and see, but there is a defensive layer: what if something else is worse? They remember it could be worse like it was when the economy collapsed in 1998, or when the Union collapsed, in 1991.”
One of the earliest ethnic conflicts under Gorbachev was the dispute in the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In those days, Kasparov split his time between his home town, Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, and frequent trips to Moscow and matches abroad. On January 13, 1990, he and his team of chess trainers were at a resort north of Baku, preparing for a match. The atmosphere throughout the region was tense. There had already been violence against the minority populations, especially against Armenians in the town of Sumgait. That evening in Baku, gangs stormed through Armenian neighborhoods, beating men, women, and children. They torched apartments and houses; there were rapes and stabbings.
Kasparov wanted to help his friends and relatives in Baku, but he was stuck; there were rumors that the gangs were headed to the resort where he was training and to other towns in the republic. A few days later, he was able to go to his apartment in Baku but had time only to grab some family pictures and childhood chess notebooks. The Azerbaijanis, together with the K.G.B., had shut down most flights, trains, and other transport out of Baku. Kasparov, however, was somehow able to arrange a chartered plane from Moscow. On the seventeenth, he filled all sixty-eight seats with other Armenians and left for the Soviet capital. When the violence subsided, almost all of the Armenians who still lived in Baku had fled. On January 20th, the Soviet Army, under Gorbachev’s command, moved into Baku not to save Armenians—it was too late for that—but to protect the leadership of the Azerbaijani Communist Party against a growing opposition. Kasparov, whose privilege allowed him to stay at the Regency Hotel in New York and the St. James Club in Paris, had become a refugee. He has never returned to Baku.
“I always believed that a city is not the stones, a city is the people,” he told the magazine New in Chess. “Baku is no longer the Baku where I was born and where I used to live. There are some gravestones at the cemetery. My father, my two grandfathers, and one grandmother were buried there. But it is just a matter of stones.”
The Moscow intelligentsia was ambivalent about Gorbachev. He had freed Sakharov from his forced exile in Gorky and gradually unfettered the press, the publishing houses, and the universities. But by 1989 many had grown impatient with his need to maneuver between the demands of the old élites of the Communist Party and the K.G.B. and the demands of the urban intellectuals who wanted him to abandon the entire Soviet system. Few were more unforgiving of Gorbachev than Kasparov. After the pogroms in Baku, he had met with Gorbachev and found him unmoved and “unimpressed” by his accounts of the bloodshed there. “All he could talk about was some new chief of the Azerbaijani Communist Party,” Kasparov said. “For him, it was all big picture. To sacrifice a single life did not seem to greatly matter.” When Kasparov travelled abroad, and when he wrote for Western newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, he denounced Gorbachev as a liar, a clever and desperate apparatchik, “the last leader of the communist state, trying to save everything he can.” Before the first Gulf War, Kasparov told anyone who would listen that the United States should drop an atomic bomb on Saddam Hussein. During the resistance in Moscow to the 1991 coup attempt, Kasparov took the conspiratorial position that Gorbachev had been behind the plot—that, in an effort to establish a national state of emergency and yet “keep his hands clean,” he had pretended to be under house arrest at his dacha in the town of Foros, in Ukraine.