Chess and politics in Russia

by admin on December 3, 2007

Garry Kasparov (the former world chess champion) has been making news this year as the leader of a political coalition in Russia that is opposed to the continued rule of Vladimir Putin as president. Last weekend elections were held to the legislature, and in the final week before the election Kasparov was arrested and thrown in jail for five days. (Kind of convenient timing, don’t you think?).

Here in California, half a world away, I somehow missed the newspaper coverage of Kasparov’s arrest, and didn’t even know about it until I got online and read about it on By that point Kasparov had already been released.

Even though the fuss is over now, here (belatedly) is what I managed to find out about the incident, from reading both Western and Russian news sites. Caution: This is all second-hand information. The Russian news sites especially are not always reliable. One of them ( is clearly under the control of the Kremlin. Another one had a report, apparently intended seriously, about Russian scientists who have discovered an elixir of youth.

A week before the election, Kasparov and some of the other groups in his coalition tried to organize a “march of the opposition” in Moscow. Apparently the authorities gave them only a permit for a stationary protest, not a protest march. So as soon as they started moving, they were arrested. Kasparov seemed to be singled out for special treatment. With amazing quickness he was tried and convicted the same day of leading an unlawful protest, in a trial where his lawyer was not allowed to be present.

During his five days in jail he was apparently not mistreated. However, a number of Western governments (including France and the U.S.) protested his detention. Of course, the Russians said that they were just enforcing the law, defending the public against unauthorized public disturbances.

There were two little details about Kasparov’s imprisonment that I found especially interesting. First, Anatoly Karpov (his former opponent in five world championship matches) attempted to visit Kasparov in prison and was turned away. This is amazing. You have to realize that Karpov, during the Soviet era, was the ultimate poster boy for the Soviet regime, who would do nothing to offend the government. The fact that he showed such solidarity with Kasparov now shows me something about Karpov’s personal growth.

The other interesting detail is that protesters were allowed to demonstrate outside the prison where Kasparov was held, but only one at a time. The police used this rule in a clever way. When one person would be standing outside the prison with a sign, all of a sudden several other “enthusiastic” people (whom the protester had never seen before in his life) would run up to join in the protest. This, of course, would constitute an illegal gathering, and the whole bunch of them would be arrested. In this way, several other (less famous) members of Kasparov’s opposition coalition were put behind bars.

This is the sort of trick that the authorities were so adept at during the Soviet era. It’s disheartening to hear that such games are going on again.

When Kasparov was in the U.S. this summer, appearing on news shows like 60 Minutes, the media asked him to compare politics with the game of chess. To me, there is one discouraging difference. Politics, unlike chess, goes on and on and on, and usually there is no hope of winning by checkmate.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carina J. December 4, 2007 at 2:40 am

Well, I’m probably biased, but I think it’s just disgusting to have politics be so coloured in a certain direction, that opposition/Kasparov and his men must be harrassed. I first heard about his arrest at school where a friend told me, and I thought it was pretty shocking news, especially the possibility that he might be assassinated someday is disgusting.

I don’t really care about politics as long as the people fighting for power do so in a democratic and civilized way, and with the embarresing recent exception of the “Youth-house (69) people” the rules are usually followed in Denmark and I have a relaxed view of the politicians as comedians that are just really funny to watch (especially when they screw up) but not really something I’ll take time getting involved in.

Maybe if we had a chessplaying politician in Denmark I would care about what they do, because the Kasparov thing really drives me up against a wall. I think that ideally chess will create people with integrity and wholeness in their character, and I think it has done so for Kasparov. I think it’s amazing that everybody don’t just vote for him (kind of like I think it’s amazing that so few people play chess, haha).

Basically, I’m surpriced at myself for giving a damn about something that goes on in a place so distant from where I live, especially when it’s “just politic bickering”, but I really think that Kasparov should win that election and replace Putin and everything (though he has a 60 percent majority in the votes, when I last checked), then I would sleep better at night. 😀

But then, most of the reason why I wish this is based on my adoration of the chess player, which means a good deal less objectivity. It’s not so much based in reason, though from the interviews I’ve seen with Kasparov, and if he really stands for what he says, it might as well be.

Oh, his book “How Life Imitates Chess” (it’s a subtle and amusing thing that he says “life imitates chess” and not “chess imitates life” btw) makes the checkmate point, too. He points out that in life it doesn’t exist, because “even if the King dies, the army can fight on”. I hope that’ll be the case for democracy in Russia, even if Kasparovs team doesn’t have a breakthrough this time around.


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