Kasparov’s new Russian gambit

By Dan Streib

After serving a five-day sentence in a Russian jail, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov was released Thursday.

Welcome to the eighth and unfortunately not-so-final year of Vladimir Putin’s Russia – a Russia that Kasparov has been fighting for two years. In 2005, after retiring early from professional chess, he started a group devoted to combating the corruption within the Kremlin. Appropriately named The Other Russia, this broad coalition of right and left-wingers found common cause under Kasparov in their severe distaste for the freedom-suppressing and equality-defying regime that Putin had established. The group has been fighting ever since.

The most shocking thing about this group is its leader. Yes, of course Kasparov has the intellect and charisma to lead – after all, to chess-playing Russia, he’s nothing short of a hero. But what is impressive is that most famous athletes and celebrities don’t sacrifice all the wealth, safety and comfort that they have gained to start a political organization hellbent on opposing one of the most detestable regimes on earth – do you see Kobe Bryant or Tom Cruise doing that?

Of course, those two have the good fortune to live in America. They don’t have to put up with rigged elections and state-controlled media. They don’t have to live under a former KGB mobster who plans on clinging to all the real power in his country long after his second term is up. In other words, a good way to understand what Russians have to deal with is to consider what Kasparov said on “60 Minutes” earlier this year when asked to contrast chess and politics. “Chess has rules. And everybody has to follow the rules. And in Russian politics there are no rules at all. Except one rule: the Kremlin, our opponents, changing rules at their convenience anytime they want.” So, in light of the different situation in Russia as compared to America, maybe we shouldn’t fault our stars too much.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean we should hesitate to praise Kasparov’s stand against mighty Putin. It’s rough going against the type of government Kasparov described. In fact, the only thing that gives him a chance against the Kremlin is the special status he holds in Russia. One can think of the relationship between the government and Kasparov as the one between Emperor Commodus and General Maximus in “Gladiator.”

If Commodus had ever used courts and police against Maximus, he would surely have given Mr. Crowe’s character charges equally absurd as those the Kremlin gave to The Other Russia’s famed leader. Kasparov was imprisoned on charges of participating in an “illegal procession” that followed a pro-democracy rally, and was complete with anti-Putin chanting and calls for election reform.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke both of Kasparov violating the law but also of the government being too harsh on him. Kremlin authorities have been quoted in news reports that they were putting him in prison to “send him a message.”

Honestly, now. Legal or not, message or no message, when a state that controls the media can jail protesters, it no longer has opposition. It is authoritarian. Despite my mild respect for Gorbachev, he’s as wrong as the Kremlin. There is no excuse for any punishment being dealt to Kasparov – no matter how much of a ruckus he causes. Why? Well, causing a ruckus is the only form of dissent he has left.

So, from the safe confines of my residence hall room at the University of Illinois, I wish Mr. Kasparov luck. Hopefully he’ll be successful on his anti-Kremlin quest. Until then, the best thing we here in the United States can do is to remember the former chess champion’s plight this coming presidential election. Then, with the power of ballots, we can make sure that our next president takes as hard of a stance as he can against the Kremlin’s madness.

In all truthfulness, Putin really deserves that type of anti-authoritarian hostility from our country. And if we bear our anger against him properly, maybe the Russian people will get what they deserve: a true democracy.