Kasparov has enunciated an unobstructed vision of how the world could be in “Winter is coming: why Vladimir Putin and the enemies of the free world must be stopped”. The timing of the book’s release was important to the former chess champion. He wanted to increase the discourse in the West, of just how pervasive Putin’s pernicious reach had become, in the run up to the American election in November 2016. Sadly, many people (me included) will read this reactively to try to understand the Russian dictator. As with so many other times during his life, Kasparov is a step ahead. I have found that it is generally worthwhile to read great intellects, no matter what their affiliations.
“Winter is Coming” begins at the end of the cold war as Kasparov was breaking free from the straight jacket of the U.S.S.R. He is not shy about articulating his antipathy towards the old regime, “Communism goes against human nature and can only be sustained by totalitarian repression”. This is typical of the honesty, clarity and directness that he writes with. Whenever he mentions communism, you can hear his distaste for it, “For all the Bolshevik talk about the obvious superiority of Marxism and Leninism, state terror and military force were the primary tools used in building the U.S.S.R.”. Reading it in 2016, as a lot of Western democracies veer sharply away from the centre in both directions, it is a warning about where such systems have taken us in the past.
In print and in person, Kasparov tirelessly espouses the benefits of political freedom. In his role as Chairman of the Human Rights Watch, he has made it his life’s mission to increase personal freedom across the globe and it is inspirational to listen to him analyse geopolitics from this mindset. Democracy goes hand in hand with this outlook and the book details the emerging Russian state’s flirtation with the political system that we in the West take for granted. “Winter is Coming” starts in 1989 at what Kasparov sees as the Russian state’s first free election and takes us up to the present-day gerrymandering. Detailing how he initially supported Yeltsin the reformer, as he dismantled the old Soviet state and began building democratic institutions, Kasparov reveals his frustration as these changes were eroded as he traded Russia’s future to hang onto his wealth after he retired.
The main focus of the book is Putin. His mysterious KGB past and the speed with which he turned Russia into an autocracy. He analyses all the main Russian political events through this prism. Take Chechnya. Reading it after watching the siege of Aleppo in Syria at the end of 2016, the tactics employed are nearly identical; the indiscriminate targeting of a city and its civilians. Citing the UN report on Grozny in 2003, where they called it “the most bombed city on earth”, it is impossible to read without the mind wandering to current day events. The UN has not written the reports yet, but the similarities are uncanny. Similar human rights abuses are seen in the response to the Dubrovka theatre siege where hostages and militants were equally targeted with a chemical weapon. The type of gas was never publicly released by the government.
The tragic Kursk incident in 2000 is pinpointed as the moment when Putin decided to clamp down on the burgeoning free press that had been growing since the mid nineteen-nineties in Russia. The press painted the picture of Putin on his holidays whilst simultaneously refusing the help that was offered by the UK and Norway. One hundred and eighteen people were killed and with-it Russia’s free press. Putin could not stand the way he was portrayed and set about dismantling any dissenting views. The deaths of Magnitsky and Politkovskaya underscored the descent into the depths of repression that the current Russian media now reside in. The book also details the barbaric treatment of people like Navalny and Nemtsov.
As well as drawing attention to the growing menace of Putin, Kasparov warns us of the dangers of how the laconic attitude we have had in appeasing Putin and how it makes him grow ever stronger. He details Putin’s modern propaganda campaign aimed at Western democracies to create the feeling that “when everyone is guilty, no one is guilty”. Therefore, his army of bot’s tweet about the flaws of the West at every opportunity. It makes people in free societies think: what is the real difference in political systems? Dictator or not, it is all corrupt? A dangerous thought. He also establishes a crucial point on modern Liberalism in that it can be inclusive to a fault. We try to negotiate with dictators and terrorists like Daesh and give everyone a voice. Should we? Furthermore, if the global Western Superpower committed to backing up countries like Ukraine, as per the 1994 Budapest agreement, then how good is its word when Putin annexed Crimea and the United States stood idly by and watched it happen?
Kasparov delves into the murky oligarchy that Putin has curated and identifies a potential solution: stop his cronies from reaping the benefits in the West and then they will stop bankrolling him. The plight of tycoons like Khodorkovsky, who tried to step outside of Putin’s sphere of influence, are exposed to show the tight control Putin has over his Kleptocracy.
Kasparov wants every country to be democratic and diagnoses this as a solution to a lot of the tyranny in the world. Whilst it does not seem a revolutionary idea, it is maybe one that we have lost sight of in the West. Have we misplaced the zeal to make sure every country has a chance to be as peaceful as we are? As he points out, “Healthy democracies almost never make war with each other”. He rallies against lazy Western politicians that assumed “The end of history”, as predicted by Fukuyama, would happen without having to “fight” for it. This does raise the issue of how far Kasparov is prepared to go in this battle. He glibly glosses over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as it representing a chance to overthrow a dictator. The quest for democracy is great but what if installing it leads to more chaos? However, this is not the case in Russia. There is no reason for the current despotism to continue. While chronicling his own attempt to enter the political fray in his homeland, he succinctly sums up the Putin problem, “In Russia, we are not trying to win elections, we are trying to have elections”.