It is refreshing to listen to somebody communicate a clear vision of how the world could be. Kasparov achieves this in his 2015 book “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 chess champion.
He wanted to increase the discourse of the pervasiveness of Putin’s pernicious reach and power 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 two steps ahead. The rest of us are playing catch up with his great intellect.
“Winter is coming” begins at the end of the cold war. In his personal life, Kasparov was breaking free from the straight jacket of the U.S.S.R. and he is not shy about articulating his thoughts on 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.
When you listen to Kasparov preach, both in the book and in person, the concept of
“freedom” is a constant. Since retiring from playing chess, 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 mind-set. 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. The book starts back at what he sees as their first free election in 1989 and takes us up to the present day sham elections held by Putin. Detailing how he initially supported Yeltsin the reformer, as he dismantled the old Soviet state and began building democratic institutions, Kasparov tells of his frustration as these changes were eroded as he tried to cling onto power.
The main analysis of the book is of Putin. His mysterious KGB past and the speed with which he turned Russia into an autocracy. All the main Russian political events are viewed 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 publically 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 help offered by the UK and Norway. 118 people were killed and with it Russia’s unfettered press. Putin could not stand the way he was portrayed and set about dismantling any dissenting views. The deaths of Magnitsky and Politoksvkaya chronicle 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 Nemstov and expose how unacceptable Putin deems people writing whatever they think about the state of Russia.
As well as exhibiting 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”. This is why his army of bots tweets about the flaws of the West at every opportunity. It makes a free society think: what is the real difference in political systems? Dictator or no, it is all corrupt? A dangerous thought. He also establishes an important point on modern liberalism: 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 we agree to back up countries like Ukraine, as the West did in the 1994 Budapest agreement, then how good is our word when we let Putin take Crimea and do nothing about it?
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 bank-rolling 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 is a visionary: he 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 assuming that “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 was 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 into the political fray in his homeland he sums up the Putin problem best: “In Russia we are not trying to win elections, we are trying to have elections”.