The first time I saw Garry Kasparov in the flesh was on an autumn afternoon in 1993, when he was playing a World Chess Championship match against the British contender, Nigel Short, at the Savoy Theatre in London. There was something surreal about the occasion. After the players had made their opening moves, they both disappeared backstage and we were left for what seemed an inordinately long time looking at an empty stage with a chess set on it. Of course, Kasparov crushed Short. He is still considered one of the strongest chess players ever. I remember his saturnine demeanour – the way he glared at the audience when we tittered at jokes made by the grandmaster-commentators we could hear on our headphones.
It was hard not to be reminded of that empty stage last month, in Amsterdam. Kasparov was in town for the International Documentary Festival (IDFA) screening of Masha Novikova's In the Holy Fire of Revolution, a new film about the chess player's abortive attempt to stand in the Russian presidential elections last year. It is a dispiriting affair. Kasparov was the candidate for The Other Russia, a coalition of parties opposed to Vladimir Putin. He was harassed every step of the way. In the film, we see groups of fanatical, nationalistic kids mocking Kasparov as a US stooge. They follow him everywhere. His rallies are interrupted. He is denied media access. At one stage, he is bundled away by the police and spends five days in prison. Former friends desert him. ("A lot of people forgot about my existence. I know exactly the value of friendship now," Kasparov says.) Ironically, one of the few who stood up for him – and attempted to visit him while he was in prison – was his former arch-enemy on the chess circuit, Anatoly Karpov. We witness how quickly Kasparov's campaign collapses.
In the Holy Fire of Revolution plays like a downbeat Russian version of The War Room, the documentary on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign to become US President. Whereas Clinton had a well-oiled election machine, with strategists and publicists smoothing over scandals and using the media to their advantage, the Kasparov campaign seems doomed almost from the start. The cameras capture rallies that are sabotaged by the security forces. We see Kasparov's doughty minders, who look like nightclub bouncers, talking of their loyalty and affection for him. Campaigners share shocking stories about how they have been intimidated and threatened.
The film provides a record of a political campaign that is never allowed to move out of first gear. There's no upbeat ending that Novikova can impose on her material. After all, Kasparov was eventually obliged to drop his presidential bid.
"I doubt he'll show up," a festival organiser predicted on the eve of Kasparov's expected arrival in Amsterdam. But Kasparov did eventually make it. For the chess player, being in the West is clearly a relief. For a day or two, he can escape the attentions of the Putin Youth. "They make his life impossible," Novikova tells me, adding that even Kasparov's son needs bodyguards to walk him to school. Kasparov himself is under 24-hour surveillance, and his phones are tapped. An insidious stream of propaganda flows against him.
Kasparov's courage is undeniable, even if you do wonder if he is yet as accomplished a politician as he is a chess player. At a time when reporters in Russia are being intimidated and killed, it takes gumption to be as outspoken about the Putin regime as he is. He is consistent in his message, too, berating the West for its supine responses to human-rights abuses in Russia. He is coruscating in his attacks on the oligarchs for fleecing the economy, and hopes the current economic crisis may jolt Russians out of their apathy. He disputes the received wisdom that Putin and President Dimitry Medvedev are popular. As the film makes clear, he is paying a heavy price for his campaigning against the Kremlin. He is always accompanied by bodyguards, and there is a real fear that he may suffer the same fate as Anna Politskovaya or Paul Klebnikov, journalists who have been killed.But the qualities that make a great chess player are clearly not the same as those that make a successful politician. That single-minded intensity that drove Kasparov at the board is still evident, but he appears to lack the necessary flexibility and charm of the politician.
When Kasparov finally arrived in Amsterdam, he had the same demeanour as he had at chess competitions. Restless, edgy, articulate, he spoke at breakneck pace, as if the clock was on. "What you see in the documentary is, unfortunately, very much still day-to-day business for those opposing dictatorship in Russia... it is quite educational material for those who still believe that Putin's Russia belongs to the democratic nations. Unfortunately, we are already in the league of Iran, Cuba, Belarus and the rest," was his opening salvo.
It is Kasparov's contention that 85 per cent of the Russian population are suffering under the Putin regime. Even if the chess champ is given to speaking about himself, Julius Caesar-style, in the third person, he also insists that his political career isn't driven by egotism. "It is not about me, Garry Kasparov, personally," he declared. "Russia is an authoritarian state. It is quite rigid. The censorship is getting tougher and tougher... as it was in the Soviet Union, the KGB regime is fighting the mirror. They don't like the facts, so the facts must disappear. They don't like what Garry Kasparov is saying or he is doing, and he doesn't exist in the official Russian television."
Kasparov says that he had "no illusions" about the problems he'd face when he embarked on a political career. In some ways, his political ambitions are relatively modest. He doesn't crave power for himself. As he puts it: "We are not trying to win elections but to have elections." To get genuine opposition candidates' names on the ballots, and for them to be allowed to campaign in freedom is the first aspiration – at this stage, even this much seems to be a pipe dream. "In chess, as in normal politics, it is all about winning and losing," Kasparov continues. "What I'm doing is not about winning or losing. It is a moral imperative – to fight for democracy and human rights."
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