Garry Kasparov Transcript

Table of Contents

I: Chess and Politics in Soviet Russia 00:15 – 23:28
II: Kasparov v. Karpov 23:28 – 35:11
III: Was a Soviet Collapse Inevitable? 35:11 – 46:31
IV: The Fall of the USSR 46:31 – 1:19:58

I: Chess and Politics in Soviet Russia (00:15 – 23:28

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have with me today Garry Kasparov, the great chess champion, one of the greatest chess players of all time. Many people say you are the greatest chess player of all time. I won’t ask you to comment on that, one way or the other. A leader of the fight for democracy in Russia.

And there’s so much to talk about, I’m not sure where to begin, but I will begin where I first heard of you, I think, as you were a great young chess players and those epic matches with Karpov in 1984 and 1985. I remember reading not just – I had a mild interest in chess, not just about the chess matches, but about your own biography in the Soviet Union. Soviet Union was a long time ago now. It’s hard to believe – 25 years. What was it like growing up in the Soviet Union?

KASPAROV: I think the reason you look at these matches probably was not so much the chess factor but to the political element, which was inevitable because in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West.

That’s why the Spassky defeat – Boris Spassky’s defeat in 1972 when Bobby Fischer took the crown from the hands of the Soviet Chess School. Since 1948, you know, chess title was firmly in the hands of Soviet players. This event was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War. Big intellectual victory for the United States, and you know, a hugely painful, almost insulting defeat for the Soviet Union, because Bobby Fischer was a great player but he was like a lonely warrior. A guy from Brooklyn taking on the mighty Soviet Chess School.

The Soviet authorities they looked for new challenger, for a player from the new generation. And they were quite lucky just having Anatoly Karpov. Again, it was not a big surprise that Karpov was around because if you have, you know, millions of kids going through these network in the country where there were very few options available for talented kids – business was not an option, politics was not an option, the law was not an option, and every parent tried to look for some opportunities for their kids, and chess was one of them.

Music, ballet, some kind of science, sports in general, so that’s why Soviet authorities could, you know, could channel these huge mass of potential talented kids into these chess network and finding Karpov, Kasparov, and other great players, you know, was not that difficult because it was simply about big numbers. To the contrary, in the United States, you had, you know, maybe thousands, maybe tens of thousands of kids playing chess here in the New York City or in Chicago or in the Bay Area and again, mathematically speaking, the chance of finding Bobby Fischer was miniscule. Fischer was some kind of miracle when almost assembly line of champions in the Soviet Union was quite predictable because of a massive investment of the state into the chess infrastructure.

I also have to add, you know, that this, contrary to popular belief in this country or in Europe, chess was never a part of the educational system of the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities had no interest in actually using chess, which I believe has the unique ability to enhance cognitive skills of kids, to use this in the schools because all they wanted was just to find talent. So it was an investment to make sure that the top tier of Soviet chess would always reinforce by new talent coming, you know, from the bottom of this pyramid.

Probably, I’m the wrong person to criticize this because I was one of the beneficiaries. I was lucky that very early age, so by five, four, six – it’s hard to remember because nobody was Tweeting this moment – I was watching my parents, my mother and my father –

KRISTOL: This was in Baku?

KASPAROV: Baku, Azerbaijan. So, for American audiences I always make a joke saying that I was born and raised in the Deep South, right next to Georgia, which it technically was the deep south of the Soviet Union and the Republic of Azerbaijan, right next to the Republic of Georgia.

KRISTOL: But far away from the capital?

KASPAROV: It’s about 1,500 miles south of Moscow. Really deep south of the Soviet Union, next to the Iranian border. The Caspian seaside – the shores of the Caspian Sea. And I watched them, you know, and I was fascinated immediately by these, you know, by the magical pieces, you know, moving, you know, with the strange rules and this small chess wooden board. Actually, I learned how to move pieces. Just I was all being told.

Contrary to the family traditions, where the father’s side, everybody – except my father who graduated in the class of violin but he became an engineer, that’s how he met my mother. Both engineers working for the oil industry because back then it was a big oil center. My father said that I would have to study chess because he thought my mind – and he was absolutely right – my mind was a perfect match for it. Understanding this was the logic of the game. Tragically, my father died when I was seven, but my mother continued this work, and she, since my father was gone, so she dedicated her life just to my success. She never married, and, you know, she was the best manager I could have in my life.

She helped me to sort of to learn more about the game of chess but was not pushing too hard. There’s always a risk if you start, you know, playing too much and you’re trying to climb too fast, you can fall. She just wanted to make sure that, you know, I could be gently pushed in the right direction because everybody could see I had an immense chess talent.

Growing up the family was my mother and her parents, my grandfather who was a diehard communist. On my father’s side, I had a very strong influence from my father’s younger brother – this is from the Jewish side of my family. My father was Jewish; my mother, Armenian.

KRISTOL: Two peoples who had a tough 20th century.

KASPAROV: And my uncle introduced me to the Jewish intelligentsia in Baku so I had access to the books that were, say, not freely distributed in the Soviet Union, so I could actually hear other side of the story. Not that I needed to realize that, but it was good that actually I could hear, you know, I could hear stories from my grandfather or I could read his books. Of course, I was the subject of Soviet propaganda, but at the same time I could hear critical views. And with my analytical skills, it was inevitable that at one point, I would start comparing these stories.

KRISTOL: Was there a moment when you realized that some people live in freedom and we’re not living in freedom? Or is it gradual?

KASPAROV: Of course, it’s gradual because you’re living in Soviet environment, and even in the Soviet Union, people who were critical of the current regime – most of them, with very few exceptions, believed that it was not due to the sort of rotten nature of socialism and communism, but more to, it was due to the bad implementation.

So the very popular myth, with the good Lenin and the bad Stalin, dominated the sort of intellectual circles in the Soviet Union, and I have to confess that I was somehow hostage of these views for quite awhile. Only mid-80s I could realize it was nothing to do with good Lenin or bad Stalin and a bad implementation, it’s gulag, concentration camps, the purges, famine, and it’s suppression of all sorts of freedom. It was inevitable. It’s, you know, no matter how you play these moves, it will end up with the same result. But it took some time.

It started, of course, in 1976. At age 13, I was already a young champion. I won early 1976 – 40 years ago – I won my first title. I became the Soviet Union champion under 18, which was a huge success, and I was sent to France to the World Union Championship under 16.

It was first abroad and – again, those who do not understand what was the Soviet Union, and I didn’t grow not in just in a small city. Baku was the fourth or the fifth largest city in the Soviet Union. Probably the fourth. Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and then Baku. It’s a huge industrial city. It’s like an outpost of the Russian empire. That’s why although I’m half-Armenian, half-Jewish, I consider myself Russian because Russian is my native tongue, and I grew up with Russian culture. Everyone in our family spoke Russian.

My mother married a Jew, her second sister married an Armenian, the younger sister married an Azeri. We had all the nationalities, but everybody spoke Russian. It’s not surprising these days, everybody lives in Moscow because they moved to the capital of the empire. That was the difference between Baku and other cities like Yerevan, in Armenia or Republic of Georgia, where people spoke native tongue, even non-Armenians or non-Georgians, they tend to be part of the local culture.

KRISTOL: So you go to France?

KASPAROV: Went to France and I was probably, was in, you know, within my family and the circle of friends, I think was the only person who visited a capitalist country. Because people who travel outside of the Soviet Union, there was a very, very tiny group.

KRISTOL: It was hard to travel?

KASPAROV: There were so many, so many obstacles, you know? You had to go through very complicated procedure. Again, it’s hard to imagine for boys here in US or in Europe, in the free world, who were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In order to receive your passport and permission to travel outside of the Soviet Union, you had to go through a very complicated process of selection and approval.

Even I, a boy under age, 13 years old, I had to be part of this process, and I remember I was a group of adults at the meeting of the sort of local committee of the Communist Party. It’s like a vetting process.

They had to give permission. Again, complicated bureaucratic process. Of course, for counties like France, the United States, England, Italy, the capitalist countries, it was much more complicated.

KRISTOL: But they sent you abroad to play chess?

KASPAROV: They sent me abroad to play chess, but again, I was 13-year-old and they sent me without my mother because, again, this is a precaution. If a talented player, you know, half-Armenian and half-Jewish, you know, travels abroad with his mother, who knows? I had no intention of staying abroad, my mother would never do that as we had all the roots in the Soviet Union. But still, you know, they didn’t care.

First time, my mother traveled with me aboard was in 1983. I was already one of the best players –probably second best player in the world – playing the semi-finals of the chess matches, just two steps away from challenging Karpov. First time, they allowed me to travel, and it was after, you know, sort of the full support I received from the Republic of Azerbaijan from Party authorities, you know, just guaranteed that I would not defect.

But in 1976, I was sent with just, you know, a coach. I never met him in my life before. A good coach from Ukraine. He was given like, you know, just a – kind of gift, just to go abroad so you can travel, you can just buy something to bring back to Soviet Union to sell it so making a few rubles there. He didn’t care very much about me and about, you know, my results. So I actually I failed. And failed to win this title in ’76 and ’77, only title I haven’t won in my life, World Champion under 16. But, there were two trips to France: ’76 and then ’77.

KRISTOL: ’76 did it have a big effect on you, otherwise?

KASPAROV: Exactly. There was a second one in ’77, the first was north of France, the second south of France. I actually realized this, definitely, a huge gap. The propaganda is not, you know, covering the whole story.

KRISTOL: What struck you? The gap in the standard of living or the people living in freedom, somehow?

KASPAROV: I was a professional player so I was 13 or 14, but still, you know? I could – it’s like professional instincts. You understand. You move in a totally different environment. It’s free. I couldn’t actually – if you asked me to explain this, I wouldn’t be able to actually to sort of quantify that, but I knew it was different. And I, you know, I kept learning, reading more books, and speaking to the different people because as the celebrity, even at my age, so I could speak to all the people. Especially Moscow to people who had sort of broader views about the world.

KRISTOL: Did any one or two, either people or books, have a particular influence? Did you meet –

KASPAROV: In ’81 I read Solzhenitsyn. That’s –

KRISTOL: In Russia?

KASPAROV: No, actually outside of Russia. I remember that in 19 –

KRISTOL: You had heard of him?

KASPAROV: Everyone heard about Solzhenitsyn in the South. You know, those were like Voldemort, the name’s not to be mentioned. Enemies of the state. Naturally, you know, people I spoke to they had very different views about – While it was difficult to understand exactly what they were standing for, we didn’t have Twitter. We didn’t have Facebook. We didn’t have the same information. Even when you look at the chess side of my life, I had to collect the data by just by going through the magazines and, you know, chess books were, you know, quite rare.

To find a good book, you had to dig deep. And my mother still keeps some of my notebooks. I had to report some of this data, analyze it. It’s all handwriting. It’s very hard for kids today to actually understand. Instead of sliding your finger on the screen, I had to do all these diagrams. I printed the diagrams. I had a set, you know, where you put a diagram, chess diagram, and those are green and white and then I had the pieces, blue and red. You can actually then put chess pieces. You just had diagrams. It’s all printed.

KRISTOL: What of Solzhenitsyn? I’m curious what did you read first? Do you remember?

KASPAROV: The Gulag, that was the beginning of my sort of –

KRISTOL: In Russian?

KASPAROV: In Russian. But also in 1980, I already had a few books that helped me to understand difference. I was reading the books – actually, I could buy the books while being abroad that were not available in Russia. And also there were moments in the Soviet Union that actually also helped me to move in the right direction. I always had this kind of debate with my diehard communist grandfather, who was a member of the Communist Party since 1931. He spent his life – he was in oil industry and in mid-70s, late 70s actually, he was quite confused because he had been expecting, you know, communism. He spent his life working for this bright future, and instead, we had food rations.

And an invasion of Afghanistan was a problem. He just couldn’t understand it. Then, you could see the disappearance of some, you know, of many food items from our stores. And as the long-term Party member, he had a sort of special privilege to go and buy this food. It was difficult for him to contemplate all of this, and then the Soviet authorities, they started jamming Radio Liberty and Voice of America, and we had big debates in our tiny dining room. On the wall, we had a big political map of the world. We would look at this map and have the conversation. It was more and more difficult for him to sort of resist this pressure. Because I was young, dynamic, and I would say, why the jamming if they are convinced it’s the right decision?

He died in 1981. We were very close. He loved me and he held me a lot because I grew up without my father, but it was quite an interesting moment. And ’79, ’80, ’81, it’s more and more people actually saw that the regime was no longer vibrant as it used to be.

KRISTOL: And you had that succession of all the leaders.

KASPAROV: Brezhnev’s already looked like a complete joke. And of course, 1980, Ronald Reagan.

KRISTOL: Was that very big even –?

KASPAROV: It was like a panic. Again, we didn’t know what to think because the way Soviet propaganda treated the elections in 1980 was we are about to start a war. Right-wing, crazy, maniac – this is the anti-Communist from Stone Age, and he would attack us. They went amok. It was quite amazing just to recall the reaction, because after Jimmy Carter and Afghanistan, they thought we could always deal with Western leaders by just giving some concessions, but eventually preserving the Communist dominance in many quarters of the world. And actually, I have to say the Nixon-Kissinger policy preceded, you know, a Jimmy Carter policy of détente. So for more than ten years, Communist leaders believed that they had a sort of dominant hand in the world affairs.

KRISTOL: Or weren’t being challenged.

KASPAROV: And suddenly someone was bold enough to call them an evil empire. At that time, I already entered sort of professional chess. Everybody knew I would be most likely the next challenger. Being young challenger – half-Armenian, half-Jewish, coming from Baku, challenging Anatoly Karpov, the darling of the system, Brezhnev’s favorite, ethnic Russian – it was more of a challenge than I could imagine at that time. I knew it would be difficult, but I still believed my chess skills would help me overcome this.

In 1981, I was bluntly told by Soviet authorities that the country had already won the World Champion so it didn’t need a second one. I was lucky – everybody needs luck, when you’re trying to climb to the Olympus. You have your skills, you could have all your talents, you could have discipline, you could have a strong mother behind you, I had coaches that helped me, but I still needed political luck. I had support from the Republic of Azerbaijan – the leader, the communist leader there, for his own political calculations, he thought it would be nice just to push me, and just you know –

KRISTOL: They didn’t stop you from playing –

KASPAROV: I got enough back-up in Baku, in Azerbaijan and that helped me to sort of to eventually climb to the top and challenge Anatoly Karpov. After this long story, we reached a point where you actually learned about my existence.

II: Kasparov v. Karpov (23:28 – 35:11)

KRISTOL: For young people today and people who aren’t chess followers, it’s hard to imagine the amount of interest and the drama, they were all such close and dramatic matches with comebacks and then they cancelled, didn’t they, the 1984 match before it was over?

KASPAROV: It’s also you know, we should remember that – and to inform our audience – after 1972, Fischer’s victory, Fischer left chess. He refused to defend his title in 1975 so Anatoly Karpov was proclaimed World Champion. I think, you know, he deserved to play a match against Fischer. I wouldn’t call him a favorite, but I think he had a very good chance of winning because Karpov already represented a new generation of the players. One of the reasons Fischer ducked and refused to play Karpov, I think he wasn’t sure how to deal with him. Karpov was quite different from all the players that Fischer successfully beat earlier.

And then in 1978 and 1981, Karpov played Viktor Korchnoi who was a former Soviet player, defector. Like an evil man. A traitor. And Soviet propaganda billed those two matches, especially the first one where Karpov won a very dramatic event, just winning the last game with the score being 5-5. And the final victory gave Karpov in Game 32, sort of saved Karpov from a disaster. And it was trumpeted as a big victory of Soviet political system, and of course, he was personally congratulated by Brezhnev and praised by top Soviet authorities. So Karpov became kind of a cult figure. So the man who helped to bring back the title from Americans in 1975, and nobody remembered that Fischer hasn’t played, but what was important that Karpov brought the title back and also he twice defeated a traitor, a defector.

Challenging Karpov was somehow was like challenging a Soviet myth. And what I think the authorities in Moscow, they at that time I doubt they saw me as the potential freedom fighter. Yes, of course, as I said, I was half-Armenian, half-Jewish, it was kind of instinctively they could smell that I was not a loyal party solider. So I was not like Anatoly Karpov. So I was a rebel. And I was too unpredictable. I think they just wanted to ward off trouble so that’s why Karpov received full support.

He was a hell of a player so we should give him credit. I entered, you know, this match in September 1984, it was in Moscow, big event. I was 21, Karpov was 33. He was very young, and it’s in his ripe – he was top player for ten years, and everybody expected a big fight, but still Karpov was not maybe heavy favorite, but a favorite by all odds at that time. And of course, the beginning of the match was more disastrous than anybody could have imagined. The four games I was trailing 4 to nothing. And the rules of the match were the same as Karpov played against Korchnoi, to win the match one player had to score six wins and draws were not counted.

So Karpov was just two wins away from a big smashing victory, and then the miracle has happened. I managed to sort of slow down the match, to play against my own instincts, so just to make draws, short draws. To diffusing the tension. And though Karpov won one more game, Game 27, it was 5 to nothing. At least, I could recover, and eventually I scored one victory in Game 32, and for some reason Karpov lost his energy. I think it was just my resilience, you know? Just stubbornness. Somehow, he just he couldn’t overcome his stiffness. He wanted to win, you know, without taking any risks. So he wanted to win, as the beginning of the match by just, you know, waiting for my mistakes, but I didn’t make big mistakes at the end of the match.

The more draws, but eventually I won Game 47 and 48 – can you imagine 48 games? We played five months. And then suddenly for Soviet authorities, it was quite a shocking revelation. 5-3. Still mathematically speaking, Karpov was a favorite, but if you go from 5 to 0 to 5 to 3, and I won the last two games, momentum was on my side, and Karpov looked totally exhausted, psychologically, and I had a real chance. I don’t know how big of a chance, but it was a chance. It was no longer, you know, slim to none. I had a real fighting chance, and if, you know, I could score one more victory, 5-4, Karpov could have collapsed.

Then, the decision was made to stop the match. They brought the President of the International Chess Federation, a Filipino, Florencio Campomanes, who was clearly, you know, just a KBG stooge. They actually supported him in the elections in 1982 after he helped Karpov and his team in 1978 in the Philippines against Korchnoi. He declared that the match would be stopped because players were exhausted. Technically, yes, but you know, there’s exhaustion and exhaustion. I was exhausted and Karpov was exhausted, but I was winning and he was losing.

But because it was 1985 and because I made a big scandal at the closing ceremony, at the closing press conference, because technically, nobody had rights to stop the match. The rules were clear. One player had to win six games, and it was still 5-3, and suddenly at the interference of the Filipino president declaring that the match was over, but instead of keeping Karpov’s 2-0 advantage under this pressure because it was press conference, and the first time the foreign press in Moscow could actually see a Soviet athlete – and I guess, you know, we can consider chess players athletes – Soviet celebrity openly opposing decision backed by Soviet authorities. It was February 1985, Gorbachev was not –

KRISTOL: I was going to ask. When did Gorbachev take over?

KASPAROV: In March, April. So this is, Chernenko was the General Secretary at that time, he died in March.

KRISTOL: And were you taking a big risk by speaking out, or did you think you were pretty safe because you were such a celebrity?

KASPAROV: In the Soviet Union in 1985? No, I was risking everything. Even later on, so this is when in May 1985 when I just you know sensed the danger of them, you know, backing off from his decision and creating some sort of new sort of new conditions. Because Karpov was not happy with the new match.

We scheduled with 0-0. It was 24 games, not unlimited match, and he still had an advantage of a tie. So 12-12. And, he was given a rematch. They gave him quite a good, a very soft cushion protecting him so for the future. But still he didn’t like it. He wanted to start the match with 2-0, which was ridiculous, of course, because, you know, just absurd to give him two-points advantage just in 24 games and for why?

Because he actually signed the decision to stop the match, I obeyed because I had no choice but I was dead against it, and I made my disagreement public.

KRISTOL: In early ’85 –

KASPAROV: In May, I gave an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel

KRISTOL: How did that work in the Soviet Union? They could just call you up and come see you, or was it difficult –

KASPAROV: No, because I played a match, training match, with a German leading player, Robert Hübner in Hamburg, invited by Der Spiegel, and they wanted an interview and I grabbed my opportunity to express the protest –

KRISTOL: But you couldn’t have done that, maybe in Moscow?

KASPAROV: Technically, I could but –

KRISTOL: It was lucky you were in Hamburg.

KASPAROV: Again, it was already 1985, Gorbachev was in charge, and there was a slight relaxation of the steep rules. But you know, it was a huge risk because immediately after this interview where I blasted Soviet sports authorities and International Chess Federation – by the way, when you read this interview, today it’s naive, it’s weak. It’s still, you know, inconclusive because I tried, you know, to just sort of to land only soft shots.

But at that time, 1985, May, it was like a bomb exploding, and dozens and dozens of publications around the world picked it up. And sports authorities in Soviet Union, they actually appealed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, asking to disqualify me for discrediting the image of the Soviet Union. And I was not a – just you know, it’s probably just it’s very, very, very close just to being simply disqualified.

But again, I was lucky because there was a change, and Gorbachev brought Alexander Yakovlev, the man to his Party career, but was then sent to exile in Canada as a Soviet ambassador and was brought back, and he was instrumental in relaxing Soviet public, social, and cultural life. He never met me, but at the meeting, you know, Yakovlev convinced Gorbachev – and then he told me these stories when I met him in 1985 in August – he said, “Look, Comrade Gorbachev, it’s a chess match, so why do you bother? Let them play and let the best player win. They’re both Soviet players.” And that was the decision and I remember after meeting Yakovlev, so I came back home and my mother looks at me and I says, “Mom, great news, they let me beat Karpov.”

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