Garry Kasparov is a name that you would find at the top of the world chess rankings of January 1986, October 2005 and almost every version of it in between. For close to 20 years, the Russian held virtually undisputed sway over the sport. Chess is no small thing in Russia. Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov’s compatriot and long-time rival, once likened the popularity of the sport in the country to that of baseball in the USA. Kasparov is regarded as the greatest to have ever played the game and yet, he has not set foot in his country since 2013. For in Russia, no person is too big to feel threatened if they go up against President Vladimir Putin.
The venue is New Delhi’s Hyatt Regency hotel, which was in the news recently when a former politician’s son brandished a gun and threatened a couple at its entrance. Kasparov is part of a panel of elite sportspersons who are in the city for a promotional event. He is sat on a stool in front of a room full of journalists and cameramen with former Australian hockey player Ric Charlesworth and South African cricket great AB de Villiers sat to his left and four-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Mo Farah on his right.
After the press conference, the floor was open for the melee of one-on-one interviews to commence. De Villiers and Farah bore the brunt of it but cameras and microphones were shunted into Kasparov’s face too. The questions ranged from those on his own career to the state of the sport in India to ‘what do you have to say about Viswanathan Anand?’ He may not be welcome in Russia any more, but the value of Kasparov’s voice in the world of chess has never diminished.
An unofficial exile from his own country, where his 80-year-old mother still resides, has not dimmed Kasparov’s will to speak about politics in Russia or the USA where he has been living since 2013. A simple scroll through his Twitter page is proof of that.
According to him, as a person with access to millions of followers, it becomes a “moral imperative” for him to speak up on socio-political issues. “It’s not just about prominent sports stars. Its important for any person who has a massive following, whether it be a rockstar or a famous artist or an actor. I think anyone who cares about the future of his or her own country and society should not live in a shell. They should not pretend like they have nothing to do with socio-political upheaval,” says the 55-year-old. “From my experience, I know a lot of people will recognise that if you raise your voice, they cannot stay neutral in this battle.”
Raise his voice, he did.
Since 2005, Kasparov has been an outspoken critic of Putin. He decided to run in the 2008 Russian presidential elections. Arrests were made against him and his supporters in November 2007. A month later, he announced that he was quitting the campaign due to his inability to rent a meeting hall where at least 500 of his supporters could assemble, a basic requirement for anyone running against Putin. Kasparov’s spokesperson said at the time that government pressure is what had stopped anyone from renting a hall to the campaign.
“In Russia or in China if we speak about the regime, you could end up in jail,” says Kasparov. In his case though, it could have been far worse. In 2007, a former KGB officer said that Kasparov’s life might be in danger.
Since 2013, New York has been Kasparov’s home and said it is not going back to Russia which is the problem. He is not sure if he will be allowed to leave the country once he sets foot there.
Standing up to the regime has led to arrests and a self-imposed exile but he says that those who have a voice should never remain silent, especially in established democracies like India. “There is no guarantee that your voice will be heard but when you do that you do it for your own conscience. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about making your presence known,” he says. “Naturally, in countries that have an established democracy its different. In Russia or in China if we speak about the regime, you could end up in jail. In India, you could experience some problems but not the same risks as in Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.”
Sports has the power to cultivate divisions and unity. A famous example of the latter can be found in the run-up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup when the Ivory Coast national team, fresh off securing qualification to the tournament, appealed to the two factions in their war-torn country to sort out their differences. Their message and the subsequent matches they played in rebel territory is seen as one of the major reasons why the First Ivorian Civil War reached a resolution.
Kasparov has been in the competitive sports for a better part of his life and knows full well the power that his field holds. “I always encourage my peers to use their access to millions of fans to take a stand,” he said. “Because there are so many cases, they vary from country to country, where the presence of a famous person is always positive.”