Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped
Garry Kasparov introduced by John Thornhill
Sunday 3rd April 2016
Russia's been on my radar lately, what with the marvellous TV adaptation of War and Peace earlier this year, lots of Tchaikovsky performances, and darker things like the Litvinenko ruling, a BBC Panorama documentary about Vladimir Putin's secret riches, and a terribly written but gripping new Russian spy thriller by a former CIA officer. So when I heard that former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is also an ardent opponent of the Russian president, was to speak at the Oxford Literary Festival, I was curious to know what he might add to this heady mix.
I do enjoy the OxLitFest, and after a while of reviewing talks at the Sheldonian I have noticed some recurring themes, including the somewhat haphazard queuing and seating arrangements, and those dastardly, lumbago-inducing benches suitable only for tall people. However, all tends to be forgotten when the speaker comes on.
Dressed in a dark grey jacket with light grey trousers, and sporting a red tie, Garry Kasparov stepped onto the stage somewhat hesitantly, but after a while came into his own, standing straighter and using his hands to gesticulate, sometimes wildly. Kasparov has a gravelly, sibilant voice, which does not amplify clearly over a microphone; as a result, I found it difficult to hear some of what he was saying, which will affect what I have to say next.
The title of his book, Winter is Coming, comes from the Game of Thrones novels, of which he's a huge fan. It refers to seasonal shifts in world history and is essentially a criticism of the failure of the Free World (not just the West, he emphasises – although the two are frequently interchanged) to curtail Vladimir Putin, whom he posits is the greatest threat both to the Free World and his own people.
According to Kasparov the Free World, which in his mind includes political pundits as well as state leaders, made a succession of errors when dealing with Putin. Some of these were exposed nicely today through anecdotes and humorous quips. Weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union, says Kasparov, the West was talking about "a new era of US-Soviet relations". The end of the Cold War therefore knocked them for six, and they had no plan for what to do next. The next source of his disgust is the G8 meeting in 2006, where Russian inclusion was "a masterpiece for Russian propaganda", as Putin could now bolster his credibility back home by being surrounded by the leaders of the Free World. Finally, Kasparov recounts a time when George Bush met Putin, looked into his eyes, and apparently saw his soul. "You're not a psychiatrist!" he cries, with a mixture of passion and exasperation, "Don't look at his eyes, look at his record!".
Make no mistake, Kasparov is also scathing about the Russian dictator, likening him to the kind of creature that can survive in a dry desert – the dry desert being an analogy for a country devoid of political systems because they have been deliberately hacked away by an autocrat desperate to hold onto power. When asked whether politics is like chess, he quips that chess is about fixed moves and unpredictable results, and that Putin's Russia is exactly the reverse. He says that corruption is no longer a problem in Russia because it has become part of the system, and even goes as far as to say that he "can't criticise any action that has led to the demise of a dictatorship." I wonder how he has managed to protect himself and his family from incarceration, or worse. Although he is currently living in exile in the US, being out of Russia doesn't always help, as the London polonium trail will attest to. As John Thornhill (who, sadly, didn't say much today) pointed out, being a critic of Putin is "not an occupation for the fainthearted".
Kasparov's perspective is as black-and-white as a chessboard: of course Russia was going to invade Ukraine, of course the economy was going to collapse, of course Putin is behind any conflict that helps to divide Europe. I can't tell how much of this prescience was formed at the time, and how much developed with hindsight; if the former, then his current I told you so vibe seems appropriate, and he must be very frustrated that no one listened.
However, Kasparov didn't expand much on Putin's motivations, including his penchant for a lavish lifestyle and his connections with oligarchs, or give details about what's going wrong domestically and how exactly Putin is linked with strife abroad. Putin's heinousness is assumed, rather than explained. In response to an audience question we learned that Russia is allegedly fuelling ISIS and Putin is benefitting from the terrorist attacks and migration crisis in Europe. But we didn't hear any specific solutions about what the Free World can do to stop this (or about the Free World's own complex interests and struggles), nor were we given a glimpse of promising alternatives to Putin's leadership.
Talks like this usually serve to whet the appetite and encourage the listener to read or engage further. I enjoyed the personal elements and narrative in today's talk but – unusually - I wanted clearer exposition and analysis of the issues. I think the whole thing could have worked better as a fireside chat, both in terms of acoustics and because it raised more questions than answers, warranting a proper conversation.That said, it was a privilege to hear an important voice of the Russian zeitgeist, who shared with us his hopes, frustrations, and love for his country in a profoundly human way.