Chess Champion Talks Russian Democracy

Russian pro-democracy activist and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov encouraged Western countries to enact assertive foreign policies against Russia in a speech in the Intercultural Center Auditorium on Thursday.

The event, titled “Garry Kasparov on the Rise and Fall of Russian Democracy and Why It Matters to America and the World,” was part of Kasparov’s promotional tour for his latest book, “Winter is Coming,” a critique of the Putin regime. The Lecture Fund organized the event and distributed free copies of the book to the event’s first 150 attendees.

Kasparov, who became the youngest undisputed world chess champion in 1985 at 22 years old, described the contrast between his former role as an emblem of the Soviet Union’s intellectual superiority to the West decades ago and his current dissidence against the Russian government.

“When people ask me about my chess skills and how useful they are in navigating the hot waters of Russian politics, my answer is that they were absolutely useless,” Kasparov said. “Because in chess, you have strict rules with unpredictable results, while in Putin’s Russia it is exactly the opposite.”

Kasparov advocated for an interventionist foreign policy in order to preserve global economic interests and protect global security. According to Kasparov, the failure of the United States and its allies to intercede on behalf of democracy in Russia could potentially manifest in greater aggression from its leader.

“I’ve read enough history books to know that appeasement has killed more people than deterrence,” Kasparov said. “The lesson from history is that the weakness always provokes foreign aggression. Strength is vital in dealing with dictators, and hopefully the free world will step up to the challenge.”

Kasparov criticized American foreign policy for its failure to provide a united front in quelling the expansion of Putin’s power. He said that the lack of bipartisan consensus within the United States runs contrary to the politics of the Cold War era, which saw common goals among Democrats and Republicans.

“It comes down to making excuses and backing away from challenges,” Kasparov said. “Don’t tell me that Vladimir Putin is more dangerous than Josef Stalin in 1948. … Every day Putin stays in power, the drier the political desert in Russia. And who can survive in a political desert? Only creatures like snakes and rats and scorpions.”

Benjamin Forestier (MSB ’16), who organized the event as an associate board member of the Lecture Fund, said he studied Kasparov’s techniques to implement in his own gaming strategies as a chess player of 15 years. He said Kasparov’s advocacy work compelled him to pursue inviting Kasparov to campus since June.
“Georgetown is a Jesuit university, and though we are supposedly men and women for others, I think the biggest risk we face as students is getting too comfortable,” Forestier said. “With Mr. Kasparov, we have somebody with a brilliant mind and extraordinary achievements who left his comfort zone, who pulled himself out of safety in order to contribute to something he believes is the greater good.”

Nick Shedd (SFS ’18), who hauled his chess set to the lecture to have it signed by Kasparov, said although he had reservations about Kasparov’s foreign policy, he was swayed by his account of political oppression in Russia.

“I honestly came because I saw a post on Facebook that Kasparov was signing chessboards, and I thought that was awesome,” Shedd said. “I stayed because hearing his story and getting that insider perspective about the workings in Putin’s government was very cool, and it’s something we talked about a lot in my Russian class last year.”

Alejandro Perez-Reyes (COL ’17), a government and Russian double major, said Kasparov’s analysis oversimplified the current state of Russian affairs by attributing developments to Vladimir Putin alone, rather than to millions of processes, procedures and interests.

“In my view, he made the Russian government synonymous with Putin’s desires, and when you think about it in context, there are Russian bureaucratic agencies — different power actors — who influence what Russia does,” Perez-Reyes said.

Despite this limitation, Perez-Reyes said Kasparov offered a convincing argument in laying out a moral framework for U.S. foreign policy.

“I don’t think I will ever hear that kind of experience or perspective voiced with as much moral authority,” Perez-Reyes said. “I don’t think we can forget about that and still say that U.S. foreign policy is morally justified at all, because if we do that, we are turning our backs on people who really need our help.”


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