Great champions, like politicians, are forged in defeat. Garry Kasparov's came in February 1985 at the end of a match for the world championship of chess. Kasparov's rival, Anatoly Karpov, had jumped to an early and seemingly impregnable 5-0 lead. The rules stipulated that the match would be won by the first to win six games. After a long series of draws, Kasparov clawed his way to 5-3. Then Florencio Campomanes, head of the international chess federation, intervened, claiming the players were exhausted. Kasparov, just 21, was enraged. Later that year, he defeated Karpov to win the world title, but the earlier injustice prompted an awakening of another sort. "February 15, 1985," he says now, "was the beginning of my political career."
Having established himself as one of the greatest chess masters of all time, Kasparov is an underdog again. As a leader of the Other Russia, a coalition of opponents to the government of Vladimir Putin, Kasparov has become Russia's most conspicuous political gadfly--a symbol of the sense that as the world prepares for the end of the Putin period (presidential elections are due to be held in March 2008, and under the Russian constitution, Putin cannot stand for a third term), all is not well in Russia. The Other Russia has been holding a series of protest marches, most recently in Nizhny, Novgorod, where the rally was broken up by police.
He has chosen an interesting time to engage. Russia is at a fulcrum. Fueled by high prices for energy and raw materials, the economy is booming as it has not been in decades. Most Russian citizens live infinitely freer lives now than they did during the Soviet era of gulags and totalitarianism. But Russia's political system is dominated by a military-industrial-security complex, many of whose members (like Putin) have roots in the old KGB and seem determined to maintain control of the nation's natural resources for their own benefit. Kasparov doesn't believe Russia's leaders are readying themselves for a new cold war with the West; Russia can't instigate another such struggle. Today's motivating ideology, Kasparov says, is "Let's steal together."
Kasparov, you might say, has been enveloped by politics all his life. Being a Soviet chess prodigy will do that for you. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1963, he started playing chess before he was 5. After his father died when he was 7, Kasparov's mother Clara--whose last name he took--shepherded his career. (She still does. When TIME interviewed Kasparov at their spacious, Soviet-era apartment in Moscow recently, it was Clara who kept an eye on the clock and reminded Kasparov of his next appointment.) As he grew up, Kasparov says, he became aware of the "political climate surrounding chess matches." Karpov was the "darling of the system ... Karpov was theirs. I was not." Old Soviet attitudes began to change when Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985. Kasparov defeated Karpov for the world championship later that year. By the end of the 1980s, he says, he regarded himself as part of the democratic opposition to communist rule. Kasparov stayed away from formal politics for much of the post-Soviet period, spending his time writing books and developing a career as a speaker to business and professional audiences. But he was contemplating his future after chess. In 2005, having won the prestigious Linares tournament for the ninth time in 16 years, he announced that he was giving up competitive chess to devote himself full-time to politics and to challenging Putin's version of Russia.
For Kasparov and some other dissidents, the original sin of the new Russia was the 1996 presidential election, in which--with the help of massive injections of funds from business oligarchs--Boris Yeltsin won re-election over Gennady Zyuganov, the Communists' leader. Kasparov now says that he and other liberals made a "horrible mistake when we endorsed Yeltsin and looked the other way out of fear for a communist comeback. We missed the whole point that democracy is not about results. Democracy is about upholding regulations and having a legitimate transfer of power."
Putin, Kasparov insists, is getting weaker by the day, as oil prices fall and his entourage starts to look for the protection they will need when he is gone. The Other Russia has brought together a number of groups, from the old nationalist left to the liberal right. All have agreed on a program of fundamental political reform, including a reduction of presidential power, more authority for the parliament and a delegation of authority to the regions. The group's members hope to coalesce around a single presidential candidate in 2008.
For now, that seems unlikely to be Kasparov. He says he is merely a "moderator" between left and right. But he isn't taking chances. In a Russia where crusading journalists like Anna Politkovskaya have been shot, he travels with bodyguards. Russians must take responsibility for change, he says. All he wants from the West is an unequivocal message to the Russian ruling élite that "there will be consequences if they don't play by the rules in 2008."
Now grayer, with less of that shock of black hair that once marked him, but as intense as ever, the onetime child prodigy won't be returning to chess. "I don't want to look back," says Kasparov. "I have a new life now."