In this country we’re not used to thinking of our politicians as heroes. And they seldom are—with some notable exceptions, such as Reagan, who cracked jokes after getting shot, or FDR, who grinned and bore his paralysis, or Lincoln, who directed the war effort with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Our politicians don’t have to be heroes; the Founders created a system in which average men and women could govern themselves.
But in other countries, especially in emerging democracies or in countries still oppressed by a dictator’s whims, being a politician can be a very heroic act. One thinks of Ayman Nour in Egypt, imprisoned for daring to run against Hosni Mubarak. Or Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, imprisoned in her homeland, separated from her husband as he was dying, because she dared challenge the junta that rules Burma.
The latest to join the ranks of heroic politicians is Garry Kasparov, who has announced that he will take on the thankless task of challenging Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor in Russia’s presidential elections. Kasparov—the subject of a long New Yorker profile by David Remnick last week—is widely considered to be the greatest chess player of all time. He is a rich man who could easily live a life of leisure in New York, London, or Tel Aviv. He has instead chosen to seek political office in Russia even though he knows the odds of victory are nonexistent. The odds of getting killed by the Kremlin’s thugs are considerably higher.
Yet he is running nevertheless simply because he believes in democracy and wants to preserve some sparks of freedom in a country increasingly falling under dictatorial control.That doesn’t mean that he is a political sage or that he is right about every decision he makes. I’ve had discussions with Kasparov (whom I know slightly) in the past where I disagreed with his arguments. And it is certainly possible to question the wisdom of his current alliance with Edward Limonov of the National Bolshevik Party, the closest thing Russia has to a fascist party. Kasparov wants to unite all the opposition groups under one banner, but there are some opposition elements which are too odious to be tolerated by civilized people.
But that’s a matter of tactics on Kasparov’s part. No one could possibly imagine that he is sympathetic to fascism himself or has any but the highest motives for his actions. It is easy to be cynical about the motives of most politicians. But it is hard, if not impossible, to think of any self-interest that Kasparov has in doing what he is doing. He is truly a hero. I only hope he does not become a martyr.