May 27, 2007

Let me tell you a sad tale of Russian politics. In July, 1990 I attended a conference in Prague on the emerging democracies in the former Soviet orbit. Most of the speakers told the audience that the Soviet Union would live forever; but that it would lose Eastern Europe. When I got up to speak, having been there since 1989 and by this time having been to a number of the Soviet States, I said that what the audience was hearing was a bunch of nonsense. I said I believed that the Soviet Union was falling apart and soon there would be no Soviet Union. That was not well received by much of the establishment in attendance. I was roundly criticized.

Former U.S. United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick was to have been the keynote speaker but she cancelled because her husband had taken deathly ill. So the sponsors of the Conference asked then Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, a leader in the democracy movement, if he would substitute. Kasparov, noted for his sharp tongue, said he would do so if I would sit on the stage with him and feed him questions. He added to the sponsors that I was the only one of the speakers who knew what I was talking about. The sponsors, desperate, agreed to Kasparov’s terms. I was astounded because here was this world-renown figure insisting that I, who was known only in the United States at best, be on the stage with him in front of hundreds of important political figures from Eastern and Western Europe and even the Soviet States. Thus began a friendship based upon what was happening in the Soviet Union.

The next year Kasparov was in New York for a chess championship. He asked me to meet him at a particular hotel so I took the train to New York and did so. Kasparov said the Soviet Union was falling apart faster than even he had thought and we needed to plot together who could take power.

I was greatly honored that a man of this stature would ask me to plot with him as to what would happen in Russia. In subsequent trips to the Soviet Union and later Russia I visited with Kasparov and always enjoyed his company.

The last time I saw him was perhaps in 1994. I was in Moscow with the late, great Dr. Robert (Bob) Krieble, sponsor of the Krieble Institute of the Free Congress Foundation. We had been training people all over Russia in how to build small businesses and how to participate in the political process. Arkady Murashev, a former Member of the Soviet Duma, with whom I had been friends since 1989, was with us and since it was a Sunday and we had time, he suggested we take advantage of an invitation to come to Kasparov’s home. It seems that the Russians had permitted Kasparov to build a home not only for himself but also for several other families who played non-stop chess. Kasparov had been married but his wife had left him, saying he was really married to chess.

Anyway, here we were in a nice home, which would be comparable to an upper-middle class townhouse. Kasparov, whose mother lived with him, served us sandwiches. As usual, Kasparov wanted to talk politics. He wanted to know our views on how a member of the democracy movement could be elected as Prime Minister. Igor Gaidar had been Boris Yeltsin’s first Prime Minister but the Communists, who at that time still dominated the Duma, demanded that he be fired and Yeltsin subsequently did so. Here again I was thrilled to be in Kasparov’s living room discussing the future of Russia.

In a subsequent trip to Russia, Murashev said Kasparov had split with Murashev on the future of the democracy movement. I was sorry to hear that but I didn”€™t think much of it.

After that I didn”€™t hear much about Kasparov except an item in the American media that he was leaving chess.

Then I saw an item in our media saying that Kasparov was planning a new political party to oppose Putin. I knew that Putin was more popular than any Russian politician. His popularity was still above 70 per cent. When Yeltsin was in his second term he was blessed if he hit 29 per cent. So I wondered how Kasparov was going to be able to oppose Putin, who at this writing is still scheduled to leave the Russian Presidency at the end of his second term. I was thinking of the old Kasparov. This past week I had the chance to visit with Murashev in my home and the topic of Kasparov arose because it bothered me that the Western media had reported that he was held for several hours after a demonstration.

Murashev’s views I have come to respect over the past nineteen years. He is very objective. He has seldom been wrong. He tells me that Kasparov has joined with a Marxist who campaigns for the return of Communism. Here is this important pro-democracy figure, Kasparov, who has now joined with his former arch-opponent to get political attention. Murashev says that unfortunately Kasparov has become an almost clownish figure.

He still has a good image in the Western media, however. I feel very badly that Kasparov, who no longer is involved with chess, is no longer respected in Russia. I liked the man. I was honored to be with him. We have our sad figures who have fallen from grace as well. Think of Harold E. Stassen. I can only wish Kasparov well, but given his reputation, it is not likely we will be seeing him as a serious political figure ever again.

Meanwhile our conversation with Murashev turned to coverage of Russia by Western media. Murashev makes the case that it is terrible. I have seen it up close. Murashev is correct. The question is why? Is it simply ignorance on the part of Western reporters? How can it be? They can see things with their own eyes.

I once asked Igor Gaidar why Russia was receiving such bad coverage. He said that the Soviets had spent millions to infiltrate the Western media, “€œJust because the Soviets went away, it doesn”€™t mean these reporters have gone away. They are still there.”€ I have no idea if that is the reason Russia gets such a bad rap. Perhaps some reporters are not Communist plants but were sympathetic to the Soviet Union and resent what has taken its place. I have met so many reporters who looked to the Soviet Union as a remarkable model. They blame the West for its collapse. Former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky said that the West did not so much defeat the Soviet Union; it just imploded.

Regardless of which notion is acceptable, the West actively defeating the Soviet Union or its simple implosion, there is no rational explanation for the coverage that Russia is receiving.  My own view is that most likely the reason for the bad coverage is resentment over what has replaced the Soviet Union. A member of a prominent American Democratic campaign once told me that I had no idea how much liberals looked to the Soviet Union as an appropriate model for the West and how angry and confused the left is now that it has fallen. Most reporters, of course, belong to the left.

I would often say I would attend a hearing in the Senate and would not recognize the coverage of the same on the evening news. Now the Russians are having the same experience. Is this proof of growth? 

A Free Congress Foundation Commentary. Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.


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