Our driver navigated among begrimed Ladas, Volgas, and Moskviches in a lurching cavalcade studded with clean new Mercedes and the occasional glistening black Volvo (perhaps belonging to a Duma deputy or other state official) forcing traffic aside with sirens and flickering high beams. Muscovites, many dressed to the nines, slipped between vehicles to cross the jammed streets. Soon we passed the Ring Road—Moscow's Beltway—and trundled into the countryside, where steel-and-glass buildings gave way to gritty cement hovels with hand-painted wooden signs. At the roadside scarved old ladies sold mud-covered produce or stood waiting for buses.
"Leaving Moscow is like entering another dimension," Kasparov said, his eyes on the montage of rural decay sliding by. "As things are now, Russian politics is conducted within the Ring Road. Even liberal politicians don't travel much. They fear the people." Kasparov has no choice but to hit the road to deliver his message: state-friendly television gives scant airtime to opposition figures. But there is more to his travels than that, he said. "For me leaving the capital is like attending university. We'll visit some twenty regions by year's end, and I'm correcting our actions based on what I learn. I want to shift the center of political gravity from Moscow to the regions, to bring big politics down to the molecular level, to show people how it affects them, and how we can change policy to change our lives."
His peripatetics so far have proved neither smooth nor safe. In a throwback to hammer-and-sickle days, when the state found ingenious ways to harass lone but dogged dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, the authorities now seem determined to discourage Kasparov. High-ranking police officers regularly await him at venues. Interior Ministry troops roughed him up at a rally this past May. When he visited the North Caucasus, in June, the trip devolved into quasi-farce: three airports denied his chartered plane landing rights; auditoriums at which he was scheduled to speak inexplicably closed or lost their electricity; hotels at which he was booked turned suddenly "full"; rowdy teenagers hurled ketchup-covered eggs at him; and the police denied him access to Chechen refugee camps. Kasparov's worldwide fame probably dissuades his opponents from more-aggressive tactics; two other Putin challengers have fared worse. One of them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch and chief of the oil company Yukos, sits in jail, ostensibly for tax evasion and fraud, but probably because he planned to finance the opposition. The other, the former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, voiced an interest in the presidency and soon found himself facing accusations of fraud and abuse of office, plus a tax audit.
As we neared Vladimir, I asked Kasparov what motivated him to leave chess for politics, risky as it is, and when a majority of Russians appear so apolitical.
"I can't say I'm not afraid," he replied. "But the government is destroying our country. I feel a moral imperative to act—either to act or leave. And I'm not leaving. Putin knows if he leaves the Kremlin, he'll be heading not to a retirement pension but to Lefortovo [Prison]. People are asking why, with state revenues at record highs from oil prices, they're living worse and worse." Notwithstanding an 85 percent rise in oil prices over the past twelve months, the growth in Russia's GDP—20 percent of which derives from oil and gas—is expected to drop from 7.1 percent last year to 5.9 percent this year. After six years of much-touted economic growth, wages average only $200 to $300 a month in Moscow—and the average is half that, or less, in the provinces. Kasparov noted that under Putin, as under Yeltsin, politicians and bureaucrats batten on the kormushki (feeding troughs) their offices provide them, extracting bribes, "gifts," and other lucrative benefits from their sinecures. According to the Moscow think tank Indem, since 2001 the average bribe has jumped from $10,200 to $135,000—despite Putin's loudly publicized anti-corruption campaign. "All the bureaucrats must get their share," Kasparov told me. "They side with Putin as long as he gives them kormushki, but they will run out. When that happens, and it's a matter of time, they will have less reason to support him. One can't rule out violence; there are too many hyenas to feed."