Kramnik on Chess, Anand, Topalov and his future – Part 3

by ChessBase
4/11/2012 – "When you’re 17 years old," says former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, "it’s all fascinating and cool: parties, company, girls, alcohol... But then you grow tired of it, and want something else. Nowadays things are more moderate – I have a family, a child. But my house is still open for many people who often turn up without calling first or stay the night." Conclusion of a fascinating interview.

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Kramnik on Chess, Anand, Topalov and his future (3)

By GM Vlad Tkachiev [Photos: Irina Stepaniuk]

This is an interview I’ve long dreamt about. As far back as the end of the 90s it seemed to me that Vladimir and I held positions that seldom coincided, and now finally I had the chance to clarify all the contradictions. Right from the outset the plan “sprung a leak” – firstly, because in the run-up to our conversation Kramnik had given a series of exhaustive interviews, and secondly… It’s not so easy to wear someone down with tricky, controversial questions when they’re so pleasant to talk to. Even during the process of agreeing a time and place for our conversation Vladimir turned out to be impeccably polite and at times even aristocratic in his manners. My fighting spirit slipped away, and I simply had the urge to talk about topics that interested me with a great chess player. Here’s what became of that…

Previous parts

Kramnik on Chess, Anand, Topalov and his future – Part 2
04.04.2012 – The indepth interview by GM Vlad Tkachiev with former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik was avidly received by our readers – with an unusually large number posting part one on their Facebook pages. It dealt with chess in general and his main rivals Kasparov and Anand. In part two he speaks critically about Veselin Topalov, about retirement and his own future in the game.
Kramnik on Chess, Anand, Topalov and his future – Part 1
31.03.2012 – "This is an interview I’ve long dreamt about," writes GM Vlad Tkachiev. However: "it’s not easy to wear someone down with tricky, controversial questions when they’re so pleasant – so impeccably polite, even aristocratic..." This long interview, conducted for the Russian news portal WhyChess, last year, starts with Vladimir Kramnik's take on chess and one of his main rivals in the game.


V.T.: What are your political convictions?

V.K.: Ah, now that’s a very complex question.

V.T.: Well, for example, Grischuk’s got a wild aversion to what’s going on in Russia. What about you?

V.K.: No, I don’t have any aversion. I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to explain any of my political leanings, because I look at all of this from a completely different angle. I don’t really understand the point of view of other people, and perhaps they don’t understand mine. I look at all of this from a rational point of view, in terms of common sense and real possibilities, of what actually exists or could exist. People mostly dream. When it comes to Russia they say that everything’s bad, but you need to understand that at the given moment we don’t have the potential to become a Germany or Switzerland. If I started playing tennis now I wouldn’t expect to take part in next year’s Wimbledon. It strikes me that we’ve still got some inflated expectations left over from Soviet times.

V.T.: And in terms of corruption Russia has the right to be 135th in the world?

V.K.: No, of course not. I’m in favour of common sense and the theory of small deeds. You simply need to gradually improve everything, each in his own back yard. I really don’t like people who rant. We’ve got some acquaintances like that (laughs). The situation in Russia is far from ideal, but the problem is that we had that terrible 20th century. As a nation we suffered more than anyone else during it. Therefore it seems to me that we don’t have the potential now to become a leading country that can have a real influence on world politics. Of course we pretend, but at the given moment we’re not ready to make a qualitative leap forward.

V.T.: What you’ve said already amounts to quite a sharply defined position. If the 20th century was so terrible then you’ve got a clear aversion to the communist project in Russia?

V.K.: Yes, of course, an absolute aversion. Of course, there were some positives, but it’s all a question of the cost. Stalin was a multifaceted man, even a talented one, but how clever do you need to be to imprison millions of people and then get them to do hard labour for nothing to rebuild a country. That absolute villain laid waste to a whole generation of people. After he’d gone the Communist regime became a little milder, there were achievements, they got into space. But, forgive me, I was still in time to catch some of that period, and after all it was horrific, all that misery, that appallingly grey life. I don’t want to offend anyone as many people are nostalgic for those times, but for me it’s better to be poor but free.

One of our main problems in Russia right now is imperialistic thinking. We need to get rid of that as soon as possible and start to move forwards. I was really inspired by the example of China. They were all busy somewhere and had gone completely quiet on the international stage. That lasted for around 20 years and then, all of a sudden, they’re a world superpower. Now they’re beginning to seize control of the financial markets and increase their influence, and rightly so. What we need to do now is pull ourselves together and improve human welfare.

V.T.: It seems despite the fact you live in Paris and you’re married to a French woman you still consider yourself Russian?

V.K.: Yes, of course, and my passport’s also Russian. I love Europe. I like the way people relate to each other, which is something we don’t do quite so well. But I grew up here and even if I ever receive a French passport I’ll still remain Russian.

V.T.: Your wife works for “Figaro”. Is that a right-wing or left-wing newspaper?

V.K.: More right-wing. Just now she’s not working there. She was on maternity leave and hasn’t yet returned.

V.T.: It’s well-known that the whole of France is divided, one way or another, into left and right. Which camp would you align yourself with?

V.K.: That’s precisely what I was talking about earlier: left or right makes absolutely no difference to me as common sense is what matters. “It’s not important what colour the cat is, but that it catches mice”. The more ideological a politician the more he drives me away. The ideal politician is an unprincipled politician (laughs). Good politics is common sense and a very subtle feel for situations, without becoming fixated on any one idea. I’ve got the same distaste for both communists and the far-right or, to take an American example – for the Republicans, precisely because they’ve got too much ideology, while the Democrats are more sensible. So it simply seems absurd to me when I hear all these discussions in France, particularly when you look at what a failure for the western world the decisions taken in the last 10-15 years have been.

V.T.: Do you have in mind financial policy, or immigration policy?

V.K.: Everything. The whole power of the western world has drained away as a result of those decisions, if there’s anyone left who hasn’t realised it yet. They were the ones who made crude mistakes, blundering pieces left, right and centre, and now the game can no longer be saved. At first it was done by the left, then the right. What they did to the European Union is beyond your worst nightmares. After all, it’s clear it was essentially the collapse of Europe.

V.T.: You mean the acceptance of new members en masse?

V.K.: Yes. It should have been done little by little, accepting one new country at a time, but only if it met the standards. Instead of that there’s now a mass of states at completely different levels. Some are donors while others are simply sucking up money, though those have no fewer rights than the people giving the money. It’s clear such a system doesn’t work and never will. Germany and France would, I think, jump at the chance to turn back the clock, but that’s impossible. The same can be said about immigration policy. I’m not against immigration, as it makes up a very important part of society, but it should have been done as it is in America, where you can’t end up quite so easily. At some point everyone who wanted to come to Europe did; and as a result you can see for yourself what’s going on.

In my view, harsh as it might sound, it turned out that they had an intellectually weak elite. In Russia, though I realise this sounds a little odd, politics is conducted more intelligently. In order to be a good politician you need to have a good knowledge of history, because everything goes in circles and this has all happened before. The decline of empires followed more or less the same pattern. European values, the way people relate to each other and human rights, are very important to me, and it’s with great regret that I’m watching what’s happening to the civilised world just now. It’s suicide.

On himself

V.T.: In the 90s you had a reputation as a laid-back guy. All kinds of people would constantly hang out around you, partying. When and how did all that come to an end?

V.K.: It’s just that my circle of acquaintances changed a little. There’s a time for everything. When you’re 17 years old that’s all fascinating, cool: parties, company, girls, alcohol... But then you grow tired of it, and want something else.

V.T.: And how do things look nowadays?

V.K.: Well, everything’s more moderate, as after all I’ve got a family, a child. But my house is still open for many people who often turn up without calling first or stay the night.

V.T.: Have you got more friends who are French or Russian?

V.K.: It’s probably something like 50:50. I’m still quite free and open with people, but my circle of acquaintances has changed, which is natural. I’ve got some nostalgia for those times and I’m very glad that was part of my life, but the chapter’s closed and I’ve got no desire to repeat it. After all, my career’s gone well and I was also able to party a bit, while not doing any harm to my health. Many people who start their professional career at an early age never had that period, and then they try to catch up when they get to around 50. A big change in my relations with people was brought about by my World Champion status. For some I became unapproachable, it seemed. It wasn’t even a matter of envy or jealousy but, perhaps, some unachieved ambitions got in the way. In any case, the relations changed and perhaps became more cautious. I didn’t change greatly myself and I’m still quite down-to-earth with people. That’s a chapter I’ve closed.

Vladimir Kramnik with his daughter Daria

V.T.: Given you’ve talked about a chapter, perhaps we should talk about books? What are your top-five books or writers?

V.K.: I haven’t read much recently as I’ve had no time at all, so I haven’t got a very clear idea of modern literature. “Generation P” is undoubtedly an outstanding book. Again, I think that’s because it was written at the right time and hit the mark. There’s now an enormous number of clones, but he (Pelevin) was the pioneer. Then, undoubtedly, there’s Dostoevsky. I don’t particularly like “The Brothers Karamazov”, but the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter is pure genius. Genius, because it was written precisely then and explains how the world is essentially constructed. “The Possessed”, of course. The man looked 50 years ahead and described everything. I really like Orwell: “Animal Farm” and “1984”, although he’s a little heavy-handed there. “War and Peace”. Here I can quote Botvinnik: “I can’t say I really like Tolstoy, but “War and Peace” is an absolutely brilliant thing”.

V.T.: So your preferences are quite classical and you’re not drawn towards counter-culture?

V.K.: No. You know I tried to read Sorokin, but somehow I couldn’t get into it. Perhaps I came across the wrong book. I’ll have to try again. And then of course there’s “The Master and Margarita”, even if it sounds very banal to list it. That’s probably my favourite work, overall.

V.T.: What about music?

V.K.: I’ve also got very little time for anything new at the moment. I’ve started to like classical music. I can’t say I’m a fanatic, but I’ve started to enjoy it. But as it is… Well, some intellectual things: Makarevich, Grebenshchikov. I really regret not having enough time as I’d like to find enough for all my pastimes.

V.T.: What are you preferences in terms of drinks and food?

V.K.: I’ve now become a bourgeois Frenchman. I drink a little wine but, in general, I don’t remember the last time I got drunk. When I was younger the goal was – to sit down and drink in order to get drunk, because why else would you? Now it’s no longer like that. I also like good cognac, and it’s always standing there at home. In the evening I like to have a glass or two.

V.T.: French cuisine...

V.K.: I’m quite omnivorous when it comes to food. I love lots of things but I have to restrict myself because of my tendency to put on weight. For example, I like the Indian cuisine, but that’s immediately a kilogram of extra weight the next day. I do in fact consider French cuisine to be the world’s unrivalled no.1.

That was where we decided to end the official part of our interview, while for another hour or so we enjoyed simply chatting – mainly on chess. “I’ve long been working as Chubais” was uttered at one point – I’d never thought he sees himself quite like that. (Kramnik recently said he sees himself as a scapegoat in Russian and world chess, as Anatoly Chubais is in Russian politics). Although, of course, it’s somehow become customary to suspect him of something all the time: once it was the precariousness of his claims to the World Championship title, now it’s the absence of patriotism. Well, if that’s the case then he’s a very unusual suspect. You only need to get him talking and all your doubts vanish. Only to later return again.

Copyright WhyChess/ChessBase

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