Former chess player Gary Kasparov at Cheltenham Literature Festival/ Pics Kevin Fern Photography
Former chess player Gary Kasparov at Cheltenham Literature Festival/ Pics Kevin Fern Photography

“In chess we have fixed rules and unpredictable results,” former world champion and human rights activist Gary Kasparov told Cheltenham Literature Festival. “In (Vladimir) Putin’s Russia we have the opposite.”

His striking image set the tone for a fascinating debate in which all three speakers described a state dictatorship maintaining its control through lies.

Putin was the greatest expert in creating enemies all around Mother Russia, whether they existed or not, and he was willing to sacrifice anything to look strong, Kasparov said.

Dictators felt the need to protect other dictators, such as Assad, and Putin had sought to demonstrate his strength at home by bombing American-backed bases in Syria the day after meeting President Obama.

He lamented continuing Western reluctance to stand up to the Russian leader. “Any action today looks costly and dangerous, but tomorrow the price goes up,” he said.

Russian people could see no alternative government now, so action was needed outside the country, and if the price started to seem too high to the Russian middle class, the narrative could change, Kasparov concluded.

Journalist Arkady Ostrovsky recalled hope that Russia would become a free country under Gorbachev, but Putin had reversed his predecessor’s elevation of human values. “What he cares about is the right of the state to control and violate people,” he said.

State television played an important part in this.

People celebrating Russian annexation in Crimea told him they had been freed from fascism, but they had seen signs of fascism only on Russian TV, he said. Its much publicised case of a four-year-old boy crucified by Ukrainian fascists, for example, was completely untrue.

Unfortunately, unlike Soviet days, people believed the propaganda, or wanted to believe it, and he questioned whether Russia would return to being a “liberal, freedom-loving country” if Putin went.

Documentary maker Peter Pomarantsev said Russian TV had become even more blatant in its misinformation, claiming recently that the United States had invented ebola.

“It’s a virtual reality domestic system”, he said.

By Colin Davison, Gloucestershire Echo