https://www.spiegel.de/-Vladimir Putin frequently uses sports stars to promote his propaganda. But Russian chess grandmaster Daniil Dubov is standing up to the Russian leader and the war in Ukraine. In an interview, the 25-year-old explains why he is willing to take that risk.
Interview Conducted By Florian Pütz
Daniil Dubov playing chess: “I could miss the end of the world while analyzing the Italian opening.”
Foto: Jacek Prondzynski / Newspix / IMAGO
It’s a Wednesday evening and Daniil Dubov is sitting in the bar of a Berlin hotel. Darkness falling outside and the 25-year-old Russian chess grandmaster has just played to a draw at the FIDE Grand Prix, an important tournament currently being held in the German capital. He says it was more or less a game just like any other, though he admits that he’s having trouble focusing on chess at the moment, with his country, Russia, waging a war of aggression against Ukraine.
Shortly after the invasion began, Dubov joined 43 other Russian chess players in condemning the war in an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, a risky move for him given that he lives in Moscow. He sits down with DER SPIEGEL to discuss it over coffee. As he speaks, he keeps looking out the window thoughtfully.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Dubov, you are one of the 44 Russian chess players who, in an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the beginning of March, called for an end to the war of aggression on Ukraine. Why did you decide to do this?
Dubov: You probably think that Russia is a bad country and we are bad people. But there is a large number of people who share the same values as you do in Europe. When the military actions started, it felt crazy, it was hard to believe. We were just shocked. When we published the letter, it felt good, like we could make a difference. Now it looks like it didn’t make a difference. By now you can’t even use the word “war” in Russia. Our letter was published before this new law, so at least we are not criminals.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you still say the word war now?
Dubov: No. Russian media wouldn’t be able to quote me then. It’s strange that a single word can get you into trouble.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you the initiator of the letter?
Dubov: The letter was partly mine, but it came about through teamwork.
Daniil Dubov, 25, is one of the best Russian chess grandmasters. In 2018, he won the World Rapid Chess Championship. Because of his creative style of play, world champion Magnus Carlsen brought him onto his team as a second. Dubov lives in Moscow.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you feel any consequences?
Dubov: This kind of protest doesn’t usually lead to serious problems. Maybe there are still consequences, but for something like this you are not immediately put in prison. There were a lot of people who said pretty much the same thing in public.
DER SPIEGEL: TV presenter Marina Ovsyannikova has to pay a fine after her protest on Russian television. She can’t go back to her old life. Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny has been in prison for some time. Are you not afraid of harsh consequences?
Dubov: I don’t know. There are many people who criticize Putin and are still free. I don’t really see myself in trouble. I don’t insult my country. I just think we made a very big mistake. If that gets me in trouble, so be it.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you consider yourself a political opponent of Putin even before the war?
Dubov: To be a real opponent, you really have to do something. I am not a professional politician. But I love this country and want it to do well. I criticize things because I have the right to do so. For example, I also criticized the government after Crimea in 2014 …
DER SPIEGEL: … the annexation of Crimea.
Dubov: I didn’t like the general direction, so to speak, but have never been politically active.
DER SPIEGEL: The war has been going on for about a month now. How do you look at it today?
Dubov: It can’t get any worse for Russia. We can’t make up for it. What’s going on is a disaster. The consequences will be long and unpleasant, no matter where the conflict will go. I hope it will end as soon as possible.
DER SPIEGEL: What consequences of the war do you personally feel?
Dubov: Like many Russians, I have friends in Ukraine whom I worry about. Some of them have left the country, others are defending it. I tell them that I am Russian, but that I am against what is happening.
DER SPIEGEL: Do your friends in Ukraine block contact with you because you are Russian?
Dubov: Not to that extent, but of course it has an impact.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you personally also feel the West’s sanctions against Russia?
Dubov: I do feel them, but I can live with them. For example, I haven’t yet received my prize money for the first Grand Prix tournament in February because of the problems with banking transactions. Netflix and Instagram are blocked. Some of the medications became unavailable. But compared to the people who are really in trouble, these are of course no problems.
DER SPIEGEL: You are currently playing in the third Grand Prix tournament in Berlin. In the tournament series, players have the chance to qualify for the Candidates Tournament. Do you find it difficult to concentrate on chess now?
Dubov: Yes, normally I am fully concentrated and motivated and give my best. Now it’s completely different, I’m depressed. It’s hard to prepare for the games when you have to skim the news every three minutes. This morning I tried to prepare for the match with my coach. But there was some news to discuss and then we didn’t have time.
DER SPIEGEL: Russian players are still allowed to play in tournaments, but not with your country’s flag. They now play with the flag of the world federation FIDE. What do you think of that?
Dubov: I find it strange. Everyone knows where I come from, where I live, which country I played for. To ban the flag for every Russian is like equating the whole country with the current government. I feel great when I play for Russia, but I don’t represent the Kremlin. I represent Dostoevsky and Chekhov – I represent the culture, the people.
DER SPIEGEL: FIDE has decided that the Olympiad, the most important team competition, will not take place in Moscow but in Chennai, India. Russian teams are excluded. How do you view this decision?
Dubov: In the current situation, FIDE had to make this decision. Because when we talk about FIDE, we are talking about business. In terms of finding sponsors, this is clearly a good move. But it is possible that there will be a team under a neutral flag, so Russians will be allowed to compete, just not under the Russian flag.
“If I were a scientist, I would think Karjakin is a very interesting subject.”
DER SPIEGEL: The Ukrainian Chess Federation is demanding that all Russian players be banned. Are you afraid of that?
Dubov: I can understand the Ukrainian position. I think it’s radical, but it makes sense when you demand that all people with Russian passports be banned. As a Russian, however, I would, of course, be unhappy about it.
DER SPIEGEL: Ukrainian players like the grandmaster Andrei Volokitin don’t want to compete against Russian and Belarusian players. Would you understand this decision if your opponent did not show up for the match because you are Russian?
Dubov: Yes. The reasons are clear. It makes sense. But I don’t think it’s right. And I also don’t think the impact is real.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of no longer getting tournament invitations because of your nationality? That would be a kind of professional ban.
Dubov: Fear is a bit exaggerated. The number of invitations for Russians will definitely decrease. But I find it emotionally difficult to concern myself with such trifles at the moment.
DER SPIEGEL: The Russian former World Championship runner-up Sergey Karjakin is your antithesis, so to speak. He spreads Kremlin propaganda via Twitter and Telegram.
Dubov: I follow his Telegram channel. It’s very funny. If I were a scientist, I would think Karjakin is a very interesting subject.
DER SPIEGEL: In the past, Karjakin has already let himself be seen wearing a Putin shirt. In an open letter, he recently swore allegiance to the president once again. How do you assess his role?
Dubov: It was a big story for chess. It was shameful. But in terms of Russia as a whole, I don’t think Karjakin is that much of a help to Putin. I’m pretty sure Karjakin is doing this mainly for his own benefit, to pursue a political career.
DER SPIEGEL: Doesn’t he have a large following in Russia?
Dubov: I don’t think the number of his supporters is greater than mine combined with Ian Nepomniachtchi’s. And we both signed the open letter to Putin.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you know Karjakin well?
Dubov: We were never friends. There were always tensions. It started with the Crimea, on which we had very different opinions. But, and this is strange, when you talk to him privately, he is very nice. I also know a lot of private stories about him doing good things and helping people. The man I had read about in the news was a completely different person. Offline, I have yet to hear him make a political statement.
DER SPIEGEL: How is that possible? Is there someone who dictates to Karjakin what he has to say in public?
Dubov: I don’t think he follows orders. I’m pretty sure he does it because he wants to. But I don’t know his reasons. Maybe because he thinks it’s right, maybe because he thinks it’s useful, most likely a bit of both.
DER SPIEGEL: FIDE banned him for six months because of his support for the war. Was that the right move?
Dubov: That is a strange decision. FIDE’s code of ethics says that you must not damage the image of chess. He has clearly done that. If he is really guilty, his ban should be a few years. But I find it hypocritical that suddenly so many are calling for him to be punished while more or less everybody kept silent in 2014. I see the difference, but it’s obvious to me that these two things are connected. And Karjakin actually has never denied it as well.
DER SPIEGEL: If you met Karjakin now, would you talk to him about his propaganda?
Dubov: I honestly don’t know. I can’t promise that I will never shake his hand again. But I will try.
DER SPIEGEL: FIDE is led by a Russian president, Arkady Dvorkovich. He was Russia’s deputy prime minister between 2012 and 2018. Now, he spoke publicly of a war. He was accused of treason in Russia. How do you assess his role?
Dubov: I know him quite well. I think he has the same views as I do. He doesn’t like what is going on. He clearly thinks it is a mistake. But he is in a very, very difficult position. Especially since the Kremlin has now even publicly demanded that the FIDE revoke Karjakin’s ban. I really wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.
DER SPIEGEL: The former world champion Anatoly Karpov, a chess legend, is a member of the Russian parliament, the State Duma. He voted for the recognition of the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk and was sanctioned by the European Union for it. Does he have more power than Karjakin?
Dubov: He is much more powerful than Karjakin. Everyone knows who Karpov is. He is better known than Magnus Carlsen. People know that chess is the game of Karpov and Garry Kasparov.
DER SPIEGEL: His eternal opponent.
Dubov: In the political sense, Karpov is more powerful than Karjakin because he sits in the Duma and Karjakin is just an Instagram blogger.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you thinking about sending further signals, for example through another open letter or at demonstrations?
Dubov: There are already protests. I’ve been to a few demonstrations of this kind in my life.
DER SPIEGEL: You protested for the freedom of Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny after he was arrested in early 2021.
Dubov: Yes, Alexander Grischuk and I were there. You probably think it took a lot of courage, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything either. Basically, you wait for the police to take action and attack people. Then you go home. If you don’t leave in time, the police catch you. Then it becomes uncomfortable.
DER SPIEGEL: Has that happened to you too?
Dubov: That doesn’t matter now. Anyway, I didn’t go to the protests this time. I think it doesn’t achieve anything. With Navalny, I had the feeling that there was a chance that a very, very large group of people would send a message that would be heard. What is the goal now? Do people really think that the government will call off the troops because a few thousand people take to the streets? That may sound cynical, but quite honestly, I don’t want to be beaten for a goal for which I see no chance.
DER SPIEGEL: Where do you want to go from here?
Dubov: There is no optimistic scenario for democrats. We have to wait and see, even if it is unsatisfactory. What I am saying now is really dangerous, but the only way to change anything in Russia is a revolution. Personally, I don’t want that. I find it rational; you can call me a coward if you want. But I don’t want the revolution to start, I don’t want Russians to kill Russians. It feels like the only way, but the consequences would be worse. And even in terms of democracy Putin and his actions are clearly supported by the majority of Russians, like it or not.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you already have personal plans for the coming months?
Dubov: No. There’s not much to look forward to. I find it hard to think about my future in chess. Nuclear war could break out. I could miss the end of the world while analyzing the Italian opening.