For all the intrigue that had surrounded the mayoral elections in Sochi, acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov managed to avoid confronting his critics — or even acknowledging their existence — until Friday, when he was outfoxed by a grandmaster.
Pakhomov, the Kremlin-backed candidate, won a landslide victory in the race for the mayor’s post in Sochi, host city of the Olympic Winter Games in 2014, news reports said yesterday.
The Itar-Tass news agency, quoting election officials, said with about 80 percent of the votes counted, Pakhomov had won 77 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov came second with 13.5 percent.
With only a few hours left in the campaign, Pakhomov attended a ceremony on Friday commemorating the Armenian genocide during World War I, a crucial gesture to the city’s large Armenian population. He delivered a short address that was respectful, if a bit wooden, and then stepped back to polite clapping, making room for a row of schoolgirls to recite verses that they had memorized.
But an animated gray-haired man had edged his way alongside the podium and then he stepped onto it, sending whispers rippling through the crowd. It was Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, who was in Sochi promoting the campaign of Pakhomov’s archrival, Boris Nemtsov.
Kasparov, who is Armenian, had been sitting quietly, signing autographs for nearly two hours. He was mobbed by admirers, men in their 40s and 50s who had loved him since childhood.
Kasparov’s remarks began innocently enough. He made an offhand mention of Nemtsov, so subtle that it was easy to miss. Then he began to sling arrows at Moscow, saying the Soviet Union had supported Turkey at the time of the massacres.
Two minutes and 33 seconds into Kasparov’s speech, a local official stepped forward and said his time was up. Kasparov turned to the crowd with an incredulous look.
“What’s happening?” he said loudly. “I cannot speak? Maybe it’s better to be silent?”
They shouted “No,” and erupted into applause. He went on, at leisure, to criticize the rise of racist violence in Russia, saying: “Genocide doesn’t just appear out of nowhere and, to put it mildly, the government is doing very little to stop this debauch of nationalism.”
He said Moscow had prevented generations of Armenians from connecting with their roots and then he went further.
“The authorities are the source of problems,” he said. “The KGB was behind the Armenian pogroms in Baku. The KGB set nations against each other. We should never give in to these provocations.”
He finished up: “I love you and we are one family.”
In the audience, Vartyan Mardirosyan, a lawyer, was chuckling delightedly at the spectacle. He said that the authorities in Sochi had cracked down so hard on dissent that it reminded him of Soviet times, when people were too afraid to express their political opinions outside their own kitchens.
The ceremony had been an “undeclared competition,” said Mardirosyan, with Kasparov both the underdog and undisputed winner.
“He didn’t just play chess,” Mardirosyan said. “That was a checkmate.”