In Russia, a Checkerboard Field of Dreams

Men in Elista, southern Russia, play chess near the building where a world championship bout runs until Friday.
Men in Elista, southern Russia, play chess near the building where a world championship bout runs until Friday. (By Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 9, 2006

ELISTA, Russia -- The obsessive energy of one man -- Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, former car dealer, present-day multimillionaire, Buddhist impresario and president of the Russian republic of Kalmykia -- has turned this remote corner of southern Russia into the Caesars Palace of chess. Now he is hosting his dream event, a $1 million bout to determine the undisputed chess champion of the world.

The contest, which is being followed online by chess fans worldwide, has proved as controversial as its sponsor. Replete with trash-talking grandmasters, it was almost aborted by a slugfest over bathroom breaks and allegations of cheating.

But for Ilyumzhinov, who has also been president of the World Chess Federation for 11 years, the uproar has had the side benefit of attracting yet more publicity for his chess kingdom, a desolate expanse of steppe and desert that runs to the Caspian Sea. "It's a great moment for the chess world," he said in a recent late-night interview that bounced from Buddhism to the $50 million Chess City the 44-year-old president has built here in the capital, Elista, to encounters he claims he has had with UFOs and aliens. ("They wore yellow suits," he said.)

Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region of Europe, the faith having come here with Mongolian migrants. It has the continent's tallest Buddhist temple -- built, like so much here, by its president, who glides around town in a white Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit.

"Rolls-Royce is a good car," Ilyumzhinov said, calling the Silver Spirit and the five other Rollses he owns his only personal indulgence -- apart from chess, which in one of his first decrees as president he made a school subject. "It helps children study well in other subjects -- math, physics," said Ilyumzhinov, who was a regional chess champion in his teens.

Ilyumzhinov, who said he made his first millions as a car dealer after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, came to power here two years later. He immediately abolished the local parliament and rewrote the constitution, calling both Soviet artifacts.

Critics say he assumed almost dictatorial power in Kalmykia, a republic more than twice as big as Maryland but with only about 300,000 people. In the 1990s, Ilyumzhinov talked about breaking away from Moscow and turning Kalmykia into an independent tax haven along the lines of Monaco.

More recently, he has pledged fealty to the Kremlin, after President Vladimir Putin abolished the election of regional leaders and assumed the right to appoint them.

"It's an authoritarian regime with no space for any alternative political forces," said Oksana Goncharenko, a specialist on the region at the Center for Current Politics in Moscow. "Ilyumzhinov is also the dominant actor in the economic sphere."

"What is democracy?" Ilyumzhinov asked, brushing aside questions about his rule and pointing instead to the stability he says he has fostered, the roads he has built and his personal philanthropy, underwritten by his extensive holdings in energy, real estate and other businesses.

"One hundred percent -- 99 percent -- of this is my money. It's a gift," he said. Apart from Chess City, he has built 33 Buddhist temples, including the magnificent $25 million Golden Temple, which opened last December on a site blessed earlier by the Dalai Lama.

"The deeply ingrained profound and receptive morality of the Orient and the technological progress of the West are the two wings that can guide Kalmykia to prosperity," Ilyumzhinov wrote in his memoir, "The President's Crown of Thorns."

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