Ilyumzhinov: The Chessboard Diplomat
Since his dismissal as President of Kalmykia in 2010, eccentric billionaire Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has wandered the world like his literary doppelganger Ostap Bender, and like Bender, hero of the Soviet satirical novel The Twelve Chairs, his story is inextricably linked to that of Chess.
Illyumzhinov’s rule of Kalmykia, a primarily Buddhist Republic on the shores of the Caspian Sea, was characterised by a string of bizarre escapades including an alien abduction in 1997 and the campaign slogan ‘a wealthy President is a safeguard against corruption’. Under Ilyumzhinov, Kalmykia saw two visits from the Dalai Lama and the construction of one of Europe’s largest Buddhist temples. Kirsan’s antics have attracted a small but steady interest in Kalmykia, and as a visitor to Elista one is almost ashamed to admit it.
Though many Kalmyks applaud his renaissance of Buddhism in the region after its wholesale destruction by the Soviets, his elite Chess City, dedicated to his personal obsession, left many disgruntled. Journalist Larisa Yudina who criticised this and other government actions was found murdered in 1998. Illyumzhinov’s Legal Advisor S. Vaskin was convicted of the hit. The city was originally constructed for the 1996 FIDE Chess Olympiad after the outcry over its planned venue in Baghdad. The posters advertising it, along with a vast billboard showing a smiling Dalai Lama, still remained in late 2011; desperate reminders to the Republic, perhaps, that the ludicrous expense was worth it.
The $50m Chess City was said to be built entirely with private funding: “friends and investors” said Ilyumzhinov, yet as local journalist Valery Ulyadurov observed in 2006, ‘it’s never been quite clear where the republic’s money ends and the president’s begins’. In a strange way, referring to Kalmykia’s people as pawns in an extravagant game has become such a glaringly obvious cliché in writing on Ilyumzhinov that it seems almost unnecessary to use it.
Chess City stands empty on the outskirts of Elista as the concrete gradually surrenders to the steppe. Since his dismissal as Kalmykia’s leader by Medvedev, Ilyumzhinov has dedicated more of its time to his controversial leadership of world chess federation, FIDE. Chess City’s visitor centre is a modern shrine to this ancient game, one of its walls a mural to great Chess personalities of the modern age. Steinitz, Lasker, and Capablanca sit in rapt concentration, as do all the masters. A full length portrait of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov eyes the visitor with a cryptic smile.
On the very top floor I located Ilyumzhinov’s office.
I knocked; he wasn’t in. He rarely is.
Ilyumzhinov’s jet-setting on behalf of FIDE has sent him far and wide, most recently to Damascus in April, where he played Chess with Bashar al Assad amist the throes of civil war. In June 2011, he played with Muammar Gaddafi (and drew), where Gaddafi confided in his friend Kirsan that he honestly did not know what position the masses wanted him to step down from.
He also kept a close relationship to Saddam Hussein- Kalmykia, joked ChessBase had a history with Weapons of Match Destruction. The astute will realise something in common between two of these three men, and it has already supposed that Ilyumzhinov is a true harbinger of doom, a resonant Checkmate to his beleaguered hosts.
The Kremlin’s official peace envoy to Libya, Mikhail Margelov, told a Russian news agency that he asked Illyumzhinov to ‘to play white and move E-2 to E-4 and make it clear to Gaddafi that his side is close to the endgame’. However in an interview in May this year, ignoring Margelov’s statement, Ilyumzhinov took pains to point out that he was acting independently on all of his more controversial visits, without political affiliation or interest. There was just no need, he stressed, to politicise the issue. Yet even FIDE’s official press release on his recent visit to Syria pointed out that Assad pledged ‘a number of times’ in person to Ilyumzhinov his commitment to Annan’s peace plan. The exact details of Assad-Ilyumzhinov (2012) have yet to be revealed- although Russia’s closeness to Assad’s regime would possibly rule out E-2 to E-4.
Peter Doggers of ChessVibe remarked on the growing list of leaders who, despite having to deal with domestic insecurities, also have time to promote Illyumzhinov’s Chess in Schools campaign. Similarly, Ilyumzhinov’s visit to Gaddafi was followed by an odd eulogy- or more aptly, a hagiography, for his martyred Libyan friend, which drew heavily on Russian opposition to the NATO mission in the country. June saw the former Kalmyk leader visit President Sleiman of Lebanon, who it appears is a great fan of the game. In July, Kirsan visited President Zardari of Pakistan to discuss links with FIDE (also, according to FIDE’s official press release on the visit, meeting Dr. Assim Hussein, Pakistan’s Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources- doubtless to discuss Chess in Schools). The Independent reported that Ilyumzhinov once wrote to New York mayor Bloomberg requesting permission to build a chess centre on Ground Zero. In his own words, Ilyumzhinov visited some 108 countries in 2011, and asserts that he has never once been on holiday.
The World Chess Federation, it would seem, is a harsh mistress.
One would not dream of politicising the issue, but it seems fortuitous to say the least that the Presidents of Pakistan, Syria, Libya, and Lebanon found time in their doubtless busy schedules for FIDE. Andrew Kramer of the New York Times suspected that Ilyumzhinov’s repeated visits to Muslim nations in turmoil could have been unofficial attempts at diplomacy by the Kremlin; his many eccentricities making him a useful envoy who Kremlin officials could distance themselves from in case of failure. The Russian Foreign Ministry, says Kramer, declined to comment.
Ilyumzhinov’s leadership of FIDE has exasperated many in the Chess world, with Gary Kasparov apparently even going so far as to say that he was a real harm to the game’s reputation. Many Kalmyks see Chess as something more than simply a Presidential whim, and are eager to support the place of Chess in their Republic, where- as in Armenia and a growing number of Indian regions- the game is compulsory for schoolchildren. In an interview reflecting on his life after the Presidency of Kalmykia, Ilyumzhinov thanked chess for allowing him to ‘keep a few steps ahead in life’. Accordingly, in 2011 when UFOs were sighted over Elista, Ilyumzhinov cryptically stated that these spacecraft ‘did not fly for [him]’. If they flew for current Kalmyk President and Ilyumzhinov’s protégé Alexey Orlov, then they are deeply mistaken. The more restrained Orlov showed no interest in his extraterrestrial guests, who are now presumably once more in search of Ilyumzhinov, wherever he may be. Ilyumzhinov is an enigmatic figure, and those who follow his antics are aware that they should expect nothing but the unexpected. Fittingly, he admitted in an interview on his personal website in April that, despite his belief that the end of the world could be nigh (quoting both the Mayan Calendar and an asteroid he names Planet Nibiru which is, apparently, fast approaching), FIDE is still planning events as far in advance as 2017.
Saddam, Gaddafi, and Assad. Kalmykia’s Chess King, it would seem, will outlive us all. Ingmar Bergman’s iconic figure of death could not have done better.Tagged in: buddhism, Chess City, Ilyumzhinov, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, Larisa Yudina, Muammar Gaddafi, Ostap Bender, President of Kalmykia, The Twelve Chairs
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