Where Chess Is King and the People Are the Pawns

ELISTA, Russia, June 20, 2004 : Back in the days of the Silk Road caravans, this is what people might have called a mirage — a huge glass dome, surrounded by a California-style housing development, rising from the parched brown steppe.

That shimmering vision has been brought to life here in Elista, the capital of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, a monument to the power of ego over nature, not to mention common sense and even reason. Its name is Chess City.

Like a glassed-in Biosphere on Mars, the four-story dome encloses a cool, fresh world of carpets and comfort, of whispers and intense concentration, where the most brilliant minds of chess compete for diamond crowns.

For miles around — in fact for almost all the rest of Kalmykia — 300,000 people live in poverty on the barren plains, where tank trucks deliver drinking water and where dried sheep dung, hoarded through the summer, fuels stoves in winter.

Kalmykia, a remote region on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea, has few natural resources. Its economy crumpled with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the withdrawal of its patrons and investors in Moscow.

What is left — both inside and outside Chess City — belongs to President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the republic’s whimsical strongman and, in a forking move, the respected leader of the World Chess Federation, known as FIDE, for its acronym in French.


Photo courtesy of KalmykiaTour.com

Sweet-faced and only 42 years old, Mr. Ilyumzhinov has been president of Kalmykia for 11 years and president of FIDE (pronounced FEE-day) for 9. At one point he talked about trying to add the presidency of Russia to his crown, but that was a while back.

Somehow — and everybody has a version — Mr. Ilyumzhinov has found the tens of millions of dollars not only to build his dream dome but to play host in this land of sheep and camels to a series of major tournaments.

The Women’s World Chess Championship ended here on June 7 with the presentation of a diamond tiara to Antoaneta Stefanova of Bulgaria.

In his pursuit of chess, Mr. Ilyumzhinov has consorted with unlikely allies, including Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya (and formerly including Saddam Hussein), in addition to a well-dressed network of regional operators and money men. The men’s world championship began in Tripoli on June 18.

The president’s political opponents say he has beggared the country to pay for his playthings, which include a soccer team that hires expensive players from abroad.

Among other things, several opposition leaders said in interviews, he has taken food from the mouths of Kalmykia’s children by suspending family subsidies. When a chess Olympiad inaugurated the center in 1998, they said, people were told to lend their refrigerators, televisions and crockery temporarily to furnish its mostly empty houses.

It is impossible to know the sources or amounts of the money Mr. Ilyumzhinov has spent, said Menke Konyeyev, editor of a clandestinely printed opposition newspaper, Sovietskaya Kalmykia.

Chess officials have mentioned estimates of $30 million and $50 million.

”Everything is being ruined by one person who is just a fantasist,” Mr. Konyeyev said. ”His fantasies have consumed our republic.”

Arguing against these critics are people like Florencio Campomanes of the Philippines, a past president of the chess federation, who calls them ”yappers.”

”Blah blah blah, blah blah blah,” he said.

His logic was piquant. How could Mr. Ilyumzhinov have squeezed the cost of Chess City out of this little crumb of land populated by hungry and thirsty people? ”There isn’t that much money in the national budget.”

The real source of the money? ”He’s a businessman!” Mr. Campomanes cried, and that seemed to put an end to that.

Mr. Campomanes spoke as a fellow sufferer at the hands of critics and the press. He had had his own problems with the blah-blah-blah in 1985, when he abruptly halted a long and exhausting championship match in Moscow between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov.

”Shouting for this, shouting for that,” he said. ”Meet a deadline. Get a story.” Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s aides have also grown weary of reporters’ questions about his claims that he has met extraterrestrial creatures, that he communicates with his constituents by telepathy and that he wants chess to become a world religion.

Why the fuss? There are poor people in all of Kalmykia’s neighboring republics, one tournament spokesman pointed out. But none of them has a Chess City.

The Kalmyk people have tasted real greatness in the past with a domain that covered much of Asia and Russia. They trace their bloodline to the man they call ”shaker of the universe,” Genghis Khan.

Their more recent history involves a tragic period during World War II when Stalin deported their entire nation to Siberia, causing the death of as much as half the population.

The Kalmyk plainsmen were nomadic wanderers who folded their tents when they moved, and that impulse seems to live on now. As people evacuate their dying villages to look for work, many tear down their small square houses and haul the bricks with them, leaving raw foundations behind.

”Before, we had water, gardens, flowers,” said Lyudmila Tsyurumova, 36, a teacher who has stayed in the depopulated village of Ulan Erge, just outside the capital, because her parents are buried there. The village school has shrunk to 180 students from 500, she said, with a senior class this year of just 13.

Refugees from the Chechen war once passed through Ulan Erge, moving on when they found that there was no source of drinking water here.

”O.K., so it’s not California,” Ms. Tsyurumova said. ”It’s our ordinary banal village. That’s how it is. But we don’t need any gold mountains, any California. We have our Kalmykia. Of course, it would be good if we had water and gas and if people weren’t leaving and if they raised our salaries just a bit.”

None of this has anything to do with Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s vision of a Kalmyk utopia.

That can actually be studied in miniature on a meticulous model inside the chess dome. We discover here that Chess City is to expand across the landscape to embrace opera and ballet theaters, museums, a conservatory, an art school, religious academies, a center of traditional medicine and a ”complex for children’s creativity.”

Here, defying the surrounding desert, we see the vision of a water sport complex and boathouse, a skiing center complete with lifts, a safari center and an airfield and hangars for recreational aircraft.

On the weightier side, there are plans for government buildings, business centers and residences for any ambassadors who may be accredited to Kalmykia. An elaborate complex will stand ready for the Dalai Lama of Tibet if he should choose to visit.

This Kalmyk metropolis will signal its brotherhood with other great cities with an Arch of Triumph and a Red Square, as well as a Monument to Victims of Repression.

Outside the building, in the real-life sunshine of this pleasant afternoon, the chess dome is surrounded by a pristine, empty housing development where polished cars stand parked in front of vacant town houses and theoretical sidewalks.

Birds twitter in the hot breeze that blows in from the surrounding steppe.

Perfect white clouds hang motionless in a too-blue sky, adding to the impression that the visitor is standing at the center of another, large-as-life model, rather than in any actual place on earth.

Copyright The New York Times