Russia's black knight makes a global move

Phil Reeves in Moscow reports on Chess City - a capital adventurer's new Utopia - Chess City

BEHIND the electric gates, high walls and immense curtains that enclose the apricot-coloured mansion which serves as his Moscow residence, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is busy refining his latest sales pitch.

He is building the equivalent of the Vatican, he announces with the cheerful air of a man imagining his own headlines rolling off the presses. His tiny new society will be a state-within-a-state.

It will have its own parliament, cabinet, prime minister and chief executive. But the focus of this brave new world is not church but sport, the intellectual battle for superiority on a chequered board. The place will be called Chess City.

Hard selling is a required skill for the 35-year-old Mr Ilyumzhinov as the obscure patch of the planet over which he rules needs all the help it can get. Until now "spin" referred to wool, a principal Soviet-era earner for the impoverished Kalmykia, one of Russia's autonomous republics. But its boyish-looking boss seems well-versed in its modern meaning.

His job is to attract global attention, and thus investment, for a semi- arid triangle-shaped territory on the steppes of southern Russia between the Volga and the Don at the top end of the Caspian Sea. With only 321,000 mostly poor inhabitants (outnumbered ten to one by sheep), the task would deter any ordinary leader.

However, Mr Ilyumzhinov is not ordinary. He has the determination of a pit bull (a popular animal in his fiefdom, where dog fights regularly pull a crowd), boundless ambition, a scornful disregard for ideology (he is both an admirer of Bill Clinton and a close friend of Saddam Hussein), and a tremendous flair for publicity. It was a combination of these characteristics that recently underlay Kal-mykia's failed efforts to buy Diego Maradona for its football team, Uralon.

Chess is taken even more seriously than soccer. Mr Ilyumzhinov has issued a decree stating that all schoolchildren would study chess, according it the same status in the classroom as mathematics. He maintains that since then juvenile crime has plummeted. "Chess develops the brain, makes you industrious and diligent and able to foresee your next step", he says. Even issues of faith are overshadowed by the game in Russia's only Buddhist republic (the Kalmyks originate from central Mongolia). As one presidential aide put it: "No one gets anywhere ... unless they can play chess."

Ruthless determination is the hallmark of Mr Ilyumzhinov's curriculum vitae. A millionaire in his late twenties, with an import-export business in the last Soviet years, he won the republic's presidency in 1993 after illegally promising $100 to every voter. When he wanted to dump his legislature, he paid it to dissolve itself, ushering in one that gave him still greater powers. Opposition opinion was stifled.

The federal authorities in Moscow paid little attention. Why should they? The President was a Yeltsin loyalist, whose electorate could always be trusted, as one official wryly put it, to "vote accurately" when it came to choosing the occupant of the Kremlin.

When stories of high-living and fleets of Rolls-Royces reached their ears, tax inspectors arrived to probe his income, which he declared as $1.1m. He invited the television cameras in, entertained them generously, and gave them a prize stallion. They left without a story.

It is this street wisdom that Mr Ilyumzhinov is drawing on to pursue his dream of building a self-governing city as the forum for international chess contests. He has a missionary's zeal, being a former champion of the republic and president of the World Chess Federation, which, though there has been a split, retains its claim to be the sport's governing body. Last year, he hosted the world championship match between Gata Kamsky and Anatoly Karpov; this September, the Olympiad contest will be held in Kalmykia.

Construction of Chess City has already begun. Luxury houses are beginning to sprout on a dusty site in south-eastern Elista, the republic's modest capital. The plans include three luxury hotels, an aquacentre, homes for 5,000 people, a chess academy and a grand central square. The promotional literature foresees a Utopia - a "cradle of highest achievements of human genius".

The city, whilst still subject to republican and federal law, will have a 10-person parliament to make local laws under a "king", or mayor, and "queen", the prime minister. The president also wants it to be an economic free zone. "I want to see if it works," he says.

The development is headed by a Russian-Serb joint venture but, in the end, it is the work of a man whose creed is that of most of the ruling elite that has occupied the ruins of the Soviet Union. "I am neither communist, nor democrat. I am a capitalist," he says. In Kalmykia, that makes this particular chess fiend a king.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers