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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Sudan, the last male northern white rhino
environmentThe death of a white northern rhino in Kenya has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth