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    Men play open-air chess on a massive board in Lenin Square. Kalmykia is known as an international chess mecca, due to the fact that its president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is the head of the International Chess Federation, FIDE. Chess is mandatory in primary schools throughout the autonomous republic.
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    Girls wear Soviet-era military uniforms as part of Victory Day celebrations in Elista.
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    Head of the government of the autonomous Republic of Kalmykia, President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, visits a memorial for Kalmyk soldiers who fought in the Soviet Red Army against Nazi Germany during WWII, in Elista. Ilyumzhinov is also the head of the International Chess Federation, FIDE, and has turned the republic into a chess mecca by hosting international tournaments, building a suburb called City Chess and making chess a mandatory subject in primary schools.
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    Boys with a kite play on a monument of an old Soviet Red Army tank at the entrance of Elista.
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    Young women from a modeling school prepare to greet the president of Vietnam before his arrival at the airport in Elista.
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    A newly wed bride turns prayer wheels at the main Buddhist temple in Elista.
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    A Buddhist monk refolds his robe inside the main Buddhist temple in Elista.
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    Women participate in a yoga class inside the main Buddhist temple in Elista.
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    Girls play in a playground in the village of Arshan Bulg, Republic of Kalmykia. Seen in the background is a Buddhist stupa.
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    Memebers of the "Rebirth" religious community participate in a ceremony in the middle of a field that they consider to have sacred magnetic power, on the outskirts of Elista. The unusual religious sect combines beliefs from multiple major religions as well as paranormal beliefs in extraterrestrials, UFOs and cosmic powers.
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    A municipal employee puts away giant chess pieces under the central square of Elista.
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    A girl makes bubbles near the neon lit pagoda in Lenin square in Elista.
Kalmykia: Chess and Buddhism

What can an obscure autonomous republic on Europe’s eastern fringe do to get world-wide attention? For the Republic of Kalmykia, the answer is a curious mix of chess, Buddhism and extraterrestrials.

Kalmykia is perhaps the most improbable offspring of the collapsed Soviet empire. An errant tribe of Mongol nomads who wandered out of Central Asia in the 17th century, the Kalmyk lived as pastoralists in relative peace on the lunar-like steppe south of Volgograd until the arrival of communism. Although Lenin’s own grandmother was Kalmyk, the Bolsheviks did not spare their Buddhist monasteries from destruction, nor the monks from arrest. During WWII, Stalin unleashed his furry on the Kalmyk people, deporting the entire population of 120,000 to forced labor camps in Siberia. Khrushchev allowed them to return from exile 13 years later, but by then their culture and language had been nearly erased.

Enter Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, millionaire and child chess champion. Elected as the first president of Kalmykia at the end of Soviet rule, he filled the Kalmyk cultural vacuum with his own megalomaniacal dreams. He built a bizarre chess-themed city, and managed to make it the capital of the World Chess Federation (FIDE). International tournaments are hosted regularly and chess is mandatory in all Kalmyk schools. Next, he ordered construction of Europe’s largest Buddhist temple. Kalmykia is now a regular stop on the Dalai Lama’s global itinerary. Ilyumzhinov believes that chess came from outer space, and he announced on Russian television that he had once been abducted by aliens in yellow suits.

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