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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.