Al Jazeera's Russia correspondent met with the president of the World Chess Federation and head of Russia's Buddhist Republic of Kalmykia, to see how chess has become a catalyst for development in an otherwise impoverished city.
|Illiumzhinov: Chess champ and head |
The tiny Russian Republic of Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region in greater Europe. Its capital, the city of Elista, has the largest Buddhist temple of its kind on the continent.
But courtesy Kirsan Illiumzhinov, the head of the Republic and president of the World Chess Federation (Fide), residents of Kalmykia have more to revere than Buddhism. They also have chess.
The game is everywhere, played in town squares, taught in the classrooms, and has an entire village dedicated to it - Chess City – the newly created facility which hosted the world championships in October 2006.
Chess City is a monument to Illiumzhinov’s dream to make his beloved homeland the home of world chess.
Illiumzhinov said: "This is my dream. A dream that I have made into real life. Everybody can see, this is no dream, this is the real Chess City."
Illiumzhinov has created a middle class suburbia for this 50-year-old province, but the capital has no middle class to live in it. Many have said Illiumzhinov’s obsession with chess has misguided his plans to redevelop the city.
Behind the glistening facade of the new district he has created, the lack of inhabitants has led to crumbling decay. But the multimillionaire former car dealer-turned-president has pledged to continue generating more middle class districts to give life to lifeless parts of Elista.
The president, a former chess professional, was local champion by the age of 14, and almost earned the title Chess Master.
When pressed if the $100 million spent on the grand temple and Chess City would have been better spent on roads, schools, hospitals, Illiumzhinov said: "I have spent two billion on roads and schools. Ten years ago there was no gas pipeline to people. Now, 90 per cent of Kalmyk people can use gas in their houses, and now they have access to water.
Illiumzhinov has breathed life into the tattered economy. But, more than that, he believes, chess has put Kalmykia back on the world map.
Source: Al Jazeera