First President of Kalmykia Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: Putin always comes to the bottom line

A prominent figure in the Russian political scene of the 1990s, the first president of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who had led the International Chess Federation for nearly a quarter of a century, was forced to resign a year ago.

The resignation of Ilyumzhinov from FIDE was not voluntary and was accompanied by intrigues. The US sanctions imposed on him by the US State Department for cooperation with the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic was one of the reasons for his removal.


Ilyumzhinov left but "remained in chess." 

 - In an interview with Canadian radio, they asked you if you ever played chess with Putin
- Putin and I have talked a lot about chess since 1993. Chess he loved and still loves. I have never played chess with Putin and I have never offered it to him. But Putin is the only president who participated in several chess events. He was there at the match for the title of world champion in Sochi in 2014, when the greatest chess player Sven Magnus Carlsen beat the Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand.
Together we put the chess crown - the wreath of the world champion - on the Norwegian grandmaster Carlsen. A year later, there was a tournament of chess schools White Rook. On the International Children's Day 1 June, Putin opened the White Rook children's tournament in Dagomys.
- You met him before...
When I won the election and became president of Kalmykia, I was invited to the Kremlin by Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin on 18 April 1993. After the meeting, I met Anatoly Sobchak: "Oh, a millionaire, a democrat, a chess player! Let's come visit us in St. Petersburg."
I agreed, and I flew to St. Petersburg where I was met by Deputy Governor for Foreign Economic Relations Vladimir Putin on 5 May. He said that Sobchak was in Smolny now and suggested to meet and prepare an agreement on friendship and cooperation between the Republic of Kalmykia and St. Petersburg.
By the way, this was the first agreement that I signed as president of Kalmykia.  And because of this agreement, hundreds of graduates of Kalmyk schools studied at Leningrad universities. We also received Kirovtsy tractors for our agriculture.
- In 1993, some promising politician and presidential candidate of the Russian Federation wrote about you in the newspapers. During your communication with Putin, did you see him as a future president?
- If I say now yes, it will not be true. But when we met with Vladimir Vladimirovich, I liked the energetic young leader. We arrived at residence K-4 immediately from the airport to prepare an agreement.
The quality that I have always liked and admired in Putin was that he always comes to the point. Here is the contract that we prepared and twice revised, because Vladimir Vladimirovich says: “Well, this agreement should include some specific benefit for students or for farmers”. Always, when we met, he clearly, specifically revealed the very essence.
One of such critical situations was in 1998 when, after my interview in the Vremya programme, Sergei Dorenko suddenly produced a map of Russia with Kalmykia surrounded by borders.
Then I talked about fiscal federalism. I told that we needed to build relations with the regions on the basis their income and take into account the particularities of the regions and national republics. And it sounded as if Kirsan announced withdrawal from the Russian Federation, which caused wide publicity.
- Ramzan Kadyrov is positioning himself as "Putin's infantryman." I remember Korzhakov called you “an uncontrollable Kalmyk”. Does it mean that Ilyumzhinov was not integrated into the system and was not “Yeltsin's infantryman”?
- Some did not like that I came to Moscow and tried to always meet with the first person.
- What does “some” mean? No one liked it.
- Yes, nobody liked it because when you come you will meet some head of the department. Later, when you leave Moscow, some other officials call: “You were in adjacent room so why didn’t you come to see me?” Alternatively, after l visited Chernomyrdin Viktor Stepanovich or Potanin, (we both studied at MGIMO and played chess for the national team), they also began to wonder: “Why didn’t you come to us?” Moscow is a very big city and there are different bureaucratic currents. And I explain: “Listen, I don’t have enough time. If I went to one office I had to sit there for a month, and in order to be politically correct, I also had to go to another.”
If I came to Moscow, I dealt with specific cases only. In 1995, we won the right to host the World Chess Olympiad. Well, the decision had to be made by the president. So, I sought a meeting with Yeltsin. He agreed. I held a meeting with the Prime Minister Viktor Stepanovich who also approved it. But this decision remained on paper; we never received a single rouble to support our Olympiad.
- What, all the money was stolen?
- No, there was simply no money.It was 1998 default and the government resigned. Russia was bankrupt.
All in all, we had to collect about $ 14 million, although we spent more than one hundred million. 400 years ago, Buddhism was brought from Inner Mongolia to Russia. And His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV is our spiritual leader. Well, when the authorities said they had no money I understood: I could rely on myself only.
I appealed to friends - entrepreneurs, investors – for help in holding the Olympiad. They found funds. In record time, (we even got into the Guinness Book) we built a whole city in the steppe and gathered about three thousand chess players from 129 countries. For three weeks, Elista was the world capital of chess...
- I remember that when you were elected president there was not a single temple, either Orthodox, or Buddhist, or a mosque in Kalmykia. Why do you have few Buddhist temples now?
- About 200 years ago, one of the Russian tsars signed a decree on traditional denominations in the Russian Empire. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism were mentioned there. On the other hand, according to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the church is separated from the state. Therefore, all the questions and problems that are connected with the church life are the problems of the believers themselves. Before the deportation of the Kalmyk people in 1943, there were several dozens of Buddhist temples and one Holy Cross Church in Kalmykia, which I restored later. When the Kalmyks returned from Siberia in 1957, we did not even have a single prayer house...
In 1993, I was elected president of Kalmykia and my grandmother’s wish was: "We should have a Buddhist temple." I could not do otherwise. And, by the way, Kalmykia is the only republic in the European part of Russia and in Europe that professes Buddhism. We brought Buddhism from Inner Mongolia 400 years ago. And His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV is our spiritual leader. Did they prohibit Buddhism? When I started building temples, no one bothered me. We simply could not take money from the state treasury, because the church was separated from the state.
And so the temples were built on the donations of my citizens, friends and investors, who gave millions of dollars for this. And in Kalmykia, we built the largest Buddhist temple in Europe that height was 64 meters. And the Holy Cross Orthodox Church was erected in the village of Priyutnoy. I am grateful to His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II, the previous patriarch, who then did not just come to consecrate the church but issued a decree on formation of the Kalmyk-Elista eparchy. I am also grateful to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia that allowed the Dalai Lama fly to us and consecrate the place where we built the temple.
In 1993, I signed an agreement with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the revival of traditional Buddhism. And the Dalai Lama began to send dozens of teachers — rimpos — to Kalmykia. Also, every year, I sent ten of our children to Indian and Mongolian monasteries, where they studied not only Buddhism, but also Tibetan medicine and Tibetan astrology. Many of them now work both in Kalmykia and in America not only as Buddhists but also as scientists and as Tibetan doctors. We built dozens of Buddhist temples. Even in Moscow there is a Stupa of Enlightenment. We are going to build a Buddhist temple on Poklonnaya Hill. Thanks to the Moscow City Hall that gave permission.
-Could your comrade Gaddafi help, because you once said that he as a Muslim was interested in Buddhism and he had the money?
- He played chess and loved chess. We held the World Cup in Libya in 2004. And every day he taught his grandchildren chess. As a proof, there is a video recording. We talked about chess more than once. One day, he suddenly asked: “How many times a person is reborn, how many times have you been reborn?” I noticed that he had several books in English and Arabic on his desk. One of them was the Lecture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama: The Art of Being Happy. I answered: "108 rebirths."
We had a meeting on 12 June 2011, just on the Day of Russia. In the morning, Mohammed Gaddafi’s eldest son, President of the National Olympic Committee and Chess Federation called the Russian embassy: “Come, dad wants to talk to you.”
Our game with Gaddafi was on all the TV channels of the world, because the day before the media had reported that Muammar was killed (bombed by NATO planes). I saw chess in the corner and suggested: “Shall will play?” -“Why?” I said: “Everyone says that you are killed or injured, that you are crazy. And if you play chess, then you definitely haven't lost your mind. ” And we played. It was on that day that he asked me about reincarnation, life after death. And I say to him: “Well, you see, now they are bombing your country, they suggest you leave it or give up the post”. And he replied: "What kind of a post? I'm neither a president, nor a prime minister." He was just a leader.
He said: “You are a Buddhist, you probably believe in fate, in karma ... How can I leave this land, when I buried my adopted daughter here and my ten-month granddaughter died under the bombs of NATO planes? Therefore, I cannot leave. I see that they will kill me,” Gaddafi said to me: “This is karma, in the next life I will reincarnate, probably as Lama.”
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was born in 1962 in Elista. At the age of 15, he led the adult team of Kalmykia in chess. He graduated from school with a gold medal and went to serve in the army, and then he studied at MGIMO. He learnt Japanese. While studying, he started a car business and earned his first million dollars, and later became a member of the Duma. In April 1993, he was elected the first president of Kalmykia. In total, Ilyumzhinov led the republic for 17 years. He is known as an experienced lobbyist and successful businessman, whose widest interests extend from the logistics business to trade in petroleum products.

Evgeny Dodolev