Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: I still have many unfinished business with Vietnam and the Vietnamese people

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov served as president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) for 23 consecutive years. He was elected first president of the Republic of Kalmykia (from 1993 to 2010). However, few people know that Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is a great friend of Vietnam and has always helped this country. Kirsan Nikolayevich came to Hanoi in July this year and gave a detailed interview to the journalist of the Vietnamese BBC service.

“Vietnam was always a special place for me”
- Thank you for agreeing to give us an interview. Kirsan Nikolaevich, after you became president of FIDE in 1995, your first official visit was to Vietnam. Why did you choose Vietnam?

 - Yes, my first official visit as FIDE president was to Vietnam. One of the main reasons is that I have many Vietnamese friends by MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations), and I often played chess with them. They told me that chess is quite developed in Vietnam.

In 1995, I realized that Vietnam has enormous potential for the development of not only chess, sports, but also the economy and culture. Vietnam has a very long history and preserves traditions and culture. These are the roots of the Vietnamese people. The deeper the roots, the better the tree, and this will certainly bear fruit in the future.
Time has shown that I was right. Vietnamese didn’t play chess much back in 1995 but there are many Vietnamese grandmasters now. As president of FIDE, I presented awards in Johannesburg, Dubai and Moscow. There were many boys and girls with the Vietnamese flags. Two years ago, I awarded world champions in Minsk and half of the stage was occupied by Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese champions of Asia and the world are the future of the country. With such smart youth, Vietnam has enormous potential for development.
- I was very surprised and glad to learn that you have many friends in Vietnam. You were not only the president of FIDE, but also the president of the Republic of Kalmykia from 1993 to 2010. How many times have you visited Vietnam as president of Kalmykia? Which visit was the most memorable?
- Probably few people travel the world as much as I do. On average, I made more than 100 flights a year over the past decade. Vietnam is always a special country for me.
I crossed paths with many Vietnamese, but I managed to work with the Vietnamese government only in 1991. I handed Saddam Hussein a bag of Vietnamese rice so that Vietnam could export rice to Iraq under the Oil-for-Food Programme established by the United Nations. It was a mutually beneficial agreement.
I have visited Vietnam many times; it is the most peaceful country. I received a lot of positive energy there and I learnt many cultural and religious lessons. Many of my Vietnamese friends are important persons. For example, I spoke with President Nguyen Minh Triet today. We have much work to do.
As you know, Vietnam is going to build a high-speed railway across the entire country. I consider this necessary, since the railway industry is developing very slowly in this country.
 “I am a communist, but have always been a believer”
- You are a Buddhist. Earlier, you were also a member of the Communist Party and the Supreme Council of the USSR. How is it possible to mix communism and religion?
“I am a communist, but I have always been a believer.” I still keep a certificate of a member of the Communist Party. About Buddhism: when I was 5 years old and my parents went to work, my grandmother and I closed the doors and windows, took out the Buddha figurine from the chest and prayed.
My grandmother was illiterate, but believed in the Buddha, in God, because the Buddha helped the Kalmyk people survive the times of Stalin. Many residents were exiled to Siberia, and they took with them a Buddha figurine to pray. Grandma always prayed and told me to pray. In the days of communism, people had to hide their faith, so it stayed behind closed doors and windows. She said that I would build a large temple and people would come there to pray. I did not believe her. However, it came true.
In 1993, when I became president of Kalmykia, there was not a single Buddhist temple there. People asked me: "Kirsan, build us a temple." I built a small church. In 1994, I built the first Catholic church. In 1996, the first Buddhist temple was built in Kalmykia. In 2005, we built the largest Buddhist temple in Europe, the Golden Shakyamuni Buddha Monastery, which was blessed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
As president, I had to support all religions. Anyone can visit Orthodox or Catholic churches or a Buddhist temple in Kalmykia now. In the 90s, everyone believed in Marxism and Leninism, in the communist system. And it was totally destroyed. Then what did we believe in? In dollars and Hollywood movies? Gradually, moral values ​​lost their significance. Therefore, I believed that it was necessary to revive past traditions. Revive religion, and at the same time, improve the cultural level of people. Cultured people themselves will be able to choose a religion for themselves.
For me personally, Buddhism is not only a religion, it is a philosophy, part of the culture of mankind. Buddhism taught me how to be calm. I am a Buddhist and continue to support Buddhism.
Besides the name Kirsan, I have another name given to me by my grandmother, Badma. Only at the age of seven did I learn that my name was Kirsan, since my grandmother raised me before that. Badma, translated from Kalmyk, means “lotus flower”, the same as “Pad Me” in the famous mantra “OM MANI PAD ME HUM”. During prayers, I call myself Badma. This is my connection with Buddhism.
- Vietnam is a communist country, like the former Soviet Union. In recent years, religion has developed very well there, especially Buddhism. What do you think of it?
- First, let me express my opinion about religions. I believe that Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha are the messengers of one single God. These are different religions, but they all have a common essence with “tyngyr” (cosmos, the Creator is Kalmyk). Some people have the ability to receive this information coming from space. Maybe in a couple of hundred years Lenin would also be considered such a messenger. I believe that everything follows certain cosmic rules that push the development of civilization. We are not alone in space. There is God, Buddha, the Creator.
Vietnam, like the USSR, is a communist country, and sometimes this contradicts religious views. However, if we consider religion not only as a religion, but also as part of a culture, then we would be able to see everything differently.
I have been to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City many times; I have seen many beautiful ancient temples. I noticed that there were many young people and children among the visitors. They did not come as followers of religion. They see it as part of history and culture.
If the younger generation believes in the past, then they also believe in the future of their country. Therefore, I am sure that Vietnam has a bright future. For me, Vietnam is an important part of my life.