For all the attention devoted to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as FIDE President, his role as Head of the Republic of Kalmykia remains more of a mystery. Daria Aslamova’s recent two-part report offered a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in the small steppe republic.
Daria Aslamova is one of Russia’s more colourful journalists. She catapulted to fame after writing a kiss-and-tell memoir on her encounters with the political establishment, but since then has reported from war zones (an English journalist described her “lively dispatches of the Moll-Flanders-goes-to-war variety”) and has recently been writing in-depth reports from the edges of Europe for the most popular Russian daily newspaper, “Komsomolskaya Pravda”.
The original report from Kalmykia can be found here: part one, part two. It’s well worth a look (with an automatic translator) for both the full text and the photographs that accompany the article. All the headings used below are from the Russian text. It begins in rural Kalmykia:
IN DEFIANCE OF ARISTOTLE
The evening of a hard hot day on the Kalmykian steppe. The village of Orgakin. The table in the home of the hereditary farmer Djangar is bending under the weight of fatty lamb dishes. The meat smokes on the table, and also bleats and groans on the street, right under the windows. Meat in Kalmykia is the meaning of life, the foundation of existence, sacred food and the main source of income. The ram is a respected currency. In short, meat is an objective reality. But what about the subjective reality? The local Lama Batyr Elistaev pours vodka into glasses and says: “We Kalmykians, as Buddhists, have an eightfold point of view on the world, i.e. we can see any object from eight different points. Western civilisation, meanwhile, is built on Aristotle’s logic, which for us Buddhists is unacceptable”. The hereditary farmers listen to the lama respectfully and, of course, fully share the eightfold point of view, indignantly rejecting Aristotle’s logic.
“Here in front of us is a glass of vodka”, Batyr explains. “From the point of view of Western logic (where everything is simple – yes or no, with no third option) the glass is here. It exists. While from the Buddhist point of view it both is, and is not. It can simultaneously be present and absent. Based on the quantum physics of tiny particles we can look at the glass here as an agreement we’ve come to. We’re the ones who’ve given it such a name. It’s a consensus we’ve reached”.
We drink for consensus and pour once more. The farmers liven up. “Now let’s see what you do with the glass of vodka?” “I’ll drink it”, I suggest meekly. “The majority of people are like Pavlov’s dogs: there’s a stimulus and there’s a reaction”, the Lama Batyr says sadly. “It’s a normal Aristotelian approach!” I defend myself. We drink together for Aristotle and pour again. “At the second level of Buddhist consciousness you switch on your intellect: there’s a stimulus, but you don’t immediately grasp at it,” Batyr explains. “You look at the vodka and think: but why’s it here?” “But then we’ll never drink it!” Volodya, a local businessman, objects. The glasses are emptied and again refilled. “At the third level deep connections are awakened within you,” Batyr says with hope. “You begin to listen in to yourself. Your internal intellect and memory carry out a comparative analysis…” “But they’ll tell me: the last time I did it I felt very bad,” I continue. “But so what! I’m not made to be a Buddhist!” “It’s better to do something and regret it than not to do it and regret it!” shouts the businessman Volodya. “It’s better not to do it at all”, the lama says sadly.
Outside the window a dust storm howls, and the sand grits your teeth. The Lama Batyr tells me about the “zone of peace of consciousness” (“that’s when your consciousness looks at the vodka and there’s no reaction at all”), while Basan, the head of the local administration, complains about the problems with water and electricity (“Our village has actually been lucky, here the springs flow, while almost the whole of rural Kalmykia is left without water! And electricity?! We don’t have our own, and we pay a few times more than neighbouring Stavropol. How can you possibly get a return here!”) There’s a roaring in my head, and my thoughts are confused after the multiple “acquaintance” with Buddhism. “So this is how you live in Kalmykia”, I sum up, “without water, without electricity, but with an eightfold point of view!”
There follows an introduction to Elista, under the heading “A zone of gentle and pleasant madness”. Aslamova notes that when, after perestroika, Kalmykia “discovered” that it was the only Buddhist republic in Europe “a door was opened in the wall of reality, allowing all kinds of unexpected guests to slip through”. These range from an amazing array of religious figures to Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal.
THE MAN FROM ALPHA CENTAURI
The hit parade of extravagant and unique Kalmykians is topped by the Head (formerly President) of the Republic of Kalmykia, and the President of FIDE, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov – a man with the fixed smile of a small Buddha and an air of invulnerability, in whose honour planet no. 5570 is named, an outstanding representative of the wild 90s, a friend of Saddam Hussein and a fan of Rolls-Royces. He’s personally met aliens who flew to him in Moscow in 1998 “in yellow spacesuits” and took him up on their flying saucer. When the young Ilyumzhinov came to power 17 years ago he stunned Kalmykians with his energy, his unprecedented assault on all affairs and the number of his good intentions. It seemed as though the dreamer was capable of opening a lemonade fountain in the middle of the desert. The small, hard-working Kalmykian nation, passionately fond of fairy tales, was promised real wonders: a software technology park along the lines of Silicon Valley and its own Las Vegas, a new Russian cosmodrome in Kalmykia and a luxury port in Lagan on the Caspian Sea, from which boats would sail straight to Iran, a computer monitor factory and wind-powered turbines with the cheapest electrical energy in the world, a diamond factory and motorways, gala concerts with Michael Jackson and Madonna in Elista and an international airport complex from which planes would fly to Oman, Dubai and Frankfurt, McDonald’s restaurants and a pharmaceutical factory of Tibetan medicine, a large tannery and an International Buddhist Academy.
As the years passed the charm of the great plans faded. It became clear that an idea’s only useful when it acquires meat and bones. At the start of the 90s Ilyumzhinov proudly declared: “I’ve built communism for myself, my relatives and friends – I’ll also build it for my nation. You needn’t worry, in a few years Kalmykia will have been turned from the poorest agrarian republic into a prosperous industrial state”. And fifteen years later it became clear that communism (or even successful capitalism) wasn’t so easy to build on the Kalmykian soil. The small steppe republic still occupies one of the lowest ranks among the Russian regions in terms of quality of life.
THE WINDMILLS OF THE MILLIONAIRE DON QUIXOTE
“We only had one real project, and at one time I was in charge of it. It was an offshore financial centre (a zone of preferential taxes)”, says economist and blogger Pyurvya Mendeev. “It’s a shame that it was shut down. Those were golden times. We covered all the local regions with a network of representatives and registered a few thousand enterprises”. “But WHO did you register? Tax dodgers?” I ask. “Not true. Competent people, the cream of Russian business. And besides, it was all legal. But in general what can you do in Kalmykia? Let’s look at it through the eyes of a realist. There were attempts to build a factory for the initial processing of wool, leather and textiles here, as well as a computer factory. Well, building them wasn’t a problem, but the buildings are abandoned. It became clear that you need to manage them and somehow work on them, as well as coping with competition. During the period when light industry was collapsing and we were busy with factories some well-known Jewish people were hanging around the temple and looked at us like idiots. Guys, what are you getting into? Why leather when there’s Turkey? What’s this with textiles when even Ivanovo’s lying in ruins? Why computers when there’s China? We didn’t even manage to manufacture valenki [Russian winter boots]. It’s disadvantageous. I said at once: it’d be better to drink away the money and have a good time. Here global monsters are competing with each other, and we’re building an industrial base”.
“But I tell you it was possible to retain both industry and jobs here,” interjects Valery Badmaev, the editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper “Soviet Kalmykia Today”. “Before Ilyumzhinov there were three meat processing plants, a large fish processing plant in Lagan, a house-building company, two reinforced concrete factories and a brick factory. And where’s it all gone? As a civil engineer I can tell you: Kirsan put an end to the whole construction industry. In return he built a computer factory, which operated for two days. They brought in seven disassembled monitors, arranged for TV cameras, put the monitors together on site and then closed the factory. His wind turbines, built as early as 1998, have already been dismantled for scrap metal. Now it’s a new era: they’ve built another two wind turbines, bustled around them, but for some reason they provide no electricity. I put it to you simply: Ilyumzhinov’s a blabbermouth! Something popped into his head, he crowed about it, but what’s the use? If you rattle on to the whole word that you’re a millionaire, that a rich president means a rich republic, then do something. If you do nothing you’re not worth a penny!”
In the opening of part two Daria Aslamova outlines what Ilyumzhinov can be proud of, primarily his efforts in maintaining a peaceful republic in an otherwise dangerously unruly region. She continues:
What else can Kirsan Ilyumzhinov boast about? He built a childhood dream – the Chess City of New-Vasiuki (it’s true that now it’s as quiet as a graveyard, the hotels and entertainment facilities are empty: nobody goes there as it’s a long way from the city centre). He taught school children to play chess. The children grew up intelligent and gifted (it wasn’t in vain that they were children of mixed blood), and like experienced chess players they calculated ten steps ahead that there was no hope for them in their native republic (no work) and left Kalmykia for Moscow and St. Petersburg, London and New York, Tibet and India. 80 000 people have abandoned their little homeland. All who remain in Elista are kids, old people, officials of all stripes and their relatives.
But the greatest success of Ilyumzhinov has been in creating the international brand “Kalmykia”. The whole wide world has now heard of the small steppe republic of Buddhists and chess players. As they joke on local internet forums: “How many people are there in Kalmykia? Only three hundred thousand? But they make as much noise as the Chinese!” The president himself, like a true nomad, travels all around the world, rarely appearing in his own realm. (While I waited a week for him in Kalmykia he managed to visit Armenia, Croatia and Lebanon. Then I laid an ambush in Moscow, but the beautiful and charismatic FIDE chess president had left for Africa, and then Latin American. It seems it wasn’t meant to be.)
“In our republic for the last 15 years it’s been a feast in time of plague,” says Vladimir Bessarabov, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Steppe Mosaic”. “They tell us: Kalmykia now has a famous name, but we don’t want a name at any cost. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is a wonderful PR man and a very hospitable host, but just not at his own expense, but the expense of the republic. Therefore the reception of delegations, chess events, conferences and seminars happens en masse, and each sports team has to be welcomed, fed and given drinks. That all imposes an unbearable burden on the republic’s budget. It’s not chess we need to invest in, but meat processing and developing small businesses. They’ve trampled on everything that existed in Soviet times, but love laying the stones of new projects and cutting ribbons. There’s a joke going around the republic: Kirsan has an official pair of scissors in his pocket so that he can cut a ribbon at any moment. His favourite phrase is: “Kalmykia is a brand, and billions in investment will come to us”. But who’ll come here, if we have problems with water and electricity and people have left?! Specialists have long designated Kalmykia a zone of investment risk. The idea of an international port in Lagan kicked the bucket. But the wild imagination of the president of the republic went further: “We’ll build the Manychsky Canal”. Now he’s declaring that he’s found the resources for the COMPLETION of construction. We’re still at square one, digging hasn’t started, and he’s already talking about COMPLETION! Then a new idea: Belgium’s going to build a factory for processing diamonds, which for some reason or other they’ll bring from Yakutia. That’s dampened down as well. Ilyumzhinov is a generator of crazy ideas and we’re impatiently waiting for the arrival of someone competent who won’t communicate with aliens and who’ll look at Kalmykia not from Alpha Centauri but from here, from the Earth.
The journalist Vera Brezgina has a more pragmatic outlook: “We understand perfectly well that it won’t be easy for Kalmykia when a new man arrives, particularly at first. Here everything’s been divided up, torn apart and parcelled out, all the clans have been cultivated. Those who had to be bent, have been bent. And then a change of power! A Varangian from Moscow simply won’t be tolerated by the local elite, they’ll unite and devour him. Which means they need “their own”. But who’s “their own”?
Local businessmen simply scratch their heads: “Who can you put forward? There’s no prominent figure. All the opposition are little Kirsanites. Someone from outside will make a mess. While Ilyumzhinov’s a talented fantasist. If all of his ideas had competent management we’d be living like lords. In many things he can convince others, and even himself of anything. People believe him every time: maybe a new idea will suddenly work?”
Under the heading, “Shtick no. 999: the man of the future”, there’s a long discussion of a new plan to make Kalmykia a centre for “creative technologies”, ways to enhance human creativity. A conference was held in Elista this June, with a photo report from a speaker at it, John Quijada, available here.
Aslamova moves on to “what can save Kalmykia?” and concludes that Kalmykia is, quietly, saving itself: “…while in Elista they were playing chess and inventing the man of the future, the people of the steppe in a literal sense returned to their sheep”. Meat production has recovered since the “hunger of the early 90s”, though everything isn’t so simple:
“We can feed the whole of Russia with our meat, but who needs it?” says the businessman Volodya Bardyshev. “In Moscow and St. Petersburg you eat Argentinian and Australian frozen “rubber” because it’s cheap. 70% of Russian meat comes from abroad. It’s all imported through St. Petersburg’s port. There’s real money involved, and nobody will let the healthy Kalmykian meat break through into the market”.
“For the metropolises it’s inconvenient in general if the colonies develop”, Lama Batyr Elistaev backs him up. “Moscow gives money only for “social programs”, and those subsidies come and disappear in the sand, as all the goods here are imported. But Kalmykia after all is your protection from the Caucasus, a buffer holding the region. Russia is an heir to the great Eurasian steppes, and the steppe approach to life differs from that in the West. All the European civilisations, the maritime powers, were aggressors, and built on the resources of their colonies. While the steppe is open space, with its mentality, in which the main thing is the neighbourly principle of mutual assistance. And we’re not your colonies but a part of Russia. What’s happening here today? We’re experiencing a crisis of values. The Soviet system has collapsed: a certain world with its own higher aims. Why is it still interesting to watch Soviet films today? They were bound to a dome, connected to a certain energy. The Americans have built an ontological umbrella, and they’ve covered the whole world with it! While we need to come up with a new umbrella which will cover the whole of Russia. I tell you as a Buddhist to a Buddhist: we need a new semantic yurt, where we can sit cross-legged, with a cup of Kalmykian tea, and together seek common Gods”.