Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Kalmykia’s ABC- Aliens, Buddhism and Chess

Kalmykia's leaders like to use its religious status with events like this Buddhist rock festival 'Ocean of Compassion'.

It’s a Buddhist enclave in Russia’s Muslim and Christian south. It’s populated by descendants of Mongols and Western Chinese who migrated here centuries ago. It’s a world capital of chess. It’s the Republic of Kalmykia and its capital Elista, and it’s making the headlines for some spurious reasons.

Elista has the largest Buddhist temple in Europe.

Kalmykia’s former president (it’s a federal subject of Russia), Kirsan Ilyumzhinov seems to be welcomed almost anywhere he chooses to go. He’s been snapped at the Nobel Peace Prize awards next to Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama. But he also declares himself a friend of former dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. His latest trip has been to see none other that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad could apparently squeeze Ilyumzhinov in for three hours of chess and chat during which time he agreed to make chess compulsory for Syrian schoolchildren.

Ilyumzhinov was responsible for promoting Kalmykia as the only Buddhist region in Europe, with Europe’s largest Buddhist temple. He came to power as the region’s president in 1993 by promising each voter $100. He also brought chess to the region, and accusations of corruption. His plans for a ‘chess city’ were met with fury by impoverished Kalmyks. He has been accused of involvement in the murder of a journalist who discovered corrupt finances in the region. He also claimed in an interview a few months before he resigned that he had been abducted by aliens. 

Part of Kirsan Ilyumzhiov's 'chess city' which cost a fortune and was never really finished or put to good use.

Then there is Telo Rinpoche. He heads the regions Buddhist community and is trying to re-introduce Buddhism to Mongolia further east. When I met him in 2009 as he hosted a dinner for Buddhist and Russian rock stars he told me of his eagerness to promote love and compassion as something, “valuable to every human being.”  He and Ilyumzhinov have invited the Dalai Lama to Kalmykia and despite Rinpoche’s meandering life in and out of the religion and in and out of the US he is now one of his spiritual leader’s foremost lieutenants. This comes much to the chagrin of China, which views his actions in Mongolia especially with much suspicion.

Telo Rinpoche, born to Kalmyk parents is now the Dalai Llama's man trying to bring Buddhism back to the former Soviet Union.

Leaders like this have lead to the creation of a Kalmykia with a huge temple and a half finished ‘chess city’ nestled amid a poor republic of steppe herders, and an alien abductee. I’m sure Mr Assad, the Dalai Lama and the rest had plenty to talk about.

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