“The Republic of Kalmykia (Russian: Респу́блика Калмы́кия, tr. Respublika Kalmykiya) is a federal subject of Russia (a republic). Population: 289,481 (2010 Census).
It is the only Buddhist region in Europe. It has become well known as an international center for chess because its former President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is the head of the International Chess Federation (FIDE).”
I had absolutely no idea there was a majority Buddhist region so far west, consider my mind blown.
Kalmykia is one of the few republics in the Russian Federation to have changed its flag since it was established. The original version was a tricolour based on the flag of the Don Cossacks. The symbol in the centre apparently means “Kalmyk” in the old Mongolian script.
After my summer in Yoshkar-Ola in the Republic of Mari-El last year,I have developed both an appreciation and deeper love of Moscow,but also a hunger to learn about and visit some of the stranger and lesser-known parts of Russia, places off the beaten track,that nobody knows about.
One of my favourite writers is Daniel Kalder and a few years ago,I read his “Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist”. The book describes his wandering around some of Russia’s stranger republics.Mari-El was one such republic he visited, it was in fact the only reason I had heard of the place when I accepted the job there.Kalder also wrote about Izhevsk,the home of Mikhail Kalashnikov,designer of the AK-47,and also the location of the factory where they are produced.
The third republic that Kalder visits is Kalmykia, a small,impoverished republic of 300,000, located on barren steppes,with no natural resources.He visits the capital -Elista. At this point I must pause and use my own experience to compare Elista with Yoshkar-Ola. Yoshkar-Ola is of a similar size, 200,000 people.Like Elista,it is the capital of one of Russia’s poorer regions. Quality of life is low,as are salaries, unemployment is high.It is a far cry from the relatively affluent Moscow.Like Kalmykia, Mari-El has no natural resources, none of the economy-driving oil that keeps Russia going.Though it should be noted that,as a friend told me in Yoshkar-Ola,the only maternity hospital in the city is overcrowded with terrible conditions, when first arriving in the city, one is overwhelmed.
Yoshkar-Ola’s ‘new’ architecture
The first sight that greets a visitor is a string of newly-built 'palaces’. There is an enormous 'water palace’, full of swimming pools and other facilities befitting a 'water palace’. The water palace is followed by an equally enormous 'ice palace’, where the lucky Yoshkar-Ola citizens can ice-skate or play ice hockey. As you drive past the palaces,you come to the centrepiece of the new architecture in the city centre - the newly-built 'kremlin’, modelled on the iconic Moscow Kremlin.Only difference is that this one is brand new,and nothing really happens here. Only elderly women and mothers with prams walk around inside its walls.
Embankment in Yoshkar-Ola
Across from the kremlin is the newly-developed river embankment, adorned with brand-new 'European-style’ buildings though they are dwarfed by the nearby dilapidated tower blocks. These 'European’ buildings,while relatively pleasing to the eye, look sterile and out of place,not to mention that they seem to be completely empty.After all,who on earth would live here?Yoshkar-Ola seemed to have no middle class to speak of,let alone people who could afford to live in buildings in the city centre that looked like they were plucked out of 19th-century Vienna.Further down the embankment,there is,completely inexplicably,a statue of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco.I can’t imagine what their connection to Yoshkar-Ola could possibly be.None of my friends,some of whom were born in this city,could explain either.Certainly,the city centre is pleasant enough to walk around in,but if I were a native of the city,I would probably prefer a decent hospital/salary/job.
Another example of a poor republic with a bizarre set of seemingly extravagant and unnecessary buildings is Elista.The president of Kalmykia is,incidentally,also president of FIDE,the international World Chess Federation.So,he’s a chess nut.
President of Kalmykia,hard at work
Elista has hosted a number of international chess copmpetitions,including the Chess Olympiad in 1998. Elista,you ask,in disbelief??Where did the international chess champions hang out? McDonalds? The inevitable Irish pub? No. In Chess City of course!!
Centre of Elista.Note the giant chessboard.
Finished in 1998, just in time to host the Chess Olympiad,Chess City is a purpose-built complex,styled on an Olympic village. Chess City has a grandly-named 'Chess Hall’ , conference centres,accommodation, swimming pool and museum.But that’s not all.According to Wikipedia: “Future plans for Chess City include a water sport complex, skiing center, government buildings, business centers, opera and ballet theaters, museums, a conservatory, an art school, religious academies, a center of traditional medicine, and residences for any ambassadors who may be accredited to Kalmykia.” Admirable as it is that the president has attracted a modicum of international attention to the unremarkable city, it seems there must be slightly more pressing issues in Elista then the need for an enormous,sprawling 'chess complex’. Just another example of a bizarre,unnecessary pet project of a president of a poor Russian republic.Who knows how many are out there??