If you have not had a chance to read anything about the way FIDE president and "king of Kalmykia" Kirsan Ilyumzhinov runs his country, then Michael Specter's article "Planet Kirsan: Inside a Chess Master's Fiefdom" (The New Yorker, April 24, 2006) makes an excellent starting point. Though Specter does not discuss at any length Ilyumzhinov's work as FIDE president or his ongoing battle with Bessel Kok in the upcoming election (as covered at ChessBase News), one has to wonder why this rich and crazy ideologue should be the international face of chess, predicted by some to easily win reelection. My only answer is that where the electorate is disengaged from politics (how many of us--myself included--have any idea or any interest in how FIDE elections actually work?), and the current president is doing everything possible to keep us disengaged (with a sudden flurry of work at reorganizing the championship and reunifying the crown), then it is easy to stay in power. Ilyumzhinov's focus in his country on building Buddhist temples and other religious institutions and giving chess training to all his citizen seems all part of the same design: to keep Kalmykians quiet and mollified so that they are not so interested in politics.
Though the game as we have it in the West depicts two warring feudal families, chess takes us outside of the political realm and, in fact, offers most players a refuge from conflict. As Alexander Cockburn writes in his book Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death, reflecting on the parallel investment in chess by the former Soviet state:
"One great advantage of the game, though it may not have occurred to the policy makers initially, is that it is nonpolitical--in fact it is profoundly quietist. Chess, after all, is played at remote control, in correspondence chess, or one to one. It is silent. It is nonfigurative, in the sense that it is conducted purely in its own terms, not in generally current concepts or political or cultural ideas. Therefore...there was no possibility of bringing people collectively together in the expression of revolutionary ideas which might be subversive or discommoding to the political leadership" (Cockburn 149).
By building a nation of chessplayers, Kirsan is, at least in part, working to discourage opposition. And "with as much as seventy per cent of the labor force unemployed" and a "a man-made desert" landscape that makes traditional farming and sheep herding more and more difficult (Specter 113), the super-rich Ilyumzhinov has practically built a feudal state where nearly everyone owes him peonage. His grip on power seems absolute.
I first read about Ilyumzhinov and Kalmykia in J.C. Hallman's rather rambling but interesting book The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game (in the chapter "Illuminating Ilyumzhinov"). In Hallman's account, many citizens are not simply disengaged but openly fearful of speaking their minds. And with a man in office who is an open admirer of Saddam Hussein's ability to "hold it all together" in Iraq with the "Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds" (Specter 114), it's easy to see why. He is seeking to build a kingdom not much different from one of the Arab states with oil as his source of wealth and the citizenry dependent upon him for their livelihoods. Chess is both a symbol of and a tool for maintaining his king-like stature in an increasingly feudal order.
That chessplayers, who have always followed the money (even to Libya and other unsavory locales), should willingly allow themselves to become pawns in his game troubles me. Yet, surveying the current landscape of funding for the game, I can see why so many are willing to follow him....