ELISTA, Russia — With a burst of flags and gleaming glass, a hodgepodge of turrets and candy-colored eaves rises from the barren hillside like a postmodern version of Dorothy's Emerald City.
Outside, the compound's gates are guarded by police in camouflage. Inside, a five-story yurt coated in mirrors is ringed by pastel townhouses and new lawns studded with sculptures. Some depict Mongolian-looking shepherds and warriors. Others are based on chess pieces: kings, queens, knights, pawns.
The complex is part Disneyland, part subdivision, part Oz. And its wizard is Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, the chess-mad, power-grabbing president of the republic of Kalmykia and the World Chess Federation.
Over the past five years, Ilyumzhinov has succeeded in the improbable mating of two unrelated cultures--Buddhist shepherds and world-class chess--and from it has bred a freakish personal empire.
"The political intriguers in Moscow are jealous," Ilyumzhinov says. These days, with Moscow fettered by economic and political crises, Ilyumzhinov and other leaders among Russia's 89 regions and republics are largely free to run their domains as they see fit.
In some cases, regional leaders have used their de facto autonomy to leap ahead of Moscow in pursuing reform and attracting foreign investment. More often, they have built private fiefdoms that operate largely outside Moscow's control. Ilyumzhinov is an extreme example of the latter. This week, he even threatened that Kalmykia might consider seceding from Russia.
"The fact that I am independent--financially, economically and politically--makes many people angry," he says with evident pride.
Despite such boasts, observers say there's something rotten in the Kingdom of Kirsan. Kalmykia remains one of Russia's poorest regions, with an average income of less than $6.70 a month--placing it in the lowest 10% of regions nationwide. State farm workers haven't been paid in five years.
Meanwhile, Ilyumzhinov builds houses for his friends and he jets around the world. By his own count, he visited 80 countries last year.
The president spent at least $30 million to build the magical mystery complex known as Chess City. It was here that he hosted a chess Olympiad this fall, drawing more than 1,500 internationally ranked players from 120 countries--including the United States--and lavishing caviar, vodka and prizes on them.
He says all the money comes from his private funds--an assertion that many, including federal investigators, doubt. And Ilyumzhinov plans to take his show on the road early next year, holding a world chess championship in, of all places, Las Vegas. To raise the stakes, he has personally funded a $3-million jackpot.
Ilyumzhinov has had audiences with Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Pictures of those meetings are plastered on billboards around Elista, his once dusty but now whitewashed capital.
The only people he doesn't seem to consult are his constituents.
Nina Tsedevena, a 69-year-old pensioner, can see Chess City from the end of her street. She'd like to take a look inside, but she's not allowed. Neither is her son, who lost his job as a truck driver three years ago. The two live on her pension of $26 a month.
In other places, she says, the money spent on Chess City might have been used to help citizens, to pay wages or to build hospitals.
"But here, that doesn't happen," she says, shaking her head. "Kirsan does what he likes. He doesn't ask us."
A People Descended From Genghis Khan
The 36-year-old Ilyumzhinov is a slight man with delicate hands, a wide smile and a soft voice. He seems at times too mild-mannered to be a descendant of Genghis Khan's fearsome horde.
The Kalmyks are a remnant of the Mongol leader's forces, which swept across Europe in the 13th century and subjugated Russia for 240 years. In the 1600s, some of the Mongols wandered back and eventually formed an alliance with Peter the Great, who gave them a homeland on Russia's arid southern steppe.
These days, Kalmykia is a swath of near-desert about the size of South Carolina. Its population of 300,000 is divided about equally between Kalmyks and ethnic Russians. It is the only Buddhist republic in Europe.
The way Ilyumzhinov describes it, Kalmykia is an oasis of prosperity. It is pumping oil, selling sheepskins, harvesting caviar and pouring so much tax money into the federal budget that each resident supports 10 of Russia's citizens. In fact, Ilyumzhinov said Tuesday, unless more money starts coming back from Moscow, his republic will have to consider whether it is really a part of Russia at all.
He flatly dismisses talk of the republic's poverty.
"I have never seen a poor Kalmyk. Not one," he insisted in an interview.
One presumes, then, that he has never met Larisa Doda, a 22-year-old former garage worker who lives in the hamlet of Tselinnyi, 25 miles north of Elista, with her two small children. She and her husband, a cowherd, haven't been paid since 1993.