In the steppes of southwestern Russia, there lies the largest Buddhist city in all of Europe, a town called Elista. In addition to giant monasteries and Buddhist sculptures, Elista is also home to kings and queens—but not in the royal sense.
Lying on the east side of Elista is Chess City, a culturally and architecturally distinct enclave in which, as the New York Times put it, “chess is king and the people are pawns.”
Chess City was built in 1998 by chess fanatic Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the megalomaniac leader of Russia’s Kalmykia province and president of the International Chess Federation, who claims to have been abducted by aliens with the wild, utopian mission of bringing chess to Elista.
Following the aliens’ suggestion, Ilyumzhinov built Chess City just in time to host the 33rd Chess Olympiad in grand fashion. Featuring a swimming pool, a chess museum, a large open-air chess board, and a museum of Buddhist art, Chess City hosted hundreds of elite grandmasters in 1998 and was home to several smaller chess championships in later years. Also found in Chess City is a statue of Ostap Bender, a fictional literary con man obsessed with chess.
But while Chess City brought temporary international attention to Elista, it was also highly controversial. In the impoverished steppes of Elista, cutting food subsidies to fund a giant, $50 million complex for the short-term use of foreigners wasn’t a popular idea with much of the region. Once the Chess Olympiad was over, Chess City became sparsely used and largely vacated, a symbol to the people of Elista of the local government’s misguided priorities.