Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is one of Russia’s most colorful public figures. An ethnic Kalymk, the businessman and politician was president of the predominantly Buddhist Republic of Kalmykia from 1993 to 2010, and later president of FIDE, the global governing body for chess, from 1995 to 2018. His business interests have spanned the oil and gas, media and automobile industries. While at the helm of FIDE, Ilyumzhinov traveled widely in Africa and developed a true love for the continent, its people and their perspectives and cultures.
In a lengthy and insightful conversation with Billionaires.Africa, Ilyumzhinov referred to Africa as “the cradle of humanity” and “the future of human civilization,” and as a continent that can help give rebirth to a global civilization that he sees as suffering from “artificially imposed excessive consumer standards” and “moral degradation.” His understanding of the world is philosophical and kind. It is a helicopter’s view guided by a gentle Buddhist touch, or exactly what you would expect of a man whose experience is as diverse as having been invited into an alien spacecraft in late-1990s Moscow, so he says, serving as Russia’s youngest MP and regional president, sparking a world chess revolution, and being named a “specially designated national” by the U.S. Treasury Department on allegations that he has time and again denied categorically to the media.
With that brief introduction, we hope that you enjoy our tet-a-tet with one of Russia’s most delightful public figures and one of its busiest men on the African continent.
– Mr. Ilyumzhinov, you, as the head of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), have made a dizzying career developing chess around the world. Do you have any ideas for the development of chess in Africa?
– I headed FIDE in 1995. I must say that at that time, the federation was divided and I had three main tasks: first, it was necessary to unite the chess world; secondly, to achieve the recognition of FIDE by the Olympic Committee; and the third task was a recognition of chess as a sport. I achieved all this. When I came to FIDE, it united just over 100 countries, and now the federation consists of more than 200 members. Then about 100 million people played chess and more than 600 million now. Tens of thousands of competitions are held.
At the same time as FIDE needed to increase the number of countries in the federation, it has always been important for me to increase the number of people who love this ancient game and play chess on our planet. Therefore, the principle I proclaimed sounded like one billion chess players means one billion smart people. I figured that one billion intellectual chess players could change the world for the better. This is a fundamental and strategic goal – to change the world through smart, developed and cultured people.
Literally, from the first days of working at FIDE, one of my main tasks was to develop chess in Africa, which I love very much. I have visited many countries and I have been to almost all countries in Africa. I consider this continent to be the cradle of humanity, and at the same time, I am convinced that Africa is the future of human civilization. It has its own untapped potential, and I am convinced that the common stamp of “helping Africa” may soon be replaced by Africa being able to help other countries, including the so-called developed democracies.
There are about one and a half billion people in Africa according to www.countrymeters.info/ru/Africa.
Africa is the richest continent on the planet in terms of its natural, energy and other reserves. Africa is said to be lagging behind in education and culture. But who is to blame for this? How did it happen that Africa was under colonial oppression for many decades or even centuries? European countries and the United States are now calling for providing help to Africa. But wasn’t it them who had taken people out of Africa to work on their plantations using slave labour for centuries? This system had plunged Africa into poverty and spawned illiteracy. If we talk about culture, it is African artefacts that make up the best collections of the largest European and American museums. How could this happen? Because many amazing cultural artefacts have been taken out of Africa and other “lagging” countries by representatives of the so-called developed and democratic states and, frankly, often not always legally.
It sometimes seems to me that the so-called developed countries are not interested in the real development of Africa, limiting themselves to one-time relief actions and periodically organizing fundraisers for providing clothing and food for starving African children. If they wanted, they would have built schools a long time ago.
I can say that it was Africa that pushed me to implement and promote several major programmes. These are “Chess in Schools,” “Chess in Villages” and “Chess in Families.” For example, in South Africa, the initiative found support from Nelson Mandela, and then from the subsequent President Jacob Zuma. In his native village, we opened the Chess Academy, which was attended by world champion Garry Kasparov.
Chess is a game for everyone, both old and young play chess regardless of nationality, gender and social status. There is no need to build stadiums, ice palaces and tennis courts. All you have to do is take a set of chess, a chess textbook and go to a village. This was the case during my travels in Africa – we played chess with the village children of Togo, Congo and other African countries.
For me, Africa is one of my favorite continents and I perceive it as one people, one continent that needs help. Education and culture should be the main areas of such help, as well as promotion of chess, of course. Now almost all African countries are members of FIDE, many competitions are held there. We held the first online tournament with the Tunisian Chess Federation, the African Internet Championship. The “Chess in Schools” and “Chess in Villages” programs, as I said, started mainly in Africa. I am glad that these programs proved to be successful later. They began to develop in Asia, Europe and Australia. Launched in Africa, these programs are now widespread across the globe.
– You have met with the most important world leaders. Of all the leaders you met, who impressed you the most, and who in Africa in particular? And why?
– My destiny was such that I started my political activity early. I was the youngest Russian parliamentarian and the youngest president. At the age of 27, I became a deputy of the Parliament of the Russian Federation, and at the age of 30, president of the Republic of Kalmykia. At the age of 33, I headed FIDE, one of the largest international sports federations.
Of course, during the 30 years of my international activity, I have met with hundreds of leaders of different countries and religions. But I want to point out that it doesn’t really matter who you are – a president, prime minister or prominent religious figure. I will say that if a person is elected by the people, then the country needs him, and what matters is not the position he held, but his personality. After all, today you are the president, and tomorrow an ordinary man. Sometimes I meet those who were once presidents, and now, as they call themselves, ordinary citizens. For example, in Lebanon I met with two former presidents.
Which of the world leaders would I single out? Everyone knows them. This is John Paul II, the former head of the Roman Catholic Church. We met several times and even played chess. Dalai Lama, leader of the Buddhists. The former Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia Alexey II left an indelible impression on me. Polish President Lech Walesa, the first and only President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. In the United States, it is President Jimmy Carter and the famous American policymaker Henry Kissinger. I also should mention King Hussein in Jordan, who loved chess and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Whatever is said about him now, bad or good, still I reserve my personal opinion about him. I met with him – he supported chess and held tournaments. In 1993, we held the Symphony Orchestra Music Festival together in Babylon. He supported culture and was interested in archeology. I remember with what love he told me about the museum exhibits, archaeological finds and artifacts that were exhibited in the Museum of Babylon for free. And what happened next? Foreign troops entered Iraq, and the museum was destroyed and looted overnight. The same thing happened in Syria near Damascus. The “democratic countries” came, or rather flew on the wings of NATO planes and looted everything. What Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and Gaddafi collected for the people has been plundered and is now on the black markets of Europe and America. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, about 90,000 Iraqi-owned archeological artefacts are currently being illegally located in the United States. Even barbarians did not do that!
I liked both Saddam Hussein and Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. The latter helped many in Africa. I was in South Sudan and stayed at a hotel that Gaddafi built and presented to the Sudanese people. Gaddafi wanted Africa to be a developed cultural continent.
I have met with many African leaders; it is difficult to single out anyone. But I can say who made a special impression on me. In South Africa, I met Nelson Mandela, who had served 28 years in prison. Of course, he amazed me. I cannot forget the story of how he played chess against himself in a solitary cell, which allowed him to maintain both sharpness of mind and cheerfulness of spirit.
– You are an experienced businessperson. Have you ever wanted to do business in African markets? Which countries interest you the most? Also, in what specific areas do you see opportunities?
– I want to emphasize once again that I see huge potential in Africa. Many times, I have brought to Africa my friends – business partners who would like to work or are already working in Africa. Directions of activities are very different like processing of resources, as, for example, in Zimbabwe, where there are lithium deposits. I brought RoyalGroup representatives there, who have already started and are successfully developing cooperation. Negotiations on agricultural development were held in Sudan.
I see my personal strategic goal as promoting Africa and attracting businesspeople. Dozens of times I introduced to Africa not only Russian executives. I brought Nathan Rothschild to Libya and other African countries and introduced him to local business leaders. I recommend all businesspersons to pay attention to Africa. Its potential is just huge. From extraction and processing of natural resources to high technologies.
I think there is no need to single out any one country – the whole continent is of great interest, including extraction and processing of natural resources, agriculture and, of course, tourism. For example, the UNESCO World Heritage site, Victoria Falls is one of the main attractions of South Africa. This is a unique place! Incidentally, I have already taken the initiative to hold the World Chess Olympics on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, because there have been no chess Olympics on the African continent yet. My initiative was to hold this first World Olympics in Africa at Victoria Falls. I think the whole world would have assembled there. On the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are a free zone and excellent hotels. There you can safely place several thousand chess players. Of course, the sound of waterfall can distract some chess players, but still it is very beautiful. Water is life, and chess is intelligence. I think I will make this dream come true after all. Maybe it will be the World Chess Olympics, or maybe it will be the Kirsan Chess Olympics. I would call it Kirsan’s Olympics. Now we are creating the International Association of Chess Fans, and we will hold the First World Chess Fans Olympics.
– What do you think about the current situation in the relations between Russia and Africa and how can it be strengthened?
– Now relations between Russia and Africa are developing rapidly thanks to the efforts of President Vladimir Putin. In October 2019, just before the pandemic, the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum took place in Sochi, in which I took part.
The summit brought together more than 40 leaders of African countries and was opened by the president of Russia. In general, officials from 54 African countries came to the summit. During the economic forum, roundtables were held with Russian businesspersons, both from state and private companies. This summit and the subsequent events gave a powerful impetus to business relations among our countries, but the 2020 pandemic disrupted many plans.
The vector, I am sure, which was set at the 2019 summit in Sochi, will be the basis of our future partnership and cooperation. There is a great deal of interest in the African continent in Russia. We have extensive experience in the extraction of natural resources, such as hydrocarbons, oil, gas, coal and bauxite. For example, Rusal worked in Guinea and Alrosa in Algeria. There is both equipment and technology, and most importantly, staff.
It should be noted that many strong ties between Africa and Russia have remained since the days of the Soviet Union. I visited almost all African countries and I met people, who studied in the Soviet Union and know Russian, in each of them.
The Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University was established in the Soviet Union. It is not far from MGIMO. We were friends with this university. Incidentally, it has a chess club, and I have opened chess tournaments several times there. Representatives from almost all African countries studied at this university, and still study. Its graduates have become leaders, presidents and ministers in their countries.
In Zambia, for example, the minister of sports is a graduate of Patrice Lumumba University. The minister of health of Togo graduated from the First Medical Institute in Moscow. I know that special meetings of graduates of Soviet universities are taking place in Africa now. More than a thousand people gather there! These are specialists in various fields, including mechanical engineering, medicine, various humanities disciplines and sports.
In every African country, there are people who studied in the Soviet Union and know the Russian language. For Russian entrepreneurs and for Russian business, Africa is a very favourable continent for investment and the creation of joint ventures, because Russians and Russia are treated very well there.
It should be noted that the African continent has developed greatly now. I remember my first visits in the early 1990s there, and I can say with confidence that the African continent has changed much. Many Africans have already received a European education, and their educational and professional level has grown significantly. I want to warn some European businesspersons. Today, many African entrepreneurs can give a head start to executives from so-called developed countries.
– You have recounted time and again to the media the story of your abduction by extraterrestrials in Moscow in the 1990s. Could you tell us a little about this and what you learned from the experience?
– It happened in September 1997. However, I want to clarify and correct: no one kidnapped me. I was invited. I had the choice to refuse or agree. I agreed. Our communication happened in one of dimensions. We still have three of them available, but scientists are already guessing that there are more than ten dimensions in the universe.
What lessons did I learn? We are still children and we need to develop. They said, “You’re not ready yet for communication – after all, you do not communicate with ants.” We need to raise our universal level. We have not yet reached the stage where we can meet such civilizations. We have not yet grown up in terms of our intellectual and cultural echelon.
An important leap in the development of our civilization has been the recognition that all animals are intelligent beings and have feelings to the same degree as humans. This is officially accepted at the state level in New Zealand. God created all of us at once and with feelings. Who will say that a cat has no feelings and that it does not suffer and does not cry when the owner is not there? All creatures, all creations of God, are with feelings.
Contact with an alien mind is still impossible. We are not yet ready to meet them either intellectually or culturally. Periodically, they show representatives of humanity that they are here. I was shown this. I saw the need to live a real life: to protect our planet, preserve nature and not to destroy other beings. Until we make a qualitative leap in our development and understand that we are not alone on Earth, they are unlikely to issue an official statement.
– What do you think about the future of Africa?
– Africa is not only the ancestral home of human civilization and the birthplace of all humankind. It is also the cradle of our future. Look around. What do we see in the so-called “developed countries?” Artificially imposed excessive consumer standards, moral degradation that breeds mental disorders, and, as a consequence, an increase in violence and hatred. The crisis of society, the crisis of the economy, destroyed nature and poisoned air. There is a decline in Western culture.
I see tremendous prospects in African nations. They are charismatic and passionate. I am sure that the revival will begin from this continent, including the introduction of new principles of existence on Earth without conquest of new territories or subordination of nature, but merging with it. Future Africa seems to me to be a common home for all its peoples, a rich and prosperous continent inhabited by open and highly educated people. And who all also love to play chess, of course.