Muammar Gaddafi was always known for his eccentricities—the all-female bodyguard detail, the Bedouin tents he’d have pitched for himself when traveling abroad. But perhaps the strangest of all Gaddafi’s associations was his friendship with an eccentric multimillionaire chess and Buddhism fanatic, self-confessed alien abductee, and ex-president of the Russian Federated Republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.
When they met in 2001, the Libyan leader and Ilyumzhinov found they had a lot in common. They were both blamed for their tough dictatorial rule; opponents accused them of being narcissists; both surrounded themselves with luxury and beautiful women—and both considered the U.S. and NATO the world’s real axis of evil. In the past decade, the two friends had several occasions to tour the Libyan desert, discuss polygamy and politics, or play chess. And in the last days before the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, they talked on the phone at night about why things worked out beautifully for Kirsan and so unfortunately for Muammar.
They have something else in common too: a reputation for liquidating critics. Ilyumzhinov’s legal adviser was jailed in 1999 for murdering journalist Larisa Yudina, editor of the Sovetskaya Kalmykia, after she leveled corruption charges at the president. Today Ilyumzhinov brushes away the dark sides of his career. “Oh, just like in the case with Gaddafi, all the accusations against me were made up by mass media,” he told The Daily Beast by phone. Though Kalmykia (pop. 314,000) is Russia’s second-poorest region, Ilyumzhinov—a 49-year-old millionaire who made his fortune importing and selling cars in Russia—sported a private jet and six Rolls-Royces (he said he had a red Rolls for the days of hunting; white ones were good for hot Elista, Kalmykia’s capital; and black ones he used in chilly Moscow). None of this put much of a dent in his popularity: he remained president for 17 years before stepping down in 2010. At the end, street protesters came out in Moscow and Elista yelling: “We are sick of you, Ilyumzhinov!” and “Ilyumzhinov is the shame of Russia!” But he wasn’t fazed: his posterity project was channeling millions of dollars of Moscow’s money into building a "Chess City" in Elista to host international chess championships. The Chess City is a middle-class town of suburban cottages—but so far Kalmykia has no middle class to live in them.
Last year Ilyumzhinov was reelected president of the World Chess Federation, an activity that now occupies all his time. Last month he visited eight Asian countries in 10 days arranging international tournaments. Before boarding his plane to Mongolia, he explained that he judges people by their attitude to chess and nothing else. “I like them all the same way: Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Dalai Lama, or Vladimir Putin—everybody who supports the idea of chess playing is my friend.”
He also doesn’t like it when chess lovers like Gaddafi are bothered. He talks of “NATO invaders in Libya” in the same firm tone that he used when he promised to provide “every Kalmyk shepherd with a cellphone” during his final election campaign; or when he invited poor Vietnamese to come and find jobs in Kalmykia; or last year when he launched a chess tournament between thousands of Arab and Israeli chess players. Five-time world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who has known Ilyumzhinov since 1990, said the secret of both Ilyumzhinov’s and Gaddafi’s long-term successes lies in a talent for self-delusion: “Even now in his last days, Gaddafi believes that his people love him. After many years of being unpunished, both Gaddafi and Ilyumzhinov have become used to believing in the myths they created around themselves.”
Ilyumzhinov is always keen to recall the exploit for which he’s best known in Russia, a flight in an alien spaceship in September 1997. “I first thought it was a dream, but there were three witnesses—my driver and two friends—to confirm that I was missing from my house that night, from 11 p.m. until early morning. Then they saw how I emerged in my bedroom,” Ilyumzhinov recalls. He says he was about to go to sleep when somebody called him to step into a glass tube leading from his balcony into a spaceship full of aliens in orange spacesuits. “I asked them why they did not talk to Earth population publicly on CNN or BBC. They said that we humans were still not developed enough, that we ate each other. They mean that we eat intellectual animals, like dogs and cows.” Ilyumzhinov said he had seen UFOs multiple times but had only one interaction with aliens. “Those who have had similar experience to mine are afraid of publicly admitting the truth, as people might think they are schizophrenic,” he noted.
“I like them all the same way,” says Ilyumzhinov. “Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Dalai Lama, or Vladimir Putin—everybody who supports the idea of chess playing is my friend.”
Last year, after Ilyumzhinov described his night with aliens in an interview on prime-time state television, Duma deputies asked President Dmitry Medvedev to investigate whether the president of Kalmykia had leaked any secret data to other civilizations. Concerned about his credibility, the Kalmykia leader hurried out a public statement: “I declare categorically that I am not working for any alien intelligence service.” But that did not help, as his credibility was lost. Soon after that, in September, Ilyumzhinov stepped down from the presidency of Kalmykia. A few weeks later he was reelected president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), despite the qualms of several senior members. “I am concerned about the FIDE president’s friendships with first Hussein and now Gaddafi. His reputation pushes us into isolation by the most traditional chess communities in U.S.A. and Europe,” says Anatoly Karpov, another world chess champion and a great rival of Kasparov’s. Karpov tried to challenge Ilyumzhinov’s candidacy for FIDE in court last year, but that did not alter the election results, as “the entire Kremlin power machine was supporting Ilyumzhinov,” according to Kasparov, who is now a critic of Ilyumzhinov's (Kasparov leads a rival organization to FIDE, the Professional Chess Organization).
Ilyumzhinov might be losing some of his lifelong friends in Russia, but he still believes he has one good friend in Tripoli. “We spoke on the phone last night,” Ilyumzhinov said on Tuesday. “He was in Tripoli; it was dangerous to chat for too long. Gaddafi thanked me for the support in hard times of the NATO occupation and affirmed he would stay to die in Tripoli.” In June, over the last game of chess they had together, Gaddafi complained to Ilyumzhinov that “the West cheated him.” The FIDE president said he felt sorry for his older Libyan friend, adding that if Kalmykia were not a part of the Russian Federation, he would have invited Gaddafi to come and live there if Tripoli became too uncomfortable for the now-deposed leader. Ilyumzhinov said both he and Gaddafi understood that the West did not want to make a deal with the Libyan president because it “preferred to destroy him to get gold and oil.” During their last meeting in June in Tripoli, Gaddafi complained to Ilyumzhinov that although he had canceled his nuclear plans with North Korea in 2003, NATO still bombed him. “He felt cheated and betrayed, but he said he would stay to die at home,” Ilyumzhinov said. “I would do the same.”