This story was co-published by ABC News and FiveThirtyEight.
In the days following the 2016 election, a large group of Russians gathered in New York to watch one of their own wage war in miniature.
They were at the World Chess Championship, where a patriotic Russian grandmaster was challenging the Norwegian defending champion in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. Members of Russia’s business and political elite gathered in the venue’s dimly lit VIP lounge and whispered over martinis as their countryman tried to restore Russia to its former chess glory.
One person was especially conspicuous, and he wasn’t even there.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has lorded over the sport as the president of the World Chess Federation, more commonly known by its French acronym FIDE, for more than two decades. But the game’s most powerful figure had been barred from the country hosting its highest profile event. Ilyumzhinov was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2015 for providing financial assistance to Bashar Assad’s government in Syria as the regime inflicted a shocking degree of violence upon its citizens and purchased oil from the terrorist group ISIS.
The sanction was an extraordinary allegation to level against a sports chief, but Ilyumzhinov is no ordinary chief, and chess is no ordinary sport.
For years, he served simultaneously as the president of a Russian region and the steward of its national pastime. His authoritarian rule in those dual posts established him as a uniquely valuable Kremlin asset and has led his critics to bestow him with other, less flattering titles. Stooge. Spy. Madman. And perhaps worse.
Now, after a 23-year reign atop the game, Ilyumzhinov is days away from the end of his colorful tenure. An election to replace him takes place this week.
In a series of interviews with ABC News and FiveThirtyEight, former U.S. government officials, political rivals, criminal investigators, Russia experts, chess insiders, and top players dissected Ilyumzhinov’s career, revealing new details about the mysterious provenance of some of his wealth, the Kremlin connections that critics say kept him in power, and the ongoing battle for the sport over which he presided.
The portrait that emerges offers a window into how Russia has used sport as statecraft, allegedly currying favor and peddling influence around the world under cover of an ancient board game.
Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, denied that Ilyumzhinov had ever acted on behalf of the Kremlin.
“He never represented Russia and the Russian Federation as a kind of envoy,” Peskov told us. “Of course, we’ve been proud of our citizen to be such a successful head of FIDE.”
In a wide-ranging and often baffling one-on-one interview, Ilyumzhinov disputed or deflected the allegations against him, portraying himself as a builder and benefactor whose career defies easy classification.
“I am simply a citizen of Russia and a simple person,” Ilyumzhinov said, “who sort of travels around the whole world.”
Kalmykia, where Ilyumzhinov was born in 1962, would seem an unlikely springboard to power, but that’s where his rapid rise began.
One of Russia’s harshest and poorest regions, it is a sweeping stretch of arid grassland home to a largely Buddhist population that was once targeted for exile and extermination by Joseph Stalin.
In his childhood years, Ilyumzhinov wrote in his autobiography, he “seemed to be living two lives,” one as a troublemaking child, the other (after a lesson from his grandfather) as a chess obsessive.
“I became fascinated by chess; I would sit at the checkerboard for hours forgetting everything,” Ilyumzhinov wrote of his childhood. “The 32 white and 32 black checks on the board seemed to me to encompass the duality of the whole world.”
After a stint working in a factory and then military service, Ilyumzhinov entered the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, one of Russia’s most prestigious universities and widely known for producing two types of graduates — diplomats and spies.
He graduated in 1989, having studied diplomacy and Japanese in the midst of perestroika, an era when the Soviet authorities began to allow limited types of private enterprise.
“I wanted to become a millionaire,” he said. So rather than enter, say, the foreign ministry, he became a car salesman. Ilyumzhinov said he made a small fortune importing Japanese and other luxury cars and wrote that he turned some “huge profits” on various high-risk, high-reward ventures.
According to Michael Khodarkovsky, a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago who has both studied in and written on Kalmykia, Ilyumzhinov quickly established himself among a new breed of post-Soviet powerbrokers.
“His early biography is very murky,” Khodarkovsky said. “After the Soviet collapse, people [like Ilyumzhinov] knew what strings to pull and quickly accumulated sizable fortunes.”
With wealth came power, as impoverished institutions looked to Ilyumzhinov and his considerable resources for a financial bailout.
He was elected to the Russian parliament in 1990, at which point, he wrote, he “began to allot money from [his] personal funds” to fill the gaps in the state’s budget. A few years later, in 1993, he was elected president of Kalmykia.
He was 31 years old. His first decree was to make chess obligatory in Kalmyk schools.
FIDE came calling shortly thereafter, and Ilyumzhinov harbors no illusions about the reason behind the sudden interest in his leadership.
“Why was I elected? Because FIDE was bankrupt then,” Ilyumzhinov told us. “There was no money. And so they asked me.”
In 1995, he was unanimously elected president of FIDE, giving him control of the sport that had long ago captured his imagination. He immediately moved to close FIDE’s debts, spending $2 million, he said, from his personal fortune.
It would become apparent, however, that both Kalmykia and FIDE had traded a short-term problem for a long-term ruler whose alleged activities were destined to make headlines around the world for more than two decades.
Some headlines were just weird — he has repeatedly claimed he was abducted by aliens in 1997. Others spoke to something more wicked.
Ilyumzhinov’s dual tenures in Kalmykia and at FIDE were dogged by scandal.
Once dubbed the “King of Kalmykia,” Ilyumzhinov allegedly used his homeland as a base of operations for illicit activity and intimidated those who stood in his way.
In expert witness testimony submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice and obtained by ABC News and FiveThirtyEight, Louise Shelley, the founder and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., wrote that, “Under the Ilyumzhinov regime, the Kalmyk public and law enforcement agencies were repeatedly accused of interfering in election campaigns, engaging in corrupt activities, [and] covering up and profiting from organized crime.”
The allegations, which Ilyumzhinov denies, go beyond corruption. Shelley testified that Ilyumzhinov’s regime “was tainted with gross human rights violations, including suppression of political opposition and harassment of human rights activists.”
Perhaps the “grisliest,” she noted, was the assassination “linked to Ilyumzhinov’s name.”
“But when you start to touch the purse, when you start to uncover concrete things that touch on money and concrete people, then they kill.”
Larisa Yudina had been the editor of Sovietskaya Kalmykia, an opposition newspaper affiliated with Yabloko, Russia’s most prominent liberal party. According to two of Yudina’s former colleagues, Valery Badmaev and Batyr Boromangnaev, Yudina had discovered details about a scheme involving Kalmykia’s so-called “offshore zone,” a tax haven from which many of Russia’s best-known oligarchs benefited.
Yudina’s colleagues said she was poised to report that money paid by companies registered in the offshore zone was flowing into a presidential fund and foreign bank accounts instead of Kalmykia’s budget.
“In Russia, you can criticize about some kind of general questions as much as you like,” said Badmaev. “But when you start to touch the purse, when you start to uncover concrete things that touch on money and concrete people, then they kill.”
The subsequent federal investigation into Yudina’s murder quickly yielded three suspects — Sergey Vaskin, Vladimir Shanukov and Andrey Lipin — and uncovered a direct link to Ilyumzhinov. The leader Vaskin, a former police officer, was a onetime member of his campaign team.
The three men were convicted, and in a Russian court filing detailing their sentences, the judge presiding over the case described how one of the men posed as a disgruntled former employee of an Ilyumzhinov-controlled agency that Yudina was investigating. He appeared to be eager to provide Yudina with compromising documents, luring her to an apartment where she was beaten and stabbed to death.
“Her professional activities are creating headaches for some influential people in the republic,” Shanukov testified Vaskin told him. “In connection with that, she needs to be removed.”
But in the end the authorities and the court found that “the involvement of other persons in the commission of the crime is not established.”
Almost immediately after Yudina’s body was discovered, Yabloko launched its own investigation into the murder, fearing a cover-up by local authorities loyal to Ilyumzhinov. Valery Ostanin, a former police officer with 20 years’ experience, was given full access to the case materials.
He called the murder the most “bestial” he had ever encountered. “There was blood on every wall and even on the ceiling,” Ostanin said.
According to Ostanin, there was credible evidence linking the murder to Ilyumzhinov, including a flurry of communications between Vaskin and members of Ilyumzhinov’s administration shortly after Yudina’s body was discovered. Yet the investigation stalled, he said, as case materials went missing and key investigators were transferred away.
In an interview, Ilyumzhinov acknowledged his acquaintance with Vaskin and his familiarity with Yudina’s reporting, but he dismissed the accusation he had any involvement in the tax scheme or her murder, claiming that he “investigated it specially so that there wouldn’t be conversations” and personally invited the federal agents from Moscow to launch their probe.
“There was a trial, there was an investigation, it was proved. The issue is finished,” Ilyumzhinov said. “Let me accuse you or your father of killing John Kennedy or Martin Luther King. It’s absurd.”
No charges were ever brought against Ilyumzhinov.
Whatever lingering suspicions surrounded Ilyumzhinov following the murder investigation, they don’t appear to have loosened his grip on power. He remained firmly entrenched in his Elista headquarters for more than a decade after Yudina’s killing, where throughout his rule a trio of flags waved overhead — one for Russia, one for Kalmykia, and one for FIDE.
In the months following the murder, Ilyumzhinov was re-elected president of FIDE. He ran unopposed.
According to Garry Kasparov, then the world’s top player and now an outspoken critic of both Ilyumzhinov and the Kremlin, chess insiders were more than willing to look the other way.
“[It] just put on display the indifference of the world of chess,” Kasparov said in 2017, “for the source of money that was being used to fund chess activities.”
Ilyumzhinov maintained a packed travel schedule that saw him unexpectedly but repeatedly appear beside some of the world’s best-known strongmen leaders, typically under the auspices of promoting the game.
In 2003, Ilyumzhinov flew to Iraq, less than two days before the start of the U.S. invasion, where he reportedly met with Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday. In 2011, he flew to Libya, amid an ongoing NATO bombing campaign, where he played a chess match against Moammar Gadhafi. And in 2012, he flew to Syria, shortly after the outbreak of civil war, where he met with Bashar Assad to, in Ilyumzhinov’s telling, deliver chess textbooks to Syrian schoolchildren.
At times, he appeared to be doing much more than promoting chess. Over the years, Ilyumzhinov has repeatedly been alleged to act as an informal envoy for the Russian government.
His son David confirmed that Ilyumzhinov served a unique role. “It’s not a secret,” David told us. “He can go like he is just there for chess, for the chess tournament, but he can deliver a message. And the message won’t get screwed up.”
“It’s not a secret. He can go like he is just there for chess, for the chess tournament, but he can deliver a message. And the message won’t get screwed up.”
With 188 national chess federations scattered across the globe, Ilyumzhinov’s opportunities for chess diplomacy were all but endless.
“It offers unique opportunities to be used as the unofficial embassy,” Kasparov said. “So Ilyumzhinov can go to different places as the president of the chess federation. … He’s a very useful ambassador. If you can call it ambassador.”
Ilyumzhinov, however, scoffed at questions about his association with other autocrats.
“If tomorrow Kim Jong Un from North Korea [contacted me],” Ilyumzhinov said. “I would also travel there and develop chess.”
He denied working directly for the Kremlin but acknowledged that his trips served a dual purpose. He described himself as a “people’s diplomat,” one who promoted not only chess but also “peace and stability.” He became “friends,” he said, with businessmen and politicians around the world with whom he might have casually shared information over lunch.
Peskov, who also serves as the chairman of the board of trustees of Russia’s national chess federation alongside other senior Russian officials, denied any connection between the Kremlin and Ilyumzhinov.
“He used his influence, and he used his authority to promote chess globally,” Peskov said. “And he’s got certain results. He was very successful.”
But Ilyumzhinov’s globetrotting — which his longtime deputy Georgios Makropoulos said was often the largest line item in FIDE’s annual budget — contributed to another fiscal crisis for the federation.
Several chess insiders agreed that the FIDE president’s well-publicized association with oppressive regimes made would-be sponsors increasingly wary of association with FIDE.
Rex Sinquefield, an American philanthropist and the biggest benefactor of American chess, bankrolls his own tournaments rather than doing business with FIDE.
“It’s not a group we could work with,” Sinquefield told us. “There’s a fundamental question of integrity and honesty, and it’s pretty clear to me the mess they’re in.”
But just as in Kalmykia, Ilyumzhinov’s money and Kremlin connections would make him especially difficult to remove from his perch atop chess.
The first serious challenge to his presidency came in 2010, when the Russian former world champion and onetime Communist Party apparatchik Anatoly Karpov ran against him. Karpov initially managed to win the support of the Russian Chess Federation until an armed raid of its headquarters, reportedly ordered by a then-senior Kremlin advisor Arkady Dvorkovich, appeared to persuade its officials to reconsider.
The second serious challenge came in 2014, when Kasparov ran against him. He appeared to attract significant support to his reformist agenda until what Kasparov described as “direct interference” by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the network of Russian embassies, including, he said, threats of retaliation and outright bribery, accusations Ilyumzhinov dismissed.
“What do I need votes for,” he asked us, “if I practically kept that organization running for 23 years?”
It would ultimately take an intervention of the highest order to precipitate Ilyumzhinov’s downfall — and it came from President Barack Obama’s Treasury Department.
In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned Ilyumzhinov “for materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria,” which had employed brutal measures to maintain control of its territory amid a popular uprising.
U.S. officials provided few details about the exact nature of the activity that led to the sanction but alleged that Ilyumzhinov owned or controlled the Russian Financial Alliance Bank alongside Mudalal Khuri, its chairman, who “has had a long association with the Assad regime and represents regime business and financial interests in Russia.”
According to a former U.S. Treasury Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, being placed on the U.S. list of sanctioned individuals not only freezes all U.S.-based assets but “really is a scarlet letter in the financial system.”
“Banks around the world will stop doing business with those people,” the former official said. “I mean a lot of banks, even non-U.S. banks.”
Ilyumzhinov vehemently denied allegations that he had assisted the Assad regime, but the sanction created a legitimacy crisis for him at FIDE. Despite that, Ilyumzhinov continued to enjoy a level of state support that revealed how important chess remains to Putin and his inner circle.
Peskov called the sanctions “illegal,” pointing out that Ilyumzhinov has never been convicted of any crime.
“We’re living in a world of allegations and fake news,” Peskov said.
Ilyumzhinov did all he could to combat the sanction. He wrote letters. He hired a lawyer. He even appealed directly to “His Excellency” President Donald Trump, whose alleged affinity for Russia had been dominating headlines for months.
“I know that you are completely and utterly committed to the principles and ideals of America,” Ilyumzhinov wrote to Trump in September 2017 in a letter obtained by ABC News and FiveThirtyEight. “I ask you to use your power and authority to allow me to come to New York and face law enforcement … Mr. President! What I’m asking is not vital for either FIDE or Ilyumzhinov. This is required by the principles of justice and human rights.”
None of his efforts appeared to make much progress, so with his colleagues within FIDE urging him to step down, he focused on doing what he did best.
Running for reelection.
“You are managing the responsibilities well,” Putin said. “You have accumulated lots of experience and have every chance to win … and I’d like to wish you success.”
By 2017, he appeared set to face his own deputy Makropoulos and English grandmaster Nigel Short, each of whom sought to cast themselves as reformers of a corrupt federation too close to the Kremlin.
In response, Ilyumzhinov began mobilizing state support behind his candidacy. In July, he secured Putin’s endorsement in a segment on Russian state-owned television. “I feel that Russia should not concede this position,” Ilyumzhinov told Putin. “And I have decided to run again for the post of the president of FIDE.”
“You certainly deserve this position,” Putin replied. “You are managing the responsibilities well. You have accumulated lots of experience and have every chance to win. In any case, you have deserved the right to present your candidacy and fight for the position, and I’d like to wish you success.”
In October 2017, the U.S. Chess Federation received a letter, which was obtained by ABC News and FiveThirtyEight, from the Russian Embassy in the U.S., urging the federation to support Ilyumzhinov’s candidacy.
“Chess is developing steadily,” wrote Russian Minister-Counselor Denis Gonchar. “And Mr. K. N. Ilyumzhinov enjoys high credibility according to his merit in the chess world.”
But just as a financial crisis gave Ilyumzhinov power, it would ultimately be a financial crisis that took it away from him.
In January of this year, the Swiss bank UBS moved to close FIDE’s accounts, notifying the federation of the “termination of [its] business relationship.” Bank officials, Makropoulos told us, made it clear in private meetings that FIDE’s accounts had become toxic.
Despite the financial problems, Ilyumzhinov remained undeterred. He bolstered his presidential ticket with an American named Glen Stark. But this would-be chess official, it was soon discovered, was neither named Glen Stark nor was he American; he was, in fact, a Russian named Igor Shinderallegedly peddling inflated credentials.
This strange scandal appeared to be too much, and Ilyumzhinov’s candidacy suffered an abrupt end — he stepped aside in favor of the Kremlin’s new chosen candidate, former deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich.
Ilyumzhinov characterized his departure differently. He is merely stepping down, he said, because he has already “fulfilled all the tasks” before him and, like an undefeated boxer in his heyday, he has “already beaten the strongest.”
“If you have beaten Tyson and everyone, why go on, right?” Ilyumzhinov said. “You’re already top.”
Whether he’s on the ballot or not, the upcoming chess election, like every chess election since 1995, is about one thing: Ilyumzhinov.
And like so many elections around the world, the Russians are allegedly meddling in it.
Chess leaders have convened in Batumi, Georgia, this week to elect the federation’s first new leader in 23 years. On Wednesday, they will choose between three men — Greece’s Georgios Makropoulos, England’s Nigel Short, and Russia’s Arkady Dvorkovich.
Makropoulos, Ilyumzhinov’s longtime deputy, is the de facto incumbent put in the awkward position of running on reform, framing the election as a choice between the federation’s political independence and continued “Kremlin control.” And Short, the longshot challenger, appears to have made more accusations than progress — he hoped for “the removal of the Makropoulos administration, which is nothing but a giant cancerous tumour on the body of chess.”
But the Kremlin-preferred candidate is the late-entrant Dvorkovich, the former deputy prime minister, who oversaw Russia’s staging of the FIFA World Cup earlier this year. Dvorkovich has supported Ilyumzhinov in the past — he reportedly ordered the raid on the Russian Chess Federation in 2010 — and in many ways represents a continuation of the sport’s alignment with the Kremlin.
The contest is facing mounting allegations of Russian interference, including an intervention by Vladimir Putin himself.
In a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in July, Putin appears to have offered Netanyahu a deal to shore up support for his chosen candidate.
“The Russian president asked the prime minister for Israel’s support in favor of former deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich’s candidacy,” wrote an Israeli official in a cable obtained by ABC News and FiveThirtyEight. “Putin, in turn, said he would support Israel as the host of the next world championship.”
Dvorkovich disputed the interpretation that Putin was pressuring the Israelis to support him, telling the BBC that the Russian president “didn’t do anything wrong” and was merely “informing” his counterpart of an “important” election.
Makropoulos has also accused Russia of trying to boost Dvorkovich’s candidacy by promising money, positions of power and gifts — including 2018 FIFA World Cup tickets — to officials who have a vote in FIDE’s election.
Dvorkovich acknowledged inviting chess officials to the World Cup but denied providing them with tickets, and responded to Makropoulos’s claims by filing a defamation suit.
Peskov said the Kremlin has had no involvement in the candidacies of either Ilyumzhinov or Dvorkovich and rejected any allegations of interference.
“It’s a free vote,” Peskov said, “and we simply don’t have any means to interfere and we don’t have the slightest intention to interfere.”
So Ilyumzhinov’s legacy-defining battle rages on without him. Chess has been established as an effective instrument of “soft power” for the Russians, the former Treasury official said, and a “feather in the cap” like the Olympics or the World Cup that allows Russian leaders to project a polished image to visiting politicians and businessmen.
Ilyumzhinov has endorsed Dvorkovich, hopeful that under the former deputy prime minister, the “status” he says he brought to the organization will be “maintained,” but he dismissed the suggestion of holding a position under the new administration should a Russian keep the post.
“For what?” he scoffed. “I’m not a bureaucrat.”
But what’s next for Ilyumzhinov? His work, he said, is far from over. He said he will focus on philanthropic efforts to further his new goal of “teaching 1 billion people to play chess.”
He also suggested he might play a role in the reconstruction of war-torn Syria.
“Maybe I will do business there,” Ilyumzhinov said. “They are inviting me to get into it.”
According to Ilyumzhinov’s son, David, Ilyumzhinov’s “connections” remain valuable, and his presence can provide a measure of protection and influence in Russia’s notoriously ruthless business environment.
“He just partners,” David said. “Sometimes he goes in as cover, so that people won’t have problems. … It’s kind of lobbying but in a different way.”
Ilyumzhinov wavers between aggrievement and acceptance. He laments that the institutions he believes he saved have now turned on him, calling him “a fool” and telling him to “get out of here.” But he also adopts a kind of Buddhist serenity, claiming he “never look[s] back” and declaring “what’s past is past.”
“When people do nothing, just criticize, then I’m silent,” he said. “Because I have nothing to say to them. Like with the aliens. Why do aliens not argue with us? Because they are on a different level. I am on a different level to people. Why should I discuss or talk?”
He points to the Buddhist temples and “chess palaces” he built in Kalmykia and in countries around the world, monuments to the money he poured into his passions.
“Is that corruption?” he asked. “It’s a gift from me. Look how many I have built. I built that with my own money. In every region. They are real. They stand. Is that corruption? You Western people, you don’t know. You Western people don’t understand. You are a different mentality. I give.”
Elista’s Chess City is one such gift, a relic of the city’s once-favorite son. Built by Ilyumzhinov to host international chess tournaments, it is a convention center surrounded by a semi-gated community that is now home to the city’s small upper class. Its tidy suburban streets are lined with about 150 houses, many of which appeared to be empty, with crumbling facades and broken windows.
It is a rundown fantasy sitting neglected in the desert.
As his tenure with FIDE comes to a close, Ilyumzhinov envisions a different fate for himself. Asked directly why he was useful to the Kremlin, he bristled at the suggestion that his useful days are behind him.
“Why ‘was’? Have I flown away to the moon?” he asked. “I’m staying around!”
Halley Freger, Emily Ruchalski and Jinsol Jung also contributed to this report.
This story was initially developed with the support of The Hatch Institute.
This story was featured in the Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, episode of ABC News’ daily news podcast, “Start Here.”