On the steppes of the far-away Republic of Kalmykia rises vast Chess City. This is the creation of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. He is the country’s president, a millionaire, and, above all, an acclaimed chess player who wishes to fill all of the Republic’s citizens with his passion. Magdalena Pięta has set off to “Planet Kirsan” so as to tell the story of both its leader, and its youngest inhabitants for whom chess may be the only way to the better world.

The film “Planet Kirsan” was made as part of the second edition of the “Russia-Poland. New Gaze” project. Could you say something about this undertaking?

Magdalena Pięta: “Russia-Poland. New Gaze” was a series of workshops within which film school students from Poland and Russia had the opportunity to work on their films in their neighbouring countries; Russians worked on films in and about Poland, and students from Poland on films in and about Russia. The project had two editions during which over a dozen of documentary short films were made. Among them were “Seeds” by Wojciech Kasperski and “52 Percent” by Rafał Skalski, both of which were awarded the Golden Hobby-Horse at Krakow Film Festival. “Planet Kirsan” is the last film from this cycle, and, at the same time, it is the first one that has been developed beyond the short-film format.

Why did you decide to go to Kalmykia with your camera? How did the idea to report about the local passion for chess come up?

M. P.: Chess is not a common game – it is a metaphysical game that is connected with the attempt to solve the crux of existence,  with megalomania, or, ultimately, with madness. The topos of playing chess as the game involving a wager of life and death is inscribed in European culture. Like in one of Bergman’s films– one plays with Death. When I read that a man that had come from nowhere built Chess City on the steppe, I thought it sounded like an attempt to bring the centuries-old utopian assumptions into effect. On the other hand, as the Nowhere-Place was on the territory of the Russian Federation, and the man was a new-found millionaire, one could straight away assume that the matter would neither be as clean nor noble as it had been claimed by the creator of the chess revolution – Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

From the film we find out that planet Kirsan does, in fact, exist – one of the celestial bodies was named in honour of Kalmykia’s president. It is hard not to get the impression that “planet Kirsan” comprises of the whole republic which Ilyumzhinov transformed into an important chess centre, thus allowing it to appear on the map of Russia and the world. In a particular moment you even juxtapose the president’s portrait with the chess king – the most important figure of the game. How did Kalmykia look before Kirsan? Can we talk of the cult of the president today?

M. P.: Kalmykia before Kirsan was a small forgotten fragment of the Empire, and in reality it still remains one. However, it is inhabited by proud and bellicose nation – the Kalmyks, who among other things survived the deportation of all the inhabitants of the Republic to Syberia. One of the elements of Kalmyk culture is chess, which Kirsan used a bit like a theatrical prop – the symbolic key element in starting his revolution. On the huge stage (the steppe) he built a reality mock-up (Chess City) and he gave himself the major role (creator of the chess revolution). Altogether it gave a bitter-sweet totalitarian and, most of all, absurd reality. Even more absurd given that Kalmykia inhabitants were and are far from creating Kirsan’s cult.

In your film the wide perspective is connected with the story of the boys taking part in a chess tournament. How did you find your protagonists? What do they do when they are not playing chess?

M. P.: I met Alehan and Amir during my first visit to Kalmykia, when they were respectively 6 and 9 and both could play chess very well. As they do not have other attractions in the place in which they live (except ubiquitous football), the boys practically spend their whole time with the chessboard. They have a fantastic coach, and their passion acts as a source of a potential career (it gives them the opportunity to burst out of the village on the steppe). Therefore, it is taken very seriously by the parents.

In “Planet Kirsan” we see Chess City, a complex, which hosts tournaments. Impressive buildings stand in distinct contrast with the conditions in which the majority of Kalmykia’s inhabitants live. How do the citizens respond to Chess City? Is it not just a manifestation of the president’s extravagance, whose devotion to chess makes him believe that they came to Earth from outer space?

M. P.: City Chess is a bit like the combination of Disneyland and the Palace of Culture; Disneyland because of its imported American Dream architecture, and the Palace of Culture because by no means does it impact the lives of the residents – usually it remains empty, and it only comes to life during the chess tournaments when suddenly the streets fill with either child or adult players. Another absurd notion comes to mind - if Chess City was meant to be the mark of power, it should at least be added to. Meanwhile, it remains unfinished, somewhat falling apart in areas that are out of sight. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that it possesses a certain perverse charm – time in Chess City is as if one was stuck in limbo - there are pink houses, flowerbeds, and an army of bored guards, who are gazed upon by the painted chess Masters with an everlasting serenity.

By Bolesław Racięski

(Translated by Agnieszka Mruk)