Scottish globetrotter Kalder takes the road less traveled and returns with this gloomy, history-heavy, multi-part travelogue, three years in the making.
“The bleaker and more dismal the landscape, the more I enjoy it,” says the knowledgeable tour guide, a self-described “anti-tourist” eschewing comfort and banal, overcrowded destinations for the obscure and the unconventional. Kalder visits four forgotten Russian republic “black holes,” some seemingly frozen in time, others completely transformed by the machinations of a post-communist Russia. The first stop on Kalder’s walking tour is Kazan, the independently governed capital of Tatarstan, previously burned to the ground by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, now boasting a mosque construction site, a gruesome museum of medical oddities and a McDonald’s. Second stop: the strange, empty wastelands of the tree-worshipping Kalmykia people. Daunting to locate and mostly stagnant, its sad history of abolishment, deportation and disorientation makes for slow reading. Pagan-dominated Mari El, bordering Tatarstan on the north, proved a slightly more engaging locale. Abundant trees, lakes and “marriage agencies” make up for a resentful populace who have watched their city’s demographic change predominately to Russian. Fascinating intercourse with the much-revered, white-bearded, mystical high priest of the Chi Mari shockingly exposes him as a shameless self-promoter with dreams of celebrity. Udmurtia, another Republic assimilated by Russian inhabitants, houses a traditional, indifferent, squalor-stricken citizenry dominated by factories, squatting ice-fishermen and the homeless. This leaden, dreary vacation is finally countered with dark humor when Kalder is mercilessly grilled on camera by a dogged television journalist named Svetlana, posing some tough questions that render him speechless. Kalder is an unapologetically reclusive journeyman—the type who becomes paranoid in the company of complete strangers (as demonstrated by his hostile reaction to the flirtations of a smitten man in Kazan). His cavalier narration works best when taken in small doses, as do the jarring moments when the author openly admits to the fabrication of several dramatically detailed interactions.
For armchair sightseers who take their travel books with a grain of salt.