FABER & FABER, £12.99. ORDER FOR £11.99 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897
Lost Cosmonaut, by Daniel Kalder
A Scottish spaceman and the alien worlds in orbit around Russia
Tuesday 07 March 2006
The author of this curiously captivating book is himself the lost cosmonaut. Daniel Kalder blasts off in a train and a rickety plane from his base in Moscow to explore some of the obscure European republics that make up the Russian Federation. For most Europeans, these destinations - the ethnic republics of Kalmykia, Tatarstan, Mari El and Udmurtia - might as well be light years distant.
Kalder is drawn to these places in part because he is from a small country on the periphery of Europe - Scotland - which is at times in danger of being subsumed by its larger neighbour. Yet, while Scotland has retained its identity and is recognised throughout the world, the peoples he visits have for centuries been relegated to footnotes in Russian imperial history.
Moscow sought to replace their languages, cultures and religions with those of Russia. Lenin and Stalin, paying lip-service to communist promises, traced the outlines of the ethnic entities - in theory autonomous, in practice brutally controlled by the Kremlin. Hundreds of thousands were exterminated to eliminate any chance of independence.
My background is Ukrainian, and Soviet Moscow succeeded in making Ukraine almost invisible. Ukraine was given another chance after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but the places Kalder describes have been granted only fake sovereignty.
He prides himself on being an "anti-tourist" who avoids comfortable hotels, elegant restaurants, galleries and ancient ruins. Much of what he describes he comes across by happenstance. The places he visits are crammed with dreary Soviet-era buildings, neglected parks, barren museums and smokestack skylines.
But he also discovers European countries with pagan, Buddhist and Muslim cultures; and is much rewarded by the bizarre. In impoverished, Buddhist Kalmykia, peopled by descendants of Mongol tribes, Kalder finds a deserted "palace of chess". In Mari El, where pagan traditions maintain a fingerhold, he assists the chief druid in a ceremony before accidentally breaking the holy man's nose.
Much of this fine first book is hilarious and often abrasive. But Kalder's observations are always underpinned by a fondness for these hidden Europeans, and the cultures edging towards extinction.
Askold Krushelnycky's 'An Orange Revolution' is published by Harvill Secker
Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigourfilm
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Belgium fan Axelle Despiegelaere lands L'Oreal campaign after World Cup viral photo
- 2 Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport
- 3 Israel-Gaza conflict: ‘Sderot cinema’ image shows Israelis with popcorn and chairs 'cheering as missiles strike Palestinian targets'
- 4 Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
- 5 Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
War is war: Why I stand with Israel
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
Socialist Worker called to apologise over ‘vile’ article saying Eton schoolboy Horatio Chapple's death is ‘reason to save the polar bears’
Emergency data law: David Cameron plots to bring back snoopers’ charter
NUT strike: David Cameron announces crackdown on strike action ahead of mass industrial action