A Russian odyssey

A Russian odyssey

Kalder, in Strange Telescopes, talks about the doomed glories of imperial Russia

Shruti Ravindran
September 22 , 2014
02 Min Read

Daniel Kalder is a sort of mad men’s Marco Polo; chancing upon a serendipitous wealth of weirdos during his year-long Russian alternative-odyssey. This strictly uncharted path is paved with sloshing subterranean sewage, and lorded over by a crowbar-waving ‘King of the Underground’. This path echoes with the barks and growls of teenaged girls being exorcised, and rings out with the twee poetry of the followers of the Siberian Christ.

Not for Kalder, the romantically doomed glories of imperial Russia or its new oil-and-gas borne czars and their now-legendary taste for luxury. His is the Russia of bomzhi (homeless drunks) rootling through trash, where sad-eyed old ladies sell cabbage pies on street corners, where fast food joints resound with “rancid” Russian pop music, where you’re likely to find bobbing on the train alongside you a beggar whose handmade board declares: I KILL COCKROACHES. This might sound like a hunt for freaks and loons, but Kalder prefers to call it an “epic metaphysical existential quest”.

As the journey rolls on, you’re inclined to believe him. Kalder has a strange affinity for the retinue of lonely, maladjusted men he follows into the strange worlds they’ve retreated to. He plunges into the Muscovite sewers with their self-professed “lord and living legend” Vadim, a Russian Ignatius C. Reilly who lives with his fearful mother. He goes on a Ukrainian “exorcism-musical-beach-holiday”, with a documentary filmmaker obsessed with demonic possession. He spends a week in a mountaintop commune, watching the Jesus of Siberia dispense “supernatural orgasms” and (often dubious) advice on washing-powder use and “consanguineous breast-fondling” to his followers. He tracks down the anti-climatically un-quixotic architect of a 13-storey wooden tower in Arkhangelsk, and is led through a Barnumesque wax museum of horrors in Kreschatyk by a guide with whom he has this surreal exchange:

‘Zis Cyclops with one eye, penis on head and no cherep.’ ‘You mean skull?’ ‘Cherep skull?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Sank you.’

While Kalder’s dyspeptic doodling sometimes livens up his mission to find “conquistadors of the useless”, at times, it does have a leadening effect. For instance, it’s droll to know that Father Grigory — the Ukrainian exorcist priest — has a ringtone featuring a “jingle by a collective of Russian oligarch’s girlfriends who perform in their underwear”. It is, however, less amusing to hear him bang on about the number of flies wriggling on the flypaper, his lengthy descriptions of livestock and furniture, and his Lord-of-the-Flies-inspired imaginings featuring Father Grigory’s brood of 14 children.

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