On the recommendation of Chekov from Three Thousand Versts I’ve just borrowed Lost Cosmonaut by David Kalder from my local library. Kalder, a young Russian-based Scot styles himself as an “anti-tourist” and goes off in search of obscure Russian republics very much off the beaten backpacker track. So little is known in the west about the now independent former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan (apart from the false impression given by Borat, the odd Olympic medal-winning Graeco-Roman wrestler and a few cyclists like Alexandre Vinokourov who occasionally do well in the Tour de France), Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan and others. But even less is known about the semi-autonomous republics within the Russian Federation such as Tatarstan, Udmurtia and Kalmykia. Kalder deserves credit for visiting places no-one else wants to go to, which partially explains his fascination for them. I share this urge, myself, but to a much lesser degree. When I told friends a couple of years ago that I would be summer holidaying in Latvia and Lithuania, I was greeted with bemusement or “what do you want to go there for?” The simple answer is “because they’re there”.
Despite being rich in history and culture, Kalder’s destinations are distinctly unglamorous locations with little to do or see. Kalder makes no secret of this. The cultures of these regions have been heavily diluted following an intensive Russification policy at the behest of Stalin. Ethnic Russians were encouraged to move here and heavy industries were set up so the regions, rather than Moscow and its environs would bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation. However it’s the hidden heart of these regions which particularly fascinates him.
One frustrating thing about this book is the lack of a map to show where these places are. The reader is unable to get a clear idea of their location within the context of Russia or their proximity to neighbouring countries, mountains or coasts.
Nevertheless Kalder’s style is entertaining. The book does have a collection of photographs, mostly of dreary buildings and local curiosities which add to the book’s post-modern ironic tone. Kalder has also done his homework on the history of the places he visits. It’s certainly an innovative style of travel writing and one that looks set to be copied by others.