Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Do You Recognize These Flags of European Nations?

Probably not, right?

Here are some quotations for Daniel Kalder's The Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist. The blurb calls it: "poetic and profane [not to say raunchy], hilarious and yet oddly heartwarming, bizarre and even educational" -- actually that's a pretty good description.

I like to read about the Kazan of old, of dreaming minarets and Asiatic bazaars, I do. But I'm glad it was destroyed.

If it existed today it would be a dilapidated heap, or a sterile heritage center, an empty shell that existed for tourists only, insipid and dull, like Prague. But the obliterated Kazan can never be visited, except in our imaginations, and thus it can never disappoint. It has a mythic power, a dreamlike power. Through annihilation it has been transubstantiated. And the pitiful squalor of the real Kazan only adds to the beauty and power of the unreal one (p. 51).

. . .

Apart from hair posters, there wasn't anything in the way of commercial advertising in Elista, not even one billboard for Coke. I noticed this on our last morning in the city, as we rode the taxi to Chess City. All the signs by the roadside were public announcements. They exhorted me to love Kalmykia, or to telephone my parents, or to play chess. Ilumzhinov was smiling at me, chess piece in hand, on that last one.

I have never been in an urban environment without advertising before. It was startling. It was eerie. Maybe, I thought, it was this absence that made Elista feel so much like the Twilight Zone. Without advertisements on the streets there was nothing to remind its citizens of the rest of the world. There was only the president's face and, just beyond the city, the eternal, identity-erasing steppe.

Suddenly I understood that an advert for a Sony TV isn't just an advert for a Sony TV. It's a reminder that there's a country called Japan, and there are links between your country and something outside itself. Advertising posters are portals to the beyond.

More than that, they assure us of the passage of time, that life changes, that old things die and are replaced with fresh one. No billboard stays up longer than a couple of months. As sure as the seasons pass it will vanish, and be replaced by another, and another/ And every time you look at a billboard, in the back of your mind, you are aware that it will soon vanish and be replaced with another one, more up to date.

Remove advertising posters and what you are left with are insincere public announcements that stay up for years, never changing, until they are all worn and peeling from the rain, wind, and sun. Only exposure to the elements brings them down. The graphics, meanwhile age even more badly and beome depressing reminders of a time when you were younger and stronger(p. 119).

. . .

Suddenly, Alexei's transformation from Soviet shock worker to pagan high priest made perfect sense. His remarkable story was in fact rather banal. His life was not so contradictory after all. There was a unifying theme: the drive for fame. He wanted to see his name in print. He wanted to be somebody. He had become high priest and see: a journalist from Scotland had come to see him! They knew about him even in faraway lands!

Alexei had made a mistake: he shouldn't have shown me the clippings. It made him seem smaller to me.

I didn't want that.

By smaller, however, understand that I mean human and flawed, that he was less of a miracle, that I could understand him. There had been a mystery; now there was not. I do not mean that I considered him a fraud, adopting the mantle of high priest solely to get the attention he craved. He believed in his gods with a simple, unanguished faith. That was obvious to me. But he also used them for his own unspiritual ends. He had taken his faith and manipulated it to satisfy a deeply felt need for attention and recognition. But that it was a genuine belief, I did not doubt.

However, when I got back to Moscow and told people about him the response was always the same: "Ah! So he just wanted to be famous."

This irritated me. It was so lacking in nuance, so lacking in sympathy. As if people wanted to negate him, to brush him aside. Ah! So that's what it's all about. He's not really a pagan. He doesn't really believe in all this strange stuff. Thus the unknown is banished and you are left with just a little lost man, a failure. The world becomes reasonable, comprehensible. The world becomes safe.

I found myself becoming defensive, protective of Alexei. But for some reason it was difficult to explain what I thought: that a man can believe bu exploit his faith; that he can love, but abuse his love. Surely that's obvious? (pp. 206-07).

. . .

In the modern world, however, it's forbidden to crush and absorb minorities entirely. Unless you're a psychotic third world dictator, and even then it's not really approved of. The Udmurt, then, I thought, are condemned to a long twilight. They will continue to assimilate, but they'll never be allowed to assimilate fully. There will always be the word "Udmurt" hanging over them, preventing them from identifying fully with the only culture they have: Russian. That is their destiny: even when they are no longer Udmurt, they will still be "Udmurt."

Suddenly, I felt very sympathetic toward this woman. I thanked her and smiled. She smiled back. I looked in her featuress for something I could recognize, something I could take away with me as Udmurt, as a sign of who she was. High cheekbones? Ginger hair?

There was nothing. Nothing at all (pp. 245-46).

. . .

I wasn't trying to get out of a tricky question, by the way. I had no advice. My answer disappointed here, however. Undaunted, Sveta took another stab at getting profundity out of me.

"OK . . but, Daniel -- you've traveled around Russia."

"I have."

"You've seen the way we live."


"Then . . . why? Why is Russia like this? Why is it so backward? Why isn't it a normal European country?"

Sveta had surprised me again. This honest expression of self-loathing was something I had forgotten about. In the UK we don't like to air our despair openly. Especially in front of strangers. But Sveta had laid it on me. In all the cities I'd visited: Kazan, Elista, Mari El, and now Izhevsk. Why? Why were they so . . . rubbish?

Again, I was conscious of the assembled people of Udmurtia watching me, waiting for my answer. Yes, I was a wise man. I was somebody. I was a foreign journalist. My opinions mattered. Bulls***t.

Sveta had really set me up. I hesitated, but I didn't have time to think. I told the truth.

"You know, years ago, before the collapse of the Soviet Union there were schools of Sovietologists in the universities of the West, and they spent their whole lives studying Russia and the Soviet Union. Their whole lives. And do you know: not one of those 'experts' predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not one. As for me, I've been in Russia for only seven years . . . what can I say? I think I am only beginning to understand your country."

Yes, I thought. That's nice. That'll flatter them.

"Oh," said Sveta (pp. 270-71).

I haven't been to any of the places Daniel Kalder went to, but I can sense that much learning and research went into his seeing what was in front of his nose in various corners of multi-ethnic Russia. A rare and wonderful book.

P.S. The flags, in order, are of Udmurtia, Mari El, Kalmykia, and Tatarstan.