This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.4, Autumn 2014.
The UK is not a large country; Russia is such an unknowable expanse it makes me giddy and cling to things. One summer, while teaching at a university near the Black Sea in South Russia, I spent two weeks chasing this particular dragon, trying to feel good, lost in a half-forgotten land.
The region, perched on the edge of Europe, is in literature portrayed as romantic, chimerical terrain. Chekhov was born here, Tolstoy was exiled in its mountains and Lermontov’s fops dithered through spa towns in its hills. In books, it is a land suffused with dove-grey aristocratic sadness, the polite despair so exquisitely nailed by pre-revolutionary Russian writers.
The reality, of course, is markedly different. Flanked by Georgia, Ukraine, Dagestan and mountains populated by dozens of distinct Caucasian peoples, the region is barely Russian. Intricately interwoven with regional quarrels, European yet shot through with Asian otherness: southern Russia is a dazzling tapestry of contradictions.
For me, however, the trip was an excuse to visit quasi-mythical Kalmykia. The sole Buddhist – and poorest – region in Europe, it is an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation populated by the Tartar-descended Kalmyks and presided over by a chess-obsessed despot. President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov claims to be in regular personal contact with aliens, was great friends with Gaddafi and won an election under the slogan ‘A Rich President is Insurance against Corruption’. Everything, in short, said I needed to go.
I departed on the night train from Krasnodar to Pyatigorsk. It does seem that Russian trains have been meticulously engineered so that drunken, regrettable conversations with drunken, hideous strangers are not unfortunate rarities, but ineluctable encounters. I soon found myself in the company of three hirsute men from Dagestan whose conversation was limited but filthy. Begging exhaustion, I retreated to my bunk.
I was awoken some hours later to a pair of burly arms plucking me from my bed and neatly slinging me over a bristly shoulder. It was only halfway down the platform that it occurred to me I was being kidnapped. A few yelps induced the nearby guard into telling my kidnapper to put me down, who did so, sheepishly.
Pyatigorsk’s days as a glamorous spa town were both clearly evident and firmly over. I checked in at the Intourist Hotel, unchanged from Soviet times, and took in the air. Oil and gas companies in the frozen north sponsor their employees – over 100,000 of them – to come and unwind in its curative mineral waters each year. Round-faced and conspicuously pale, they stood apart from the locals who were engaging in low-level, small-change, hand-to-mouth economy. I returned to my room and slept fitfully, dreaming of densely follicled hands.
I caught the morning bus to Elista, a suitably intergalactic name for the capital of somewhere as brilliantly unlikely as Kalmykia. As we crossed the border, the tarmac slowly faded until we rode on dirt right into the low-rise city centre. The region is desperately, brutally poor. Elista was colourful, though, and made up for what it lacked in brash advertisements with giant chess boards painted into the floor and Buddhist temples strung with bright flags.
Thanks to Ilyumzhinov, chess is a compulsory subject for Kalmykian children from the age of five. Like an opiate of the masses, I could see people everywhere locked in the strategic, measured game. Later that evening I went to a restaurant owned by the coach of the Russian female boxing team. I ate handmade noodles with boiled meat and drank salty buttermilk tea that was deeply and stirringly unpleasant in a way I can’t quite articulate.
The following day I travelled to Chess City. It was intended by Ilyumzhinov to be a utopian metropolis of the future before he ran out of tax money ten blocks in. It is, you are unsurprised to learn, built with the game very much in mind. Laid out according to a chessboard, even the public bins are moulded into the shape of knights so you can shove crisp packets into their open plastic mouths.
There was a hopeful showroom for prospective investors featuring a scale model of Ilyumzhinov’s original vision. Next to the model was a photoboard documenting various luminaries’ visits to the site, including, amongst other unfamiliar faces, Chuck Norris.
Chuck Norris had been to Chess City. I went outside and let the thought wash over me for a bit. It felt as though there had been a small, fundamental shift in the universe. Sitting on the edge of the step, I waited until enough stray dogs gathered that my rabies jab felt inadequate and bagged a lift back to town. There, standing in the sunlit square with flags fluttering above me like a parade, my mum called and said my granddad had had a stroke. If I flew home immediately I might see him alive.
An overnight coach across the steppe and three flights home. I didn’t sleep, leaning out of the open window. The last time I saw my granddad he had seemed smaller and clouded over, until he paused suddenly to point at the moon, low in the November sky.
I spent all night sorting through memories, turning them over in my fingers and twirling them in my mind like batons. This was it then, the full stash. No new memories with his tag. The moon over the steppe was a slim crescent slicing through fast-moving clouds. I stuck my head out. The wind, thick with grass pollen, rushed over my eyelids.
Sometimes, the further you are from home the keener you feel it, as new sights call up old memories and forgotten thoughts with astonishing, vibrant clarity. So for me the steppe and my grandfather still occupy the same part of my mind, where the distant inconsistent flares of childhood memory are strange in precisely the same way as an unknown land that can throw up Chuck Norris when you least expect it.
I arrived home thirty hours later after several delays and no sleep. My granddad had died when I had been sailing across the steppe, the night air against my face like a kiss.
Words by Rosie Rockel
Images by Maj Jeanne