In his new book, STEPHAN ORTH—traveller, author, couchsurfer extraordinaire—explores the enigma that is Russia. For almost 10,000 kilometres, he crisscrosses the largest country on the map by land mass—from Moscow to Grosny, St. Petersburg, Lake Baikal, Vladivostok, Chechnya, Siberia and beyond—pushing past his comfort zone to uncover what (and who) defines a country that chooses to defy modern expectation.
WEcontinue for about fifty yards before the bus stops again. All passports have to be stacked at the front so an officer can check them. After a while, the bus driver suddenly shouts: “Shtefan! Nemezkiy!” That’s me; nemezkiy means “German.” I have to go to the police station. All the passengers’ eyes follow me. I walk to the hexagonal building through pouring rain. Inside, an official with neatly trimmed light-brown hair is sitting behind a grille, which is so low that you have to duck submissively to look through it. In front of him is the screen of the surveillance camera; in the background a tube TV is running a shampoo commercial. The man has a couple of questions.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m a tourist.”
“And in Kalmykia?”
“Visiting a friend.” A bit of an exaggeration as I don’t yet know my next host. He demands her name and telephone number and writes both down on a list. Do svidanya, goodbye. I’m out of Dagestan.
The bus crosses the border to the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the majority religion. The driver starts a war movie. Dying soldiers on a tube TV; outside, Tibetan-looking stupas at dusk. The loudspeaker above me has a loose connection; the sound crackles loudly and from time to time cuts out altogether. Gun battle. Silence. Shouting soldiers. Crackle. Pause. “Russia,” says my neighbor.
CHESS AND ALIENS
Altana lives with her mother in a new housing development called Microdistrict 9. The apartment is so clean and perfectly tidy that I hardly believe my eyes when I notice a small kink in the Tibetan prayer flag on the kitchen windowsill. In what seems to be an antiseptic living room from a furniture catalog, I somewhat hesitatingly deposit my slightly dirty backpack, trying to consider where I am least likely to disturb the feng shui.
“You can take a shower, if you like,” says Altana with polite urgency, opening the door to a bathroom composed of ceramics and brass that could well be used as the backdrop of an ad for faucet cleaner.
From dusty old Caucasus to germ-free House Beautiful, from Islam to Buddhism; the contrast with my previous destination couldn’t be greater. And still I’m in Europe, a mere fifteen hundred miles from Berlin as the crow flies. Elista is closer to the German capital than the Canary Islands is.
Altana is twenty-three but looks at least five years younger; she has straight black hair, dark eyes, and Asian features. “I’m one hundred percent Russian. But when I travel everyone thinks I come from China or Japan,” she says. Evenly spaced fridge magnets provide evidence of the countries she has visited: Spain, South Korea, England, France, Germany, and Turkey. From her online profile I know that she likes Tarantino movies, Kanye West, and The Beatles and that she has just completed her literature studies in Volgograd.
She only started “practicing couchsurfing” a few months previously. She says it as if she’s talking about a religion. Her only guest before me came from Munich and was “extraordinarily friendly.” But sometimes she gets strange inquiries. “A Spanish guy wrote me: ‘How are you, wanna meet for tea?’ When I checked his profile I discovered he was a porn movie producer who was looking for female performers. I concluded that I wouldn’t meet him for tea.”
Her mother, Yelena, joins us; she is a doctor and smiles a lot. “I speak little English,” she says, smiling.
“You must be tired from the long bus journey,” says Altana.
From a global-history viewpoint the autonomous Republic of Kalmykia has, up to now, only played a minor role. Readers who have never heard of the autonomous Republic of Kalmykia are forgiven. Its inhabitants stem from Buddhist Oirat nomads from Mongolia who migrated toward the Volga in the seventeenth century. Initially they were tolerated, but one day Catherine the Great decided that she really was quite fond of her steppes. She ordered the building of forts and sent settlers, soldiers, and orthodox missionaries there.
The Oirats no longer felt welcome and planned, in the winter of 1771, to set out for western China, all at once and all on the same day. But only those living to the east of the Volga actually made the long trek. Twenty thousand families to the west didn’t dare cross the wide river because the ice didn’t appear safe, and remained behind. Kalmyk means something like “the remainder.”
For the next 150 years they were left in peace. Then the Bolsheviks swept through the country, wrecking Buddhist shrines and throwing monks into prisons. Religion, the opium of the people, was frowned on by Communists. When the Nazis arrived during World War II, roughly six thousand Kalmyks joined up as infantrymen. This in turn displeased Stalin so much that in 1943 he had almost the whole population of the republic deported to Siberia. Only fourteen years later did the survivors venture back. They have never been friends of Communism.
The autonomous Republic of Kalmykia, with Elista as its capital, has existed since 1992. For their recent development they have to thank a millionaire named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who was president of the republic until 2010 and would be a candidate for the title “most bizarre politician in modern times,” even if the worldwide competition is strong. He became rich as director of a trading company in the chaotic ‘90s, and as a politician he was able to exploit the momentum of that time. The status of an autonomous republic enabled him to keep taxes low for businesses, much like an offshore trading platform. Thousands of companies registered in Kalmykia for an annual fee of US$23,500. Only in 2004 did the Duma decree that such loopholes would no longer be acceptable. Ilyumzhinov was able to get over it, as by that time he already owned four white Rolls-Royces.
Apart from all this he is well known for two things. First, in all seriousness he claims to have once been abducted in a flying saucer. Extraterrestrials dressed him in a yellow space suit, gave him a tour of their control center, and flew off to another star. He reported that he felt perfectly at ease with them, but eventually they had to transport him back so he would be on time for a political appointment in Ukraine. Second, Ilyumzhinov is one of his country’s greatest chess fans and is still the president of the chess federation’s governing body, FIDE.
In this capacity he was able to stage the 1998 Chess Olympiad in Elista. He was well connected to Boris Yeltsin, so with the equivalent of US$150 million from Moscow he built Chess City, a small villa district for competition players. In all the excitement and anticipation of the competition he completely forgot to plan what would be done with it after the tournament.
Chess City is only a few hundred meters away from Microdistrict 9. Altana doesn’t feel like joining me; she thinks it is “a bit boring,” although she, like all other Kalmyks, studied chess for three years as a compulsory subject at school. I set off alone in the ninety-five-degree heat, walking past a Tibetan temple and a large marquee-sized Mongolian yurt. The outer shell is made of air cushions and inside, according to the information board, will soon be a museum of the history of nomadic peoples. At the side of the road are sculptures made of light-colored stone blocks supposedly representing knights or pawns; probably, as they are roughly hewn and lack detail, they are meant to be incredibly avantgarde. To me, they seem to be simply unfinished.
In front of the visitor’s parking at Chess City there is a kind of archway with the Russian name Gorod Shakhmat, which sounds like “checkmate.” In a nutshell, the whole area seems a bit checkmate. In the next hour I see a total of two cars and one pedestrian; otherwise the place is like a ghost town. I expected the houses might be numbered like a chessboard, with addresses like g6 and f4, that the streets might have names like Kasparov Crescent or Karpov Close, and that there would be pubs called The Queen’s Head or The Castle Arms (in fact, the only pub here is called Flamingo, and it’s closed today).
But nothing of the sort—Checkmate City is a pretty nondescript new housing complex, although it’s certainly not cheap to live here. The terraced houses have roofs in striking colors and small front gardens. There are a few faded posters of competitions with pictures of past chess heroes. Behind the walls, I imagine pipe-smoking men with long beards slamming down chess pieces on the board, full of passion. But most of the houses appear uninhabited and the only sound is the twittering of one single bird. This is a place of no past and no aura; here no one lived, loved, hated, was born, or died before it became shrouded in loneliness. Here a lot of money was simply poured down the drain.
Truth No. 5:
Nothing is more desolate than a ghost town without ghosts.
The Palace of Chess, in the center, with its semicircular foyer and reflective blue glass, looks a bit like a flying saucer. It was here that the competitions took place all those years ago. An armed security guard greets me at the entrance and soon I’m admiring the walls full of photo-realistic illustrations of people playing chess. Stylistically they are somewhere between local newspaper photos and children’s book illustrations, and often ex-President Ilyumzhinov is in the picture.
On the third floor, I find a kind of chess school, with wooden desks side by side in a classroom; on each of them there is a picture of a chessboard. The security guard calls me back, making a cross in front of him with his forearms to convey that visitors are not allowed there. Preferably they should go to the souvenir shop, where they can buy Buddhas and fridge magnets, slippers, plates with pictures of temples, and chess sets with Mongolian nomads serving as pawns and camels instead of knights.
“I see what you mean by ‘boring,’” I say to Altana upon returning. Then we take a marshrutka, a routed taxicab minibus, downtown.
The largest buddha in Europe lives in a shiny white temple with a square base and pointy gilt roofs, with Asian-style wooden pavilions surrounding it. “You should always circle the temple three times clockwise and spin the prayer wheels,” explains Altana.
As we circle the temple there are quite a lot of prayer wheels—light-red cylinders with golden letters on them and small grips to make spinning them easier. All of them have been touched by the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has been here a number of times. We take about five minutes to complete the 360-degree tour. “It’s pretty hot today and it must be difficult for you, so I’d say one round is okay,” decides Altana, who always knows what’s good for me. We enter the inner room by passing through the entrance, which is marked by red columns beneath an eight-spoked Dharma wheel guarded by two wooden deer.
“What I like about Buddhism is that it’s a free religion. Everyone can do or not do what they want and you are responsible for your own mistakes,” says Altana. “In the temple, I find peace.”
At the end of the main hall to the left there is a framed picture of the Dalai Lama; in the middle sits a thirty-foot-high golden Buddha in a yellow cloak with crossed legs. He looks down from his lotus throne with a serious and contemplative expression. Aren’t his facial features rather similar to those of the UFO enthusiast and shepherd of the Republic, Ilyumzhinov, who had the temple built for a vast sum of money? Pure coincidence, for sure. “You probably want to move on,” says Altana.
I ask her what she thinks of Ilyumzhinov.
“He wasn’t as bad as people claim. His successor is doing absolutely nothing for progress.”
“But with his alien stories he was a bit crazy, wasn’t he?”
“Hey, that’s Russia,” says Altana, and laughs. “Anyway, politicians generally talk a lot of nonsense. Reports about aliens are by far not the worst!”
Excerpted from Behind Putin’s Curtain by Stephan Orth, published by Greystone Books, May 2019 and available for purchase on the Greystone website (www.greystonebooks.com) as well as through local booksellers.
All photos courtesy of the book Behind Putin’s Curtain. Stephan Orth is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author, including of Couchsurfing in Iran. He’s a two-time recipient of the Columbus Award for travel writing and was online travel editor for Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s top magazines, for almost a decade. He lives in Hamburg, Germany, and you can see more of his work at www.stephan-orth.de/english.