Over four years ago, I took a few months out – sold the house I jointly owned with a friend and used some of the profit to travel overland to Kalmykia, a Russian republic four hours south of Volgograd. I’d read about this 400 year-old Mongolian Oirat diaspora in The Guardian, reporting on the FIDE World Chess Championship that had taken place there in 2007, on account of the then President of FIDE also being President of Kalmykia. I was fascinated, I wanted to take a look.
A trip through Denmark, Germany, Poland and Ukraine before crossing into Russia is bound to throw up a few tales, but the strangest moment for this agnostic happened in Elista, Kalmykia’s steppe-bound capital. Speaking no Russian at the time (not that I speak much now), I had arranged for an interpreter, Lena, to help me with the neccessities and guide me during my week there. I was asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to see, I made clear my interest in going to the steppes, where tulips, orchids and irises naturally bloomed in late April, in the days around my late father’s birthday. Lena is a lovely person, but perhaps not the best guide, and by the last two days of my visit a trip out to the vast plains had yet to be arranged. On that penultimate day, Lena phoned and asked if I would like to visit the new Orthodox “Cathedral”, that serves the 50% of the population that is Christian Slav. The other half are the Kalmyks, who follow their own branch of Buddhism.
Whenever abroad, I try to take time to light a candle in memory of my father. A moment to think of him, and his curiously English xenophobia that saw him work abroad for a significant portion of his adult life. We took a long time to be close, but thankfully we found respect and love for one another a couple of years before he died at the age of 65. And so it was that Lena and I found ourselves knocking at the heavy wooden doors of the newly built Cathedral, about the size of an English village chapel, but wonderfully opulent, magnificently designed in the equilateral cross configuration common to Russian Orthodox places of worship.
There was no answer, but some passing babushkas invited us into the scout shed-like building next door. Some Russian was exchanged and Lena said that this was the place for me to light a candle. Expecting little, I was stunned by the golden icons and images of Mary, Jesus and the crew once inside. A nun beckoned me to remove my hat and sold me a candle for a few roubles. The kindly babushkas directed me to a sand-filled stand where people light their remembrances for the departed. I stood there, two old ladies and the considerably younger Lena at my shoulders, trying to find the silence I am usually accustomed to at these moments. I couldn’t find it, so I just thought to light the flame and be done with it – not every occasion can be how one would wish, after all. Then something strange happened. I dropped into a meditative state and felt like I was communicating with Dad, asking him to show me what I’d come here for. Brilliant, a hotline to the afterlife and I ask for a jolly trip.
I arose from the trance as quickly as I’d fallen into it. I felt weird. Lena and I left and said our thankyous, before bumping into a group of eight tourists outside, just as they were entering the Cathedral. We were invited in by the priest/monk/bishop man. We followed and Lena whispered how strange it was to have other tourists in town – I was the first in years, apparently. We stood and listened to the Russian history of the icons, and before long I felt a pressing need to leave. We turned, but were called back by the monk (that’s what he most resembled), who was keen to hear of my English faith. Once he had finished his talk, and the visitors had left, I was questioned about C of E and did my best to provide honest answers. Thinking this was purgatory, that we would never leave, the other tourists, some Russians from the Black Sea coast I was to discover later (one of whom was married to a Kalmyk, hence the trip), came back in, and through Lena I learned we had been invited to the steppe.
I can’t recall the names of the party, they are written down in notes somewhere in England, but they consisted of the Kalmyk woman and her husband, his brother and sister-in-law and several grown up children. We were taken in one of their two cars to the wild green that surrounds the small capital. We saw the flowers. The steppes were dotted with reds, yellows and purples. With horse skulls and burrows. Life and death all around. The husband, a spritely, balding gent in his early fifties, cat-wheeled and rolled around. I took out my Sunderland “We’re Back” flag, optimistically packed for the trip, hoping Roy Keane would return us to top flight football – an achievement secured that very morning. They laughed at the idiot Englishman. A farmer locked away his dog, a fearsome looking beast who eyed us calmly whilst we walked among the horses bred for meat and milk. The lead horse, Maria, had a bell around her neck. When the farmer called her, she obeyed, the herd following her tinkling command. A hoopoe flew above us, identified some weeks later by a twitcher friend in England. Do you know, it was just what I’d asked for an hour or so earlier.
Our springtime frivolity over, we headed back to town, and Lena and I were invited to lunch. Naturally we accepted, and I presumed a shashlik (Russian open grill) was on the cards. We drove to a supermarket to buy beer (I remember being impressed to find Heineken), and then on to a residential area, where concrete blocks of Soviet housing managed to remain upright against the azure sky. Unsure of where we were, I just followed. Into a block, up some stairs, into an apartment. It was the home of Kalmyk wife’s parents, Papa Boris and Mama Olga. Beautiful septuagenarians, hosts of incredible generosity. We sat, and spread before us were chicken livers flash fried in sheep’s stomach fat with spring onion, the sheep’s stomach stuffed with cuts from the animal, pelmeni, vegetables, beer and of course Ghengis Vodka, bottles and bottles of the stuff. We drank, we ate, we swapped stories through the indefatigable Lena. Boris seemed quiet, but I put that down to humilty. And then, in broken English, he declared,
“Luke! I have for you must see.” A speechless table watched as he he led me to his bookcase and pulled out a 1940s textbook, that he used to study English when exiled to Siberia with the rest of the Kamlyks, by Uncle Joe. Amazing.
And so to the toasts. Many were made, and I was presented with a small statue of the Kamlyk white man myth. I was encouraged to make a speech to accept. With Lena translating, I told my new friends of the odd experience in the ramshackle church earlier in the day. I sat down exhausted, with tears in my eyes.