Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman living in Texas, who has spent a lot of time in Russia. In fact, Russia has become ingrained into his psyche after spending the best part of 10 years in the country. Kalder is the author of Strange Telescopes – a book about his encounters with four very different people over the course of a year.
These four people are not living like you and I. The first is ‘The Digger’ who loves the tunnels beneath Moscow, the second is man trying (badly) to make a documentary about Russia’s exorcists, the third is a former traffic policeman who says he is Jesus and lives on a mountain top in Siberia, and the fourth is a jail-bird businessman who built the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper. A diverse quartet.
“So Daniel, you seem to have trekked around Russia, the Ukraine and Siberia to talk to four nutters,” I say.
Daniel laughs, a little defensively, and replies: “I wouldn’t really call them nutters. The Digger is eccentric but not mad and he had actually been used by the Government because of his knowledge of the tunnels under Moscow. The exorcist man follows an unreasonable idea that demons actually exist, but it appears completely logical to him. The man who says he’s Jesus has a lot of devotees following him, so you could say he is successful.”
The Jesus-themed third section of Strange Telescopes, concerning Vissarion aka Sergei Torop aka the Messiah, is the most intriguing part of the book. Kalder makes a huge effort to stay away from assuming that Vissarion is the next David Koresh or Reverend Jim Jones. He refuses to use the word ‘cult’ and decides “to just play along.” He spends as much time analyzing the people following Vissarion, many of whom had achieved much in their previous existence, as the so-called Messiah himself. Kalder does extremely well to keep a lid on his cynicism when faced with babbling disciples and obvious contradictions.
“It was probably the most fascinating experience of my life,” said Kalder, who now lives in Austin and published his debut book, Lost Cosmonaut, in 2006. “I decided to dismiss all the marginal stuff, and just go and meet him. It was a long protracted process but it was clear that a lot of people believed in him. They all just seemed to be in a different reality.
“Of course, there have been hundreds of Jesuses popping up over the last few years but most of them just fade away. The interesting thing about Vissarion is that he was successful. He had built a world and you touch it. His days as a traffic cop were just no longer there for him. That seemed a bit unreal for his followers too.”
Kalder, who originally hails from Fife in Scotland, moved to Russia after graduating from university. “I’d lived in the same town for 22 years,” he said. “I had an English degree and could have been a teacher or a civil servant but I’d never even been abroad. Russia was opening up at the time and there were huge possibilities, it was in chaos too.”
The chaos of ‘New Russia’ under Boris Yeltsin appealed greatly to Kalder, who paid the bills by working as an English tutor and a journalist, and his encounters with the four figures in Strange Telescopes are highly chaotic – full of broken promises, missed trains, wasted journeys, and utter incompetence.
“It’s very intense to be in a place that tests you to the limit,” he said. “I learnt Russian from a book. It was Yeltsin’s heyday and it was total nihilism. It was shocking in some ways and almost like living in the middle of the Weimar Republic. History was being made. It was dynamic, ugly and beautiful, all at the same time.”
The Digger lives in his mother’s apartment, seemingly content in the knowledge that he knows more about Moscow’s tunnels than anyone else. One feels the moviemaker couldn’t organize the proverbial piss-up in a brewery. The man and his wooden skyscraper is a very sad tale, especially as no-one is remotely interested in his bizarre tower – a building constructed for no apparent reason.
Strange Telescopes is no travel book and does not compel anyone to visit the mountains of Siberia, the tunnels of Moscow, and the churches of the Ukraine. Many of his descriptions of Russian life are painful even before he turns the spotlight on the four main figures. Kalder is attracted by the little details of life and uses his eye for detail to paint a dark picture of the absurd and the downright bizarre.