This BBC TV series is an epic journey around the largest country in the world – Russia! I’ve watched most of Simon Reeve’s documentaries and I think this is one of the best (this might have something to do with tigers). It also showed the vastness, variety and weirdness that is contemporary Russia. Here are some highlights of the series:
Episode 1: ‘It got very, very, very cold’
- We begin at Kamchatka in the east. Deep in snow, it’s a spectacular wilderness. Cue some excellent landscape shots. After looking around a military base abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Simon has tea with reindeer herders who lead a nomadic existence in this isolated corner of Russia. It gets so cold in the tent overnight that the crew keep the camera batteries inside their sleeping bags.
- The police make filming difficult while Simon travels through Siberia. His car is stopped and the driver taken away for four hours of questioning and even drugs testing. Then they’re followed, probably by the FSB (state surveillance, the successors to the KGB). Stopped again before getting on to the Trans Siberian Railway, and yet again. They’re detained all day at the police station, where their passports are taken for checking. Finally they’re harassed and escorted to a train out of the area.
- Searching for signs of Amur tigers in the Boreal Forest with two expert guides. ‘This is a massive tiger poo!’ Simon says, touching the bristly evidence that the tiger’s last snack was a wild boar. The boars’ habitat is being threatened by the timber industry, bad news for the already endangered tigers. We know there’s at least one tiger close by but we don’t see it. Simon sees that the toilet is a separate hut and decides not to risk it during the night.
- We visit Yakutsk, a city on the permafrost. The tunnels beneath it are a tourist attraction and include a bed made of an ice block. However, not all is well. There’s a huge crater nearby, caused by the melting permafrost, which itself causes methane to be released and contribute to global warming. Genuinely scary and an ill omen of the future.
Episode 2: ‘…a frightening and brutally corrupt place’
- World War 2 Victory Day in the city of Irkutsk includes the Immortal Regiment parade. 40,000 people carry placards with photos in remembrance of their relatives. This emotional sight reminds us how much the Soviets fought and suffered during the war and that their losses should never be forgotten.
- The Putin-themed restaurant in Krasnoyarsk. There’s a US flag to wipe your feet on, a life-size cutout of Putin to pose with, ultra patriotic staff who sing the national anthem and photos of the President everywhere. There seem to be a few good things about Putin, according some people. But then again, others are critical. Simon summarises: ‘He was a popular leader, he could have transformed the country. Instead his new Russia is still a frightening and brutally corrupt place, and anyone who questions the high level corruption here faces intimidation or worse.’
- An audience with Vissarion, who is apparently the reincarnation of Jesus. The clean living community who worship him seem to be harmless at first, but then Simon is shown the girls’ school, in which the ‘noble maidens’ are taught to be ‘shy, inconspicuous and weak’. Vissarion himself has long grey hair, wears a poncho and answers Simon’s questions in a mystical way. Simon is too polite to call this cult leader a nutter.
- The obscure region of Tuva is heralded by an endless road across the Eurasian steppe. We meet some nomadic Tuva horsemen and hear their amazing throat singing in a yurt. But it’s not all like this. Alcoholism is an epidemic in this region particularly, and in the town most people we see appear to be drunk. The price of alcohol was raised but this only encouraged the bootleg industry. Simon gets hold of an illegal vodka, which smells like antifreeze. Sensibly he pours it away.
Episode 3: ‘It’s as if I don’t exist’
- A sanitorium in the Crimea (which is an area in conflict between Russia and Ukraine). There are people taking ‘dry carbon dioxide baths’, wrapped up like giant plastic sausages. Nervously Simon visits the doctor, complaining of a cough. To his horror she brings out a jar of wriggling ‘good quality leeches’ and places them strategically on his chest. After the leeches have fed, she tapes what looks like a large sanitary towel over the wounds. He doesn’t say if this treatment was successful or not.
- Taigan Safari Park is owned by Oleg, a man without fear. Several male lions are scuffling and Oleg runs after them yelling, then he cuddles them. There are adorable Amur tiger cubs, too. Oleg and Simon then go to a reservoir to get water for the park, because Ukraine stopped the water supply after the Crimea was annexed. We see a completely dried-up canal. The area is now suffering from drought.
- We visit Moscow, home to Natalia, a young woman who along with many other residents will be forced to relocate from older apartment blocks to new ones. She peacefully protested on her own (because protests involving more than one person require state approval) and was arrested. ‘It’s as if I don’t exist,’ she says. The courts have a 99% conviction rate. A while ago, Simon said via social media that she had been fined, with a second trial ahead.
- Finally we reach majestic St Petersburg by train after giant potholes made a car journey impossible. Simon visits an Orthodox Christian sports club and takes part in some kind of boxing exercise with the musclebound young men, from which he limps off. Putin is a strong promoter of sports and is also religious, so he’d certainly approve of priests who can punch. A visit to the Hermitage Museum is the last item on the itinerary, and even though it’s 2017, centenary of the Russian Revolution, this is not commemorated. Simon wonders how much has really changed and says there is still a ‘tsar’ in power 100 years on.