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Context (Moscow Times)
May 30-June 5, 2008
A Road Less Traveled
Jonathan Dimbleby examines Russia's traditions, stereotypes and politics in his book and television series for the BBC. Tom Birchenough reports.

By Tom Birchenough

Armed with a journal and an unquenchable thirst for discovery, British broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby set off across Russia in 2006 to make a major, five-hour BBC documentary series. "Russia -- A Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby," which is currently being broadcast on prime time British television, is an epic 18-week, 16,000-kilometer journey brimming with color, soul, sympathy and some anger.

"I was curious," Dimbleby, son of legendary British broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, said in a recent telephone interview. "[The opportunity] was irresistible." His first experience in Russia was in 1979, and he returned frequently in the 1980s for work that included the first major interview by foreign television with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Returning almost 15 years after his last visit, he said he knew the reality was going to be different, and his sheer curiosity to discover it stands out strongly in the series. "There isn't one reality, but perhaps two, perhaps more. I was really struck by the range of diversities in the Russian Federation: not only of religion or ethnicity, but wealth and poverty, too. Seeing the sheer scale of the country strikes you far more than reading about it."

Starting in the North West and traveling down through central Russia to the Caucasus, then along the Volga into the Urals and Siberia, and finishing in Vladivostok, the range of experiences is ideal for epic television. From weddings to graveyards, from Russian Orthodox cathedrals to the mosques of Derbent in Dagestan, from the conspicuous consumption of Moscow to the desperate poverty in some far-flung regions, from day-long train journeys to a boat trip on the river Ob, the journey makes for excellent television, augmented by some stunning camerawork. Cameramen often seem almost to have to run to match Dimbleby's own pace.

The broadcaster said he had been determined to get of much of Russia's diversity into the series and felt that the emphasis on the outdoors was appropriate. "Outdoors is the place for the Russian soul to breathe more freely. I wanted to see it -- and not hop from place to place by plane. I got used to it -- it isn't just forest or tundra. I found it wonderful to see and feel. An extra liberation to experience."

As a result, he joked, his usual three-hour train trip from London to his home in Devon, seems unsatisfactorily short. Use of helicopter shots in the series is generous, and one aerial trip was even from a crop spraying plane -- executive producer George Carey said there could have been more, were it not for insurance difficulties.

It was Carey who had the original idea for the project, which took three years from commissioning to broadcast. He said he felt that Russia was always an important topic. "I think it's increasingly in the news. Making a big series which may not hit the screen for two or three years is like taking a long-term weather forecast.

"Russia is a fascinating country, making for great television. It's an important country, so large and with such an important place in history. And I felt that the country was coming out of the trough of the Yeltsin years. Russia matters. It has a sheer vitality that makes for larger than life colors."

Dimbleby came into the project relatively late, when financing was in place and considerable research already done. Though there was an argument for someone who spoke Russian, both Carey and the BBC decided that the presenter should be someone who, Carey said, would "bring eyeballs to the screen."

"Effectively, we were making some kind of road movie, and we needed someone to be surprised by what we saw, and a top-class journalist as well."

And Dimbleby doesn't pull any punches on what he sees as the contemporary political scene in the country. In one interview at a gulag camp outside Perm, human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov speaks of a return to the gulag, of a "kingdom of falsities," and a denial of the past. Another hard-hitting interview is with Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev, former editor of the Samara edition of the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a publication that has come into considerable conflict recently with the local FSB.

Dimbleby was fascinated by the sheer range in Russia, not only of ideas, but also of people. "I found the Russian people, particularly further from Moscow, extremely welcoming and generous. I felt a great deal of personal sympathy for the 'ordinary' Russian people and admired their resilience.

"Some have nostalgia for yesterday, others not. The revelation was how fascinating they were. From the outside we have a very narrow view, along the lines of marching soldiers, Putin and bling."

As well as presenting the television series, Dimbleby also wrote a book about the experience, which was recently published as "Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People," and presents both a stronger level of political comment and a personal story, neither of which find their way into the television series.

In the book he writes of his personal circumstances just before the project started: his divorce from his wife of many years to look after his younger and much more recent lover, an opera singer, as she died of a terminal illness in her thirties.

There he admits to a level of personal turmoil and despair not seen on screen, especially during long nights in regional hotels, and even in locations of natural beauty of a kind that would normally raise the spirits.

The book also captures his deep frustration with what he sees in the country. One memorable example comes on a sea trip to the northeastern Solovetsky islands, where an overloaded vessel sets out into stormy seas. Dimbleby protests in vain to the captain -- the only other crew member appears to him to be drunk -- and all the other passengers seem to be resigned to nature, or perhaps the will of God. Whether by miracle or by some Russian gift for improvisation, they reach their destination safely.

Outside his program commentary, he also speaks more openly on political issues. "Russia is a crypto-fascist state, in the academic sense," he said in interview. "Contemporary democracy means the oligarchy, the FSB and the military, who don't intend to change how things are. It's very depressing."

Along with elation and delight at the country and his journey through it, he said he felt, if not despair, then certainly dismay. He kept encountering statements, which amounted to: "We are free even though we live in a dictatorship."

"I said, 'There's a bigger freedom,' though I understand what happened in the Yeltsin years, as well as the gross endorsement by the West of Putin's excesses. The Russian people would be far better off if they lived in a more open, transparent and accountable society than now."

Dimbleby is unsure whether such opinions will arouse the wrath of the Kremlin. "Either I will be seen as small fry, or there may be a reaction, perhaps depending on wider relationships between Britain and Russia. I can only guess." That may be a piece of perhaps uncharacteristic modesty given that the series will no doubt be seen around the world and speaks more powerfully than any usual news broadcast.

There's no guarantee yet that the films will ever be shown in Russia, but he's reassured by the response from Russian friends elsewhere that it tells them things about their own country, and the best such project by a foreign broadcaster they have seen to date.

And for Dimbleby, it was more than just a professional experience. "The widest memory was of generosity, fuelled by vodka. We tried to get behind the headlines, under the skin of Russia. I hope we have, and I've been so pleased by the response of Russian friends and colleagues. That's been very touching."

"Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People" by Jonathan Dimbleby is published by BBC Books. The BBC2 series, produced by Mentorn Media, will be available on DVD from June 16.