Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#43 - JRL 2008-87 - JRL Home
From: Teresa Cherfas <tcherfas@onetel.com>
Subject: BBC TV series about Russia.
Date: Sat, 3 May 2008

I thought I'd let you know that the BBC is showing a major new 5-part series about Russia, starting on Sunday evening, May 11th on BBC2. It will also be shown on BBC World at a slightly later date. I can let you have details when I know them.

I atttach a synopsis of the series.

Teresa Cherfas

Series producer

Russia - a Journey With Jonathan Dimbleby




The film opens with Jonathan Dimbleby driving over the tundra inside the Arctic Circle. Its the short summer season the White Nights - when the snow melts and the sun scarcely sets. Ahead of him lie ten thousand miles of hard traveling through a country that is not only the largest in the world but also, perhaps, the most awe-inspiring.

It was the summer of 2006 when filming began. Vladimir Putin was hosting the G8 summit in St Petersburg; there was an air of optimism about relations between Russia and the West. After the long years of the Cold War through which Jonathan had lived, he was keen to make his first stop in the city of Murmansk, which stands as a reminder to the years when England and Russia were close allies in a war of survival against the Nazis. But soon he was on the move, away from the Russia we normally see or read about and into the strange and remote world of Karelia. He crosses a great lake in a replica 17th schooner, and we get a first taste of the extraordinary contrasts that Russia provides. In Karelia, we meet people who still believe in the good and evil spirits of the forest; but just a short train ride (by Russian standards!) we come to the sophisticated elegance of St Petersburg, with its canals and palaces and extraordinary history.

On the surface St Petersburg must count as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Jonathan runs into the great conductor Valery Gergiev as he comes slightly breathless out of a concert at the Mariinsky Theatre. He meets some of the cool new rich of the city at a party overlooking one of the cities beautiful canals, who try to convince him that there is a massive difference between democracy and freedom. They know they dont have much of the first, but they still reckon they are freer than in the West. He gets a different insight into this when Ilya Utekhin takes him to visit a communal flat. It was built in imperial Russia as a grand apartment for a rich merchant but after the revolution was occupied by as many as fifty impoverished families at once. Utekhin was brought up there in one small room. It wasnt so bad, he says: we Russians live in two worlds personal life, which is our thoughts, our aspirations, our friends and relationships; and everyday life sleeping, eating, washing clothes. This was just everyday life and it didnt matter.

Jonathan then sets out to track the origins of this Russian nation, following the course of the very first Viking settlements along the River Volkhov until he comes to Velikii Novgorod. This was a great city when Moscow was no more than a trading post in the woods, and the cathedral is one of the very oldest in Russia, copied from the great churches of Constantinople when the Slavs converted to Christianity in the 10th Century. Journeys end for this film is Moscow, and a couple of hours in the gloriously ornate Sandunovsky Baths. The banya is a quintessential institution in Russian society. Without clothes on, its hard to tell the rich from the not so rich, the good from the not so good. Jonathan joins in, gets a good pummeling from the hefty masseur while reflecting on the nature of Russian society he has so far encountered.



If the action in todays Russia is in the cities, the eternal spirit of Russia is in the countryside. At the opening of the film, Jonathan Dimbleby finds himself at a reception for a Madonna concert, attended by anyone whos anyone in Moscow, including top restaurateur, Arkady Novikov. But the next day he takes the train to a different world: the family estate of Leo Tolstoy, arguably the greatest of all Russian writers.

Yasnaya Polyana is set in lush countryside south of Moscow. The manor house where he lived most of his life has been preserved pretty much as he left it - his favorite clothes still hang in the cupboard. Tolstoy believed you could find the soul of Russia in the simple peasant, and today his great-great-grandson, Count Vladimir Tolstoy, is trying to revive the whole estate as a working farm. It is of course an idealized dream. Further south you come to the reality of farming in Russia today where families struggle to survive after the ending of state subsidies. Voronezh is in the middle of Black Earth country, named after the rich soil that surrounds it. This part of Russia bore the brunt of Stalins brutal project to bring all farms under state control. Millions died in the famine that followed, and in the purges he later inflicted on the survivors. In the woods nearby, Jonathan comes across a moving memorial to some of the victims.

The other formative influence on Tolstoy was his time as an army officer in the Caucasus. Pyatigorsk, on the northern edge of the mountains, was then a place where soldiers relaxed. Its still a spa town today, and Jonathan decides to sample the warm sulphur springs. A woman welder from the far north takes rather a shine to him. Just above them are the great mountains of the Caucasus, the scene then and now of fierce fighting between Russian armies and the local tribesmen. Jonathan himself a skilled horseman gets a chance to ride one of the famous Kabardin horses whose bloodline is prized by breeders all over the world. Later he goes to a wedding where the ancient rituals of wife stealing and repentance are played out.

You cant get through the Caucacus without confronting the harsh reality of the Chechen war. Jonathans route takes him past Beslan where 331 people died, over half of them children. He visits the ruins of School Number One, preserved as a memorial to them. Further on he comes across another side of the story, a Chechen village whose entire population was deported to Central Asia in 1944 on Stalins orders. Many of the old men and women remember the night they were herded in to cattletrucks on a freezing February night, many dying in transit before they arrived. Nearby is the river Terek, which in imperial days was the wild frontier, defended by Orthodox Cossacks against the infidels. There are still Cossacks here Jonathan goes on a hunting expedition with them but they are now a minority in Muslim Daghestan. He goes into the mountains where they still revere the great warriors who fought the tsars armies for thirty years, guided by Magomedkhan Magomedkhanov, leader of one of the mountain tribes (and a graduate of Havard). Finally he reaches the Caspian Sea, under the massive walls of Derbent, an ancient city built by the Persians to defend themselves from the peoples of the north.



The symbol of Russian patriotism is the River Volga which runs from above Moscow through the heart of Russia to the Caspian Sea. Several great battles have been fought along its length. Not far from the port of Astrakhan is a tiny village that was once the great capital of the Golden Horde. Jonathan Dimbleby arrives there in February when the biting wind chills you to the bone, and is astonished to find how little remains of the western capital of Genghiz Khans massive empire.

His next stop is Volgograd, more famous under its old name of Stalingrad. It was the heroic defence of this city that turned the tide against the German armies in 1943, and the city still evokes the memory of those battles. He meets Svetlana Argatseva, a woman who thinks Stalin has been misunderstood. She is not alone. Russians tend to value strong leaders more than human rights, and as Jonathan makes his way up the Volga, he finds the Kremlins new more aggressive mood towards the West is going down well.

In Samara, once a secret armaments city closed to all foreigners, it is Victory Day. Traditionally families take offerings of food and drink to the graves of their departed loved ones in the citys cemeteries. Jonathan joins them and finds that a stranger is welcome even at this most intimate family occasion. Its also the time when new recruits are called up for military service. Stories about the terrible bullying they regularly suffer make Vitalys last night as a civilian a tearful occasion for his grandmother. But hes a big confident lad and the party goes on till dawn.

Another more sobering meeting is with journalist Sergei Kurt-Adjiev. He works for Novaya Gazeta, one of the few publications that has refused to take the Government line. Sergei is subject to constant harassment by the police. Shortly after wed interviewed him he was hauled in for questioning and had his computer confiscated. Why dont you leave, asks Jonathan. His answer is chillingly simple: I have children here, grandchildren. I dont want them to live in a country of which I cannot be proud. Someone has to stay and fight.

On past Kazan the place where Ivan the Terrible finally smashed the rule of the Mongols towards Perm. Just beyond Perm is the site of one of the last camps for political prisoners. Jonathan meets a former inmate, Sergei Kovalev. He show him round the solitary confinement block and describes what it was like in the subzero winters. Jonathan finds someone has scrawled a date in the concrete 1986 Gorbachevs time.

His final stop is in the Ural Mountains, now a place popular with off-roaders and hunters. This is the boundary between Europe and Asia, between ancient Russia and the land empire they conquered stretching to the Pacific. Jonathan stands at the marker point and contemplates his next journey across Siberia.



Siberia is Russias treasure chest. When the first Cossacks ventured across the Urals in the 16th century, it was the lucrative fur trade they were after. But it wasnt long before other riches were found. Jonathan starts this journey in an emerald mine and then makes his way down to the great city of Ekaterinburg, built to protect and exploit reserves of iron ore found in the mountains. Its heavy industry turned out tanks and armaments during Soviet days and also spawned a great tradition of heavy metal music. Jonathan Dimbleby stops off at a nightclub to meet Vladimir Shakhrin, an icon of Ekaterinburg rock n roll.

Alcoholism is a huge problem in Russia, killing thousands every year, often because the only liquor they can afford is home-made poison sold on the estates in the sprawling suburbs of cities like Ekaterinburg. Jonathan goes on a raid with a crime-busting group founded by an ex-alcoholic. They nail one of the small fry an old lady who sells a few dozen bottles of illicit booze hidden in her kitchen.

But perhaps the reason why most outsiders have heard of Ekaterinburg is that this is the place where the last tsar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. In woods near the city he comes across an archaeologist who has just unearthed what he thinks are the bones of two of the imperial children.

The modern treasure on which Russia prospers is of course oil. Jonathan takes the train far north towards the Arctic Circle to Nizhnevartovsk where BP are co-owners of a huge oil field. Some of the workers roar round the town on big motorbikes, but the truth is most people just come for the wages. Theres not much to do up here besides drill for oil. The team then takes one of the great river boats on the next leg of their journey to the beautiful old city of Tomsk. In the absence of roads in the wilderness, river is often the only way to travel. This is underlined when they set out for the logging camps in the taiga north of Tomsk. In the summer months, as now, the frozen topsoil turns to deep mud and the only way to travel is in tank-like tracked carriers. Out in the forest he meets a climate change scientist who warns that vast quantities of methane gas are starting to seep out of the melting bogs potentially lethal to the worlds atmosphere.

Next stop, Akademgorodok. Its a purpose built city for some of the brainiest people in Russia. Jonathan finds himself trying to master the controls of a computer game designed by scientists whose day job is to design the guidance systems for spacecraft. Then, in glorious contrast, he heads into the Altai mountains to find the reindeer herdsmen who sell antlers to be ground up as aphrodisiacs. After dinner in their tented kitchen, he says goodbye only to find that the first snow of winter has fallen over night, and he needs their help again to get home.



It was a warmish winters day by Siberian standards (just 18 below) when Jonathan Dimbleby meets a Buryat shaman near the shores of Lake Baikal. Valentin Khagdaev takes him to a tree growing out of a rock in the wilderness.

The shamans holy place is a sharp contrast with busy streets of Irkutsk, the great trading city of eastern Siberia. Irkutsk has a problem: statistically, its AIDS epidemic is out of control. Jonathan follows one of the Red Cross teams who are struggling to manage a crisis by taking clean needles and condoms to high risk areas. The next day he takes a very special train on one of the most spectacular stretches of railway in the world. Its the original route of the Trans Siberian railway which threads its precarious way along the shores of Lake Baikal.

His next stop is Chita, where Mikhail Khorkovsky, the oligarch who fell foul of Putin, is thought to be held. In the nineteenth century the Tsars also consigned their enemies to exile here. The most famous were the aristocratic Decembrists who led a courageous but futile rebellion against the way the serfs were treated. Their memory is celebrated each year by the handful of people in Chita who have the same rebellious streak. By now Jonathan is traveling close to the Chinese border. The days when this was one of the most sensitive frontiers in the world have passed. The Chinese flood across to work and to sell the Russians the goods their own economy cant produce.

What the Chinese need in return are resources. Jonathan stops off at a gold mine in the middle of nowhere part owned, surprisingly, by a City gent from London. With the price of gold rocketing, the mine now produces three quarters of a million dollars worth a day! But its just a fraction of what mining is doing for this once almost derelict region. You sense a boom coming, particularly at Blagoveshchensk, the only Russian city within hailing distance of a brand new Chinese one on the other side of the border. Five years ago Heihe was little more than a few huts. Now its a vast glittering shopping centre accessed over the frozen River Amur by hovercraft.

Next stop, Birobidzhan arguably one of the strangest places in Russia a Jewish homeland created by Stalin at the furthest end of his empire. Not many Jews have survived there, but the people Jewish or not are proud of their unusual heritage. Jonathan finds Hanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights being jointly celebrated by the rabbi and the mayor. In the crowd are old men who have survived hardship and persecution to dream of better things to come.

And so to the Pacific Ocean and journeys end: Vladivostok. Jonathan meets some students in a caf. This far from Moscow will they feel any different from the chic young people he met in St Petersburg some ten thousand miles ago? Not really. They want a strong Russia before they want a democratic one. As he looks out over the Pacific Jonathan reflects on how charming and how different the Russians are from us.