Monday, 6 November 2017

From the Pacific to the Baltic:Travelling across Russia with Simon Reeve.

"Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." - Winston Churchill.

There's something about Simon Reeve's boyish enthusiasm, his willingness to get involved (witness his stay in a sanatorium on the Black Sea coast that, alongside exercise and asthma inhalers, involved having leeches applied to his bare stomach as a 'nurse' strokes them to encourage them to suck away 'bad blood'), and his undoubted passion for listening to the people he meets on his travels that means you just can't help warming to him - even as you go green with envy at the sheer cushiness of his job. Whether he's travelling round the tropics of Cancer or Capricorn, the edge of the Indian Ocean, taking a pilgrimage to Israel's Holy Land, or taking comparatively short hops round Ireland, Greece, or Turkey you'll probably find yourself wishing you were there with him, listening to The XX's Crystalised and VCR together on your iPods as you explore new lands.

On the centenary of 1917's Russian Revolution we find him tackling the largest country on Earth in an epic, at times possibly soul destroying, journey from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Russia is more than seventy times the size of the United Kingdom so his chances of bumping into Levison Wood who's also incorporated parts of Russia into a recent travelogue are slim to say the least.

When I describe Reeve's trek as "possibly soul destroying" I mean for him, not us. We get the pleasure of marvelling, from our armchairs, at the great beauty of this vast nation. Starting with the erupting volcanoes and beautiful snow covered mountains of Russia's far eastern Kamchatka peninsula, a land where fire meets ice and one that is a full nine hour flight from Moscow.

When Reeve arrives ice seems to be winning out against fire. It's -30 degrees and the tea with fish in it that the local reindeer herders are drinking doesn't look the most appetising winter warmer. In fact, the lichen the reindeer themselves are eating looks tastier. For the locals, and the reindeer, dietary concerns are the least of their problems. Here at the sharp edge of climate change reindeer are literally starving to death and it's a constant fight for the farmers to ensure they don't do the same.

So isolated is the Kamchatka peninsula there are no roads linking it to the rest of Russia so it's a lengthy, often bumpy, off road journey, to Vladivostok, the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, sometimes described as Russia's San Francisco. Along the way we get to stop off at the start of a sled race where mushers and Orthodox priests alike head off into the hinterland for a competition that lasts for three entire weeks.

Vladivostok is near to the Chinese (and the North Korean) border and that's almost definitely why Vladimir Putin has lifted the ban on gambling that extends over most of Russia for the city. The snappily named Integrated Entertainment Zone is Russia's largest casino building and there Reeve meets with Craig Valentine, a turf accountant from Dundee, for a night at the tables. Of course with the usual disclaimer, to stop the Daily Mail and the Daily Express getting their knickers in a twist, that no BBC money is being used for this.

While the Russians want the Chinese money, many of the Chinese want their land back. Parts of Russia once belonged to China but, after the Qing dynasty suffered a series of defeats to Western powers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were compelled to sign a variety of treaties handing over land to their victors. As nationalism and anti-imperialism has risen in China in the last hundred years these have become known as the 'unequal treaties' and, fuelled by the Chinese idea that their nation has suffered a 'Century of Humiliation', many now want balance restored. As China grows ever more powerful, and as the West squabbles amongst itself, the chances of this escalating shouldn't be overlooked.

When Reeve touches on geopolitics like this his shows are at their most interesting - and in Russia there's a lot of geopolitics to touch on. Putin's figure looms large all through his journey and it's hard to say, sometimes if Russia feels like a police state or if Russia, in fact, IS a police state. Reeve is regularly followed, hardly subtly, by unmarked cars, almost definitely belonging to the FSB. The FSB is The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (the acronym works in Russian), the successor organisation to the KGB, and responsible for counter intelligence, counter terrorism, border control, and, somewhat sinisterly, surveillance. It's believed the FSB employ a quarter of a million people so they're rarely short of someone to spy on a foreigner who might be asking too many questions. Even a seasoned traveller, with a presumably reasonably large film crew, like Simon Reeve allows himself to get the heebie jeebies about them as they make a very crude art form of harassment and general unfriendliness.

It must be quite a relief to ensconce one's self on the Trans-Siberian Express. With a length of over 9,000 kilometres it's the longest railway line in the world and they've not finished extending it yet. Although branches of it dip into China, North Korea, and Mongolia the Russian stretch alone covers seven different time zones, Russia has eleven different time zones in total. When people are starting work in Moscow they're clocking off in Vladivostok.

The train takes Reeve, and us, into the vastness of Siberia. Siberia alone covers one twelfth of the planet's entire land mass. If it was a country in its own right it would still be the biggest in the world by some margin as its nearly half the size again of Canada. The boreal forest of Siberia, the taiga, is bigger than the Amazon jungle and as befits such a large area the animals that live here are pretty big too. The tigers of the taiga are Earth's largest wild cats, they're half the length of a London bus.

These Siberian, also known as Amur, tigers are now threatened. Some locals do their best to protect them and in doing so they've worked up a fairly extensive knowledge of tiger behaviour. They can even tell by the bristly turds left behind by the tigers if they've eaten boar recently or not. The forest is being lost at a colossal rate, each year an area the size of Wales disappears as logs are sold to China so the Chinese can make products to sell to the United States. As the forest goes the boars go, and as the boars go the tigers go, and the amount of corruption inherent in today's Russia means ecological concerns can simply be bought off.

Yakutia, the coldest inhabited region on Earth, is, on its own, the size of India. Ice road truckers tell tales of driving in -55 degrees, the temperature in which steel breaks. In the tunnels beneathYakutsk, Yakutia's largest city and capital and the world's largest city built on permafrost, one's breath is quickly crystallised in the air. There are impressive ice sculptures of archers, elephants, and chess tables and there's even an ice bed should you find the nights a tad balmy. The Batagaika crater is a kilometre long gash in the Earth's surface, one hundred metres deep and growing, the 'megaslump' was caused by the thawing of the permafrost. As with the reindeer herders of Kamchatka, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth here becomes simply a truth, a potentially lethal truth.

Deeper still, considerably deeper, is Lake Baikal. In fact it's the deepest lake on the planet (normally some kind of qualifier is called for when making these claims but in Russia they're rarely necessary) plunging more than a mile down at its most extreme points. 20% of the world's fresh water resides in Lake Baikal.

Not far from Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is a pretty city. If you're a fan of onion domes and brightly painted architecture you won't go short here. Neither will you be left dissatisfied if it's parades that float your boat. Irkutsk's World War II Victory Day parade was made up of 40,000 marchers. In Moscow, where it's known as the March of the Immortal Regiment, Putin himself led twice that number through the streets.

It's just eighteen hours on the train from Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk and, on arrival, it's not as impressive a looking place. Industrial, polluted, and generally a bit grotty, it's the sort of city that'd have you heading to a bar fairly quickly. Although if that bar happened to be The President's Café you may find yourself feeling a little spooked out.

After wiping your feet on the American flag you enter a room absolutely festooned with images of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, he's everywhere. There's even more images of Putin in The President's Café then there are of bears - and there are a lot of bears there. Post-Soviet Russia was bedevilled by gang activity and Putin is, for the most part, given credit for cracking down on it - but did he? Or did he just happen to lead the biggest, most effective, and most corrupt gang of all? If you keep your head down and don't question authority in Russia today you can get by, just, but if you start to look like a problem then punishment can be brutal and fast. Just ask Pussy Riot.

Perhaps it's no wonder some have retreated to vaguely semi-autonomous mountain communities. Russia's large enough to have loads of these but the one Reeve takes us to seems to consist mainly of disaffected intelligentsia seeking answers they can't get in modern Russia. Shown round by a retired rock star the place, initially, looks idyllic. People have learnt to build their own houses, there's no smoking, no drinking spirits, and even no swearing (if you're daft enough to be offended by that) but it soon becomes clear this isn't so much a commune as a cult.

The people here are followers of Vissarion. They believe Vissarion is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and they call him the teacher. While their singing, their churches, and their robes are as beautiful as the surrounding forests and lakes, the upbringing of their children leaves a lot to be desired. All children are raised to unquestionably worship Vissarion and the girls are taught to be shy and weak and accept that males should hold all power.

Reeve, quite astoundingly, is granted an audience with Vissarion himself. Vissarion is a 56 year old former traffic safety officer who claims to have been reborn in 1990, a year after losing his job. He talks in metaphor and deflects any awkward questions or, in fact, any questions at all with a sinister beatific smile. In exchange for the 'hope' he gives his followers they give him their labour and their money. It's as obvious a cult as anything you've ever seen and it's one of many in Russia.

Russia, it's often said, loves great leaders. From the Tsars to Stalin to Putin and Vissarion, putting faith in these men seems to be second nature to generations of Russians and, looking from the outside, it doesn't seem to have served them well. It's worrying that elsewhere, with a particularly prominent example currently in the White House, others are beginning to look for answers in the same disastrous places.

Snow covered roads dotted with crashed juggernauts lead to the grassy plains of the Eurasian steepe and our next stop is Tuva. Tuva was once part of Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in human history, and it looks to me very much like Mongolia. The amazing outfits, the breaking of horses, and the distinct sound of Tuvan throat singing all mark it out as a very singular place indeed.

In similarity to a lot of the rest of Russia though there's a huge problem with alcohol. 30% of all deaths in Russia are attributed to alcohol and Tuva has Russia's highest rate of people committing crime due to alcohol abuse as well as Russia's highest murder rate. The government's policy of stiffly increasing prices on booze has just led to an explosion in the making, and availability, of potentially deadly bootleg moonshine.

Reeve buys a bottle in Tuva's capital Kyzyl and even he's not prepared to try it. It could have anything in it. It could kill and, in Russia, it often does. The problem is compounded exponentially by the fact that many small towns in Russia have no medical infrastructure whatsoever. As with the alcohol there is always someone willing to supply the demand and, again as with the alcohol, they may not be the most trustworthy of types. We see an alcoholic being ordered to pray to a stuffed bear to cure his condition. It seems that such quackery and demented shamanistic surgery thrives when people are desperate and the state are unable, or unwilling, to help.

Stavropol feels much wealthier than Kyzyl. Founded by Prince Grigory Potemkin as a fortress at the request of Catherine the Great, many Don Cossacks settled there and became defenders of the Russian empire and military enforcers of the Tsarist regime. The post-Revolution years were not particularly kind to the Cossacks but after decades of Communist suppression Putin is now funding Cossack schools. The Cossack values of faith and militarism tie in very neatly with those of the President.

The coal face, though, for the Russian military in recent decades has been in the Caucasus, in Chechnya and Dagestan, the land of the mountains, where Dagestanis are still engaged in sporadic fighting with Islamist insurgents using Kalashnikovs. Dagestan has one of the highest rates of terror attacks anywhere in the world so it's a bizarre, if welcome, piece of light relief when we stumble across a troupe of extraordinary talented tightrope walkers practicing their moves in a pass by the roadside.

Even more newsworthy, and just as war torn, of late has been the Crimean peninsula that juts spectacularly out into the Black Sea. Only Russia sees the Crimean frontier as an internal border, elsewhere it's widely viewed an illegal annexation, though, as with most things, it's not as straightforward as it first seems. Crimea was historically part of Russia until, during the days of the USSR, it was handed over to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 for reasons that seem somewhat unclear.

What is clear is that that decision has caused a lot of problems since the break up of the Soviet Union. Many in Crimea fly Russian flags and fully support the annexation but Oleg, a Russian patriot himself, looks back to the Ukrainian times as civilised and fears that Russia, under Putin, is going back to Soviet ways and dragging Crimea with it. Ukraine, in retaliation, has turned off the taps to Russia and Crimea is struggling for water.

Both the German army and the Soviet army, in the past, attempted, and failed, to build a bridge across the Strait of Kerch, where the Black Sea narrows into the Sea of Azov, from Crimea to Krasnodar Krai in Russia proper. Putin is determined to finish the job and he's handed the commission to one of his old judo sparring partners who, for some reason, all seem to be heads of hugely successful companies.

Oleg isn't just a maverick when it comes to political commentary. His day job is running a safari park where he, either bravely or insanely, wanders freely among the lions and even chases them round their enclosure. Many of the animals (and they're big 'uns:- giraffes, bears, camels) have been rescued from Russian homes. Some Russians like their pets to be as strong as their leaders and you can even buy tiger cubs on the Internet in Russia.

Another eccentric is Vladimir, a jovial farmer who distils alcohol from goat's cheese. Unlike Oleg he's bought in to the lie of the strong leader and believes Russia, by her very nature, can do no wrong. It's the sort of wrongheaded patriotism that has brought Trump to power and is bringing Brexit to pass. A belief that the nation of your birth is simply good (or great) by design and not because the people who were born there, or have chosen to make it their own home, do good (or great) things. It's idiocy writ large and it's, quite frankly, terrifying.

While it makes a great song and dance about taking power from the elite or the experts in reality the politics of nationalism and division does the exact opposite. It creates a two tier system where more and more money and power is shared among an often corrupt group of leaders and everyone else is forced to fight for breadcrumbs under the table. You can see it in Moscow, a city of 12,000,000 people, where there are traffic lanes set aside solely for the use of government officials, bankers, and their 'friends'. If that's one of the most visible examples of corruption and inequality its far from the worst.

Many in Moscow live in khrushchyovkas, low cost concrete or brick apartment buildings constructed when Nikita Khrushchev was in power and named for him too. Swathes of them are now being demolished and a population greater than that of Leeds will be forcibly relocated. Resident Natalya says what's happening "resembles fascism" and we see film of her being arrested while carrying out a peaceful, and legal (due to her being the sole person there) protest against the destruction of her block. When we meet her she's been forced to quit her job and she's awaiting her trial (or, more likely, trials) with no little trepidation. Russian courts have a 99% conviction rate.

On the journey from Moscow to St Petersburg you cross the Volga, foklorically the lifeblood of the country but now, just a few hours north of Moscow, virtually abandoned. Farm buildings stand empty as the younger generation have moved to the city where they can work in an office and have a decent internet connection. Since the end of Communism roughly three Russian villages are abandoned, possibly forever, every single day.

Those that choose to remain are confronted with a serious lack of infrastructure and, understandably, look back to the Soviet times as a golden age. Russia, amongst the world's major economies, is the most unequal country in the world and you can see why the appeal of Communism and collectivisation is there for many. In fact it's what created the Soviet Union a century ago in the first place.

Putin was born in St Petersburg and that's where we end our journey. There's no little irony that this most anti-Western of Russian leaders was born and raised in a city that was built and designed to make Russia look more European. The Venice of the North was Peter the Great's way of impressing, of making those in London, Paris, and Rome take note.

These days both Putin, and the Orthodox church who seem to do a fair bit of his bidding for him, promote homophobia and ugly nationalism alongside their anti-Western sentiment. In the former Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum, you'd expect that this year of all years there'd be something on to mark the Revolution but there's virtually nothing.

Today's Russia doesn't really know how to handle its history. They don't want to promote rebellion but equally they don't want to dismiss the idea of strong leaders like Lenin and even Stalin (along with Mao and Hitler one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century) so they just do nothing. A commentator remarked only the other day that in some ways the Russian Revolution hasn't finished yet. Watching Simon Reeve's wonderful three part series on this most enigmatic of countries you might find yourself asking if even the era of Tsars has finished yet, if Putin may be, in everything but name, the new Tsar and one far more powerful than Nicholas II and the latter day Romanov dynasty ever were. It's enough to make you turn to vodka.

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