Who doesn’t love to immerse themselves in a good travelogue?
After a day spent battling mindless-rushing commuters and immutable deadlines at work, with no prospect of leaving, Peter Paul and Mary-like, on a jet plane for anywhere exotic anytime soon, there is something inordinately appealing about seeing somewhere beyond your apartment or train station.
It’s even better, of course, when you have a presenter as intelligent and considered as Simon Reeve, a British TV presenter and author who has taken us, prior to his considerable jaunt across Russia, to the likes of Burma, Turkey, across the Indian Ocean and through the Caribbean among many other fascinating places in our oft-troubled and always-fascinating world.
What makes Reeve’s documentaries such a pleasure to watch is that he never approaches a location on its superficial merits alone, as apt to tackle trenchant political, environmental or social issues as he is to gaze breathlessly at stunning scenery.
In fact, he is usually more apt to do that; the magic is that he manages to do this and still find time to look around him in awe and wonder with no hint of the ennui or cynicism he must sometimes feel at encountering another country, which like so everything on blighted planet earth, is never quite as pretty as the picture once you start scratching below the surface.
That is his true genius I think, and it’s once again on appealing show in Russia with Simon Reeve which bravely remarks upon the kleptocracy governing the country, the cults, alcoholism, rampant, religiously-laced nationalism and lack of tolerance for dissent of any kind while still noting how warm and friendly most Russian people are, how beautiful the countryside is and how much the largest nation on the planet has to offer.
He has, of course, been attacked for his troubles by a Russian propaganda apparatus that equates any kind of critique, however well-researched, discussed and balanced, as traitorous, unwilling to countenance weakness or flaw, and vehemently opposed, if they admit they exist at all, to understanding why they’re there.
The pity here is that many of the ills bedevilling Russia, as indeed any country, usually have long and deep roots and might be effectively tackled if such an acknowledgement of their existence and their toot cause.
Fortunately for us, not so much for officials with their heads in the sand, Reeve always takes the time, well as much as three-episode travelogue that crisscrosses the country’s vast expanse allows, to dissect an issue in a way that understands where it came from, not simply that it exists.
This means that when he reaches the Caucasus Mountains and visits one of the many cults that dot the region and are populated by traumatised people who sought an escape from the immediate post-Soviet period when Russia was in chaotically-violent flux, he doesn’t simply cursorily examine how it is that some 1/2 million Russians have chosen to live this way.
He is similarly willing to dig beneath the surface when he arrives on Russia’s vast western plains upon which sits mighty Moscow and the glories of St. Petersburg and discovers a de-populated countryside where reportedly three villages a day are blinking out of existence.
Noting, 100 years after the Russian Revolution (the series was filmed and originally broadcast in 2017) that the Soviet era ideal of collective farms and work and food for all has given way to isolation and urbanisation, he talks to people who have found themselves marooned in history as the Russia they knew changes out of all recognition.
While his narrative often contains commentary of some kind, in keeping with a thoughtful mindset that often ruminates on the day we do to the environment around us and to out societies, his interactions with the people he encounters are always free of any kind of dissection, although it’s clear at times, especially when he’s dealing with people in power, and there are many of those in Russia, that he is incredulous at the damage people are willing to do to their fellow citizens.
What emerges from his journey from Kamchatka in Russia’s snowy-cold and under-populated far east through cities like Irkutsk and St Peterburg where he meets a martial arts teacher who is as much Orthodox Church zealot as sportsman, the two conflated by the country’s Putin-inspired rabid nationalism (which is on full show at one cafe in Irkutsk which is basically a living breathing propagandist shrine to Putin) is that Russia is a very complex, multi-layered country indeed.
As Reeve observes for all the strides forward onto the global stage, for its prodigious resources-led economic growth and its hospitable people (save for the police who go to great lengths to hinder the presenter’s ability to film social and environmental ills, many wrought by cronies close to Putin) and stunningly-beautiful scenery, Russia is a country beset, like most places in the world, with a great many ills, many of which Putin won’t even admit because they don’t the picture of perfect propaganda.
Russia with Simon Reeve is, in keeping with his catalogue of thoughtful, insightful catalogue, a pleasing mix of travelogue and biting social commentary which never once loses sight of the human element which is always at the heart of the presenter’s travels.
If you like your travelogues to be escapist but considered, if you want to glory in scenery but then be shown, warts and all, the lives of those who inhabit it with empathy (and criticism when needed, usually for those in power) and genuine concern, Russia with Simon Reeve is a must-watch, a nuanced addition to Reeve’s canon which reminds us that the world is equally capable of wonder and concern that you can hold both in the palm of your presenting hand and still offer up a gloriously-engrossing journey that is never less than fascinating.