For his latest venture, broadcaster and writer Jonathan Dimbleby heads to Russia for a new book and BBC TV series. Dimbleby crosses eight time zones and covers 10,000 miles, from Murmansk in the Arctic Circle to the Asian City of Vladivostok, with the aim of getting under the skin of modern Russia.
He was the only British television journalist to interview President Gorbachev during the Cold War, and he returns to Russia for the first time since those days. For Jonathan, crossing Russia became as much an interior journey as an exterior one, with great turbulence in his personal life as well as on a stormy White Sea in a “tub of a boat” manned by a drunken skipper…
Could you sum up what your main aim was with the journey through Russia?
Everyone has an idea about Russia, lots of people have seen pictures of or have been to Moscow and St Petersburg, not many people have had the chance to get behind the headlines about Russia and get under the surface. So my ambition was to discover the Russia people don’t know about, because I believe that that’s the real Russia. It’s a very, very large country so it meant a long journey and I didn’t know what I’d find nor what I’d think about it. It was an exhilarating prospect but a very daunting one as well.
Because there was a combination of personal and professional reasons you decided to embark on the journey?
Yes, in order to do it I gave up my weekly political television programme on ITV and I was giving that up, partly for personal reasons, because I wanted to be home at the weekends with my wife, and partly because I felt I couldn’t miss this opportunity. You don’t often get an opportunity to make five films and write a big book about a very important country, and I thought if I turn it down, I’ll live to regret it, I’ll kick myself. It was a challenging journey, partly because I was under various very powerful emotions as well as the normal challenges of trying to understand a complicated place and people.
So what extra dimensions do you think your state of mind added to this journey?
I think it made me look more closely. It made me think about the psychology of Russia because I was dealing with my own psychological challenges. It in some ways made it much more difficult because you are taking long journeys, 15-, 20-, 30-hour train journeys, or in the back of an elderly van for hour after hour on not fantastically good roads. And sometimes in the morning I would wake up and think, “Do I really want to go on with this?” I’m envious of the Ranulph Fiennes’ of this world who go out of their way to seek adventure and danger. I’ve experienced both – reporting from dangerous places – but I don’t go out of my way to find it.
I’m a bit of a home bird, so it was a challenge because I had to tear myself away from home, and I think that because I was in quite a stressed state, it made the adventure more difficult than it might otherwise have been. But I think it meant that once I’d galvanised myself, I did really try and engage with the people I met and I found that the real delight – once you’d consumed rather more vodka than you would normally – you could really get beneath that carapace, and explore people’s feelings and thoughts.
People were very, very open. I’d been used to Russia before the fall – the soviet Russia where no one could speak openly or freely and people were very distrustful – and it was a great delight this time to know that you could have an open conversation.
So in general did you find it a welcoming reception from people?
It was very odd. A lot of the receptions were entirely indifferent. Because we were doing it with the film teams as well, people were quite indifferent to the presence of film cameras, which was interesting – I thought people would be more curious. There was a tendency to stare through you, not because they necessarily saw through you but as if you weren’t really there.
It was rather touching when I came across journalists who are in a very difficult situation in Russia – if they write freely, if they say what they want, they very easily lose their jobs, and some of them, at an alarming degree, suffer persecution and get killed. They all wanted to know what it was like to work in a society where journalism and reporters were free, and it was rather touching that people would ask me, “What do you think of our town?”, “What do you think of our city?”, everywhere I went, that was the question. They were much more interested to know what I thought of Russia than to ask me about the rest of the world. I think that’s a mixture of insecurity, vulnerability and huge patriotic pride. And strong sense of place: “This is our little bit of land”.
Did you notice a profound difference from one side of the country to the other?
On the surface, no, because one of the effects of the Russian expansion, followed by the Soviet expansion, is that many of the cities look very similar and actually rather dreary, with neo-classical buildings and ‘60s housing estates. And now, because it’s the free market, it’s rather like you can get in this country – an awful lot of the same shops in marginally different streets. So there isn’t that sense of diversity. But when you get beneath that surface, yes there is a real diversity.
The Caucasus is very different from Russia; the Altai Mountains, which are further east, are very different. In Siberia, there’s a completely different atmosphere in towns like Tomsk or Chita, further to the east, and Vladivostok seems to belong to a different world. And psychologically I think people there do – you can be easily misled into not detecting this, because everyone speaks Russian, and because everyone, with the exception of small pockets, are loyal, patriotic Russians first, but there was a big diversity in people’s approach to life. Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian soviet leader in the ‘50s, used to say that Vladivostok should be Russia’s San Francisco. It is built on hills – you can see how it might be.
But people in Vladivostok are not interested in Russia; here they say, “We have a real community, we really live together. We also see lots of people come in and out here through the centuries because we’re a big port on the Pacific Ocean. In Moscow, it’s nothing except a big, money-making marketplace”, and they have quite a lot of disdain for Moscow.
In the Caucasus, you have people who say very clearly, “We are not Russian, we come from Dagestan”, or Chechnya or any of the other republics, and I’d ask, “Well if people don’t know where these places are, Kabardino-Balkaria for instance, what do you say?” They’d say, “Well we say we’re from the Caucasus – we’re Caucasian people.”
“You never call yourself Russian?” I’d ask. “Absolutely not.” And in truth, they look with suspicion at Russia and very often avoid going into Russia, as they see it, because the Russians tend to regard them as inferior – in casual conversation, people refer to people of the Caucasus as ‘blacks’, in the same ways in America the whites in the south used to call black people ‘niggers’. There’s quite a lot of racism.
There’s a unifying church, but there’s diversity of religions as well – old animist faiths, sort of intriguing, like a strong belief in mysticism, in witchcraft, that there are elves and spirits in the forest. These beliefs go right back and they’ve survived everything that’s been thrown at Russia, not least Stalinism and soviet unionists who tried to destroy religion, in fact it was banned in Russia. Now it’s flourishing again.
There’s another diversity, which is between the rich and the poor. You have a huge gulf between the oligarchs who have more money than they need, and poverty in parts of the towns and cities and in the rural areas that makes Russia seem really backward, almost like a third world country. You have peasant farmers using horses and carts or bicycles to get about… who don’t have cars, don’t have running water – they draw their water from wells – who live without any form of gas heating, although Russia is the massive supplier of gas to Europe. So it’s diverse in a very unattractive way because of this huge gulf between the rich and poor.
It’s diverse in its landscape – you’ve got three layers of landscape really. And that means that the landscape and the topography are so different, you go for thousands of miles and it’s completely flat with forest, and elsewhere you can travel thousands of miles and it’s completely flat with bare landscape, and elsewhere you’ve got mountains and lakes, and that was a revelation to me as I’d never seen anything like this.
Do you think you showed some clichés about Russia now don’t exist?
I think some of the clichés – as often with clichés – are true. There is a tendency to be quite abrupt in a way that we would often find rude – people aren’t extensively open, they’re reserved. And there are good reasons for that. The clichés of Russia’s tendency to distrust, its tendency towards autocracy, which is a very deep and growing and very disconcerting tendency, its aversion to democratic principals, maybe clichés but are true. And I think it’s truer than people would like to accept outside Russia.
There is a deep authoritarian streak and a deep fatalistic streak that runs through the Russian psyche. And you can understand why – wars, turmoil, revolution, repression, unbelievable upheavals as communism gave way to a raw form of market capitalism. All of these and all of the insecurities and uncertainties and dangers that that created, means that people on the whole are not optimistic. They live for today; they don’t think long-term because they never know what’s going to be round the next corner, so there’s very little systematic planning.
I think more important than the clichés, there’s a truth in the characteristics that maybe haven’t been explored. The Russia we know – it’s always the great paradox – has produced some of the most wonderful literature, great philosophical writing, music to die for, and yet on the other hand there’s an image of a country where people have not ever experienced the enlightenment. Although Russians are completely free to go where they want around the world, if you say to them, “Do you travel very freely?” They say, “Of course I do, I can go wherever I want in the world. Yes, we live in a dictatorship but that doesn’t matter; I’m free to do what I want so long as I don’t cause a problem.”
Did you have fears yourself before setting off?
I didn’t really have fears that anything nasty would happen to me. Since writing the book, I’ve sometimes thought, “Am I going to get a cup of polonium in my coffee?”. But mostly I don’t think I count enough – I’m not a threat to the Russian state, even though I’m very, very critical of the state.
I felt more threatened by the everyday dangers that Russians ignore – we get much too hung up here on health and safety so we end up not being able to do anything – it’s exactly the opposite [in Russia]. There’s virtually no health and safety – whether you’re in the streets with people building above and potentially dropping concrete blocks on your head… driving on roads where the old adage ‘live today because tomorrow you might die’ has been turned on its head and drivers seem to say, “Let’s die today because we might have to live tomorrow”. Through to a feeling that “What they do, the people in charge, there’s nothing much we can do about that, we just get on with our own lives and look after our family”. So there’s quite a good sense of family cohesion but not much sense of what kind of society do they want to be.
So what was your most frightening moment?
My most frightening moment without question was on the White Sea in a storm. I could see the weather was bad on the way there, because I sail, and no sailor enjoys rough weather. We were going by a passenger boat in the region called Russian Karelia, across the notorious White Sea to an island called Solovki, which is both a holy site and was also the first prison of the Gulag system, so there were a lot of people going there to see it – both pilgrims and tourists. The weather was blowing up and the little boats weren’t able to go, therefore everyone got onto the bigger boat. It was terribly overloaded with people – it should’ve taken perhaps 100, 150 and there were 250 people onboard. This was a tub of a boat. Before long the wind had really got up, the sky had become black and there were big, bubbling, boiling seas, with waterspouts either side.
I got really scared, and when you’re really scared, you apply a kind of courage to say something must be done, so I went up to the wheelhouse skidding and sliding, with someone from my team to translate for me, opened the door, staggering – like in one of those war movies – into the wheelhouse. There was the skipper looking relentlessly to the front and all I could see was these great white waves breaking for eternity. He didn’t take any notice of me. I said, “We’re overloaded, this ship ought to turn back to port. It’s not safe.” He completely ignored me.
I looked across and there was the first mate who was the only other seaman on board, who was paralytic, clearly vodka-ed out of his mind and just stood there looking into the middle distance. I knew there would be no chance if we turned over of anyone getting into a life raft. Three times I tried to get this guy at the wheel to even respond and the third time he responded contemptuously, “I am staying on this course”.
I then left and by this time passengers were crossing themselves and singing what appeared to me to be Russian versions of ‘Abide with me’. Our film gear was sliding backwards and forwards across the decks, sprayed with water and rain. I was dressed in a white summer suit so I just froze. Everyone was sheltered to the leeside of the boat, so I said, “Look, we’re tipping at this angle, you must come up to the windward side!” some people moved for a bit but it was obviously too unpleasant and so back they went. So I, with about three other people, went up to the windward side in a forlorn attempt to balance this boat, which of course made no difference at all, I just got extremely cold and very wet and very frightened and thought, “I do not want to end my life on the White Sea.”
When I got to the other end, I was pretty drained and pretty cross about it and I thought, “Yeah, sometimes health and safety is not a bad thing!” But the worst part of it all was that some faithful woman from the monastery that was there, a Russian Orthodox believer, said to me, “You shouldn’t have worried you know, if God wanted your soul, he would’ve have taken it, and he hasn’t, so he doesn’t want it yet.” And I thought, “Thank you very much! That’s really encouraging. He may want my soul, but I don’t know if he’s even there, let alone whether I want to give it to him!”
So did you ever think, that’s it, I’m going to pack it in and go home?
There were occasions when I didn’t want to go back – because I did the journeys in sections – and there were times when I jolly nearly did pack it in, actually. And that may seem rather weak and feeble, but I now regard that I have enough strength at least to say, “I’m not going to succumb to this”, and I was supported by close friends and family and my wife saying, “Come on, it’ll be alright.” I found myself from time to time quite severely on the edge of a depression, which made it sometimes quite difficult to get out of bed in the morning.
That did colour my perspective, which is why I explained it, because I think in a book you have to be true to your reader. It’s somehow different in television, because you can’t moan your way through a television programme – I don’t, I hope, moan my way through this book, but because there’s so much more space you can have a paragraph here or there where I’m squaring with the reader: “This was a pretty rough day”. I think that if you don’t do that, in a way you’re slightly short-changing the reader about your journey…and I wanted the reader to know how I felt on that journey. I think readers quite like that really; they like to be able to feel that in that respect you can be trusted and you’re not pulling the wool over their eyes.
How do you balance writing for a book and presenting for the TV programme?
Well the writing of the book feels a much more private occupation, though of course you’re sharing it with readers. Probably a much more intense way of people [watching you] on the television. In the book you can explore so much more, you’ve got more time. I loved writing it because I was able to explore more, so it’s an absolute journey. I had reflections and thoughts about what I came across, and I pick up on things that people tell me and then explore them for myself, whether it’s history, culture, music, politics, literature…
I feel quite strongly that writers like Tolstoy and Lermontov really understood Russia and the Russia of today as well as they did the Russian psyche and the Russia of the 19th century, so it’s very helpful to me to read those 19th-century writers as a way of opening the door into the 21st century. I hope that in the book it’s a shared journey, which in some parts is a raw and painful journey for me.
But for the most part I hope it illuminates Russia and the people who make up Russia in a way that will give greater understanding. It may confirm prejudices, I hope however that it will also create an empathy for the people of Russia and that understanding I hope will encourage people to treat Russia not with a clichéd disdain on the one hand or a wild-eyed romanticism on the other, but a real sense of what a real place is like with real people in it.
And how would you rate Russia in general as a travel destination? How easy is it to travel round?
It’s not as difficult to travel in practical terms as I’d thought it would be. It is opening up, there are more roads, and some of the roads are better. The links as you go further away from Moscow are much more difficult. Planes are unreliable. I don’t mean that they fall out of the sky – although I’m always fearful that they will – I hate flying, they fall out of the sky now rather less than they used to, but they will somehow be arbitrarily cancelled. There’s great competition between the airlines but it doesn’t actually seem to improve the punctuality.
The trains are my favourite form of travel – I like the trundling along for long journeys, looking out on the often unchanging landscape, the trains leave on time and they arrive on time. They allow themselves plenty of time to get there, so you often stop in the middle of nowhere for half an hour because they’re getting there too early.
Russia is laced by waterways – you could actually do the whole of Russia – which would appeal to me, as long as I could avoid the White Sea! The network of rivers allows you to have the most wonderful journeys. If you’ve got time to make the journey, then most certainly travelling on the ground is very rarely boring. I would not advise anyone to just to stay on the Trans-Siberian; I think they’d be missing opportunities.
I actually enjoyed the process of travelling. And on the trains you can have lots of casual conversations, as you’re cocooned on a train and people can be quite friendly. And there are bar cars, where the vodka gets you a long way.
What would you say was the highlight of your trip?
I would have to say going to the estate where Leo Tolstoy was born and where he wrote ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘War and Peace’, and other major works. The estate and house are still there, wonderfully preserved inside how it was when he lived there and died in 1910. You get a real spirit of the place when you walk into the fields and the forest. We visited his grave, just a simple mound of grass. I think he was one of the great men of all time.
There were other things that were somehow more exciting or more immediately wonderful, like seeing Lake Baikal for the first time, which is one of the wonders of the world, the deepest oldest lake in the world. Sitting in a natural sulphur spring bath, in my underpants which gave me the veneer of respectability, with elderly matrons and others who were sitting there turning into prunes because of the sulphur and coming out reeking of sulphur but having the most wonderful conversation in the meantime. And I did that because Lermontov, Tolstoy and Pushkin had all been in these baths.
By the time I got towards the end of the journey, I wanted it to go on. I’d reached the point of feeling at peace with Russia more or less and with myself, and I could have quite enjoyed going on. But I still don’t know whether that was because it was the end of the journey, or whether it was because I really wanted it to go on! And I would of course recommend people to see Russia, but don’t have your expectations too high. It’s difficult. It’s easy to get lonely and feel unloved and you have to make quite an effort. If you make the effort, it could be very rewarding.
Would you go back?
I wouldn’t do the same journey again, but I’m fantastically glad I’ve done the journey. I never say I wouldn’t go back anywhere. There are some places I would go back to before I went back to Russia. But yes, I’d go back.
You mention Africa at the end of this book, is that the next plan?
Well that was a sort of folly of the moment because on the airport TV screens, I was watching [Jeremy] Clarkson and his fellow boy racers driving spectacularly through a salt pan in Africa. In my mind, I’d already left Russia and I saw that – I love parts of Africa and have spent quite a lot of time there over the years – and I suddenly thought, what if I did the equivalent and travelled from Cairo to Cape Town, finding my way and doing a similar kind of project? The African continent that people don’t really know. We have all seen the headlines – and they’re pretty desperate headlines very often – but there’s much more to Africa than the headlines. So yes, if I could tear myself away from my darling wife and my darling little daughter, I think I would do that. But I’ve got to wait for someone to ask me to do it first!
- Buy Russia – A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People by Jonathan Dimbleby online here.