It’s 1am. I don’t necessarily have an early day tomorrow but still most reasonable people are asleep somewhere by now. I, however, did not feel like sleeping. No, I felt like watching something interesting. Clicked on BBC iPlayer to see if they have uploaded anything worth watching. To my surprise there is a programme about Russia. As a Russian man, not necessarily patriotic but at the same time not necessarily apathetic about its plight, I thought it would be reasonable to spend an hour watching a well made BBC programme about my motherland. I was wrong. ”Russia On Four Wheels” is one hour and 45 minutes of my life I will not get back. The programme itself is actually 60 minutes, however, I had to rewind many times because I simply could not believe what I was seeing and hearing; moments of levity in gulags, jovial interviews with veterans who fought at Stalingrad, mispronunciation of Russian words and much much worse.
Now you may think I’m a bit harsh with the mispronunciation. You’ll exclaim ‘Oh it’s a Cyrillic alphabet and it’s hard to master.’ And I agree with you. In fact, that was my first thought at the 30 second mark, as part of a taster of what was coming up in the series, Justin Rowlatt (not twat, I checked) looks at the ‘CCCP’ stamp on a car engine and, without a hint of sarcasm, says ‘Cee-Cee-Cee-Pee’ ‘USSR’.
That was the first time I rewound back. 59 minutes and 30 seconds left. At the 5.30 mark this moment is expanded on. Again I hear the excited voice of Justin Rowlatt; ‘Cee-Cee-Cee-Pee’. But now; ‘Cee-Cee-Cee-Pee’, Justin looks up at the camera and says knowingly ‘USSR, USSR’.
He just translated it.
That is when all my polite hesitations turned into disbelief. Justin, as he was reading out ‘Cee-Cee-Cee-Pee’, clearly thought to himself that he was reading out the acronym in Russian and therefore needed to translate it, for the benefit of the idiots at home. I couldn’t believe it. ‘No!’ I thought to myself, surely it was said so to humorously highlight how people from different countries impose their linguistic presumptions.
But then why would you translate it?
Why would you not go on to say ‘S-S-S-ER’ and THEN translate it?
Now, I had no idea who Justin Rowlatt was until this programme, but I was very quickly beginning to realise that he may have been just about the worst person to ask to do a programme about a country which is so physically, socially scarred and repressed. His jovial attitude, while of course a prerequisite of presenting a television programme, is completely at odds with the content. The man simply has no register.
As he walks into Stalin’s ominously green Villa in Sochi, his own voiceover ticks off Stalin’s atrocities. ‘Under his rule millions died, many of them executed as enemies of State.’ Then once in Stalin’s office he points at a waxwork of Stalin and, like a child in M&M’s world, gleefully says ‘there’s uncle Joe himself.’ Whilst the voiceover continues to narrate Stalin’s reign of terror, skipping over Collectivisation, Justin, being a bit ‘naughty’, goes and puts on Stalin’s coat. As he parades around the office he remarks with a grin ‘makes me feel like a great dictator’. His voiceover just finished stating how tens of millions of people died.
The fact that I have focussed so much upon Justin just shows you how the other presenter’s contribution, the perpetually astounded Anita Rani, is completely forgettable. Having watched the programme twice all I remember about Anita’s half is that she was in a shiny car, kept saying how everything was really big and then went shopping.
In the second half of the programme, the tone of moves from ignorance to pure offensive.
Justin, having travelled to a gulag in Perm, has grown a beard. The cynical in me assumes it is to appear more haggard so as to better blend in with his surroundings and content of narration. His voice again ticks off the atrocities committed ‘dissidents, human rights activists and journalists…were sent here’.
Justin lying on a bare wooden bench inside camp. For that second (literally a second) he looks pensive, perhaps thinking of something to say which may sound profound or even merely reflecting on the truly awful circumstances the camp’s involuntary occupiers were in. And then…
“Tired, hungry, and a bit unshaven, I felt a bit like an inmate myself.”
More rewinding. More disbelief. I was speechless. I thought it couldn’t get worse. I thought this programme couldn’t get more crass, more insensitive or offensive. You see where I’m going…
As buildup to the grand finale of inanity, Anita interviews one of the member’s of Pussy Riot. Having concluded the ‘interview’, Anita leans against a wall to reflect upon the encounter. This is 56 minutes into a 60 minute programme and Anita says ‘For the first time on my journey I am hearing the voice of dissent…from that I take it she means that far from this country moving towards democracy, it’s actually going back!”
Last four minutes and she decides to glaze over what is essentially the most important point in today’s Russia. But as I said, that’s just the build up.
57 minutes into a 60 minute programme Justin thinks it’s a good time to call Anita and see how she is doing. He decides that the best place to call Anita is from a ‘punishment cell’ inside a gulag. I’ll repeat that: He decides that the best place to call Anita is from a ‘punishment cell’ inside a gulag. Amusingly, Anita picks up the phone in a massive shopping centre with a massive chocolate cake in front of her. Whilst it is obvious this is an editorial attempt to highlight the polarity of Russian history and culture it is done so with the panache of an 11 year old who is convinced he has learnt all that can be learnt about Russia from a tweet.
Before you ask, yes, of course it get’s worse. Anita, having crassly stated she is sitting in the ‘lap of luxury’ and ‘couldn’t be better’ asks Justin where he is. When he replies he is in a punishment cell in a gulag, with the level of excitement someone might have having just bedded a model, Anita in turn smiles and giggles as if Justin just explained to her why the chickens crossed the road.
In the end the telephone exchange perfectly crystallised the tone this programme took; a lighthearted reaction to human