My favorite episodes of Top Gear are the ones where Jeremy, Hamster and Captain Slow take interesting and unusual cars on long road trips in exotic locations. Another BBC production, Russia on Four Wheels, follows basically the same formula: hosts Justin Rowlatt and Anita Rani take two very different vehicles and take them to very different parts of the world’s largest, and in many ways most mysterious country.
They certainly chose the right machinery for the trip. Rowlatt takes a Brezhnev-era UAZ military jeep into Russia’s agricultural heartland, to the awesome Volga River and the outskirts of Siberia. Meanwhile, for her trip through more prosperous, industrialized regions, Rani drives a hilariously insane armor-plated Kombat truck – basically an armored personnel carrier with leather seats. This thing is exactly what you’d picture a flamboyant, slightly sinister Russian oligarch using as his daily driver.
The trip isn’t as irreverent as Top Gear, of course, but it’s a very interesting and beautifully filmed look at the country that will host the Winter Olympics this month. (Both road trips start in Sochi, host city for the winter games, yet a place warm enough for lemon trees to grow). A portrait emerges of a country where many have achieved prosperity – some, almost unimaginable wealth – but much of which is still recovering from 70 years of communism and another decade-plus of total chaos.
Rani definitely gets the easier ride, visiting newly wealthy entrepreneurs, a modern VW factory and Moscow’s GUM shopping arcade, where you can drop the equivalent of £100,000.00 on a fur coat. But Rowlatt’s excursion in his little UAZ (which runs most of the time) is arguably more interesting: Volgograd (where some campaign to restore the city’s historic old name: Stalingrad), the venerable Lada factory, and a haunting trip to a Stalin-era labor camp that remained in operation until 1989. He even meets a prisoner who spent five years in the camp for the imaginable crime of distributing anti-communist leaflets, and he makes the surprising assertion that the gulag was actually the one place in the USSR where you could speak freely. You were already in a labor camp, so what more could they possibly do with you?
Communism is long gone, but as we’ve seen in recent years, Russia is no liberal democracy. Part one of Russia on Four Wheels, however, doesn’t dwell on the Putin regime’s increasing authoritarianism, its laws against “gay propaganda” or its petty and mean-spirited ban on foreign adoptions – all of which, unfortunately, can’t in good conscience be excluded from a program about Russia in 2014. (Part two, which I have not yet seen, features a gay rights protest, so these issues may yet receive the attention they deserve.)
Still, Russia on Four Wheels does show us many sides of the country most of us didn’t know about, and that makes it worth watching. Part one aired on the BBC World News channel February 1; part two will air February 8. Until Top Gear returns, it will do nicely.