It’s over all too soon. I suppose the adage “leave them wanting more” is still as relevant in entertainment circles today as it was in the days of Walt Disney or P.T. Barnum – or whoever originated the phrase. As it stands, the three episodes left for a short time on ITV Player present tantalising snapshots in a scrapbook spread across three countries worth of culture, history, society and more.
The latest and final episode broadcast last Sunday commenced with Joanna visiting the magnificent, mist-swirled Lake Baikal, part-frozen at the time of recording (the lake and possibly Joanna too), where she introduces us to one of two Newcastle-built icebreakers. Quite why Russia couldn’t, didn’t or wouldn’t build their own is unexplained, but Siberian ice and Newcastle’s maritime finest is an interesting juxtaposition nonetheless. The lake and its surroundings are home to nearly 900 unique animal species and – irrespective of what didn’t make the cut – just had to be in the show!
A whole episode could have been taken up with Joanna’s fisherman host Sergei, denizen of Big Cat village. His ice-boat sailing, vodka-toasting, cabin building, fungus-drink-brewing character fills the entire screen: “Let’s drink to fungus!” he exclaims, raising another shot-glass. And more vodka disappears. Outside, winter encroaches, still waiting to ambush Joanna as she emerges from her cabin sanctuary the following morning.
We can only get the most tentative of insights into what a Siberian winter must really be like as we watch Joanna; frozen and buffeted on her way to the Moscow train. A local at a nearby base nonchalantly explains how the snows are late this year. It’s not even winter, proper, and the sky is a white-out – sheets of ice-rain tail wriggling dunes across the tarmac and folk dressed up as grizzly bears wander casually about their business. An equivalent scenario in the UK would have seen a confusion of closed schools, emergency meetings, M1 pile-ups and public transport standstills. Incredible.
Joanna joins the mainline out of Irkutsk, and is now on the Trans-Siberian Railway, literally speaking. She’s arrived via the Trans-Mongolian (the more interesting scenic route), rather than the slow train from Vladivostok – Siberia’s extreme Eastern terminus.
At Krasnoyarsk we’re invited to glimpse into the world of the Oligarc, the super-rich Russian business class that rode the waves out of the Soviet collapse to stratospheric financial heights. In the opportunistic chaos that followed the end of communism, anything could – and did – go when it came to the achieving great wealth at the start of a new era. It was boom time for the infamous Russian Mafia and it’s probably polite not to probe too deeply into exactly where and how a particular millionaire made his money. Joanna shows us a snapshot of a world hard to fathom; ostentation upon ostentation, mansions, offices, enormous (black) cars, vodka with gold flakes – and just what is it about the rich and faux-classical furnishings? I’ve never understood it.
A more sobering encounter awaits at Yekaterinburg (alt: Ekaterinburg), the city that saw the murder of Tsar Nicholas 2nd and the last of the imperial Romanov family, now beatified as saints within the Russian Orthodox Church. There are some quite gruesome details revealed by a local priest concerning the nature of their deaths and the post-mortem treatment of the bodies at the hands of Red Army agents. It’s strong stuff, but still holds back against the full horror of what occurred (according to various accounts).
We also get a glimpse into the the bloody chaos of the aforementioned post-Soviet boom as a survivor of the time recalls memories from his boyhood of the Kalashnikov shootouts between rival Mafia gang members. The account takes place, appropriately enough, in a graveyard of expensive memorials emblazoned with images of the deceased; all looking just like your neighbour and betraying little of the horrors in which they participated.
Chillingly, the graves of key players are monitored by CCTV systems owned by surviving relatives/associates, lest retribution from their former lives returns to leave it’s mark on their final rest.
The final episode of Joanna’s adventure doesn’t end on such a dour note. There’s still the exquisite beauty of medieval Vladimir and its famous icon of The Virgin, to which Stalin turned to during The Great Patriotic War (our WW2) when “all else had failed”. Said to have saved Russia during crucial periods of the Country’s turbulent history; the image was flown around the skies of Moscow as German forces advanced, and as we know: the city was saved. Interestingly, it was this very outcome that facilitated the easing of Communist persecution against religion, after all: how could you condemn the very thing that had saved your skin?
After Vladimir, we have the perfection and dedication of a renowned ballet school in Perm – a city once blocked to outsiders due to its production of Soviet armaments. Then of course: Moscow itself and Joanna’s reminiscences of her previous life. I won’t reveal too much here. There’s still time to view the episode yourself (at the time of writing). Just a couple of clues: there’s an insight into the modern Russian modelling industry and the former bomb-proof Soviet bunker (including resident A-bomb) is remarkable!