Anyone who follows this Blog, will know I have been singing the praises of this ITV three parter. If you haven't been following, why on Earth not??
The final leg of the big adventure is through Siberia, a land mass bigger than all other countries were it to claim a nationality of it's own. Jo begins her journey through Southern Siberia,when the rivers are starting to freeze over and at -150 it is pretty darn chilly! She begins at Lake Baikal which is at some points over a mile deep and many a unsuspecting soul have been lost to it's icy depths each year. It is rather amazing to consider it contains one fifth of the Entire Planet's fresh water.
In the early freeze before the ice becomes thick enough to drive lorries across, is also served by two ice cutters Ships which hail all the way from Newcastle in England and I rather like the idea of Geordie built vessels on the Siberian lakes cutting a swathe through the mists. Why Aye man!
The lake also boasts it's own mythical monster, but Joanna catches no glimpse despite her side trip across it to meet some lovely folk in a fishing community. The rather choppy crossing in the little boat when little chunks of ice float, was obviously not Joanna's bag at all, Sergei her fisherman ferryman and host for the night thinks nothing of the waves, but the windows are totally iced over as waves hit the glass and freeze on impact, like in all the best cars, Sergei has heated windows so he can see his way forth !
Sergei and his family are an utter delight and the ambiance at their dinner table actually reminded me of family Christmases presided over by my own beloved, albeit Croatian Grandfather, as Vodka flowed freely, the laughs were just as copious and the random ( in this case,fungus based) remedies that look disgusting but are never the less palatable, seem to work a treat particularly after a few shots of the hard stuff! Sergei obviously is a very hardy individual and his existence in the lake may seem unwelcome to the impressionable youth who want to escape into the cities, but as Joanna muses, it would be a shame to lose the steely , handy and open hearted folks like Sergei entirely.
Joanna visits with a real life Oligarch and is treated to a really rather special bottle of vodka as she eats her pomegranate , caviar and field mushrooms, it is enriched quite literally with gold flakes. The man himself is very sweet, stymied in his political ambitions by the Putin's establishment who wanted their choice in the role of Governor, he is very diplomatic about it when Jo quizzes him on whether business and Politics can bring him into conflict and one wonders just how much pressure was actually exerted to make him drop out of the elections in the area! It is obvious he wields a great deal of personal power by the fact that he was able to erect statues in the area surrounding his construction Headquarters in a specially built park, so I Muse that perhaps he had a great deal of pressure exerted upon him or was promised a sizeable inducement to desist.
The divide between the haves and have nots is never more obvious than when you consider that only one hundred and eleven people own one fifth of all of Russia's Private wealth.
Joanna rejoins the train, en route to the place where the Tsar and all of his family were murdered and to fortify herself is given a prepackaged vodka the size of which is astounding but I am sure after hearing the fate of the Romanov family, she was glad of the energy . The bodies of family servant's and even the dog were taken out into the forest to be shot, dismembered and burnt. In memory of this gratuitous murder, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonised them all.
Sadly the town has not escaped further tragedy when at the fall of the Soviet Union rival gangs were involved in mass murders and Joanna is taken to see the ostentation of some of the high ranking gang member's memorials. The CCTV cameras over the graves were just another example of the feeling of oppression that is always bubbling under the surface in much of the programme.
The young man who guides her says it all when Jo asks whether they, the remote watchers will think it suspicious that they are there "they can be suspicious, It's Russia!"
Perm is a town of contradictions, closed to Westerners for a good portion of the Cold War, it was a leading source of arms and munitions and a museum showcasing the tanks and missiles of the period, sits comfortably alongside probably , one of the most prestigious Ballet schools in the world. Housed in modest accommodation, young girls and boys are quite literally stretched to their limits to attain the best posture and positioning. The hands on technique by one of the tutors seems a little severe to western eyes used to the idea of ballet as a posh person's entertainment and an "accomplishment" for privileged little girls with buns and pastel tutus. This woman pulls and taps her 12 year old charges in all directions, to perfect their technique.
In a rather delicious counterpoint, a ticket to the Ballet or Opera in Perm costs about £1 and so is accessible to all and the Opera house is packed to the rafters with normal folk.
The two lovely young ladies Joanna interviews at the school are from the USA and London so whilst obviously a real talent and aptitude is a necessity, the school is less elitist than many in the West.
Joanna gets to visit a little 12th century Church with the Russian owner of the Evening Standard and the Independant, whose childhood memory of the spot is that in the thaw when the rivers that skirt the building are swollen, it appears to float and explains that the law against organised religion was relaxed when Stalin decided to use a famous religious icon as a ward against the advancing Nazis by flying it around the city in a plane for several circuits, to protect Moscow and because they were never able to infiltrate the city, the Soviet leaders were willing to turn a blind eye so that in time orthodoxy returned to Russia.
And so onto Moscow... Where the 18 year old Miss Lumley visited in the height of the Cold War. The underground bunker housing the army reminds me of the German Hospitals on the Channel Islands and the Churchill War rooms under Whitehall, all austerity and clanking iron, but the secret entry point from the underground metro tunnels is like something out of Harry Potter, the ministry of misery and mayhem... Where Nuclear catastrophe could have been wreaked at any given moment with the press of a little button behind a gun metal grey cover on a grim looking control bank. You can just see all these civilians popping in through the unassuming door and changing into their uniforms ready to protect Mother Russia from the west.
Jo visits a model agency , modelling is huge in Russia and it brings back floods of memories for her. The beautiful scene where Jo tries to recreate her photograph taken on her first visit to Moscow in the beautifully domed concourse which has changed little in fifty years, is such a lovely ending to the series. She may demure, but Ms Lumley has changed little in the intervening years. She still is beautiful and brave, humble and very amusing! She truly has an inner light that has made this series so utterly enthralling and infinitely re-watchable.