The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: a survey of Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership in the 1990s

Leo Mattei, Johnny Miller, “The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms” (PressTV, 2017)

Made for the Iranian news channel PressTV, this measured documentary turns out to be a detailed survey of the period of Russia’s transition from a Communist society to a capitalist one under President Boris Yeltsin (1991 – 1999) and the neoliberal economic reforms carried out under the guidance of the so-called Harvard Boys (US economists with Harvard University backgrounds tasked to assist the transition). These reforms privatised most state-run industries including the major energy industries and enriched a small number of well-placed people, many of whom were former Soviet government apparatchiks looking out for Number 1, while the vast majority of people in the new Russian Federation became impoverished. Living standards and life expectancies fell as people lost jobs and fell into despair; many turned to drink and dangerous drugs, and in parts of the country, the rates of new HIV / AIDS infections skyrocketed alarmingly. As discontent against Yeltsin’s policies became widespread, in 1993 the Russian parliament impeached Yeltsin who then dissolved the parliament; the stand-off resulted in military units ordered by Yeltsin storming the parliamentary building and the national TV station centre, killing nearly 190 people and wounding nearly 440 others. Yeltsin became a more dictatorial leader and economic “reforms” continued to devastate the country’s economy, especially its manufacturing industries, sending more people into poverty as jobs were lost. The country’s financial situation became dire and Russia was forced to rely on IMF loans which in turn tied the country even more to neoliberal economic policies, placing it on a downward spiral into more economic and financial destruction and instability, and with that political corruption and escalating levels of crime, including gang warfare and homicide.

Through interviews with people who were close to Yeltsin, such as his former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and former Soviet Deputy Prime Minister / founder of centrist Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky, or observers of the period, such as sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky and historian Alexander Tarasov, the documentary follows the career of Yeltsin as President starting with a tour of the Yeltsin Center and its museum in Yekaterinburg. This is a strange and sinister place: it whitewashes Yeltsin’s career and encourages not only uncritical hero worship but rewrites Russian history in the 1990s. The interview with Korzhakov who wrote a book of his experiences dealing with Yeltsin in 1997 is an excellent remedy: Korzhakov is frank about the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and the deeply corrupt and despotic nature of his government. Kagarlitski, Tarasov and other interviewees discuss the economic policies of advisors and ministers such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who favoured “shock therapy” privatisation. Ordinary people are also interviewed: they speak of how the Soviet aircraft industry, built up over decades, was effectively destroyed by the “reform” policies, and how the corruption in Yeltsin’s government (from which Yeltsin family members benefited financially) and among the country’s new rich elites, known as “oligarchs”, permeated Russian society generally, encouraging the growth of criminal gangs and other criminal activity across the country. Most disturbingly, photographer Alexander Poliakov, interviewed about the 1993 constitutional crisis, implies in his statements that the events of the crisis may not have transpired as reported in official accounts.

In the mid to late 1990s, the most significant events in Russia were the outbreak of war between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya (the causes of which Yeltsin himself must bear some responsibility for) and Yeltsin’s re-election as President in presidential elections held in 1996, for which Yeltsin needed US help in creating a marketing campaign playing on voters’ insecurities and fears, and the results of which (in some regions such as Ossetia) were likely tampered with or made up to help get Yeltsin back into power. Once returned as President though, Yeltsin gave himself over to the demon drink and allowed his government to fall into the hands of others. Powerful oligarchs meddled openly in Russian politics by buying up influence over politicians. The looting of the Russian economy continued with some oligarchs amassing tremendous fortunes reckoned in the billions of dollars. Corruption and crime were rampant throughout the country. Just when people could see no hope out of their predicament, Yeltsin surprised everyone by resigning as President in 1999 and nominating Vladimir Putin to succeed him as caretaker President. The following year, Putin won the presidential elections and since then has been President (with a 4-year break from 2008 to 2012).

The documentary flows smoothly and well, and does an excellent job in following the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and his disastrous policies on particular sectors of the Russian economy, the social fabric and day-to-day life for many Russian people. The film notes the insidious role the Boris Yeltsin Center plays in whitewashing the politician and the impact he had. Just as insidious though is how the film gives little credit to Vladimir Putin in ending oligarch meddling in the nation’s politics (by making an example of crooked businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky by jailing him for 10 years when he refused to give up interfering in the political process) and reviving the Russian economy, and insinuates that high global prices for oil in the early 2000s were mainly responsible for the Russian economic resurrection. As leader of a centrist, socially liberal party, Yavlinsky is not likely to have a neutral or positive opinion of Putin, and as a dissident academic, neither is Kagarlitsky.

The film ends on a warning note about how undertaking “wrong” economic reforms can ruin economies. This is an incorrect reading of what was done to Russia by neoliberal economic policies during the Yeltsin years: far more correct is that these policies were intended to destroy Russian power and break up the country so its resources could be seized by foreign corporations and elites, and so they were the “right” policies. Attempts by the Yeltsin Center and others to portray Yeltsin as a saintly leader and decision-maker are to be seen in a similar light, parallel to how other major world leaders who also introduced neoliberal economics in their countries have been sold to the public as wise or capable, even as their economic policies sent thousands or millions into unemployment, poverty and despair.

Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail: a pseudo-scientific project with sinister consequences

Tom Barbor-Might, “Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail” (2013)

Of the mish-mash of strange and bizarre ideas, beliefs, pseudo-science and superstitions that were subsumed into Nazi German ideology and helped justify Nazi German war crimes and genocide against various groups (Jews, Roma, Slavs, prisoners of war, people with mental or physical defects among others), few can have been more bizarre than the project delineated in a set of documents apparently found in a cave in southern Germany by American soldiers in 1945: a project to discover the supposed lost Aryan civilisation from which the Nazis believed the German people were descended. To that end, the project (driven by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the Schutzstaffel) was to be realised in three missions: the search for the lost island of Atlantis, believed to be where the original Aryan civilisation had been based; the search for survivors of the original Aryan master race in Tibet; and the recovery of the Holy Grail in southern France, site of the mediaeval Cathar civilisation. All these missions were related by their ultimate goal (recreating the Aryan civilisation and its creators), by the way in which they selectively used facts and fiction alike to bolster and justify Himmler’s beliefs and assumptions, and in how they corrupted actual research in Cathar history, traditions and culture. Above all, these missions, and the people who took part in them, were used to justify and condone war crimes against Jewish and other victims, and had the potential to discredit science and history, and the methodologies used in scientific and historical research.

Through interviews with historians and a journalist, and using historical film footage and photographs, the documentary carefully and leisurely builds up its narrative in which Himmler, obsessed with his racist beliefs and occult topics, attempted to create a religion to rival Christianity: a religion selectively built upon pagan Germanic beliefs and mythology, a weird cult of ancestor worship that venerated the SS, and a search for religious relics and artefacts thought to have occult power, such as the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus. We meet some deluded characters such as the scholar Herman Wirth who worked on the Atlantic project and believed that after Atlantis sank, Aryan survivors went out across the globe to found various civilisations in the Middle East and Central and South America; Otto Rahn, whose research on the Cathars was usurped by Himmler and the SS, and who ultimately paid for his collaboration with the Nazis with his life; and the sinister anthropologist / ethnologist Bruno Beger who participated in the anthropology trip to Tibet in 1938, collecting physical measurements of the Tibetan people, and who later (in the 1940s) was involved in selecting and measuring 100 Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz as part of a project to collect their skeletons: this meant that these prisoners had to be killed, though Beger was to claim later that he did not know the prisoners whose measurements he took were to be killed.

The documentary flows smoothly from one topic to the next, though we never really find out whether the information collected during the 1938 trip to Tibet satisfied Himmler, nor whether Wirth fared all that well with his bizarre ideas about Atlantic civilisation after the Second World War. The film says very little about the information Beger collected on the Tibetans and their culture and traditions, and where that information and any artefacts he brought back might have ended up. (One can believe such findings could have fallen into the hands of those intent on using them later against the People’s Republic of China when that nation incorporated Tibet into its territory.) The music soundtrack is annoying and unnecessary but apart from this, the film’s technical details and pacing are very good.

The sobering message from the film, as one historian interviewed puts it, is that beliefs, ideas, mythologies and narratives can and do have dangerous consequences that can result in the violent deaths of millions of people and destroy entire nations and cultures, particularly when such belief sets have enormous power and compliance behind them. The pursuit of science and history can be corrupted by personal beliefs and ideologies, to the extent that research in those areas most affected by such corruption can be held back decades, often to the detriment of people’s lives and health. This is a warning we would all do well to acknowledge in the current hysterical climate of Russiagate, the March 2018 poisoning of the Skripals (and the supposedly related poisoning death of Dawn Sturgess in July of the same year) in Britain, and the continuing mystery of the July 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

Father Brown (Episode 29: The Truth in the Wine): reconciliation and forgiveness win the day

Ian Barber, “Father Brown (Episode 29: The Truth in the Wine)” (2015)

Being laid up with flu recently restricted me to watching re-runs of old TV shows on commercial TV stations; one of the better of these was this old episode “The Truth in the Wine” from the third season of the British mystery series “Father Brown” which is loosely based on G K Chesterton’s short stories about the crime-solving Roman Catholic priest. The television series is located in the Cotswolds area of England, in a fictional village called Kembleford. An itinerant labourer is found shot dead in the study of local vintner / aristocrat Colonel Anthony Forbes-Leith, and money marked for servants’ wages is also missing from the safe in the study. The police quickly deduce that two bullets were fired. The good father (Mark Williams), in his customary humble and unassuming manner, follows what the police find and discovers his own clues and evidence about the victim and the likely suspects. Before long, the police arrest the colonel (Daniel Ryan) on suspicion of murder, since they now know that the victim, Gibbs, had threatened blackmail against the vintner. Can Father Brown uncover the real murderer and the motivation behind the crime and put up a good case before the colonel is sentenced (and perhaps put on death row) or tries to commit suicide a second time?

As you would expect, this particular murder mystery comes with many twists and surprises: the colonel is not at all what he claims to be, but then, neither is any of the household staff of his mother, Lady Edna Forbes-Leith (Sheila Reid), and even she has many secrets hidden beneath that fragile bedridden reclusive facade. Significantly (and spoiler alert here), Father Brown not only uncovers the real murderer but in order to do so, he gets everyone in the Forbes-Leith household to admit his or her secrets, and that way he also finds out who has been taking the money from the safe. With that evidence in hand, the priest races down to the police station where, surprise, surprise, the coppers tell him the fingerprints on the gun include those of someone thought least likely to hold a gun and shoot someone dead. The police then close the book on the case as an act of self-defence and the “colonel” is set free. The real climax of the episode comes when Father Brown effects a reconciliation among all the members of the Forbes-Leith household and the “colonel” is welcomed back.

There are many messages you could take away from this episode: the distaste of the upper class for those lower class people who would insinuate themselves into more socially elevated layers by dint of hard work and talent; the incompetence of the police; and above all, the power of forgiveness in freeing people from past secrets and horrors, so they can forge new lives for themselves and one another. Father Brown comes face to face with a white lie that helps to preserve the Forbes-Leith property and legacy and fulfills the original colonel’s wishes of building a vineyard.

Red Joan: a stodgy film skirting issues about loyalty, betrayal and the nature of the British state

Trevor Nunn, “Red Joan” (2019)

Adapted from the novel of the same name which as the film acknowledges is based on the real-life case of Melita Norwood, Britain’s so-called “Granny Spy”, “Red Joan” spins an intriguing fictional tale of a young British woman, Joan Smith (Sophie Cookson) who in the late 1930s briefly flirts with socialism at Cambridge University and makes friends with two student Communist followers, Sonia (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes) there. Joan is recommended by Leo to a secret British military physics project whose chief professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) hires her. The project is involved in working out the physics required to discover nuclear fission and eventually build an atomic bomb before the Americans do. While she resists at first, the eventual news of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 convinces her to change her mind and to pass on the secrets to Sonia. Amidst all of this, Smith becomes romantically involved with Leo at university and afterwards, and also with Davis who has long been estranged from his wife who refuses to consent to a divorce.

Eventually the British security forces become aware that British military secrets are being passed to the KGB and start hounding the unit where Smith works. Sonia flees Britain and Leo is found dead. Max Davis is arrested, charged with treason under the Official Secrets Act and is imprisoned. Smith does what she can to get Max out of prison and, by blackmailing a former university colleague, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara) who has achieved a senior position in the British Foreign Office, she and Max flee Britain with new identities as Mr and Mrs Stanley. For half a century afterwards, Smith’s treachery remains undiscovered until the early 2000s, when Mitchell dies and old government documents are declassified. The documents point to Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) as a long-serving KGB agent.

The story is told in flashback and pans back and forth between the present and the past as Joan Stanley reminisces to two British security officers about her past misdeeds in answer to their questions. Dench plays Stanley as a somewhat doddery old grandmother, the kind of slightly bemused elderly lady in whose mouth butter would stay solid; viewers may have some trouble matching the elderly Joan to Cookson’s more determined and steely character, but the lovable fuddy-duddy front falls away when Joan Stanley faces the press. The two actresses play their parts more or less well though Dench is clearly underused in her role. Cookson plays her intelligent but naive anti-heroine to the hilt. The rest of the cast is pigeon-holed into stereotyped backing roles: Sonia and Leo are portrayed as glamorous yet sinister, and the scientists Joan works with are obsessed with their own work to the exclusion of everything else, politics included. The modern-day British security forces are portrayed as efficient bureaucrats paying lip service to Diversity and Identity Politics.

In trying to develop the character of Joan Smith / Stanley as an anti-heroine viewers will sympathise with, the film waters down many aspects of Melita Norwood’s background – Norwood was a fervent Communist sympathiser – to the point of turning Joan Smith / Stanley into a bland generic character. As a result the decisions that the young Joan makes often seem bewildering and her justification for spying – that sharing knowledge is fair and, in the context of Cold War politics, has prevented the use of nuclear warfare for 50+ years – is very unconvincing. Stereotypical plot devices are used to tidy up the narrative: Sonia’s disappearance gives Joan a vital weapon with which she can blackmail Mitchell and very few viewers will believe the fantastically comical scheme in which Smith and Davis manage to escape Britain and flee to Australia. (At this point the film-makers decided not to explain how Joan later makes her way back to Britain.)

In spite of the use of flashback structuring to generate a sense of tension that should build up during the course of the film towards the present day, the film tends to be stodgy throughout its running time. Had British security forces been portrayed as sinister, menacing and violent towards both Joan and Davis, rather than as efficient, even sympathetic, the much-needed tension and fear could have been generated. The film fails to acknowledge the repressive and secretive nature of British society past and present, and to draw a parallel between this and Soviet repression and paranoia: the result is that the film, along with the other liberties it takes in reshaping the central character and her background, and in skirting other issues that arise about loyalty to one’s country when it conflicts with one’s ethics and values, does not rise above general mediocre entertainment.

Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.

The Great Pretender: a shallow picture of a famous rock music icon

Rhys Thomas, “The Great Pretender” (2012)

The public fascination with the shy Parsi Indian boy born in a British colonial backwater in Zanzibar in 1946, who later became a golden-voiced rock star legend much beloved throughout the world before AIDS took him in 1991, knows no bounds; a feature film dramatisation of his life, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been raking in the hundreds of millions in revenue throughout the world and there is no shortage of documentaries on the life of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. Probably the best known of these is “The Great Pretender”, made by Queen fan Rhys Thomas, which focuses on Mercury’s life from 1976 onwards to 1991 and a little beyond. In particular there is a heavy emphasis on Mercury’s solo work that produced the album “Mr Bad Guy” and his collaboration with the Catalan / Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe.

The narrative is driven by interviews of people who associated with Mercury from 1976 onwards and archival footage of Mercury himself and his later lover Jim Hutton (who died in 2010); what they say about Mercury is that, far from his flamboyant and confident public persona, he was shy, even self-tortured at times, restless and eager for new experiences and ways of doing things, and maybe not a little shallow at times. During the late 1970s / early 80s, Mercury comes across as arrogant, self-absorbed and selfish; towards the end of his life he has grown tired of his hedonistic lifestyle and matured quite considerably. He is no longer interested in competing with other, younger rock / pop singers in showiness and wants to compose more serious and complex music. At this point, he is advised by his doctors that he has AIDS and the disease is progressing rapidly to the point where he has very little time left in the world to do the things he wants to do.

For all its emphasis on Mercury’s solo work, the film shows no songs or pieces of music from “Mr Bad Guy” or “Barcelona” in their entirety and viewers have to accept the film’s opinion that “Mr Bad Guy” failed (in terms of album sales) because Queen fans refused to accept the idea of Mercury performing without Queen. (I have heard the album myself and can say that the relatively simple nature of the songs and the choice of instrumentation were abysmal for someone who years before wrote complex songs like “Liar” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Viewers are left with a fairly shallow picture of a man who lived a double life as the flamboyant Freddie Mercury in public and the shy, modest and retiring Farrokh Bulsara in private. How he could have managed all that while composing, recording and performing (with three other people) a considerable body of songs over 15 albums is a question most people want to know: this documentary comes nowhere close to giving a satisfactory answer.

Peterloo: an immersive dramatic re-enactment of a significant event in British political history

Mike Leigh, “Peterloo” (2018)

Made just before the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in August 1819, when British cavalry troops and foot soldiers charged a peaceful demonstration of some 60,000 to 100,000 workers and their families protesting at high food prices and unemployment that were leading to hunger and suffering, and at their lack of political representation in Parliament, this film is a fictional re-enactment of the historical political and social background and the events leading to the mass protest at St Peter’s Field. The detail that director Mike Leigh invests in recreating the hierarchical British society of the time, the huge social inequalities that existed and the attitudes expressed by people of different social layers, from the monarchy and aristocracy down through the technocracy, the labouring classes to the very poor is incredible. The film takes care to create and build up carefully a credible society, using different points of view of various characters, and the result is highly immersive and filled with a distinct flavour of early 19th-century life in Britain.

The film is structured around the experiences of a young soldier, Joseph (David Moorst), who stumbles home from the Battle of Waterloo (in 1815) suffering from PTSD and falls into the care of his close-knit labouring family in Manchester. He tries in vain to find work but the economic conditions are hard and none is available. People complain about the high prices of corn due to the Corn Laws which among other things forbid the import of cheap foreign corn. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth (Karl Johnson) is concerned about worker unrest in the northern counties of Lancashire, Yorkshire and areas around Liverpool and Manchester. Government spies, infiltrators and provocateurs are put to work and intercept mail sent between radical reformist preachers and their flocks. Two Manchester reformists, Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) and Dr Joseph Healey (Ian Mercer), go to London to hear reformist leader Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) speak; they try to invite him for a friendly drink but he rudely spurns them.

Much of the film then follows the reformists’ plan to hold a mass demonstration in Manchester at which Hunt will speak. Hunt insists on having no weapons at the protest despite Bamford’s warning that armed yeomanry will be present. Organisers of the protest include the staff who write for and print The Manchester Observer newspaper and a brief scene in the film shows how the newspaper was printed by hand.

Steadily the film builds through the viewpoints of Joseph and his family, especially his mother Nellie (Maxine Peake), Hunt and the family who hosts him in Manchester, Bamford, The Manchester Observer reporters, and the representatives of the aristocracy and their enforcers in Parliament and the legal system and courts who fear the reformist movement and who will do anything to crush the workers and deny their political rights, to the climax when the local magistrate sets the yeomanry like dogs onto the crowds. Especially sinister are the informers and the constable who spy on the reformist meetings and report back to the authorities.

The film’s general tone tends to be matter-of-fact and sober; even scenes of carnage are treated in a dispassionate way. Joseph’s nightmare of the scenes of Waterloo revisits him, to his ultimate cost. At this point the film’s denouement is rather hurried, untidy and surreal, featuring a bizarre meeting between the fawning Lord Sidmouth and the grotesque Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny) and his wife, and this is the weakest part of the narrative. Nothing is said about the forced closure of The Manchester Observer and its replacement by The Manchester Guardian, founded by people antagonistic towards the aims of the reformist movement. We learn nothing of the fate of Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford or other significant reformist characters featured in the film: there are no brief end titles that could inform viewers of these people’s futures.

While the film can be long for most Western audiences, with very little apparent plot, I did not find it at all boring; if anything, I felt it was not long enough and could have covered more detail. The music soundtrack, featuring popular melodies that later were incorporated into church hymns during the later 19th century, is a highlight of the film. There are some slight historical errors – a woman is sentenced by a cruel magistrate to transportation “to Australia” (actually the colony of New South Wales at the time – but perhaps young viewers in Britain and Australia these days are not so well educated as those of my generation) – but on the whole, the film and the actors especially convey the lively flavour of society at all levels of Regency Britain.

Aspects of the film’s narrative may strike a chord with modern British viewers, as Britain currently limps through a dark historical period in which the vast majority of people are suffering from austerity policies imposed by a corrupt and remote government, the politicians of which from the Prime Minister down are incompetent, vicious and hell-bent on squeezing as much as they can out of the public for their own selfish interests and those of their secret masters in the City of London, the military and abroad.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2): an attractive visual experience spoilt by repetitive propaganda police-state stereotypes

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2)” (2018)

In this second and final episode, Michael Palin ventures outside Pyongyang to spend a few days exploring parts of the North Korean countryside. He travels to the Demilitarised Zone where a guard tells him of the history of the Korean War – from the North Korean point of view which conflicts with what Palin knows. Palin muses on the ceasefire that currently exists between North Korea and the West and its consequences, one of which is that North Korea is compelled to maintain a large army made up of farm labour conscripts. Not far from the DMZ is a town, Kaesong, which during the Korean War was part of South Korea and therefore escaped the bombing that razed most North Korean cities and towns. In Kaesong, Palin is treated to some old Korean culinary traditions and stays at a Korean version of a ryokan. The next day, it’s onward to Wonsan on the east coast, a town targeted for development as a holiday resort for locals and foreigners. Still under construction, the holiday resort redevelopment already has an international airport ready and waiting for tourists who will not arrive until later in 2019. Palin is a bit nonplussed wandering around a huge airport terminal where the only other people besides himself are shop assistants with nothing to do except wait for non-existent customers.

Palin’s significant encounters with local people include meeting a farmer and her son. Farming is done by hand – few farmers have tractors or other heavy agricultural machinery that would obviate the need for labourers – and the demand for such labour is great. The farmer invites Palin into her sparsely furnished home for a big lunch feed. Palin thinks the farmer is trying to impress him with so much food to hide what he supposes are food shortages in rural North Korea. Later on, when Palin and one of his guides visit Mount Kumgang, he attempts to engage her in conversation about comparative politics and what she thinks of her country’s leaders: she tells him the North Korean people respect and identify so much with Kim Jong-un and what he brings to his people that to criticise him would be to criticise the people who support him wholeheartedly. In the end, the guide Soyang manages to parry the questions Palin zings at her quite cleverly and he has to admit defeat.

Palin’s visit concludes with a trip to a new district in Pyongyang developed especially as a showcase technology park and futuristic residential area. He marvels that the large district, boasting several incredibly tall skyscrapers built in a very distinctive style, has sprung up in the space of a calendar year. Leaving North Korea, Palin feels not a little regretful at saying goodbye to his guides (who he has become quite close to) and the charming people who have looked after him over the past fortnight.

While Palin is entranced by his hosts’ graciousness, the people’s cheerfulness, the culture and the beautiful countryside, he can’t quite escape his own conditioning and continues to view North Korea through the prism of a paranoid and closed police-state society ruled by a dynasty of rulers who permit no criticism and who demand absolute loyalty and suppression of individuality. He mentions the huge army North Korea maintains but appears not to understand the necessity for it: every year the United States, South Korea and other invited countries stage massive military exercises twice a year close to the North Korean borders, usually timed to coincide with the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons, forcing the country to pull labourers from the farms to be on stand-by in case the exercises turn into actual invasions. The connection linking US sanctions against North Korea over the past 70 years, the lack of agricultural machinery that would make farming easier and bring in bigger harvests, the constant aggression by the US and South Korea, and the consequent need for a huge agricultural labour force and for a large army provide the context against which food shortages leading to apparent starvation and malnutrition occurred in the 1990s. All this unfortunately washes completely over Palin’s head; instead he lapses into quite sanctimonious monologues about how North Korea will have to choose between following its current path of independence, and accepting Western-style capitalism and democracy (which he views as inevitable if North Korea is to survive in the long term, though not without regret that it will destroy part of the country’s charm) to be part of the 21st century.

Aside from the dreary and repetitive propaganda Palin keeps reminding viewers of, the former Monty Python comedian is genuinely interested in seeing how North Koreans survive and thrive in an apparently restrictive society. It is a pity that he does not give them much credit for their resurrection from the nation-wide devastation and destruction brought by the United States in the 1950s that was further compounded by nearly 70 years of economic sanctions.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1): Western insistence on stereotyping a country ruins a striking travelogue

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 1)” (2018)

At least two years in the making, this 2-part travel documentary follows comedian / world traveller Michael Palin during a two-week trip exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea / North Korea, marvelling at its visual and audio sights, and trying to engage as much as possible with the people he meets. The trip took place at a time when North Korea under its leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea under President Moon Jae-in were starting to warm to each other more and were seriously considering the possibility of reunification. In his first week in North Korea, Palin was taken by his guides through Pyongyang, and what he sees and experiences in the nation’s capital is the focus of Part 1 of the documentary.

The sights alone are worthwhile watching – Pyongyang is a clean city with wide spaces, some very eccentric and colourful architecture, and (for a city of its 3-million-strong size) not a great deal of car traffic. Fretting over the lack of Internet, the absence of a phone signal and the North Korean authorities’ insistence on holding his and the film crew’s passports once over the Chinese border from Dandong, Palin gradually settles into the life and pace of Pyongyang. He marvels at the government’s early morning broadcasts of songs aiming at motivating and inspiring people to look forward to a new day working for and benefiting North Korea. He visits an extravagantly built underground train station and takes a ride on the Metro. He gets a head massage by a woman in a barbershop – in North Korea, women run barbershops and hairdressing salons apparently – and visits a class of junior high school students. Their teacher looks a bit nonplussed at the strange Englishman blowing up a balloon depicting the globe and tossing it among the kids. When prompted as to what they’d like to do after leaving school, the youngsters say they want to be scientists, teachers and doctors, and to serve North Korea. One girl, declaring that she will be a famous writer, recites her poem about Mount Paektu (the birthplace of Kim Jong-il). Palin concludes from this little episode that, erm, the students aren’t taught critical thinking.

Among other visits, Palin meets a government-employed artist who creates visual propaganda and explains the symbolism behind what he does. He goes to a sports centre where teenagers are training in table tennis. The final day of his stay in Pyongyang is the May Day public holiday and Palin goes to a public park where people are picnicking with their families, drinking, dancing and generally having a great time. One drunken man crowns Palin with a tiara of leaves before being pulled away by his wife.

Palin obviously wants to accept everything at face value and believe that the happy and contented people he meets are genuine in their opinions, feelings and behaviour. Years of his own indoctrination by relentless Western media propaganda about North Korea – not to mention the agenda behind his visit – keep intruding on his thoughts, leaving him troubled and perplexed. The apparent poverty he sees around him – most notably depicted in shots of both Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea on opposing sides of the Yalu River, as the train carries Palin across the bridge – is attributed to North Korean paranoia in sealing the nation off from foreign influence. Nearly 70 years of US sanctions (which target nations that dare to trade with North Korea as much as they do North Korea itself) against the country could just as likely have contributed to the nation’s poverty and its emphasis on cultivating every hectare of available land with rice and other important staple foods.

The constant insistence on portraying North Korea as a repressive police state by Palin and the film-makers is insidious and is sure to colour and shape Western viewers’ abilities and opinions in watching the program. There are moments where Palin comes close to showing a gross lack of respect for his hosts and his two guides especially. One might suspect he is being pushed by the film-makers and the film producers to ask questions he might find offensive. That the North Korean government stresses hard work, being part of a big family and working together, meeting communal and national goals, and generally having a positive attitude seems to be lost on Palin and the film crew, who brush all this effort away as propaganda.

The irony in making a film exploring North Korea and its people, that serves mainly to reinforce Western stereotypes about it being a repressive police state producing robotic traffic police and people unable to think for themselves, for Western audiences living in countries which themselves are increasingly repressive and obsessed with brainwashing people with identity politics propaganda and depriving them of the skills to think for themselves and evaluate differing opinions using reason, may not be lost on Western viewers.

Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria: where the mundane becomes exotic in a real country not supposed to exist

“Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria” (Bald and Bankrupt, 2019)

During his travels in Moldova in early 2019, the English vlogger known as Bald and Bankrupt (Arthur Chichester to his bank manager) is intrigued that apparent breakaway state Transnistria (known as Pridnestrovie to its people) boasts its own government, armed forces and national emblems, yet is unrecognised by the United Nations and the European Union. BB drives off to Tiraspol and Bendery where he finds both cities rather dowdy and a bit quaint and eccentric in appearance and presentation, but certainly nowhere near as decrepit and dejected as Kishinev. He steps into various shops, cafes and restaurants to chat to people and finds that not only are they happy to talk about their lives, they also take pride in being part of a nation that everyone else in the world politely ignores. Moreover, they revel in their Soviet heritage even though they know that that part of their history will never return.

In his quest to imagine the Soviet past, BB goes out of his way to visit a forlorn and derelict fairground where he goes for a pendulum-type ride on one of the aged and rusty fairground rides. Simulating the machines on which Soviet cosmonauts trained for trips into space, the contraption spins him round and round on an axle that also turns upright, spinning BB on a vertical plane. Good thing BB is bald or his hair would have transformed into a brilliant shock of white! After the ride, our host is all smarmy “it didn’t scare me” and thanks the elderly woman who sent him on the wildest ride of his life.

For quieter stimulation, BB goes into a worker’s cafe that has barely changed over the last half-century or so and eats a homely lunch of borsch, salad and fruit juice. Feeling well nourished, he trots off to a bookshop where he is amazed to see the lady in charge use an abacus instead of a cash register or a calculator to work out his change.

Armed with his selfie stick and mobile phone, filming as he goes, BB’s film, like his other films on Moldova that I have seen so far, immerses the viewer in ordinary everyday incidents that together make up an exotic adventure in the places where he travels. The mundane becomes unique and coming across ordinary babushkas shopping for groceries to prepare paskha cakes for Easter with wonky carriers turns into an opportunity to broaden and educate one’s mind on foreign culture and customs. Every time BB takes a step somewhere, a new adventure seems to beckon. Along the way, BB treats his hosts with dignity and respect and they readily warm to him and open up with personal stories, information and recommendations on where to go next.