Russia on Four Wheels: Anita Rani meets Pussy Riot and goes gay clubbing in the former Soviet nation

As part of a new BBC2 travel show, presenter Anita Rani joins Justin Rowlatt on a motorised journey across this vast landscape, and discovers that things aren't exactly what they seem...

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Russia on Four Wheels: Anita Rani meets Pussy Riot and goes gay clubbing in the former Soviet nation
Written By
Jade Bremner

In her new show, Russia on Four Wheels (9:30pm, January 20, BBC2), Anita Rani joins Justin Rowlett for another far-flung road trip. This time they discover how the former Soviet country is positioned socially, economically and politically right now.

In light of recent events – Russia harbouring US-whistle blower Edward Snowden, jailing members of political punk band Pussy Riot for a performance deemed as "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", and passing a new law banning the so-called "propaganda of 'non-traditional' [ie, gay] sexual relations" – it is no surprise there are a lot of critics of the largest country in the world, among them those who intend to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics.

But during her recent trip, Rani found that there is an outwardly gay community living and celebrating their sexuality in St Petersburg. "On the one hand, we hear about all the negative stories that are coming out about things like gay rights in Russia, but at the same time, there were Queer Fests going on right in front of me," explained Rani. "Queer Fest is a gay festival that happens in St Petersburg. And it happens," she continued. "It was an absolutely legal festival that they were having. Nobody was there closing it down."

Meanwhile, in rural Russia, the picture was rather different. Justin Rowlett encountered outward prejudice against gay people, explained Rani. "Justin, my co-presenter, was off talking to people in the heartland of Russia who hold really homophobic views. It’s just culturally how that country’s developed. Some western ideas haven’t permeated them socially yet I don’t think. But that will change. I’m sure it will."

Not everyone is convinced. Rani met a member of Pussy Riot and people at Queer Fest who couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. “They spoke about their fear that [Russia] is far from becoming more democratic and more open,” said Rani. “They worry that their country is actually going the other way, that the grip is becoming tighter. They think [President Vladimir] Putin and the general patriarchy in Russia is kind of bearing down on them.”

While some suffer, Rani witnessed small businesses flourishing in modern Russia. “I also met people who are reaping the rewards by setting up little businesses in their towns," she said. "They’re earning a lot of money, they’re realising they’re a million times better off than they were in communist Russia, and they want to travel and they want to send their kids to go and see Europe. It’s not a fast developing middle class like you see in China or India, but there is a growing middle class who see themselves much better off now than they ever have before."

“In the West, we just think, 'Communist country? Bad!' What I didn’t expect was how open and warm the people of Russia were and how they talk about their culture and their pride and their identity.

“I really loved [visiting Russia], it really challenged my perceptions. And I’m sure the people watching [Russia on Four Wheels] will really have their perceptions challenged as well.

“People should go to Moscow. People should go to St Petersburg. If they’re more adventurous, they should just go out on a route in the middle of nowhere."

Her traveling advice is simple: "Go with an open mind.”

Watch Russia on Four Wheels at 9:30pm, 20 January on BBC2


Visit Russia with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


 


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