Russia has to be one of the most frustrating places to travel around. Nothing is easy. The country is vast. The next town is always at least a day’s drive away. The roads are terrible and so is the weather. What’s more, the whole place is ensnared in bureaucracy overseen by unbending, stony-faced officials. Yet my three- week, 3,000-mile drive through Russia ended up being one of the greatest adventures of my life.
My journey began in Sochi, the sparkling showcase for President Putin’s Russia. Putin hopes that this year’s Winter Games will prove that his country has re-emerged as a global superpower, but he has chosen a very odd place to do it. Sochi is a subtropical city, complete with palm trees, warm sea breezes and beachside cafés. It must be the most unlikely location for the Winter Olympics in the history of the games – which makes it the ideal place to begin an exploration of the bizarre contradictions that make Russia such a fascinating place.
Here is a country famous for fearsome winters and bone-numbing cold. I’d packed a wardrobe of fleeces and winter socks, but when I arrived in Sochi I found all I needed was a T-shirt. Day one of my journey and Russia was already confounding my expectations.
The Black sea resort is known for its extreme geography – Putin is said to have been drawn by the idea of coffee in the sunshine beside the beach in the morning and watching the slalom finals in the Caucasus Mountains an hour later. Having chosen Sochi, he backed up his vision with cash, and plenty of it. I saw incredible new facilities: ski jumps, bobsleigh runs and a cluster of state-of-the-art stadiums all served by brand- new roads and railways. The Russians even employed a Finnish snow expert to store hundreds of thousands of tons of last year’s snow, just in case there isn’t enough this year.
As a result, Sochi is reckoned to be the most expensive Olympics in history. Russia has spent at least £30 billion transforming the city and the ski resort – 25 times what Vancouver spent on the last winter games, and three times what we spent on London 2012.
But visiting the latest home of the Winter Olympics was just the beginning. We wanted to find out how a nation that had played such a key role in the 20th century was shaping up in the 21st. We had two epic and contrasting road journeys planned. My colleague, Anita Rani, was heading north, via Taganrog, up to Moscow and St Petersburg and on to Murmansk, high above the Arctic Circle. She’d be seeking out the new, modern Russia. My task was to head east towards the great wilderness of Siberia, exploring how Russia’s proud history and Communist past still shape the nation.
And with the four-wheels theme in mind, we’d been given two very different cars for our respective journeys.
I was given the classic Soviet workhorse, a UAZ-469, the Red Army’s answer to the Jeep. I’d been told it was a bit like Russia itself – powerful, rugged and determined... but prone to breakdowns. So we took the precaution of signing up Evgeny – introduced to us as the best mechanic in Sochi – to coax the UAZ back into action whenever it was proving temperamental.
Meanwhile, Anita was behind the wheel of one of the most brutal looking cars I have ever seen. The Kombat T98 appears to have been custom-designed to meet the needs of a Russian oligarch. It is reckoned to be one of the fastest and most luxurious all-terrain armoured vehicles in the world. But boy, is it ugly – a great lump of bullet- and land-mine-proof metal, with windows made of seven layers of glass.
We needed tough vehicles. You don’t have to drive far from the gleaming new stadiums of Sochi to discover a very different Russia. My first stop was a relic of one of Russia’s many bloody- minded rulers – the summer villa of Stalin.
Uncle Joe’s holiday home is an ugly place, a moss-green lump of a building. When we arrived, the gate into the courtyard was open, but no one was there. It felt odd to explore the private retreat of one of the biggest mass murderers in history on my own, but at least I could poke my nose where I pleased. I even tried on the leather trench coat I found hanging in the corner of his perfectly preserved office. Wearing that coat was a memory that would stay with me. As I bumped and rattled deeper into Russia, I couldn’t help feeling I was going deeper into the country’s past. Seven hundred hard miles from Sochi I visited the scene of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history: the battle of Stalingrad. The city itself is now named Volgograd, after its mighty river, and was the scene of more carnage last December when two suicide bombings left 34 people dead. I had the privilege of meeting two veterans of Stalingrad, old men who had helped defeat the Nazis and turn the tide of the Second World War.
But later that day I was surprised to meet younger Russians, a new generation, who were campaigning to change the city’s name back to Stalingrad. In the West we may remember Stalin as a tyrant, but many Russians regard him as a saviour.
If anything, the roads got even more pitted and potholed and the country even more confusing as my journey continued.
I won’t deny that along the way I often found Russia and its people difficult and sometimes downright rude. But that’s because they take life seriously. They are used to hardship and tears and, as a result, when Russians are happy, when they want to have fun, and when they finally decide they like you – they really mean it.
It’s a bit like those rare moments on the Russian roads when the sun breaks through the clouds, the breeze sends a shiver through the birch trees and you are enveloped in a shower of golden leaves: suddenly, it’s all worth it.
The trip completely reshaped my perception of the biggest and one of the most important countries on earth. And, of course, whenever it all felt as if it was getting too much, there was always the vodka... Nasdarovie!
See Russia on Four Wheels, tonight 9:30pm, BBC2
Plus, Andrew Marr interviews Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday at 9am BBC1