Theodora Clarke speaks to James Brown, correspondent for RT and presenter of Discovering Russia, about his experiences travelling across 55 of Russia’s 83 regions, training with the Russian Paratroop Regiment, and being a torch-bearer for the Sochi Winter Olympics.    

Image courtesy of James Brown

Image courtesy of James Brown

Theodora Clarke: You’re British, but you’ve done a lot of work in Russia. What prompted you to go and live and work in Russia?   James Brown: To be honest it was quite coincidental. I’d just finished my postgraduate degree in broadcast journalism back in 2005, and I was looking for work. I was all set up to go into radio in the UK, when I saw an advert for Russia Today, which was just opening in Moscow. I applied and got the job, so I found myself with about a hundred other expats all heading out to this country I didn’t really know all that much about, except historically and from my own experiences from school. I didn’t speak any of the language, so really it was quite a big leap into the unknown. Moscow was obviously quite an exciting destination but it was very much a leap of faith. Then I simply arrived, got into the swing of things, really loved the place, and I’ve stayed ever since.   TC: You must have been one of the original employees at Russia Today; it was a very new company at that point. How many other Brits were working there?   JB: Yes, there were about a hundred of us to begin with; it was a big exodus to help set the channel up. There’s only about five or six of us left from the original group. More people have joined of course, and the company’s expanded to fill an Arabic channel and a Spanish channel, and an RT America, so it’s grown a lot. I think there are about twenty or twenty-five expats working from Moscow.   TC: You’ve become very well known for having this programme on Russian tourism, and you’ve been to lots of different places across Russia. As a foreigner living and working in Russia, what are you trying to achieve with these programmes?   JB: The idea with the Discovering Russia programmes was firstly an education for me, to see all the different parts of Russian culture, and explore the country, and find out exactly what makes it tick. I think people don’t realise quite how diverse Russian culture is, because it’s so vast you would expect it to be, but people forget that Russia extends deep into Asia. As well as the European culture you have very distinct Asian culture, an Islamic culture, and a Buddhist culture. So you really find out that the country holds more than you ever thought. I’ve been able to see that travelling across more than 55 regions out of the 83 in the country. So I’ve really put the air miles in. The idea was to give people a chance to see the real Russia, to see a bit more than Moscow and St Petersburg.  
Image courtesy of James Brown

Image courtesy of James Brown

TC: One of the things I think for a foreign visitor is that if you don’t read Cyrillic and don’t speak Russian then going outside of those big towns is very difficult to get around. Is that something that you’ve found? Are there very few Western visitors in the smaller cities?   JB: Yes, I mean you meet a few of the more intrepid explorers, people still have the romance of the Trans-Siberian, and people still do these big trips across the country, but yes, there are less foreigners. You do have people who go over there to teach English and some of them go outside of Moscow and St Petersburg. But I think with most countries most of the people who do speak English are based in the capital and the big cities. So I think it would be difficult if you didn’t speak any of the language at all. You could get by. My Russian has only really come on significantly in maybe the last two or three years, but when I started doing these films my Russian was still very poor. So it’s really helped me get under the skin, so to speak, and of course you’re able to have proper relationships with people and hopefully gain a better understanding when you can properly communicate rather than just through a translator all the time.   TC: Where would you say has been the most interesting place you’ve been on your travels around Russia?   JB: That’s a tough one; I’ve been to so many. I remember the Kamchatka Peninsular was absolutely fascinating just from a perspective of pure natural beauty, because they have volcanoes there that I’ve never seen before; they’ve got geysers; they have wildlife; I saw my first bear in the wild, and those are the sorts of things that stick with you forever really. They call it the land of ice and fire, and it really is this place of extreme contrast. If you’re talking culturally then I found a place called Tomsk in Siberia very interesting; it’s a big university city, lots of students with a thriving art culture there. Chekhov stayed there. They have quite a collective of artists there, very well known sculptors, the government has commissioned pieces all across the city which are on the street. Either people from famous fairytales or Peter and the Wolf’s wolf is there, there are various sculptures all there to brighten up the city. So they’ve put a big emphasis on developing art, and that was fascinating in that sense. They also did something similar in Perm, where they have a very thriving modern art scene there. There again they have very large sculpture around the city. One of the very first things that I saw arriving at my hotel was a huge central square that had been filled with various snowmen all dressed up and had incorporated the whole of the town to contribute to this art project. It has a wonderful museum of modern art there, one of the finest in the country.   TC: I’d say that Russian 19th century literature is incredibly well known, as are all of the composers, but I think Russian contemporary art is very new to Russia. I find that a lot of people haven’t heard of Winzavod or they don’t know the New Tretyakov Gallery, because it’s just not as well known to international audiences. Do you find the same?   JB: I think you’re right; people do of course know the great classical authors and composers. It’s a developing scene, and people are making an effort to develop it. In the little galleries that pop up in Moscow you see all sorts of people working in various different mediums; it really is growing and developing, and Moscow has always been a big cultural centre. But I love the fact that it seems to be developing strongly outside of the capital as well.  
Image courtesy of James Brown

Image courtesy of James Brown

TC: We’ve just had the Sochi Winter Olympics, which were a great success. I saw that you accompanied the Olympic flame, can you tell me about how you got involved in that project?   JB: Yeah, that was fantastic. We’d moved away from doing the pure tourism shows to trying to get more into the in-depth pieces of Russian life or big challenges. Because of the Olympics coming up this was a great time to explore the country because it went through all the regions, 160,000km or thereabouts. So I got the chance to start off in Greece where it was lit in Olympia and follow it to various different places, even outside of Russia; I went with it to the North Pole on an incredible journey on a nuclear ice-breaker, which set off from Murmansk, and I was on board with about a hundred journalists, arctic explorers, and researchers. We had an incredible journey into the Polar Nights; of course up there it was pitch dark. So I got to see the flame being lit for the first time at the North Pole, so a real piece of history being made. One of the lovely things about the torch rally was that they were continuously trying to push the boundaries; they took it down into Lake Baikal and it was lit under water there, they took it to Mount Elbrus, to the volcanoes in Kamchatka, right to the Pacific Coast, and down into this gigantic diamond mine in Yakutia, which is a place where you could really be looking into the frozen depths of hell, it was only October and it was -45 °C. So there were some pretty extreme conditions to be travelling through.   TC: One of the criticisms of the Olympics is that it is always held in one place, whereas the torch rally seems to be a way of engaging the rest of the population. Was the Russian population very interested? I know in London it was very successful when it travelled round the UK, was it similarly successful in Russia?   JB: Every city that I went to the reaction was exceptionally positive. People came out and lined the streets, we had thousands of people cheering us on, and cheering on the torchbearers everywhere they went. I think once the torch is in your town you do feel that there’s something rather special going on. A lot of people realise that it’s probably the last time they’ll have an Olympics in Russia within their lifetime, and that feeling of being part of something very special and unique is very tangible, and that is very infectious. Enthusiasm spreads quickly and that was very evident everywhere that I went. I had the chance to be a torchbearer myself in Ufa, and it was an incredible feeling knowing that you’re the only person in the world holding the Olympic torch at that time. You can’t help but feel really privileged to be a part of that. That was very evident, that people felt that they were experiencing something that they will probably only get a chance to see once in their lifetimes.  
Image courtesy of James Brown

Image courtesy of James Brown

TC: You’ve been to so many places doing your documentaries, how does it work in terms of the planning? Do you decide where you want to go?   JB: It’s pretty collaborative; I have a producer, sometimes more than one producer who works with me, most of the time we have a director as well and a cameraman. If we have a particularly tough project we might have two cameramen. I come up with a list of ideas that I want to pursue, my producer will also come up with some ideas and then we discuss what’s feasible. I’m working now on a new series provisionally titled ‘Englishman verses Russia’, which will involve me going to some fairly extreme places and taking on fairly extreme tasks. I think in a couple of weeks I’m off to Archangelsk to work with a couple of lumberjacks in a forest! That should be fairly intense. I’ve just come back from a winter survival weekend in the Northern Lakes where I was pulling down trees and making fires, and eating things that should never be eaten by human beings.   TC: You definitely don’t seem afraid to get stuck in, what’s the most memorable thing you’ve tried while you’ve been in Russia?   JB: I think, without a doubt, it was last year when I signed up with the Russian Paratroop Regiment, to see what kind of things their conscripts have to go through. The young men, from 18-27 years old are supposed to do a year of military service. In the VDV, which is their equivalent of the paratroop regiment, it’s supposed to be one of the toughest regiments to join. I was there with 18 and 19 year old kids who are a good 15 years younger than me and attempting to keep up. There’s a hundred of us stuck in the barracks snoring their heads off, extremely smelly and unpleasant, and we were doing all our exercises in about 30-35°C degree heat. We were in 20kg of kit and getting up at 6am to start running and then going shooting, firing bazookas, climbing, letting tanks roll over us, and getting prepared to jump out of planes. That was something I’d never thought I’d experience! I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to experience again, but it gives you an idea of how difficult that year must be to go through. After just two and a half weeks I was very ready to come home! But it was an amazing experience, and the film turned out great as well, so I was very pleased with it.   TC: You’re working for RT, is it a state-owned company? Have you ever been told that you can’t do something or had editorial interference?   JB: Yes it is state-owned, but because I don’t do news I get a free reign. It’s no secret that RT is Kremlin funded, and like many news organisations around the world they have a party line. I don’t have to follow the party line because I’m not reporting the news, so I’m pretty much allowed to do what I want. I’ve never been told that I can’t do something that I wanted to. Sometimes there are strange restrictions that apply to foreigners in Russia such as not being allowed into factories or installations because I’m foreign. The weird thing is that my cameraman is allowed to go in there and film, and we’re allowed to broadcast his footage to an international audience, but I can’t go in there and do a stand up. God knows why they have those rules, but they do. It’s a little part of Soviet bureaucracy that hasn’t quite disappeared yet.   TC: I find that Western people who haven’t been to Russia and the experience of living and working in Russia are sometimes two very different things. Is that something that you’re trying to tackle in your programmes?   JB: Yes, I hope we are doing that. I think that a lot of Westerners, especially people of my age and older, do associate Russia with the Soviet Union, or Yeltsin, or even the tough line of Putin. I try to humanise the country as best I can, and get people to meet real Russians; real people with their own lives and their own problems and souls and dreams. I want to give my audience an idea of what makes the country’s heart beat, and that’s its people. Not just the beautiful runway models, or old babushkas or the slightly stern-faced big guys. I want to get inside what makes the country tick and what sort of things the country has to offer. I want to show people that everyone is just like them; there are people here who have stories to be told and I can try and tell them.  
Image courtesy of James Brown

Image courtesy of James Brown

TC: In terms of future projects, how often do you produce a programme?   JB: Normally we try to do one a month, sometimes it can be three in a month, but it normally evens out to about twelve programmes a year. It depends on logistics; sometimes I’ve finished one show and have to run off two days later and get prepared for another. Sometimes there’s a six-week gap. Since my last survival show I was due to go out and film on a fishing trawler in the Barents Sea, which would have been very interesting, but we had some problems sorting that out.   TC: You’ve been to so many different places in Russia, I think some people don’t realise how big Russia is, what would you say has been the thing that you’ve been most surprised about Russia?   JB: The place that always stands out for me is the Caucasus, because obviously it’s a very troubled region, and there’s still a lot of ill-feeling among a great many European Russians, and the Chechens and the Muslim population down there. However, when I visited the Northern Caucasus, North Ossetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, I don’t think I’ve ever visited a place where I’ve been given such warmth and hospitality. A lot of Russia has been wonderful, but it particularly stands out because they really would have given me their last bit of food in their fridge. I had people kill their calf to put on a dinner for us in the middle of a field, and I’ve sat down with some shepherds and eaten with them, I was invited to a wedding in North Ossetia with three hundred people. People simply went out of their way to make us feel welcome. One thing that struck me and a lot of people originally is that when you arrive in Moscow, because Russians are quite frosty on the exterior, it takes a while to get to know them. If you can get through that exterior you find that they are a very warm and very giving people. But it’s difficult to begin with and you wonder if you’ve done something wrong, or you think that everybody hates you. You have to break down that barrier and I think that’s quite difficult for a lot of people coming to the country for the first time. So this level of hospitality was something that stood out for me. They would go the extra mile, despite being very poor, but they would do anything in their power to make you feel part of the family really. That’s stuck with me over the years.   TC: You’ve been in Russia for many years now, are you planning to stay there permanently? What’s your long term plan?   JB: Well I’m engaged to a Russian woman, so it’s entirely a possibility. It depends how the work pans out, how my family situation pans out. I love what I do, and I do feel privileged to have a job that I love. There are some more projects that I would like to do with RT. If the work still stays interesting and I still feel motivated then I’d like to stay, though it’s difficult to know what the future holds of course.   Watch James’ Discovering Russia documentaries: http://rtd.rt.com/films/discovering-russia-with-james-brown/ Follow James on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jimbrownjourno