THE RTÉ One TV series What in the World?, presented by Kilkee man, Peadar King, started its eighth series this week, with a programme concentrating on Russia.
The four-part series continues today (Monday) at 11.15pm, this time focusing on South Korea, followed by programmes at the same time on December 15 and 22, featuring South Sudan and Togo.
“The series looks at issues around globalisation, poverty and human rights in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We have covered 40 countries across a whole range of issues. This year we wanted to go to Russia because it’s so close to us and we know so very, very little about it. We hardly ever see Russian people on television and we very seldom hear Russian voices on radio, although it’s closer to us than the United States,” Peadar told The Clare Champion.
He believes that Irish people have a narrowly defined view of Russia.
“The dominant images we have of Russia come through its more beligerent foreign policy. It comes through the eyes of Putin, so we get a one-dimensional view of life in Russia. Going back to old Soviet times, we have this sense in the west of an oppressed, dour people burdened by the weight of communism and almost waiting for the liberation of Irish people to convert them to Catholicism. A lot of readers of The Clare Champion, particularly older readers, will remember praying for the conversion of Russia. I suppose Russia has been converted but in a way we would not have imagined. It has been converted to a very virulent and predatory form of capitalism, which maybe wasn’t the intention,” he said.
While in Russia, Peadar and The What in the World? team met with a variety of ordinary people with interesting stories.
“Behind that facade it was really interesting to go and meet with Russian people. We spent some time with a Russian farmer, for example. He was a really interesting figure in that he was a former captain in the army. When the whole collective system collapsed, as it did in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the price of land just dropped,” he explained.
“People who worked on the land were given bonds. They didn’t really know what bonds were and they didn’t know how to access land through the bond. They simply sold them, some of them for £30 an acre. This guy was quite astute. He bought up a huge tract of land and then he went off to Canada to learn how to farm because he had no background in farming. Now, he has 400 Hereford cattle. He’s a beef farmer and he sells beef to elite markets and restaurants in Moscow. Every year, he slaughters about 80 animals and then he sells them on. He’s a completely organic farmer. What’s also really interesting, from our perspective, is that even though temperatures plummet there in winter-time, he doesn’t house them at all. They come into a large, sheltered, yet open paddock. He feeds them throughout the winter, so they are out in grass all year round,” he explained.
Peadar also met a woman who hankers for the old days of the USSR.
“We interviewed an 85-year-old woman who remembers the German occupation of Russia. The Germans got within 100km of Moscow and we wanted to get to the town closest to Moscow that they got to. The woman was 13 at the time and she remembers the Germans going from house to house with lamps and holding the lamps up to people’s faces to see if anybody looked Jewish. If they did, they were carted off. She described that in great detail to us but she also said that she remains a Communist at heart to this day. She idealises Stalin, thinks that Stalin saved Russia and that he was responsible for the reconstruction of Russia. Of course, what we forget in the west is that 27 million people died in Russia during the Second World War. The Russians refer to it as the Great Patriotic War. Hitler didn’t invade Russia until 1941 so between then and 1945, 27 million people were killed.”
This week’s programme also featured younger people and focused on media restraint in the country.
“We also interviewed two young gay/lesbian people. A very controversial piece of leglisation was introduced in 2013. A lot of people in the west in the whole gay rights movement equated that with what happened in the concentration camps in the Second World War. There is no comparison. I think it does a diservice to what happened in the concentration camps. We tried to see what was that piece of legislation and how did it impact. People on the far right in Russia took it as an excuse for gay-bashing and there was a considerable amount of that. It is a hostile place for people to be gay, notwithstanding the fact that they decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, the same year as we did in Ireland,” Peadar pointed out, before highlighting the media situation in the country.
“There is only three independent mainstream media right across Russia. One of them is a tv station, called Rain TV. We interviewed the deputy editor, who is only 27. He was openly and vehemently critical of Putin. Their station is being hit on all sides by censorship, with pressure on the commercial sector not to advertise. He was really strong in his analysis of censorship. He argued that while the state censors openly, that journalists are open to being censored and, in that way, they can curry favour. He was critical of his colleagues in the media within Russia,” he added.
What in the World? continues at 11.15pm on the next three Monday nights and is also available for viewing on the RTÉ iPlayer.