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Interview with the Producer

July 18 2001
American Radioworks interviews Rob Rand, Producer of A Russian Journey.

Rob Rand on the job. Click to enlarge

Photo: Rob Rand
American RadioWorks: What struck you about Radischev's book enough to do a radio version of it?
Rob Rand: It wasn't so much anything specific in the book, but the fact that Radischev existed and wrote the book. In college and graduate school, I was a major in Russian studies and in particular Russian history and literature. I was taking some Russian literature classes at Northwestern University in Illinois. We were doing 18th century Russian Literature, and Radischev was a part of that. So I knew of his existence and of the signifigance that he had in Russian intellectual history. Though he had written the journey back in the late 18th century, he was adopted by the Communist Party as an icon of a belief system that they favored.

Radischev was in my head, and 10 years ago when Annie Garrels and I were working on a project (we did an hour-long history of the Soviet Union to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the USSR), it occurred to me to retrace Radischev's journey for radio. A year or so ago I was able to pull it together. So it wasn't anything in particular about the book, but just the fact that it existed.

The issues that Radischev wrote about—questions about liberty and freedom, the economy, corrupt bureaucrats, religion, and politics— are still the major issues that Russians are concerned with today. It seemed to me that, by retracing the journey and using his book as a guide post, that some of these issues would resonate today. That was the approach that we adopted as we did our own trip from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

What does this book mean to the average Russian?
Probably not a lot in terms of the impact that it has on their lives. On the other hand it's required reading in Russian schools. So kids are forced to grapple with Radischev's journey. Everybody knows who Radischev is, and everybody knows his journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

In many of the little villages that we visited, which were the same places that Radischev visited, Radischev is a much larger character. For instance, in one small town, Radischev's visit back in the 1780s was the major event in the history of this town, and they still commemorate it. To them Radischev might mean a little bit more, but frankly speaking, in the year 2001, Radischev is a historical figure. His book is a piece of history, and people are aware of it, but I don't think it means much.

You followed Radischev's journey pretty much exactly from town to town. How did you relate back to the book when you were actually doing the story? Did you ever feel Radischev's footsteps behind you?
I can't say there was ever a moment where his presence, in a mystical way, really touched us. But on the other hand, we certainly knew that he had been there, because in virtually every place we visited there was a street named after Radischev or a placard on a building that said Radischev had visited this town or Radischev had visited this building. So there was a looming historical shadow, but, because Radischev isn't really something that people think about these days, ... I can't say I felt like he was shadowing us. We were the people who were raising the name Radischev and trying to get people to respond, rather than the other way around. It was interesting that, wherever we went, there was a 200-year-old footprint, so to speak, in the name of a street or in a historical placard.

In his book, Radischev talks about the Russian character. After your trip, what impression did you get of the Russian character, and is that what you were even looking for?
Neither for me or for Anne Garrels was this a first trip to Russia. One of the neat and interesting things about the collaboration that we had is that each of us has spent a career working on Russian affairs, living in Russia, getting to know Russians, and getting to know their character. We each had our own special experiences and paths to doing this. We both know a lot about Russia and we both speak Russian. We both went there having a certain appreciation and understanding of the Russian character, which is pragmatic, stoic to a certain extent, tough, and very kind hearted. We experienced all that.

The Russian character: pragmatic, stoic to a certain extent, tough, very kind hearted.
In terms of kind-heartedness, we were welcomed virtually everywhere we went. I found this interesting because this was my first trip to Russia since 1993, and I had read accounts of growing anti-western sentiment and particularly anti-Americanism. And I can't say that we encountered much of that at all. There was really only one incident when a Russian Orthodox priest expressed displeasure with our presence and with the West, and that's reflected in the documentary. But, overwhelmingly, we were welcomed, which I found interesting because we were just walking up to people cold and introducing ourselves.

The pragmatism was interesting. I had a sense that people have really adjusted to the changes that have taken place in Russia over the last 10 years. I think that there's still arguably a continuing revolution going on. The tumultuous nature of the initiation of that revolution back in 1990, '91, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the initial wrenching to-and-fro of the economy and the political problems....since then things have settled down. You didn't get a lot of whining and complaining about life. We got very little sentimental yearning for the days of the Soviet Union. People were by and large going about their work, day in and day out, and they understood that their lives were in their own hands now, and not the government's, and they could make or break who they were, and what they would become. That's pretty pragmatic. That was interesting and sort of surprising to me.

Stoicism: I still think there's a sense among the people that we met that they are small cogs in a big picture—particularly because we were visiting places outside of Moscow—that their lives were buffeted by bigger developments in the capital, and they would do the best they could, given the circumstances that they face.

There was always good humor. I think everywhere we went people were quick to laugh and smile and make jokes about anything really. That's how I'd answer your question about the Russian character.

There's a downside to that as well, which is alcoholism, which has been the curse of Russia for centuries. That certainly persists today. Russian women will tell you that the population of Russian men has been decimated by alcoholism. It was a problem that we saw everywhere. In the town of Valdai, we were driving down the street and we saw a couple of men whose faces were puffy and disfigured from years of alcohol abuse. We saw one guy carrying the metal exterior of a T.V. set, going to try to sell it for scrap metal to buy some more vodka. Again and again we saw scenes like that, or heard complaints, primarily from women, about men who drink too much, and the negative impact that that had on their lives.

In the documentary you say there's a real difference between Moscow and the provinces.
We talked about this with a group of law students in a provincial capital called Tier. Tier is a city, it's not a huge city with 9 or 10 million people like Moscow, but it's a city, it's a provincial hub. But they definitely consider themselves to be "the provinces" as compared to Moscow. The law students would tell us that Moscow is another planet, it's another world: All the money is in Moscow, all the wealth is in Moscow, all the people are ruder and cruder and care only for themselves and not the rest of the country, whereas, in the provinces, people view themselves as the real Russians, the wealth that exists in the capital doesn't exist to that degree in the provincial cities. One of the main reason that Radischev did his journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow was to explore conditions in the real Russia.

Two hundred years later I think the same can be said, that the real Russia is not in the capital but outside of the city. Here in the United States, reading press coverage of developments in Russia, you tend to get that perspective, because so much of the reporting (not all of it, certainly) is Moscow based—and that's important, no doubt, but it's only one segment of a much larger picture. Really I think the main reason that we wanted to do this journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow was to look at what life was like in the real country, in the real Russia in 2001, and try to use the journey as a window into how the country is doing 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In that respect, not much has changed from Radischev's time, when Moscow and St. Petersburg were the big cities, and the real Russia was in the interior. And that remains true today, and the people in the provincial villages definitely have a sense of that. They are proud that they are not Muscovites. One of the law students told us that he was born and raised in Moscow and moved to Tier because he didn't like Muscovites, he didn't like the texture and feel and taste of the city, and he much preferred living in Tier in the provincial lifestyle which was more low key.

One of the things I found interested about your story was the relationship you had with your driver. It seemed like he provided a lot of insight.
Our driver Kostya was great; he was a real find. Annie Garrels found him, and it was a great selection, because Kostya for the last 13 or 14 years has made his living as a truck driver driving the route that we traveled between St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Driver and commentator Kostya Vasin. Click to enlarge

Photo: Rob Rand
So he really knew the terrain, and it's important to have somebody like that, just in terms of the logistical aspects of getting from point A to point B. He turned out to be a great guy. We all got along tremendously in terms of personality. He was really insightful and talkative.

It became clear to us from the very beginning of the trip that we would wind up using Kostya as a character in our story, as our commentator, because what he had to say was really interesting. Almost daily, as we were driving along the road, Annie would be sitting up the front seat with Kostya and I would be in the back. I'd have my shotgun mike pointed towards Kostya's mouth, ready to record any gems that came out. Much of it was really insightful, and much of it was funny.

One example from the documentary is we were talking about corruption in Russia. I think we had just come from an interview that Annie and I had done with a local police chief (this material did not wind up appearing in the documentary). The police chief was talking about corruption among the militia in Russia, so we were talking with Kostya about that. Just out of nowhere he said, "Do you know Red Square?" Ad of course everybody knows Red Square, it's the place where Lenin is buried, where Basil's Cathedral is, that beautiful onion-domed building, but it's also the place where the czars used to execute people. He said, "You know, if you really want to end corruption in Russia, what you need to do is take one guy who's been found guilty of taking bribes, and execute him publicly in Red Square, and after that all corruption in Russia would end." I don't know whether that's true, but it was an awfully interesting thing to hear from a Russian, and it's an example of the kind of commentary that we used periodically in the documentary.

For somebody who is not familiar with radio or the process of how you do a documentary, can you tell me how, after you had the idea, did it get to the final product?
First I had to get the money. I contacted American RadioWorks and broached the idea of doing a documentary special retracing Radischev's Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. There was interest. Then I spoke with Anne Garrels, who I've known for a long time and have worked with at NPR, and she was absolutely inerested in the idea. We went back to American RadioWorks and presented a proposal indicating that I wanted to do this with Annie, that she would be the correspondent and I would be the producer. I then spoke with some folks at NPR, and at the end of the day, American RadioWorks and NPR agreed to fund it. So we had the money, and that was the biggest obstacle.

Then I started doing a bunch of research on the Internet using Russian search engines, plugging the names of these 24 different villages that Radischev visited, and trying to get story ideas. I got a lot of material that way. Annie was in Russia in January and February of this year and was able to do some follow-up set-up work. Then we consulted and laid out an itinerary with some ideas of the kind of stories and people that we wanted to see. But there were a lot of things that were blank, and as it turned out, a lot of things developed just on the road. For instance, we were driving along one day, and we knew that we wanted to visit a collective farm that had failed, and we saw one and just drove there and started talking to people. It was a wonderful scene that's reflected in the documentary, where we met with an old 87-year-old woman named Anastastia. We didn't know about her before, but we just found her. She told us her story, and gave us a tour of her house, and we met the collective farm manager, and the drunken farm hand. It was a really interesting scene that told you a lot about the failure of agriculture in Russia today.

How long were you in Russia?
We were there for about two and a half weeks, and we recorded 55 hours of material. I think arguably the most painful part of the work was transcribing that, which we did all there. Typically, in the end of the day and in the evenings, Annie would go to her room with a tape machine and I'd go to mine, and we'd each sit there transcribing tape, so we'd have down on paper what everybody said. It just makes producing the story, writing the story, structuring it, and selecting the tape that you want to use in the final documentary easier if it's on paper. That's the way it's done in radio. It's a very time-consuming and arduous task complicated by the fact that I'd say that 60 percent of the material is in Russian, so that we were translating along the way. But we got that all done by the time we came back here to the States, which meant that we were really able to hit the ground running and get on the job of structuring and writing and manipulating the tape and producing and editing the story.

How long did the whole process of producing A Russian Journey take, from start to finish?
I started the research in September of 2000, not doing it full time, but doing it here and there. And Annie would do the same thing in January and February. I'd say by the time that April came around we were both working on it full time. The journey itself was in April. That was about a month, and then we had to produce the hour-long documentary for American RadioWorks, as well as five pieces for NPR. So we decided to do the hour-long show first, and then we would break out the five separate pieces from that for NPR and the five separate pieces wound up appearing five consecutive days on All Things Considered. So we got back in the beginning of May, I'd say another month or so to write, produce, edit and mix the hour-long show and the five pieces for NPR. So a solid two months full time, plus any number of weeks on a part-time basis, in terms of set-up and research.

Are you happy with the final product? Is it everything that you hoped it would be?
It's really good, I have to say. You have this phenomenon in radio, and I suppose in any kind of creative medium, where you just spend so much time working with the material and the tape, and you listen to it again and again, and you reach the point when you don't have a sense of whether it's good or not. That's why you rely on editors who have fresh ears to help put it together at the end of the production process. But I have to say that after I distanced myself from it, I knew it was good intuitively as we were doing it. It felt really strong, and happily that's the kind of reaction that we've been getting from people as well. And I hope folks who will listen to it on American RadioWorks will feel the same way.

Somebody told us along the route, "You know, nothing really extraordinary and compelling is going on in Russia right now."
This was different in that, often when you're trying to get into a story, you're looking for a really compelling story line to tell. For instance, I did a half-hour documentary a year or so ago for WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago, about Skokie, Illinois. It's a village outside Chicago where the American Nazi party tried to stage a march back in the mid-70s. It's a village with a lot of Holocaust survivors, and the whole controversy made national news, and it involved the First Amendment and the Holocaust. It was, on it's face, an extraordinarily compelling story, with people who had extraordinarily compelling stories and experiences to tell. This Russia stuff wasn't like that. Somebody told us along the route, "You know, nothing really extraordinary and compelling is going on in Russia right now." Things have sort of settled down. But I think what was extraordinary and compelling about the documentary that we did was not necessarily an amazingly dramatic story line, but rather it's sort of, in a photojournalistic kind of way, the snap shots of different people's experiences and different people's conditions in different towns and what they're going through on a day to day basis and their little mini-dramas that I think we really successfully captured in an elegant and smooth way in the documentary.

While we weren't presenting an amazingly dramatic story, in the sense that a novel would present such a story, what we presented was, I think, amazing and dramatic in the totality of being able to capture the lives of any number of people in Russia today, and a sense of what life is really like in the real Russia, in these small towns and villages. At the end of the hour, I think it's a really good sense of what it's like to live in Russia in 2001, 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And I think I'm really pleased with our ability to have done that. I think we really pulled it off.

Robert Rand is a journalist, writer, independent public radio producer, and editor based in Uzbekistan.

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