In 1984, when Gerald and Lee Durrell visited the then-USSR to film their 13-part documentary, Durrells in Russia, the words ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘wildlife’ were rarely, if ever, spoken in the same sentence (except perhaps ‘when I think of the Soviet Union, I don’t think of its wildlife’). Durrell’s visit to the USSR was groundbreaking – here was a British man who appeared on a popular Soviet TV show, V Mire Zhivotnikh (‘In the World of Animals’), but more than that, here was a British man who was already popular in Russia.
The first episode of Durrell in Russia ‘other Russians’ starts, logically enough, with the Durrells’ arrival in Moscow, where Gerald introduces the concept of the documentary series from Red Square – the viewers are going to see the ‘other Russians’ – not the sorts usually portrayed on Western television. Of course, although Durrell was referring to those working in wildlife sanctuaries, he also means ‘ordinary Russians’ (or Soviets, since as I previously noted the Durrells visited other former Soviet countries too) -Russians, Ukrainians, Azeris shown as ordinary people, as contrasted with the scene-setting shots of Red Army soldiers marching on Red Square.*
What is fascinating about this episode is Durrell’s appearance on Soviet TV and his meeting and befriending Nikolay Drozdov, who still presents ‘In the World of the Animals‘, which remains a popular TV program.
Durrell later goes to a book-signing at ‘Moscow’s largest bookstore’ which must have been Dom Knigy, and professes pleased surprise at how popular his books are. It’s very touching to watch people eagerly bringing their old and much-read copies of ‘My Family and Other Animals‘ in Russian translation for Durrell to sign.
I do wonder how much guidance the TV crew had about what they could and could not film and could or could not say.