PBS’ “Nature” series begins its 11th season with a three-night adventure through the wildlife of the former Soviet Union. Smart and stylish, it is as smooth and engrossing as visual vodka chasing cinematic caviar.
From its breathtaking opening shot–a troika barreling through the snow, its team of white horses snorting and heaving–“Realms of the Russian Bear” is a treat, a marvelous journey to places that seem both exotic and familiar, perilous and serene.
Across 11 time zones, from the Volga Delta at the northern end of the Caspian Sea to the haunt of the elusive snow leopard in the Celestial Mountains of the Central Asian Republics to the noble volcanoes of the Kamchatka peninsula, the natural history of what used to be the Soviet Union–its wildlife, its flora, its tumultuously varied landscape–is unfolded with drama, wonder, clarity and delight.
This six-hour production, the first three-way partnership of American, Russian and British broadcasters, crackles throughout with literate writing and engaging imagery.
In the first two episodes, aired together, series guides George Page, “Nature’s” longtime executive editor, and Nikolai Drozdov, a professor of natural history at Moscow U., exchange observations as they wade through the fertile wetlands of the Volga, where sturgeon and beluga annually spawn, before focusing, in the second hour, on the majestic polar bears of Wrangel Island in the East Siberian Sea, culminating in a fascinating hunt for walrus.
Drozdov is a real natural resource. For the past 25 years, he’s been the Soviets’ incarnation of Marlin Perkins, host of a show called “In the World of Animals.”
And it’s not hard to understand why. He relishes his work and is thoroughly engaging. His commentary is filled with wit and insight and obvious affection for the vastness of his subject. His thick accent is something of a challenge, but his observations–and charm –are worth the effort it can take to understand him.
Technical credits throughout this challenging shoot are superb. But what remains most extraordinary is the challenge of the land itself, and the quality of the all-around effort to make something so vast and varied so appealing and coherent.
Like the great brown predator of its title, “Realms of the Russian Bear,” may seem daunting at a distance, but it’s mesmerizing close-up.