“Do you think I should book my return ticket to the U.S.?” asks Iazamir Gotta over a crackly Skype connection from St. Petersburg, Russia. I’ve advised Gotta, who goes by Zamir, to secure safe travel directly to the protective arms of his longtime screen buddy Anthony Bourdain. Zamir, a seasoned documentary filmmaker, is ebullient in a way that I don't have to do the math to know it's almost midnight on his side of the call. Ebullient is kind of his deal: Chatty, silly, unquestionably Russian. It's the same Zamir of Tony and Zamir Take A Holiday To Chernobyl and Zamir and Tony Bro Down In Brighton Beach. Zamir is what film critics would call a scene stealer, matching wits and a thirst for vodka with the show’s hero.
And in this Sunday’s episode of Parts Unknown, much is the same. On the eve of this year’s Sochi Olympics, Bourdain travels to Moscow to meet his friend (and sip some vodka of course), but also to sort out how the population negotiates the, as Bourdain observes with classic voiceover, a “go-go, Eighties-style capitalist, conspicuous consumption, see who can spend the most money, disco-techno thing” within an increasingly Imperialist Russia run by Vladimir Putin. Times are complicated for Russia and its 143 million residents and the episode’s airing syncs precisely with an escalation of violence between Russian forces and separatists in Ukraine. It turns out this is not an episode devoted to haute stroganoff and Bourdain, with an increasing investigative aim and intelligence with his program on CNN*, is not pulling any punches — interviewing exiled politicians and gay rights activists about modern life in Russia, with a clear mission to expose the general fucked-up nature of the current regime.
This is where the flight comes in. “You can say tell Tony I accept his offer,” jokes Gotta, who also served as one of the episode’s producers and chief fixer (production jargon for the guy who finds interesting, and controversial, people to interview). And this episode just might stir a bit of controversy, which can cause some headaches in modern Russia. Or worse.
I know you haven’t seen the episode, but I think it’s going to make some noise.
Matt, if it makes some noise in the States, what do you think it will do here?
There’s a line in the episode: “everybody understands everything.” What does this mean?
In the Soviet Union we always learned to read between the lines, and that there are no rules to the game. You have to do what you have to do in order to survive. You have to understand and keep your eyes open. Everybody understands the term, the deal.
You’ve filmed with Bourdain for over 13 years. What is something that happened on this shoot that never happened before?
When we first saw each other we had like two or three liters of vodka and talked for a couple hours. Many hours. The next morning we had to shoot a breakfast scene and when I saw Tony I asked him if we wanted a beer or something, which helps you with the hangover. He said he “hated alcohol” and didn't have a drink. Things have changed a bit over the years, which is not a bad thing at all (laughing).
So what did you talk about over three liters of vodka?
Well, after the first one I don’t really remember too much, but we did make a plan for me to be the manager of a jiu jitsu fight between him and Vladimir Putin. We did drop the subject, because if [Putin] loses that fight it would rid me to Siberia. We also talked about movies that weren't very good. Bruce Willis came up.
The episode does tackle Russian food a bit. You visit a restaurant that does a more modernist take on borscht. I believe it was served as a solid. Do you like this kind of cooking?
I’m more of a conservative guy, so I am more following dishes like the Russian fish pie coulibiac, which Tony wanted to try the first time he came here. There are places serving something called “anti-sushi” or something. But I am more of a peacemaker. I want the real stuff.
What is February like in Russia, when you filmed this thing?
It’s freezing like hell and there is a lot of vodka involved.
Indeed, you are drinking a lot of vodka in the episode. Like, a lot. But did you ever fake any of those shots with water?
Listen I’m not sure how far you have followed my relationship with Anthony, but it is based on non-fiction. It’s an all-for-real arrangement, that began when he came to St. Petersburg in 2001 for Food Network. This means that, yes, that was 100% Russian vodka, no bullshit.
*Parts Unknown is produced by Zero Point Zero Production, the parent company of Food Republic.
Here's a preview from the Russia episode of Parts Unknown: