Better Red Than Dread

YOU couldn't help being fascinated and horrified by the ugly portrait of post-Soviet Moscow presented by last night's City Of Murder And Mayhem.

The present desperate state of Russia was represented by two individuals: the leader of a dedicated SAS-style crime-busting squad, Yevgeni Petrushin, and a rich young businessman, Roman Trotsenko, living the high life but in imminent fear of a contract-killer.

This was a documentary that packed as much drama into its 90 minutes as both the major crime thrillers, Second Sight and Vice, currently running on prime-time television. And, for added veracity, it was part of the ITV strand called Real Life.

And yet I had my doubts. Was it truly real-life, or was it a parable of modern Russia, with the facts arranged to offer a thrilling spectacle for viewers in dull old Britain?

Looked at with a slightly sceptical eye, neither of the main protagonists rang completely true. Trotsenko was described as a millionaire with a big construction business, two inland river ports, and a bank (but with his name nowhere to be found on the letterhead), all by the age of 28. He lives in a palatial suburban house, surrounded night and day by armed guards, fearing assassination. He says that he has once been abducted, and on another occasion was fired at point blank in a restaurant, but the gunman missed.

Trotsenko rails against the corruption of capitalist Russia, while doing very nicely, thank you, out of the system.

He plans to have his baby son sent to Switzerland - it will be cheaper, he says, to educate him in a private school than to have bodyguards watching over the child 24 hours a day. He also squeezes in six foreign holidays a year and frequents one of Moscow's raunchier nightclubs.

He could almost be one of the 'thieves and traitors' that Petrushin constantly denounced, a group that, in his eyes, encompasses the new business class of tycoons and the entire Russian parliament: all MPs, he insisted, are gangsters.

Petrushin is a veteran of the Soviet Union's special forces, and when Jamie Doran's film opened, was deputy commander of a unit charged with freeing hostages, 'liquidating or arresting' armed bandits, and destroying drug rings and arms dealers, all in support of the Moscow police.

He obligingly allowed Doran to accompany him on several missions, but it was here, I'm afraid, that City Of Murder And Mayhem began to look just a little, well, contrived.

First, Petrushin's unit seemed small enough for them all to squeeze into one old Land Rover, which didn't exactly indicate might and power.

Their first outing was to a bootleg vodka factory, an exercise that, however genuine, still looked as though it had been staged for the cameras. Petrushin's unit, known as SOBR - rather appropriate in the circumstances - charged in waving their guns without meeting any resistance.

In fact, the bored-looking workers all obediently laid themselves down on the ground at the very sight of the SOBR warriors.

In another incident, they interrupted a gang of balaclava-clad gangsters raiding a Moscow business enterprise and were said to have shot one of the raiders. The camera homed in on a small tear in the back of a pair of jeans with no sign of blood, panning out to show a man lying on the floor with a tourniquet around his thigh.

One of those morphine injections you see in Vietnam war films was stabbed into his other thigh, and Robert Lindsay's commentary tersely announced that the man later had his leg amputated. Petrushin had already denied that his squad was gun-happy: 'What we do, we do for the right reasons,' he said.

But SOBR were nowhere to be seen when Trotsenko showed us two of his tourist sightseeing boats burned to ashes at their berths - half a million dollars worth, he told us. He blamed arson by one of his competitors - it certainly wasn't an insurance scam, since, apparently, it is impossible to obtain cover.

As a climax to the film, we saw Petrushin (loyal enough to the old regime to try to kill himself when the Soviet Union fell in 1991) with his family and friends picnicking in the woods and singing the Soviet Union national anthem. Simultaneously, Trotsenko and his pals partying at his villa were singing the same ode to Lenin. The point? Presumably that all Russians are patriots under the skin, and all feel nostalgia for the old regime.

Or, given the news that Petrushin had since been sacked for 'political reasons', that you can long for, even sing for, another Joe Stalin, but it doesn't do to talk about it.

Brilliant timing by the BBC, at yet another crucial moment in the Northern Ireland peace process, to glorify the violence at the heart of Irish political life with its drama series, Rebel Heart.

It ended last night in a hail of gunfire: sad if it inspires more young Irishmen to prefer the romance of the bullet to the dreary compromises of the ballot box.

Its hero, James D'Arcy's Ernie Coyne, managed simultaneously to be a supporter of Michael Collins, the man who 'sold out' the Republican cause by concluding a partition treaty with Britain, and to die at the barricades with the rebels in the subsequent civil war.

This offered one redeeming touch of irony. As Coyne and his erstwhile friend O'Toole (Vincent Regan) shot each other, the latter observed: 'At least we can say we died for Ireland.'

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