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Season 3, Episode 5

Russia

It's been nearly a decade since Tony has set foot in Russia with his longtime drinking buddy/travel partner Zamir Gotta. Vladimir Putin is more powerful than ever. On the eve of the Sochi Games, the country is on lockdown, but Tony and Zamir aren't known for keeping their mouths shut and following orders.

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On that midnight train to St. Petersburg
1:27
Bourdain enjoys caviar, pickled herring and vodka as he rolls through the dark birch forests of the "real" Russia.

The return of Zamir

"Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?
Who's the cat that won't cop out, when there's danger all about?
Right on.
ou see this cat Zamir is a bad mother ... "


He's back.

With tanks massing by the Ukrainian border, the region in turmoil and the Russian bear once again flexing his muscle, there's only one man for the job. A very special man. A man named Zamir.

In this episode of "Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown," we take a look at Vladimir Putin's Russia. Not Russia, the country of Tolstoy and Gogol, poetry and great sacrifice, forests of birch. Nor the Russia haunted by the Great War, Lenin and Stalin, terrors, gulags and purges. The Cold War does not feature in this story -- nor what immediately followed. We're looking at Putin's Russia, the country he's made -- is making, right there, in full view of the world. We look at who's doing well -- and who is not.

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Putin appears to see himself as a manly man of the old school. By old school, I mean mid period Sylvester Stallone. He is fond of appearing in public with his shirt off while riding a horse or standing in front of a tank or holding a large gun. All these macho displays might cause one to ask if he doth protest too much about his masculinity, but we won't go there.

For reasons of good diplomatic relations, the West has been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Extending the benefit of the doubt has been something of a reflex when it comes to Putin. When a loud critic of Putin's was poisoned by a radioactive polonium (a wildly expensive and nearly impossible to obtain substance outside of restricted military circles) in the center of London, the attitude was very much, "Who could possibly have done such a thing?"

Photos: Anthony Bourdain visits Russia

In the run up to the annexation of Crimea, there was similarly disingenuous hand-wringing in the press and by public officials:

"What, oh, what, will Putin do next?"

And: "Who could those pro-Russian insurgents be?"

Though the question probably should have been, "Was there ever any doubt," perhaps there are other priorities at work in the West's apparent credulousness.

About 50% of the oil used by Europe comes from Russia these days. And Vladimir Putin has demonstrated before that he will not hesitate to turn off the tap.

Putin's rule has been marked by official attitudes of xenophobia, homophobia and paranoia. He likes power, and, as we've seen with the Sochi Olympics, is not shy about projecting it. Though a former officer in the Soviet intelligence services, he is certainly comfortable with '80s style go-go capitalism. The people close to him tend to make a lot of money. He's not afraid of doing what he sees as being in his interests -- or the interests of his country -- and the hell with what anybody else thinks. He's no wimp. He espouses, when convenient, anyway, traditional Christian values.

Thinking about it, he could probably get elected to Congress in this country.

Though his face is as taut and devoid of expression, as a Real Housewife, it holds, based on past behaviors, little mystery, one would think. Yet here we are, only now, finding out who Vladimir Putin really is.

But who, who is Zamir Gotta? This man who has, at various times tried to sell me a Transylvanian fixer-upper, a decommissioned Russian submarine, taken me foraging for mushrooms with the former KGB counterintelligence officer who 'ran' Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen, made me a public enemy in Romania? Sidekick, entrepreneur, literary agent, film producer, broker of deals, would-be vendor of military hardware, cult hero, friend -- he is all of those things and more.

I met Zamir in St. Petersburg in the winter of 2002. He'd been hired as a fixer, the sort of type one needs -- particularly in Russia -- when trying to make television. Someone had to arrange permits, navigate the bureaucracy, deal with any "nonofficial" bodies who might have had their hands out or who might threaten to make things "difficult." And Zamir, it turned out, had a startlingly wide and deep number of contacts: writers, dissidents, chefs, former officers of the KGB and FSB, beauty queens and associates of what, for lack of a better term, one might call "mafiya".

The last thing in the world we had planned for this very capable, international man of mystery was for him to become on-camera "talent" and my most enduring, best-loved sidekick.

But it was our first trip to Russia and things were not going well. A locally hired cameraman had wandered off, never to be heard from again. Chris Collins, the now lone cameraman/producer, was struggling for scenes. Planned sidekicks had either failed to materialize or proved themselves less than outgoing. I found myself in country where I didn't speak the language, knew no one, had few realistic plans -- and under-the-gun to provide an hour of television entertainment worthy of the Food Network's undoubtedly high standards.

At the very last second, we threw a mike on Zamir, fed him some vodka, and sat him on a park bench. I then walked up to him while the camera rolled -- and we winged it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

We have had many, many good times making television together over the years, in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ukraine, Kansas City, Uzbekistan and Buffalo, New York.

Our infamous Romania show was not such a good time, however -- a hideous, infamous, cruel goat rodeo of epic proportions. I blame Zamir. Or the vodka.

Maybe I'm just trying to be polite, observe local customs. Or maybe we are just disgusting, horrible people, but whenever we get together, we seem to knock off at least a bottle of vodka in a sitting. I assure you, I don't drink like this at home. As incredible as it may seem, I am not an alcoholic. I don't even keep beer in my fridge. When I'm back in New York, rare is the time I even go out to a bar for a leisurely cocktail. But when Zamir is around? It's like nuclear fission. Two elements who, when they get together, blow shit up.

It's why I do shows with Zamir so infrequently. Because after drinking vodka so steadily, and in such quantities for a week or more, I need a few years off.

So enjoy this one. It's rude. It's boozy. Vladimir Putin won't like it. And there won't be another one like it for some time to come -- or until my liver forgives me.

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About Anthony

Renowned chef, bestselling author and Emmy winning TV host Anthony Bourdain is a trailblazer and outspoken commentator who provides unique insights into food, current events, and cultures around the world.

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