GOOD EYE

When Anthony Bourdain Called Out Putin and Trump—in Russia

The Season 3 episode of ‘Parts Unknown,’ released in 2014, saw the late TV traveler venture to Russia. It remains one of the most extraordinary episodes of his CNN program.

David S. Holloway/CNN

It’s difficult to imagine a world without Anthony Bourdain, its most trusted and noble traveler; a tender curmudgeon whose raison d’être was, simply put, to convince Americans that beyond their borders lay a world filled with unspeakable beauty.

Even if you never had the distinct pleasure of meeting Bourdain—or Tony, as he was known to his family, friends and colleagues—his felt like a familiar face, one that strangers across the globe opened their homes to knowing that they would be seen.

While many delighted in his books, which showcased his sardonic Jersey-bred wit, nowhere were his talents more in evidence than on the television programs No Reservations and Parts Unknown. He was the consummate (best?) travel guide—empathetic, audacious, devoid of pretense, and prone to introspection.

There are too many standout moments to count. Fleeing the 2006 Lebanon War; subbing in on the kitchen line at El Bulli; his open-hearted visit to Palestine; destroying a ribeye with Bill fucking Murray; a pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium; getting PNG’d from Azerbaijan; the best house party ever at Alison Mosshart’s in Nashville; gabbing over noodles with President Obama in Hanoi; a tour of Japan with Masa (and his infectious laugh); journeying deep into the heart of Trumptown, USA. Some of the most indelible episodes chronicled his friendship with fellow chef Eric Ripert and their Abbott and Costello act. Others, like his return to the old stomping grounds of Provincetown, Massachusetts, saw Bourdain wrestle with his own demons.

Part of what made Bourdain such an effective traveler was his first-rate bullshit detector. He called it like he saw it, and his vision was rarely clouded. On the Season 5 episode of Parts Unknown titled “New Jersey,” he traveled to Atlantic City and admonished Donald Trump for bleeding it dry. The episode aired on May 31, 2015; 16 days later, Trump declared his candidacy for president. When I brought up how prophetic it was to Bourdain, he offered, “It’ll be really prophetic if he does with the presidency what he did with Atlantic City, which is pretty much declare victory and then retreat. If you remember, when he left his casinos behind broken and in shambles, he was quick to point out how well it worked out for him. He made his money, but his investors and Atlantic City were left with a gigantic, hideous white elephant.”

He strikes me as a businessman—a businessman with an ego. OK, so he’s like Donald Trump—but shorter.
Anthony Bourdain on Vladimir Putin

But hands-down the most prescient episode of Parts Unknown was “Russia.” Airing May 11, 2014, it opens with a montage of anti-Putin protests followed by Bourdain’s portentous voiceover: “No matter how transparently autocratic, vengeful, oblivious to even a thin veneer of democracy, Russians love [Putin]. They seem to feel about him like New Yorkers used to feel about Giuliani: he may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.”

Before you can say Na Zdorovie!, Bourdain is lounging in the lobby of the tony Hotel Metropol, smack-dab in the middle of Moscow. There, he meets his frequent travelmate Zamir Gotta, a Russian TV producer. “Now, my concern is, you know, back in the day, this place was famous for… all of the rooms were bugged,” Bourdain tells him. Zamir laughs it off. After a few vodkas, our host proceeds to lay into Putin… and Trump.

“My perception of Putin? Do you really wanna hear it? A former mid-level manager in a large corporation. Short. I think that’s very important—short”—Zamir loudly clears his throat—“who has found himself master of the universe. And like a lot of short people, if you piss him off, bad things happen to you. He likes to take his shirt off a lot. He strikes me as a businessman—a businessman with an ego. OK, so he’s like Donald Trump—but shorter.”

Though the “Russia” episode aired in May 2014, it was filmed in late 2013, well before Trump not only declared his presidential candidacy, but U.S. intelligence agencies found that the Kremlin had interfered in the presidential election to tip the scales toward Trump—and Trump, in turn, appeared to capitulate to Russia, recently going as far as campaigning for their readmittance to the G7 summit.

“Bad things seem to happen to critics of Vladimir Putin. Journalists, activists, even powerful oligarchs once seemingly untouchable are now fair game if they displease The Leader,” narrates Bourdain, before seguing to a restaurant dinner scene with Boris Nemtsov, a leading Putin critic.

According to Bourdain, he and his producers approached “four or five” Moscow restaurants about scheduling the scene with Nemtsov, and when they found out who the host was dining with, the establishments swiftly canceled the scene. After much hunting, they finally scored a spot at an unnamed restaurant with a British chef.

“Critics of the government—critics of Putin—bad things seem to happen to them,” Bourdain tells Nemtsov over borscht. “This is a case, the Litvinenko case, a known enemy of Putin stricken with a bout of radioactive polonium. Aren’t you concerned?”

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“Tony, I was born here 54 years ago. This is my country. Russian people are in trouble. Russian court doesn’t work, Russian education decline every year, and I believe that Russia has a chance to be free. Has a chance. It’s difficult but we must do it,” says Nemtsov.

On Feb. 27, 2015, just nine months after the episode aired, Nemtsov was assassinated, shot four times in the back while crossing a bridge near the Kremlin. Opposition leaders blamed the state—and by extension, Putin—for the murder.  

Reflecting on their dinner, Bourdain recalled, “I ask [Nemtsov] directly, ‘Aren’t you concerned? The enemies of Vladimir Putin, bad things have happened to them,’ and he laughed it off and said, ‘It would be too embarrassing. I’m too important. I’m a public figure.’ One has to wonder if that was in somebody’s mind as they shot him to death pretty much on the front lawn of the Kremlin. It’s not like they don’t want you to know who done it, you know? When they kill somebody with nerve gas or radioactive polonium in Central London, they want you to know who done it. That’s the whole point.”

The episode ends with a defeated Bourdain describing—in voiceover—how Russia has recently annexed Crimea and amassed their troops at the Ukrainian border. “The world has done nothing. It will do nothing. As Vladimir well knew,” says Bourdain. “He wins. Again.”