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On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace review – a jaw-droppingly unforgettable real-life tale
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On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace review – a jaw-droppingly unforgettable real-life tale

This six-part BBC documentary tells the story of the group who became known as the Arctic 30: two journalists and 28 Greenpeace campaigners, whose imprisonment for three months in a Russian jail in 2013 was the subject of international outrage. The incarceration and the diplomatic row it caused are to come in later episodes. For the opening double bill, On Thin Ice: Putin v Greenpeace is a chaotic thriller, an exciting, enraging and inspiring cross between Captain Phillips and Total Wipeout.

Interviewed now, members of the Arctic 30 recall a planned protest that was, with or without hindsight, somewhat rash. The state-controlled Russian oil company Gazprom was about to begin drilling in the Arctic and Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise was to travel to the oilfield to slow the project down and draw attention to its huge environmental costs. Activists would scale the Prirazlomnaya rig in the Pechora Sea. Then, a survival pod with people inside was to be winched into the air, leaving it dangling from the edge of the platform for as long as possible.

Greenpeace pressure had already put Greenland, Finland and Norway off the idea of drilling for Arctic oil. The new protest was based on hoping that Vladimir Putin would be similarly reasonable about it. If that sounds like delusion bordering on derangement, we are reminded of the pure insanity that prompted it. Climate breakdown, greatly exacerbated by humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels, was already causing Arctic ice to melt. The Earth’s most powerful countries and corporations saw this not as a shaming alarm bell, but a commercial opportunity: now they could access the oil that had previously been deep-frozen.

On Thin Ice is strong on the philosophy of protest: that logically, respect for the law or concern for your personal safety ought to be overridden by an important enough cause, but that it takes rare courage to follow through and take action. These heroes, the people who were willing to journey to the lethally frigid Arctic and risk personally angering the unstable leader of a rogue superpower, come across as a mix of danger junkies, reckless eccentrics and superficially meek, polite people who evidently have some steel in their core.

So it was that this glorious mob left their training camp in Kirkenes on the north-east coast of Norway – after several days of merrily jumping in and out of cold water and shinning up ropes – for the five-day journey east to Prirazlomnaya. After one day, they noticed that Russian coastguards were tailing them; a chat with their new companions via radio led them to conclude that “coastguards” was a euphemism. But on they pressed, eventually reaching the rig and launching the dinghies that would complete the mission. After two failed attempts to hook a rope to the top of the rig using a catapult, the connection was made and a pair of Greenpeace climbers started their ascent, at which point the “coastguards” launched their own dinghies full of armed men in balaclavas, shouting in Russian and crashing into the Greenpeace boats as everyone bobbed around on the freezing waves.

Greenpeace, knowing that an action like this has effectively not happened if the world can’t see video of it, had a cameraman on one of its dinghies. Thus we are right there, looking into the eyes of the FSB agents, who display all the classic traits of conscripts serving an authoritarian regime. They are scarily young and obviously panicking, their expressions showing not anger or ideological fervour, but fear: Putin’s orders were not to let those climbers get up those ropes, and woe betide them if they failed.

To ensure their film made it back to the communications room on the Arctic Sunrise, the other activists retreated, literally leaving the climbers hanging. They had got about halfway up the side of the rig, but were being threatened by armed spooks below them, and drenched by Gazprom workers firing water cannon into their faces from above. Hypothermia and even drowning in mid-air were possibilities; they soon gave up and came down, deciding that the gun-toting spooks were the safer option.

Back on the Arctic Sunrise, it was assumed that the capture of the abandoned climbers would be the end of it – but then a helicopter appeared overhead, a new gang of men with guns descended, and the next act of an incredible story began, as the Greenpeace crew locked the ship down and hoped for mercy. It’s here where the documentary adds dramatic reconstructions to the Greenpeace footage and, if you stop and think, it’s obvious where this trick has been used, but the events are too gripping for you to stop and think, and in any case nothing is more astonishing than the pictures the protesters shot at the time. A couple of episodes down and we’ve not seen a Russian prison yet, but it’s already a tale that is jaw-dropping enough to ensure nobody will forget what the Arctic 30 did or why they did it. Mission accomplished.

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Source: theguardian.com