“Prague is the most liveable city”–YouTuber Bald and Bankrupt on his new home and Soviet fascination

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YouTuber Bald and Bankrupt has seen a meteoric rise on the popular video site since he began posting videos of his travels through countries of the former USSR. Recently, he moved to Prague and visited our studio where we discussed his fascination with all things Soviet, his COVID-19 experience, the situation in Belarus and why he thinks Prague is a great place to live. I began by asking him why he chose to be known as Bald and Bankrupt.

“Well the story is very simple. I think everyone has a fear of being online and what they are going to attack you with, so I thought take away what they can attack you with.

“The first thing was the baldness obviously. I needed to own it so to speak. As far as the bankrupt is concerned, I was made bankrupt. My business failed and I was made bankrupt just before I started the channel, which is actually kind of why I started it – to get myself out of bankruptcy. So bald, bankrupt… Let’s go with that. It has a ring to it.”

I also wanted to get one thing clear. There is a lot of speculation, at least in the comment sections underneath your videos…

“You are scaring me.”

…about whether you are a former intelligence officer. Many people say that, because you are so good at communicating and getting through difficult situations. Is there any truth there?

“I am genuinely fascinated by everything that happened under this grand experiment called the Soviet Union.”

“Well I can’t answer that. I can’t answer the military background obviously.”

Ok fine. We will leave that open.

“I will tell you why. It is because when you apply for a visa, to Russia especially, they ask you these sorts of questions, like whether you have any military background or anything, so saying anything would be very foolish.”

Fascination with all things Soviet

Most of your content centres around traveling to the Eastern European states of the former USSR, or at least the Eastern Bloc, you have also made videos about countries such as India, Mauretania, Cuba and so on. However, most of your content focuses on former Soviet states. You often spend a lot of time picking out run-down, little known Soviet locations, such as bunkers, restaurants, hotels. Why did you choose this focus?

“I chose the Soviet Union, because I began to be fascinated by the USSR when I was roughly 15–years–old with the wall coming down, perestroika, all that kind of stuff. It was always my dream to travel across the former Soviet Union, but I never had the opportunity.

“The place where I was most afraid was America.”

“When this YouTube came along and there was a way to do it I decided that was what I really wanted to do with my life, so maybe I can take people along with me.

“The other part of the answer to your question is that I think the people of Eastern Europe have been the victims of some negative propaganda. Not just the governments, but also the people.

“I knew from being married to a Belarussian woman and having Belarussian in-laws that that was not the whole story. You have to separate the governments from the people, so I wanted to shine a light on those areas and show what the people are really like.”

Could you enlighten me a little on what you mean by “propaganda”?

“Yeah, ok. Well, let’s take the Russians for example. In the newspapers, Russians are portrayed as kind of aggressive drunks, alcoholics. There is that sort of: ‘Don’t go to Russia! You’ll get your head kicked in if you are even slightly effeminate’ or something like that.

“I know that that is not the case at all. I know that Russians are warm, extremely hospitable people and so I wanted to readdress that balance in my own miniscule way.”

You are saying that many of these people are very hospitable, but in the past you have travelled to some very dangerous countries, at least in official terms. Many of your fans, I myself, are sometimes very much considered about your safety.

“Without sounding too cliché, we really are pretty much all the same thing wherever you go. You will find hospitably everywhere."

“Which places in particular?” (laughs)

Well, personally I found Mauretania quite scary. Which country were you most afraid in?

“Well, it is such a simple answer actually. The place where I was most afraid was America. I mean downtown Atlanta, downtown Nashville – those are the scariest places I’ve ever been to. There is police everywhere with shotguns. You feel like you are in some sort of military lockdown.

“Everywhere else I’ve been I’ve never felt in danger. Whether it was Chechnya or Mauretania, I never felt physically in danger. I felt uncomfortable in some situations when people maybe were not reacting to me in the way I would like, or where my social skills could not get me out.

“However, America for me is without a doubt the scariest. I feel Western Europe is much scarier than Eastern Europe, let’s put it that way.”

Will there be any Bald and Bankrupt videos from America?

“I don’t know. Maybe one day. Not so far.”

“I sometimes do genuinely think that there is some kind of god up there that wants me to capture this stuff on film and to enlighten people slightly.”

My next question was actually going to be whether you have some strategy that you use when you are feeling that there could be danger, or among strangers that you are not so sure about. How do you get out of those situations?

“I have a very good filter for people, so I can kind of feel when someone or something is a little bit off. I can therefore extrapolate myself from a situation before it starts. But I think that just a smile, being honest and genuine, offering a handshake, puts people at ease and disarms them.”

Your videos also often have a deeper side, where you explore war memorials, the legacies of ethnic tensions, get invited to refugee flats and interview them. Is that something that comes naturally while you are recording or are you trying to consciously educate people about lesser known parts of history?

“I am genuinely fascinated by everything that happened under this grand experiment called the Soviet Union. That means just the way people lived, the things they ate and drank, but also the deeper topics especially with the breakdown of the Soviet Union what happened to the people afterwards – hence the refugees.

“There is also the Second World War of course. I wanted to bring that in particular to light, because I have a feeling that many people in England, or America, think that the victory was all about us in the West and forget the huge sacrifices made by the Soviets.

“So, yes, I think that is deliberate ploy of mine - to bring that to light.”

On being a travel YouTuber

Your travel videos, whether it is being invited to dinner by an Azerbaijani refugee family after walking into their apartment block, or being hosted by a Mauritanian family while waiting for a freight train journey, are a visual proof of the saying that “The poorest are often those who give the most”. I wonder, are there any other timeless truths that you have learnt during your travels about people?

“Without sounding too cliché, we really are pretty much all the same thing wherever you go. You will find hospitably everywhere. You said that the poorest give the most. I think that is true, but I just don’t film with wealthier people. I don’t doubt that if I met wealthy people they would say: ‘Come back and have some dinner with us,’ but I am just not hanging out in expensive bars, etc.”

Well, except that very expensive hotel in Azerbaijan which you ran into.

(laughs) “Well, you really have done your research!”

You are often forbidden to film by local police or people on the street. I was wondering, is there any crazy experience you have had in your travels which you did not manage to capture on film?

“Oh, there is lots of stuff that I regret not capturing, either because I was too slow on the draw and its over before you realise, or people often just say no filming. It makes no sense, because it is often so mundane. There will be a building, or a statue, and people will just say: ‘No filming here.’

“The Czech people for me are by far the politest people that you could possibly meet.”

“I think there is this hangover especially in former Soviet states where everything is forbidden unless you have permission to do it. It makes no sense to me whatever. But I cannot think of any major things that I missed.

“The luckiest one was when I was in Ingushetia, in the Caucasus, where there were suddenly some guys on top of a car firing machine guns and stuff. I was a very short video, but I just happened to hear the gunfire. I was doing something else, when the gunfire went off and I did a video.

“I will tell you something. I often think there is a YouTube god and he has been smiling at me. Sometimes I think to myself: ‘How did I manage to capture that? How did I meet that chap?’ I went out with no preparation. I met this chap, this guy. He invited me back to his house. He offered me vodka and we had this deep conversation about the war, or whatever and I think: ‘How did that happen?’

“I sometimes do genuinely think that there is some kind of god up there that wants me to capture this stuff on film and to enlighten people slightly.”

How much research do you do?

“Zero.”

Zero, really?

“I think that Prague is the most liveable city.”

“I decide on a country. I get a feeling that I am ready to film. I feel like filming. I think that country is interesting. Maybe there is something I want to see there in particular, or just in general, and I go.

“Before I go, I’ll read something about it, but I have no plans when I get there apart from just let’s land and see, which is quite nerve racking, because I never know. There are lots of films that didn’t make the cut, just because I didn’t meet anyone you know. I am not making top five beeches of Thailand, which you can guarantee to make.”

I wanted to ask you one more question which is the camera itself. Does it help or does it hinder you? I get the feeling that people are made quite uncomfortable by cameras. Do you have that experience?

“Yes, all the time. That is the most nerve racking thing, trying to talk to people. My channel is not really about me, it is about the people I meet and I am nervous, because it is strange to come up to someone with a camera, they’ve never met you and suddenly you start asking them questions. I mean, I would be like: ‘What are you doing?’

I am surprised how often people are actually ok with it.

“There are certain techniques that you use and learn.

“I will always start off with: ‘Hi! I am just filming your country showing the world what nice people you have here,’ after they’ve noticed the camera. Then it kind of puts them in the situation, I feel, where they have to be nice and respond. They do not want to be the one person who does not allow me to film.

“There are techniques you pick up as you go along to perhaps ingratiate yourself with them.”

Living in the Czech Republic

I wanted to move on to the Czech Republic. How would you characterise Czechs? Where do they fit in among all the former Eastern Bloc peoples that you have met?

“The Czech people for me are by far the politest people that you could possibly meet. As an Englishman, who values politeness so highly, it is a real pleasure being here.

“However, I wouldn’t say that they are the warmest people. I have been here many times, for long stints, and I do not have any deep connections with a Czech person unfortunately. I also sometimes feel that when I go to a bar and it is just Czech people, outside the tourist centre of course, that they feel like: ‘What is this guy doing here? Why is he in our bar and not by Charles Bridge or something?’

“But they are extremely polite. I love the fact that when you walk into a shop they say good day and always say good bye. Or my neighbours, they don’t know me, but they always say good day and goodbye on the stairwell, very polite people.”

Well there is a saying that English people are like a peach – soft on the outside but hard on the inside– while Czech people are like a coconut – hard on the outside but once you get through…

“Is that right? I just haven’t gotten through yet, but maybe one day.”

Prague has a reputation for being quite a wild place in the 1990s, did you visit the city then?

"The more you do this profession you realise that the influence which you have is valued by governments, or they are afraid of you and they want the videos."

“I did the backpacker thing around Europe when I was about 27, so we are going back almost 20 years. When you say wild, do you mean the nightlife was wild, or do you mean in terms of gangsterism, or what exactly?”

Both.

“Ok. (laughs) Well, the gangsterism I never experienced, but yes, maybe there was a wilder side back then. It is a little bit tamer now, I suppose with mass tourism it has changed, died down a bit, perhaps.”

You’ve done a video about Prague. Do you plan to do any videos about the Czech Republic?

“I don’t know, but probably not about Prague. I spend a lot of time here and the thing is that whenever you make a video you annoy somebody. So when you want to spend a long time in a place, and I see Prague as home now, you don’t want to annoy the locals. It is so easy just to make a joke and [get into trouble].

“If someone wants to say something about England, I really don’t care, make your jokes. However, if you make jokes about some countries, India in particular, they all come after you and that’s it. I just want a nice, quiet life here in the Czech Republic without annoying the locals.”

It reminds me of an experience you had in Chechnya, what you were just saying.

“Oh gosh, yes.”

But I will leave that be.

(laughs) “Ok.”

However, you did say that you want to settle here, or stay here for a bit. Why Prague?

“I think that Prague is the most liveable city. I don’t think it is the world's greatest city, but it is the most liveable city I’ve been to.

“I would be surprised if I wasn’t blacklisted [by Belarus].”

“When I was young I used to design cities, in pen and paper or Lego, and I just think Prague ticks off everything you would want if you live here, whether it is the recreational activities, friendliness of the people, the layout, and the transport. Everything just works. It is clean. It is safe. I cannot think about any negatives regarding living Prague. I haven’t discovered them yet anyway.”

You did a tour through Belarus reviewing their beers.

“Oh, wow! Imagine trying that in the Czech Republic.” (laughs)

Exactly. Perhaps it is too cliché, but would you think of doing that?

“Well there is a lot to choose from. Someone would have to recommend me some. We would have to narrow it down to five or six. Otherwise, I would be here literally all my life time.”

Catching the coronavirus

You are a travel vlogger in a time when the COVID-19 coronavirus has brought about a halt, or at least serious limitation to international travel. Yet you still insist on traveling and making videos and even contracted the virus yourself.

“Yes.”

It was in Serbia. Could you tell me what was that experience like?

“It was my own fault for a start, because I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I should have done. I kind of thought that if you are under 60, then you are fine, which was stupid of me.

“Then I contracted it in Serbia, where I first spent two weeks at home, just thinking that it will be ok and it didn’t get ok. Then two weeks in hospital, one week in emergency in Serbia. It was a scary time, a very scary time.”

Indeed, you spent time in a Serbian intensive care unit with people dying all around you?

“Well, I saw two people die on my birthday in the beds next to me.”

If I recall correctly, you posted a video about it on YouTube and then took it off.

“That’s right.”

On that video you said there were some sorts of friends, or people who watched your videos and somehow organised that you got out.

“Oh wow! We are really delving deep here.”

Well it is just interesting, because I find that a lot of Russians like your content and you seem to get some interesting contacts, or connections through this, or at least fans. So how did this happen?

“Sure. Well, basically, I was in the lower ward of the hospital and nothing was happening. A friend had a contact at the Russian embassy. He contacted the Russian embassy, someone who worked there, and explained the situation. He said: ‘This guy has made videos about Russia. You should check him out. Is there something we can do?’ And that person at the Russian embassy said: ‘Sure’. Things started moving after that.

“Now, I don’t want to tie it all in to say that it was 100 percent the Russian embassy, because then people make the comment that it was corruption, that I got moved because of contacts, but things started moving after the Russian embassy called the hospital. Coincidence? Maybe.”

Well, it is very useful in any case.

(laughs) “I don’t think it was Putin himself.”

Belarus

On that note of contacts and offers, I did want to ask you… You have a Belarussian ex-wife, your travel companion is Belarussian.

“Yes.”

You wrote, I will cite here, that: “The government recently reached out to me to make a film or two that portrayed Belarus and its leadership in a certain light but I won’t betray the people who have been sc****d over by the kleptocracy by doing that.” Tell me about that. What happened?

“The thing is, you realise the more you do this profession is that the influence which you have governments kind of value or they are afraid of you and they want the videos. It obviously is very cheap publicity for them and you can have millions of views on a video, so you can really alter someone’s opinion about a country.

“You do get people reaching out to you. I’ve had it from other countries as well. I just don’t like the idea of being guided in any way what to say, what to do on film.

“But yeah, Belarus did reach out to me. Someone from the government reached out and dangled the possibility of visiting I think it was the KGB museum and some other stuff, if I was willing to do some positive videos about Belarus.

“But, as I say, I would never betray the Belarusian people like that, because they have suffered so much, the people in the villages especially. They make USD 100 a month, basically living on subsistence wages. Most people leave for Russia, or Prague, or somewhere just to have a chance at something.

“To hang around with those people, to listen to their stories, to know what has happened under that dictatorship and to then make videos praising the government? No thank you.”

I was going to move on, but I will go off a bit as your quote continues.

“Sure.”

You say:  “Lukashenko whilst doing some things in the beginning that benefited Belarus such as stamping out the age of bandit capitalism and bringing law and order to the nation has now clung on to power so long that he has lost all the goodwill he once had.” I am interested in how you would posit Belarus in comparison to other former Soviet countries. Has it somehow managed to preserve that life, or is it exactly the same as the others? Is there something that makes it stand out?

“Belarus, at the end of the fall of the empire, in the early 1990s, really suffered more than most places, if we are comparing Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, in terms of bandit capitalism. In terms of the thugs running the streets and just stealing everything.

“Lukashenko rode into power, in a legitimate election, to stamp that out. Someone needed to do that, otherwise you would have a situation like under [former president Leonid] Kuchma where it just continued for years and years.

“They say in Belarus that if Lukashenko had left, let’s say in 2000, there would be statues to him now, because he did do something good in the beginning. He stabilised things. People were receiving their wages and pensions on time, unlike in Ukraine, or Russia under Yeltsin, where people were waiting for months on end and sometimes never received their wages. So, definitely in the beginning he did good things and I think the Belarusian people supported him in the beginning as well, but he has outstayed his welcome, let’s just say that.”

You took quite a hard stand there, given your connections to Belarus and the fact that you make so many videos about the country. Let us not forget your series on the Chernobyl affected villages. Do you think you will be able to come back there any time soon?

“I would be surprised if I wasn’t blacklisted. I have been to the protest here in Prague. They obviously have people watching those. I have been quite vociferous, at least on Instagram, about my beliefs, so I think it is highly unlikely that I will be allowed back in, which is a shame.”

Future plans and Mr. 100 Rupees

You have just been in Albania. Tell us, will you reveal any of the countries you are planning to visit in the future?

“Yes. Albania was great by the way, but my plan is to do the full 15 republics of the former USSR, so I am working my way around. This summer, before COVID-19 struck, was supposed to be focused on the Central Asian republics – Kazahstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, etc. That is my next plan, but when that will happen I don’t know. In the meantime I will probably just do some smaller countries in the former Eastern Bloc that have opened up. However, long-term wise, I need to tick off those Central Asian republics.”

Any Central European countries by any chance?

“Possibly, we will see.”

Which Central European countries would you be most intrigued by?

“I am fascinated by what was East Germany. It would be interesting to go across the border and see what remnants are left. If not there then Romania interests me, the Balkan states…You know, honestly, this whole part of the world fascinates me, whether it is what happened during the Soviet-era, during the war, in the post-Soviet times, so I can’t narrow it down really.”

I was going to ask you some sort of big metaphysical question to end this interview.

“Oh, how terrifying!”

However, I will give you the opportunity to answer a pressing question for many of your YouTube fans instead. In India, did you end up giving Mr. 100 Rupees your money?

(laughs) “The big question! Well, the answer to that, I can reveal, is a big no. I gave him nothing, because he is an able bodied man walking around who can get a job. There are people whom I am willing and like to help out, but not a dude who just follows you around constantly for hours. So, no, Mr. 100 Rupees is probably still out there. He is probably still behind me.”

Yes, I was surprised you managed to shake him off.

“It took a while. It took a while.”