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An anarchist's adventures in wonderland

For several years, the BBC has been making its best formal documentaries in post-Communist Eastern Europe. As old statues went and new statutes came, a perfect match was found between important events and self-important participants. Exhilarating series about ructions within Solidarity, the coming of glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall and, most recently, Messengers from Moscow have thrived on the fact that politicians from a less anally retentive media climate are not gaffer-taped by the strictures of the soundbite.

But while those at the top of the heap fall over themselves to rehearse the past, there's not been much from those at the bottom, where the more pressing concern is with the present. Russian Wonderland (BBC2), a collection of video diaries filmed at street level, adjusts the imbalance. After the trio of films in the first episode it's hard to tell whether or not the series is intended as a comprehensive portrait of dystopia, or whether it's just gone out of its way to unearth the abnormal. The argument implicit in last night's cross-section of stories is that all Russia has forsaken the shackles of ordinary life.

The housewife we encountered was no ordinary housewife, or maybe she was. She had stabbed her husband in their cramped kitchen and was sent to a roomy prison full of sister criminals. Not all housewives are murderesses, but it seems all murderesses are housewives: how else would they get anywhere near a job in the prison crche? The film all but flashed back to the bad old propagandist days: "Here in the sunny people's paradise, even the murderers happily share the tasks of building socialism!"

Only one of the prisoners bothered to conceal her face from the camera. The gesture was mirrored in the film about Natasha, a disenfranchised six-year-old Ukrainian refugee deprived of schooling and stationed by her mother on a busy Moscow roadside to beg at the traffic lights. One of the drivers whom she bumptiously asked to "give me some money" shielded his face from the lens. You could make a tasty video diary about him - he probably runs guns or drugs - but what about all the other drivers? They constitute the teeming, ordinary throng who appear to have been cropped out of this civic snapshot.

Little Natasha was the star at the top of the bill, and a potent free- marketeering symbol of the dry rot infesting the social fabric. Her mother even called her "my Hollywood star", and if someone from that superpower was watching, they will have seen the reincarnation of Shirley Temple, all stumpy high kicks and coquettish guile. Whether she was dolefully mourning the loss of her childhood or triumphantly raising aloft her fistful of roubles, the camera loved her. "Don't get in the way when he's filming me," she instructed her older sister.

A third film contrasted the tale of two conscripts, a martial artist and an anarchist. One left his comically tearful grandmother to serve his country, while the other dodged the draft by artificially faking high blood pressure. You couldn't really warm to either, but they served to cement the impression that in modern, polarised Moscow there is no such thing as a middle of the road. Either you vote for Zhirinovsky and gun down Grozny or you disturb the peace by singing anti-war songs on your guitar.

One delicious vignette found the willing conscript sitting for his military photo: after the flash he rapidly handed over his beret and combat jacket, front-loading for ease of entry, to the next sitter. Underneath, his T- shirt bore a message of international peace and goodwill distilled into a monosyllable: "Fuck". No doubt about it, in wonderland the anarchist is winning the war.