2-hour special airing Sunday, June 1 at 9 PM ET/PT on the Discovery Channel
In 1959, nine Russian students mysteriously died while on a hiking trip in a remote area of the Ural Mountains. Fifty-five years later, American explorer Mike Libecki is reinvestigating the mystery – known as The Dyatlov Incident – but what he uncovers is truly horrifying. The hikers left a clue, a photograph, which suggests the cause of their horrific deaths could be the work of a creature thought only to exist in folklore: the creature known as the Yeti.
If you’re a fan of conspiracy theories, UFO tales, and cryptozoology, then Russian Yeti is made for you. If you’re not, then you already know from that title that you’re not going to really get into this documentary special. For me, I enjoy, but don’t buy into, all of the above. I love shows like Ancient Aliens, for example, because they shine a light on bizarre events and strange beliefs that are brilliant launching points for creative writing projects that I love starting but never seem to finish.
I’ve also been a Bigfoot fan since I was tiny.
So I already had an interest in the Dyatlov Pass incident, and was curious about the Yeti angle, well before hearing about this special and was curious just how believable they could make an investigation seem when right from the start they’re claiming it was a Yeti that killed the hikers. The short answer is they don’t. But it’s not for lack of trying.
But to be quite honest, the documentary’s overall intentions seem to be split right from the start. Before we are ever introduced to Libecki, who really doesn’t seem to have any qualifications to investigate the mystery beyond the fact that he’s an explorer and climber, the documentary opens by interviewing writer Donnie Eichar, the author of the acclaimed Dead Mountain: The True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Eichar interviewed people who knew the hikers, examined Russian case documents, the hikers’ diaries, etc. – all of which Libecki also does in the process of this special – but Eichar came to a non-cryptozoological conclusion about what happened to the victims.
If I were Eichar, I’d be a little upset about being included here, as the way it’s set up seems to imply that this Yeti theory is an extension of his own.
However, once it’s clear we’re throwing actual research and believability out the window and embracing fantastical explanations, Russian Yeti is serviceable enough, hitting all the standard notes one expects from this sort of thing (think Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot), although it leans a bit heavily on the shaky-cam reenactment footage accompanied by shrill, disturbing screams of the victims, contrasted with dramatically lit interview excerpts with Libecki and Klenkova.
The largest part of the documentary turns out to be dedicated to establishing the existence of the Yeti, which takes Libecki and Klenova across Russia to interview Yeti witnesses and experts. These interviews are nicely done and the witnesses are natural enough that I believe that they believe they’ve seen something, although none of the video or photographic evidence offered is particularly compelling.
In that respect, the documentary is a pretty standard-issue Bigfoot special crossed with a “reality” approach of sending our hosts out into the wild to “confront” the Yeti in its natural habitat. As per usual with this sort of thing, “safety precautions” force the professional camera crew to stay behind at crucial moments (or fear gets the better of them and they hold back), forcing Libecki and Klenova to switch to handheld cameras to document their “harrowing” experiences.
This forces us into a couple of low-rent Blair Witch Project moments that fail to either scare or impress with believability.
The strategic appearance of “secret” information toward the end of the special is a nice touch, though, serving to help buttress earlier implications that the Russian military may have had a hand in the deaths of the hikers, or were at least aware of what was going on, but everything is still linked directly to “proving” a Yeti actually did the deed – possibly instigated by a mysterious missile test gone awry.
The revelation of a never-before-seen photo supposedly shot by the hikers doesn’t quite win me over either. If it’s real, then it’s an interesting piece of evidence, but as per usual with this sort of thing, it’s not clear enough to establish that it’s a real Yeti. The shadowy figure could just as easily be a Russian soldier that other evidence implies could have also been in the area at the time.
As far as crypto-conspiracy theories go, Russian Yeti hits just about every sweet spot I’ve got and had me wondering if this was actually a back-door pilot for a monster hunting show starring Libecki. Although I could have done without the hyperbolic final moments that seem to imply with the frenetic editing and the mounting thunderous music that Yeti sightings are becoming more and more frequent and that they’re coming for us!
So if you’re interested in a fantastical mystery, you could do worse. Especially if you’re already a fan of Bigfoot stories and already know a little bit about the Dyatlov Pass Incident. There are a few interesting revelations and we do get to see photographs and hear diary entry readings that haven’t really been made widely available before.
However, if you’d rather get a more believable idea of what really happened, I’d recommend picking up Donnie Eichar’s book, which apparently covers a lot of the same material, but avoids the fantastic to provide a plausible explanation for what may have actually happened that February night on the Mountain of the Dead.