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Potemkin Productions
February 14, 2011 5:00 PM   Subscribe

"In 2006 I was invited to take part in one of the great adventures of modern broadcasting – conquering the booming Russian television market." Peter Pomerantsev remembers his time in the Russian television industry.

"These shows [The Apprentice, Next Top Model, Big Brother] had been successfully remade across the globe: they were sure-fire formulas that would work anywhere. Russian channels followed the pack, bought the rights, and asked Potemkin to help make them. Russians loved Mercedes cars and Benetton jumpers: surely they’d love Western television shows too? We were wrong. Most of the shows flopped."
...
"The show looked great, the stories and dramas all worked, but there was a problem: no one in Russia believed in the rules. The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as blat – 'connections'. Russian society isn’t much interested in the hard-working, brilliant young business mind. Everyone knows where that type ends up: in jail like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or in exile like the mobile phone billionaire Yevgeny Chichvarkin. Today’s Russia rewards the man who operates from the shadows, the grey apparatchik, the master of the politique de couloir – the man like Putin. Promotion in such a system comes from knowing how to debase yourself, how to suck up and serve your master, how to be what the Russians call a holop, a 'toady'. Bright and extrovert and aspirational? Not if you want success. The shows that did work were based on a quite different set of principles. By far the biggest success was Posledny Geroi ('The Last Hero'), a version of Survivor, a show based on humiliation and hardship. This chimed in Russia – a country where being bullied by the authorities is the norm."
...
"Item one features the president visiting somewhere – a hospital, a school, a farm. Item two is a serious piece of national news: forest fires, economic problems. Item three is a piece of foreign news, chosen to show that Russia's problems are nothing compared with other countries': if the Russian piece has been about forest fires, the next item will be about forest fires in Australia or the US; if the Russian news has been about economic problems, the next item will focus on economic problems in the West. The final item is always a happy piece: a tiger cub born in a zoo, Russian victory at the Eurovision Song Contest."
posted by vidur (14 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yeah, this isn't a bad piece, but the constant undercurrent of "OMIGOD IT'S 1984! LOOK HOW THE RUSSKIES ARE BRAINWASHING THEIR PEOPLE!" is really annoying. Does he really expect us to believe that Western TV channels don't rearrange their news reporting for maximum emotional impact? Or, for that matter, don't air wacko documentaries? Also, this:
The Solzhenitsyn adaptations were phased out and the past was explored instead in ‘patriotic’ programmes like The Name of Russia (a version of the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons), in which Stalin came third in the audience vote.
is really weird. No one likes Solzhenitsyn because he was a tedious nationalist bore who hadn't written anything interesting in fifty years, and everyone likes Stalin because without Stalin there would be no Russia. "'Patriotic' programmes" at least have some comfort-food value, which is why they're so popular in the US.
posted by nasreddin at 5:56 PM on February 14, 2011


To put it in context, for contemporary Russians Solzhenitsyn has all the cultural relevance and media appeal of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Only in the coke and Smirnoff-addled minds of Western Russia journos, who think the whole country is a frozen wasteland where brave dissidents ride bears and save cowering poets from evil dictators, would adaptations of his work have any real success.
posted by nasreddin at 6:00 PM on February 14, 2011


I have some disagreements with the article too (like the annoying undercurrent and unrealistic expectations), but I didn't want to editorialize in the FPP. Plus, he is spot-on about a lot of things and has put together an interesting write-up overall.

The President scolding the Governors on live TV or the President leaving a live televised Cabinet meeting to personally check meat prices at a supermarket (also televised live).. these are the most blatantly staged "news" I have ever seen anywhere.

I also found it curious that he didn't mention Dom-2 while talking about reality shows. It was on TV all the time while I was in Russia. Also missing is Papiny dochki (Russian Wikipedia entry), a sitcom I liked, though it may have been after his time.
posted by vidur at 6:15 PM on February 14, 2011



The President scolding the Governors on live TV or the President leaving a live televised Cabinet meeting to personally check meat prices at a supermarket (also televised live).. these are the most blatantly staged "news" I have ever seen anywhere.


Oh, totally. But I would say that the biggest difference between this stuff and, say, Fox News is that in the Russian case everyone involved--from the writers to the audience--is in on the joke.
posted by nasreddin at 6:23 PM on February 14, 2011


No one likes Solzhenitsyn because he was a tedious nationalist bore who hadn't written anything interesting in fifty years

Except me, because he wrote Cancer Ward. So I like him.

Non-sequitur!
posted by prefpara at 6:52 PM on February 14, 2011


See, that's the thing. For Westerners he's "that dude with the sweet beard who wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." You never had to hear his sorry ass bloviate about the True Meaning of Orthodoxy and Why We Never Shoulda Let Those Jews Live In Our Country and Why The West Is Corrupting Our Youth. I imagine it's kind of like what French people think about American NPR listeners for whom Carla Bruni is primarily a singer of coffee-shop pop music.
posted by nasreddin at 6:58 PM on February 14, 2011


Well, the biggest difference IMO is that while Fox News leans one way, there are other channels that have other leanings and people are free to watch them all. I didn't get that feeling in Russia. Plus, the anti-"System" coverage in Russia gave the appearance of being carefully calibrated, as if to present an illusion of free press. It was absolutely routine to point out corruption cases after the corrupt had already fled the country (to the West, those traitors!) and were, oh-so-unfortunately, beyond the reach of Russian law.

This is not to say that all is well in the Western media. For example, I am amazed at the policy-by-daily-opinion-polls that seems to be the norm in Australia. But that's a different issue.

The internet appears to be remarkably free in Russia though, and while I witnessed attempts (not always successful) to create noise to drown out dissenting voices, I didn't witness any outright censorship. So much so that even outright illegal stuff (piracy etc.) happens remarkably openly.

As far as entertainment is concerned, Russian TV appears to be going through a transition phase of having to fill a void. I am sure they'll have plenty of original material eventually.
posted by vidur at 7:08 PM on February 14, 2011


I guess I'm pretty Western-ized. But I don't like Solzhenitsin out of ignorance of his bloviations. I like him despite his bloviations, because Cancer Ward is one of the great achievements of human civilization.

My parents have this argument all the time. My dad think we should appreciate great art even when the artist is repugnant (e.g. Burnt by the Sun). My mom thinks that when the artist is repugnant or antisemitic or whatever, we should factor that into our valuation of his or her art.

I'm more on team dad, and you seem to be more on team mom. I mean, what great Russian writer wasn't a repulstive antisemite? OK, so maybe I'm just thinking of Dostoyevsky at the moment. My ultimate point, as always, is that Cancer Ward is fucking ridiculously brilliant.
posted by prefpara at 7:11 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Look, I'm not denying that he wrote some great books. That has nothing to do with the writer's insinuation that the failure of his Solzh adaptations testifies to some kind of drift toward EEVIL TOTALITARIANISM.
posted by nasreddin at 7:17 PM on February 14, 2011


> Look, I'm not denying that he wrote some great books. That has nothing to do with the writer's insinuation that the failure of his Solzh adaptations testifies to some kind of drift toward EEVIL TOTALITARIANISM.

Of course it does (abstracting from your totally invented "insinuation that the failure of his Solzh adaptations testifies to some kind of drift toward EEVIL TOTALITARIANISM," which I did not get at all from the article). If he wrote some great books, then there should be no good reason for not producing TV adaptations of those books. Are you seriously suggesting that the fact that the author "was asked not to make any more ‘social’ films" and "the Solzhenitsyn adaptations were phased out" is purely about Solzhenitsyn's reputation as a blowhard? I understand your defensiveness about Western misconceptions of Russia, but nobody in this thread appears to share those misconceptions; how about we put down our weaponry and discuss the (in my opinion, excellent and informative) article like adults, without laying down covering fire to prevent the Attack of the Straw Men?
posted by languagehat at 7:58 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


If he wrote some great books, then there should be no good reason for not producing TV adaptations of those books.

Sure, if you work for the BBC and are legally entitled to throw good money after bad. Russia has one "high culture" TV channel--Kul'tura--and anyone interested in hearing tedious art critics rehash Brezhnev-era intelligentsia squabbles can tune in 24 hours a day. The rest of the channels show mainly crime dramas and awful sketch comedy. Where do Solzh adaptations fit in with that?

Are you seriously suggesting that the fact that the author "was asked not to make any more ‘social’ films" and "the Solzhenitsyn adaptations were phased out" is purely about Solzhenitsyn's reputation as a blowhard?

Well, if the alternative interpretation is that the TV executives were genuinely afraid of Solzhenitsyn's dangerous ideas infecting the populace with sedition, then I have to say I find the "nobody liked them and patriotic movies make more money" explanation much more compelling.

totally invented


Right, cause the mention of Stalin's name (why not reference Stolypin or Aleksandr Nevskii, who ranked higher in the poll?) and the spooky depictions of bosses in darkened rooms plotting how best to manipulate the sheeple are just there for local color.
posted by nasreddin at 3:36 PM on February 15, 2011


awful sketch comedy

Oh my god I know. What happened to the good shit that was happening in the 90s, when KVN was funny? I remember one sketch that had me fucking pissing myself. This happy housewife is making dinner for her family. She's all, "oh Better Butter, you make dinner delicious" and so on. She opens the fridge. A man in a dark suit steps out and looks right at the screen.

"Y vas problemi? Vi razgovarivayete s maslom? Nasha klinika mozhet vam pomoch. Zvonite."

OH LOL. OH THE LOL.
posted by prefpara at 3:50 PM on February 15, 2011


"Y vas problemi? Vi razgovarivayete s maslom? Nasha klinika mozhet vam pomoch. Zvonite."

LOL, indeed! For those who don't read Russian, imagine an infomercial: "Have you got problems? Do you find yourself talking to butter? Our clinic may be able to help you. Give us a call."
posted by vidur at 5:58 PM on February 15, 2011


I love the idea of Call of the Void. I don't have tv, but would definitely watch such a show if I could.
posted by doctornemo at 12:40 PM on February 18, 2011


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