Television worth seeing

The steady new-millennium expansion of broadcast television in Russia via cable and satellite has seemingly done less to enlighten society than to illustrate Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety pc of everything is crud.”

Indeed, Russian TV since about 2003 has been making Sturgeon look conservative. And the recent modest splashes of televised heterodoxy noticed by the Western press – Putin and Medvedev puppets doing two minutes of “satirical” New Year’s ditties – would hardly seem to augur great changes on the horizon, either.

Yet the tele-situation here is actually more complex. Considerable non-crud – programming of real quality and genuine social import – has appeared on Russian TV over the last decade; and several quite extraordinary broadcasts have already been aired this year. Given that American and other outside observers often use television as an index of Russia’s freedom of speech and press, these counter-examples from the lonely 10pc surely deserve more recognition than they’ve received to date.

Let’s start with some oldies but goodies. For most of the past decade the Kultura channel carried Felix Razumovsky’s outstanding series on Russia's 1,000-year search for its national identity, titled Kto my? (Who Are We?).

For those who thought Russians could not or would not air an extended accounting of their own history that is at once scholarly, self-critical and open-minded, this multi-tiered series will come as a revelation. “The past still has us by the throat,” Razumovsky has said – and Kto my? is a commendable attempt to loosen its grip, often by carefully stripping away layer after layer of ossified Bolshevik mythology.

No less remarkable was historian Viktor Pravdyuk’s mid-decade series Vtoraya Mirovaya. Den za Dnyom. Russkaya Versiya (The Second World War. Day by Day. The Russian Version). This is a not another Soviet-style documentary on the Great Patriotic War, but a scrupulous examination of the whole of World War II and the problems that both the war and its retelling have visited on the Russian people.

This 96-segment epic couldn’t have been better timed: its resolutely non-tendentious narrative includes forthright descriptions of the criminal misconduct on Stalin’s part which cost untold Russian lives. Mayor Luzhkov might want to watch Vtoraya Mirovaya and then reconsider his plan for mounting posters of the Generalissimus for Victory Day.

Also rating high marks is the long-running and ongoing Rossiya series hosted by historian-journalist Nikolai Svanidze, Istoricheskie khroniki (Historical Chronicles). This review of Russia’s 20th century includes 80 hour-long instalments, most focusing on a single year and a single key individual – for 1910 it’s Leo Tolstoy, 1918 is Leon Trotsky and so on. A recent account of 1979 centred on Vasily Aksyonov, using the writer’s tribulations and his luminously prescient novel of that year, The Island of Crimea, to take a finely-focused snapshot of a country on the verge of disastrous foreign adventure and collapse from within.

The Chronicles are surely "TV worth watching", and the fact that Svanidze is a member of the Public Chamber – a bully pulpit from which he inveighed recently against the mayor's prospective Stalin posters – makes one feel better about both that institution and the institution of Russian TV itself.

The most recent good news on the Russian airwaves came in the form of a groundbreaking multi-part series and a stunning film of, well, somebody’s mother talking to you… for eight hours.

Ocharovanie zla (The Enticement of Evil) was an eight-part Kultura series which presented the post-Soviet audience with its first televised reconstruction of the great moral and personal dilemma of every Russian outside the USSR in the 1930s: to reconcile yourself with the reality of a Soviet state or to continue to define your Russianness alone, outside Russia and without hope of ever seeing it again.
Using a group of touchstone figures that includes Marina Tsvetayeva and her husband Sergei Efron, the serial so effectively illustrates émigré life and the successive stages many of the eventual returnees went through – disorientation, doubt, hope and finally despair – that the generations who remained here can literally discover in it a lost world of their compatriots, with a uniquely alien-yet-Russian mentalitet. As Svanidze commented after the last episode: “This film should be shown in our schools.”

All of these series demonstrate that the watchable 10pc of Russian television can and does include programmes well above the merely tolerable. Though few outside the country appear to have noticed, Russian TV has in fact been gradually yet significantly helping the nation reclaim its history – a commendable exercise indeed, and a process any country’s “vast wasteland” should want to emulate.

Mark H Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.

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