Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The "Russian Idea" on the Small Screen: Staging National Identity on Russia's TV

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The "Russian Idea" on the Small Screen: Staging National Identity on Russia's TV

Article excerpt

Abstract: Television is a central driver of Russia's national identity debates. The topic of the "Russian idea" (Russkaia ideia) is successfully staged through the Rossiia-K (formerly Kul'tura) network, which demonstrates the political authorities' conscious strategy to feed the intelligentsia and to respond to its requests for a cultural channel sensitive to national identity issues.


Television remains the most widely disseminated media in Russia today, and a majority of the population believes that it provides reliable information. Even if the internet is starting to challenge this supremacy, television continues to shape public opinion, which sees in it not only a means of information, but also a form of entertainment accessible to all segments of the population. Television thus contributes both to reproducing and shaping cultural and political consensus in Russian society. Topics that create consensus among society are scarce, but national identity is assuredly one of them. While there is no unanimity on the content making up Russia's national identity, the notion that it is an important topic to which the authorities should pay a lot of attention is largely accepted. It frames an understanding of domestic evolutions and international affairs for the majority of citizens, and disseminates a culture that is based on the Soviet legacy--the lowest common denominator, but the most broadly shared. This article hypothesizes that television is a central driver of Russia's national identity debates. (1)

The role of cinema and television in the Kremlin-backed revival of the patriotic mood in Russia has been the topic of many studies. They have mainly concentrated on the production of fiction rather than on the role of historical documentaries or talk shows. This latter aspect, little of which is known, is the focus of the present investigation. In the following sections, I argue that the tradition, born in the nineteenth century, of discussing the topic of the "Russian idea" (Russkaia ideia) through the genre of publitsistika is now successfully delivered through television. The empirical work draws from Russia's main patriotic channels, mostly Rossiia-K (formerly Kul 'tura), but also, to a lesser extent, Zvezda and Spas, which offer a unique lens for the televisual staging of the "Russian idea."

From a quantitative sociological point of view, the choice of Rossiia-K as the focus of the content of Russian television may seem questionable. The channel has a relatively small audience, only 1.7 percent in 2012 (14th position), with the three main channels--NTV, Pervyi kanal, and Rossiia-1--occupying 43 percent of the ratings. (2) Rossiia-K appeals to a particular subset of the television audience that does not identify with post-Soviet cultural transformations and rejects the "invasion" of foreign, especially American, programs on the country's airwaves. Its core audience is older and well educated: 40 percent are aged 45-64 and 35 percent are over 65 years of age; more than 90 percent have at least a median education and 43 percent have a higher education (the highest rate of all Russian networks). (3) Statistically speaking, then, Rossiia-K is not representative of the Russian media landscape as it targets a specific group, the intelligentsia. Yet it reflects a quasi-ideal debate about Russia's national identity, one that took shape in the 2000s and led to something of a cascade effect by conveying a symbolic repertoire to a mass audience.

In the first part of the article, I define the notion of the Russian idea and the major role of the publitsistika genre in it, and then explore briefly the "visualization" that has been ongoing for several decades, transforming the Russian idea from a written concept to a visual one, relayed by painting, cinema, and television. In the second part, I discuss Rossiia-K programming strategies and investigate how the program "Who are we? …

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