Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Peter the Great, Statism, and Axiological Continuity in Contemporary Russian Television

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Peter the Great, Statism, and Axiological Continuity in Contemporary Russian Television

Article excerpt

Abstract: Miniseries have become the most popular genre in current Russian television. In 2011 the St. Petersburg government financed Vladimir Bortko's Peter the First: The Testament, a miniseries with a distinct statist agenda, portraying the tsar as a "chosen" enlightened autocrat. This portrayal is symptomatic of axiological continuity in contemporary Russian television: just like in a famous 1937/38 Stalinist biopic of Peter I, the need for authoritarian rule in Russia trumps all concerns about the human cost of this rule. Miniseries that blend fictional storylines with implicit or explicit political messages serve as one of the most effective ways for the current regime to remain in power.


Mass media are fundamental for all modern societies. For autocracies, however, controlling and manipulating the national mass media is nothing less than vital, particularly when these autocracies claim for themselves the status of democracies.

In today's Russia, television as the mass medium with the widest audience reach is a key element for maintaining political stability and social functionality. This purpose blends seamlessly with television's enormous profitability. Thus, Russia's mainstream television reflects precisely the political-economic model upon which the Russian autocratic neo-capitalist society is founded. Mainstream television's characteristic blend of uncritical fictional and non-fictional content enables the current political structures to reproduce themselves without fear of being challenged.

The hugely popular genre of miniseries, which appeals to tens of millions of viewers, plays an important role in conveying and spreading values that are aligned with the current political status quo. Quality miniseries that are produced with considerable state investments--including literary adaptations and historical dramas--legitimize the current power structures by invoking the legacies of cultural classics and legendary, albeit controversial, political leaders such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Iosif Stalin. Such quality miniseries are especially important since they target the intelligentsia, a stratum that traditionally holds a negative view of mass media, and of television in particular.

This article analyzes the--rather limited--debates surrounding the Russian state's engagement in television and tests some of the assumptions expressed by their participants. A close viewing of the miniseries Peter the First: The Testament (2011) allows for an analysis of the values that are promoted by state-supported quality television in today's Russia, in other words, the state's "axiological strategies" and the extent to which these values represent a continuation of Soviet values.

What Is the "Correct Kind of Television"?

In February 2011, the journal Cinema Art (Iskusstvo kino) published excerpts from a roundtable discussion entitled "Why Do I Not Watch Television?" (1) The debate gave voice to oft heard complaints about the dismal quality of contemporary mass media, but also shed light on the mechanisms that solidify the current status quo in the relationship between state, society, and media business in Russia. Cinema Art, one of the few respected Russian publications that consistently address concerns about the country's television, usually allows for a high degree of pluralism. However, this roundtable was unusual insofar as it featured a combination of media celebrities, public intellectuals, and influential businessmen. Daniil Dondurei, Cinema Art's editor-in-chief, described television as the main instrument for the production of national culture and templates for individual behavior, calling it "an institution for unifying into one entity the people inhabiting a common territory. [Television networks] are invisible secret services for the management of the country, the economy, human capital, and for guaranteeing national security. …

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