Comparative Essay: TV in Russia

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The Post-Soviet Russian Media: Conflicting Signals. Birgit Beumers, Stephen Hutchings, and Natalia Rulyova, eds. New York: Routledge, 2009. 264 pp. $160 hbk. $43.95 pbk.

Television & Culture in Putin's Russia: Remote Control. Stephen Hutchings and Natalia Rulyova. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010. 252 pp. $160 hbk. $39.95 pbk.

Television, Power & the Public in Russia. Ellen Mickiewicz. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 220 pp. $90 hbk. $32 pbk.

Television destroyed the Soviet Union. The blue screen, as it was nicknamed, could be watched in the privacy of one's apartment, with viewers making and discussing their own interpretations of what they saw and heard, away from the influence of the Communist Party and its activists. In order to draw the mass audience that party leaders wanted, television had to appeal to viewers, even to entertain them. While Westerners might have seen the Soviet entertainment level as relatively underdeveloped, its TV provided viewers with their escape from reality.

Western scholars readily recognized the political messages embedded in the programs and assumed that they constituted powerful propaganda, without asking the viewers who watched the programs (because they couldn't) what they thought about them. If necessary, viewers watched news programs in part to know what the Communist Party and its leaders were thinking, but formed their own conclusions about what the news really meant, usually after discussing the programs with their neighbors. The longer the reality portrayed on television was so different from reality itself, the less the viewers believed in the communist system.

Then, when communism first dissolved into glasnost, viewers found it difficult to know what to make of television because it was providing not only entertainment but also news and information without interpretation. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, TV viewers and television itself had the opportunity to redefine themselves. Scholars called this a transition, but never defined very well what the destination of the transition was supposed to be.

International monitors of press freedom expressed concern over the first decade of the new century as President (and later Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin limited mass media freedom in Russia, with the federal television channels increasingly coming under government control. That restricted the range of news, with Russian leaders assuming that they could thereby ensure that Russian citizens would absorb the preferred messages. At least a mild reversal of that direction resulted in 2010 after an airplane carrying many Polish societal leaders crashed near Katyn, in western Russia, forcing Russian authorities to confront publicly the Soviet murder of 20,000 members of the Polish elite there during World War ? because the Polish leaders were flying to a service to pay homage to that elite.

These three books describe what Russian television (and to a lesser extent other media) has become in the last decade. The communist media system dissolved into a Wild East of television competition, with government, oligarchs, and independent entrepreneurs all competing for a piece of the pie. As the economic system that had supported the communist media collapsed, print media shrank to a shadow of their former selves, shoving television into an even more dominant media position. That system disappeared with the growing strength of Putin in the twenty-first century. Television remained the only medium with a significant nationwide reach, even if a large number of channels also competed at the local and regional levels.

Television is dominant in Russia in a way it used to be in the United States. It provides a common source for news. The Kremlin holds shares in all six national TV stations, and owns three of them outright. It controls 60% of Russian newspapers, whose copies are relatively expensive for readers to buy. …

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