Virtual Politics, Russian TV and the National Identity Question

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1

Virtual Politics, Russian TV and the National Identity Question
1

By Floriana Fossato


The Power of Television


Conventional wisdom among the Russian political and media elites has it that the mythicisation of
public figures (be it politicians, as in the ca
se of Vladimir Putin, or spies protecting the
Motherland, as in the case of celebrated secret agent Shtirlits) can be constructed essentially
through the tool of television, often conceptualized by political observers as “the Kremlin’s
weapon”.
2


Not ever
ybody, however, shares this view. Making the link with the Soviet period, one of the
most experienced scholars of Soviet and Russian media studies, Ellen Mickiewicz, speaks of the
“Soviet belief in the extraordinary power television exercise over its viewe
rs.”
3

Mickiewicz calls
this vision of television influence “pervasive” and “exaggerated,” as it “undervalues” the ability of
Soviet and then Russian audiences to read between the lines and maintain their own point of
view, despite evident manipulation thro
ugh television.


Mickiewicz’s reading, based on results of focus
-
groups research, is obviously correct to an extent.
Russian people, including the young generation who was only marginally subject to Soviet
-
era
propaganda, are indeed extremely capable of d
etecting manipulation and lies in the mass media.


However, I would like to point out at observations of Russian sociologists, in the first place of
pioneer researcher Yurii Levada, on a subject that is directly linked to participation and response
to focu
s groups. Basing his work on decades of opinion polls’ results, he draws attention on the
ambivalence of attitudes

“doublethink,” as he puts it
---
4

that most Russians show toward their
past and present, including political developments, since the Stalinis
t era.


Levada explains this ambivalence of attitudes, or self
-
deception, with the self
-
preservation
instinct of the Soviet period. “The Soviet era,” Levada says, “ushered in a new system of norms
and values, universal in significance and absolute in its
sources, which was intended either to
substitute for all existing systems, or subordinate them to itself. In fact, it merely changed
around some of the signs and terms in a few normative fields and overlaid them with yet another
formula. The formula “what
is right is useful (in the rhetoric, useful ‘to the working people’, ‘the
cause of Communism’ and so on; in reality ‘what suits the plans and orders from the high’) led
directly to a utilitarian normative system.”
5


As demands placed upon them “were mostly

impossible to fulfill” people, for their psychological
and physical sake, had to show various ways to formally adapt to the system, at the same time



1

This article was presented in PPP format at the conference
The Mass Media in Post
-
Soviet Russia

(Univesity of Surrey, 6
-
8 April 2006). I would like to th
ank Natalya Rulyova and Stephen Hutchings for a
very stimulating conference. I would also like to thank Manana Aslamazyan, Nancy Condee, Peter
Duncan, Masha Eismont, Anna Kachkaeva , Masha Lipman, and Vladimir Todres for their insightful
support at vario
us stages of my research. The views expressed in this article are mine entirely.

2

In private talks this author has often heard Russian “political technologists” speaking of television in
terms of “weapon” and even “President Putin’s nuclear weapon.”

3

Mi
ckiewicz “
The Election News Story on Russian television: A World Apart from Viewers”
Slavic
Review 65, n. 1 (Spring 2006)

4

Yurii Levada ‘
“Chelovek Sovietskii” desyat let spustya: 1989
-
1999’

Monitoring Obshestvennogo
Mneniya. (VTsIOM) 3 (41) May
-
June 1999
, 7
-
15

5

Yurii Levada, “
Homo Praevaricatus: Russian Doublethink”
in Contemporary Russian Politics, edited by
Archie Brown, 2001, pp 313
-
314r


2

persistently seeking loopholes and creating informal networks of activity, that would allow them
to get ar
ound the impossible demands.


Most importantly, in connection with our research, Levada (unlike other scholars, who put the
main emphasis on the all
-
powerful and vigilant state system of control of the population)
underlines that the system would not hav
e been so successful, had it relied only on mass
coercion or mass deception. “It has now become clear just how naïve were the ideas circulating
in the 1960s and even as late as the 1980s about the trickery of the public by the all
-
knowing
and utterly cynic
al party
-
political authorities…The cunning man not only tolerates deception, but
is willing to be deceived, and, what is more, constantly requires self
-
deception for the sake of his
own self
-
preservation (including the psychological) and for the sake of ov
ercoming his own split
personality and justifying his own cunning.”
6

I would argue, therefore, that the pervasive
influence of television is probably not too exaggerated, as Mickiewicz sustains, because it allows
for the ambivalence of attitudes mentioned
by Levada to function. On the one side viewers feel
they are participating to events they see on the screen, on the other side they do not feel
responsible for them.


Discussing the rise and fall in popularity of different political figures in the 1990s, L
evada
underlines the influence of the mass media over the Russian public. The picture of reality
--

that I
would call the ”virtual politics” framing
--

proposed by Russian federal television channels in the
1990s, and increasingly pervasively since the appea
rance on the scene of President Putin, has
clearly had far more impact than information about political platforms and politicians’ activities.
In this sense, Levada’s assessment that “what is not shown on the screen is effectively not
shown to society”
adds to the opinion of those sociologists, politicians and media experts who
underline the power of television and the need to study the interaction between politics, media
and the public in Russia.


Television as Key Culture and Political Medium


Televisi
on emerged as a key culture medium in the 1970s and 80s in the Soviet Union and in the
1990s became the close everyday companion of nine out of ten Russians , the main source of
information about their country and the world for the vast majority of citizen
s of the Russian
Federation. According to sociologist Daniil Dondurei, "during the last ten years a great virtual
revolution has taken place. As a result of it, the empiric reality in which we move, act, exist, has
merged with the television reality we see

on our screens in its edited, constructed form. At the
psychological level they have become interchangeable and to a large extent television reality
dictates our reactions."
7


Alexander Rodnyanskii, head of one of Russia’s major television networks, CTC,

goes even
further summarizing the impact of this intense television watching exercise and says that
“Television is the
only

reality in which we exist.”
8



Western studies of Soviet and post
-
Soviet media approach it either from the standpoint of
Western
values


“freedom of information,” “freedom of the media,” probing the more visible
elements of the state control machine


or from the necessity to do research on the technical
side of media market development in post
-
Soviet Russia. These two approaches ar
e usually far
away from each other and their researchers usually disregard the other side’s conclusion.





6

ibid. p. 314

7

Daniil Dondurei, "Tsensura realnosti," Isskustvo Kino May 2004

8

Alexander Rodnyanskii,
“Produce
rs of Television Reality” Logika Uspekha III
, Moscow, December
2003. Italics are mine.


3

I would argue that it is important to research the role and the functioning of the television
medium and of the television market in Russia as a whole
, in order to understand how power is
organised in a situation when the television screen has gradually become the only meaningful
vehicle of socialisation between authorities and citizens. This situation is the outcome of
President Putin’s determined wea
kening of all political institutes (besides the presidency) during
his two terms in office. In this respect, it is important to make a differentiation between the
functioning and role of the federal and of the regional media, going beyond the notions of co
ntrol
and ownership for what concerns the more than 1000 television companies broadcasting on the
territory of the Russian Federation.


An increasing amount of observers has noticed how federal Russian television, particularly after
2004 (the start of Pu
tin’s second term in office) reminds Soviet television of the 1970s, huge
technological changes notwithstanding. The style and content of newscasts over the last few
years has strikingly become uniform and news anchors, who in many cases during the 1990s
p
layed the role of television gurus, have been replaced by bureaucrats delivering official state
messages with various degrees of professionalism.


This development undeniably illustrates how the inability of journalists and media managers to
create strong

self
-
regulating professional bodies
--
supporting ethical values such as integrity,
independence and professionalism
--

in the 1990s reinforced a reactionary situation that allowed
the state to re
-
assume control at the federal level after the year 2000, wi
th the tacit agreement
of most Russians.


However, I argue in this paper that control and propaganda are not the paramount
goals of the current authorities. Although remindful of the so
-
called “stagnation”
period of the Brezhnev era, today’s rules create
different conventions. Loyalty to the
president, the pragmatic ability to engage in self
-
censorship, and the shared wish to
re
-
establish the might of Russia and of Russian national television production vis
-
à
-
vis the perceived “American colonization” of b
roadcasts are essential pre
-
conditions.
Having demonstrated their willingness to accept and play by to these rules, federal
media managers are invited to cooperate with the Kremlin on television policy and to
participate in the televised creation of the ne
w ideology of Putin’s Russia. This is, I
believe, the main goal of the Kremlin’s current engagement with television in the last
years.


The new ideology being built with the help of the television medium does not seem to
be aiming at supporting a closed so
ciety and certainly does not intend to reject
market principles in the media, as in Soviet times. In fact the economic element plays
an important role in the involvement of pragmatic media operators, who are welcome
to introduce new lucrative formats as lo
ng as they share patriotic goals aimed at
boasting national identity and react to what is perceived by the authorities as the
threat of globalisation.


As Tehri Rantanen explains, “in post
-
communist Russia imported media contents did not
eventually prov
ide people with what they needed. The disparity between reality and pictures in
the media became almost too poignant and unbearable. Globalisation is not necessarily a promise
of something better for the future, but a threat to new life that people are try
ing to build. A
saturation point was reached and there was growing criticism against globalisation and a partial
return to national values. In this situation, national media plays an important role.”
9

Rantanen is



9

Tehri Rantanen “
The Global and the National

Media and Communications in Post
-
Communist Russia”
2002

132
-
133



4

right to say that “national media systems
indigenise contents” and “provide a framework that is
based on the ‘imagined community’ of a nation state”
10

This is the background of the definition of
“virtual politics on federal television.”


From this starting point, the only meaningful Russian polit
ical player of the last years


the
Kremlin

encourages television to inform the public of the new norms of society, underlying the
necessity to use, besides sanitised news, the whole range of other formats available to the
television medium, from analytica
l programmes commenting the news, to entertainment in its
various forms, to sport. The goal is to help viewers understanding the new rules of societal
behavior and acquire a new sense of unity and pride after the 1990s, presented as the chaotic
period res
ulting from “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century:”
11

the breakdown
of the USSR as conceptualized by President Putin.


In this respect, Michael Billing statement that, “the nation is to be imagined as a unique entity in
terms of time

and space. It is imagined as a community stretching through time, with its own
past and future destiny: it is imagined across space, embracing the inhabitants of a particular
territory”
12

comfortably fits the television exercise we have watched developing

on Russian
television screens.


The Kremlin, feeling stronger after the turmoil of the 1990s, is seeking to install a sense of
legitimacy to its political, social and economic course, sustaining an image of stability that
supports a new sense of nation
al identity and creates an emotional link of continuity with the
past, with Russia’s imperial past as well as with the Soviet era, particularly with the 1970s. This is
the period that Russian citizens in various opinion polls of the last years have describ
ed as the
most stable and “democratic” in XX century Russian history. To achieve this goal media
managers of federal channels are engaged in an exercise aimed at reproducing firmly
-
shared
past national mythologies through a range of broadcasts in which e
motional tones, particularly
those leaning toward nationalist rhetoric, clearly overweight the importance of information
accuracy.


Svetlana Boym notes that nationalism in countries formerly dominated by the Soviet Union quite
naturally takes the place o
f communist ideology, as its messages rely on familiar figures and
themes:


“The seduction of nationalism is the seduction of homecoming and total acceptance: one doesn’t
even have to join the party; one simply belongs. Nationalist ideology mobilizes the

nostalgia for
the old commonplace lost and individual nostalgias and family histories, and it also proposes a
plan of action for the purification and rebuilding of the collective home. It offers a comforting
collective biography instead of a flawed indivi
dual story full of estrangements and
disappointments; it promises to recover the blessed childhood of a nation, without the alienation
and loss experienced in adult years.”
13






10

ibid.
--

For a discussion on the role of mass
-
media
in the creation of rituals that sustain the existence of
imagined communities see Benedict Anderson,
“Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and
Spread of Nationalism”
1983

11

Vladimir Putin,
Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian

Federation, 2005

http://www.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2005/04/25/2031_type70029type82912_87086.shtml


12

Michael Billig, “
Banal Nationalism
” 1995, quoted in Ra
ntanen “
The Global and the National”
2002

8

13

Svetlana Boym,
Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia
, 1995
-

287, quoted in

Theri Rantanen, “
The Global and the National

Media and Communications in Post
-
Communist Russia
,”
2002
-

8


5

Boym’s cultural annotations symptomatically coincide with psychological research

emphasizing
the importance of impressions gained in childhood and during early youth for the formation of
identity and for the storage of the most meaningful memories. This probably helps explaining to
scholars in media and social studies, the widespread
positive response (that some find
disconcerting) of young Russian audiences to Soviet
-
time messages revisited and reinterpreted in
today’s broadcasts.


One feeling is common to the older generation of viewers and of those who were children and/or
teenager
s in the 1970s, even if most of them clearly do not remember the content of most
newscasts of the time. The feeling is one of stability and togetherness, of “being one family,” as
recorded by opinion polls. As sociologist Boris Dubin explains, even when de
tails of films and
serials about the past show clear discrepancies with reality the presence of emotionally powerful
figures as protagonists gains center
-
plan and ultimately supports the creation of constructed
memories.
14

Rewriting reality, in this respe
ct, sustains continuity.


The pragmatic involvement and to a certain extent competition of virtually all the most talented
media managers of federal channels for the most vivid and patriotic interpretation of historical
and current reality has resulted in
the last few years in a varied picture that aims at pleasing one
main viewer

the Kremlin

but has clearly appealed to the feelings of the general public.
Audience success meets the political need of giving amplitude to persuasion methods,
superficially mo
dernising them with the help of post
-
Soviet formats of infotainment and
entertainment based on old cultural myths.



Cultural Myths and the Construction of the Virtual Reality Puzzle on Television


According to Svetlana Boym, “Mythologies are cultural comm
on places, recurrent narratives that
are perceived as natural in a given culture, but in fact were naturalised and their historical,
political or literary origins forgotten or disguised. In Russia and the Soviet Union, where there is a
long tradition of ex
treme political, administrative and cultural centralization, these mythologies
played a particularly important role. Myths are discernible in a variety of literary and historical
texts, as well as in everyday practices.”
15


The loyalty
-
enforcing effect of
myths increases when their emotional message is supported by
repetition. For this reason it is important to acknowledge that virtual reality is constructed by
Russian federal state
-
controlled channels through a web of different programs, drawing on a
disco
urse aimed at re
-
writing the past. This discourse is replicated in newscasts, documentaries,
analytical programmes and mini
-
series. I believe that limiting the analysis to only one format
would not show the full extent of the puzzle
-
effect that amplifies v
iewers’ exposures to key
messages.


One successful example is the full year of media events that preceded the 60
th

anniversary of the
victory in the Great Patriotic War (WWII) celebrated in May 2005. Multi
-
faceted media coverage
was unprecedented in its am
plitude, including news, as well as a vast arrays of documentaries,
films, talk
-
shows and serials celebrating patriotism, the Army and the war effort. The Kremlin’s
effort to boost a sense of national unity built on the common memories of the war effort wa
s
evident. One of the obvious results of this successful media exercise was recorded in opinion



14
For a di
scussion on the subject see for instance
http://www.svobodanews.ru/Transcript/2006/02/06/20060206190604487.html

with Dubin’s participation.
See also in Otechestvennye Z
apiski N. 6, 2005 Dubin’s article “
Postoronnie: Massa I Massmedia v
Segodnyashnei Rossii.”

15

Svetlana Boym “
Common Places, Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia
” 1995


4


6

polls. An overwhelming 86 percent of respondents to a Levada Centre poll in 2005 said that the
main event in Russian history had been the victory over Nazi Germ
any in the Great Patriotic
War.
16

Polls carried out by other institutes recorded similar figures.


The war theme is worth mentioning, because it has been revisited so frequently in post
-
Soviet
federal broadcasts after 1999. I would single out three themes i
n particular, all reinforcing the
concept of patriotism: the war, the binary view of a world divided between “us” and “them”
(“nashi I chuzie”) and the Stalinist theme of the Family of the Soviet people.


These themes are central to all Soviet
-
Russian cult
ure of the XXth century, and are key for the
definition of national identity. Revisiting and maintaining the actuality of the war theme,
television elites have joined political elites in the attempt to boost a strong image of the country,
based on the mos
t emotional and glorious page of Soviet history.


Elena Prokhorova explains that “Soviet mythology was built around two major symbolic axes: the
horizontal “us” (the Soviet people) vs. “them” (world imperialism, the White guard, saboteurs)
and the vertica
l


the hierarchically constructed “Great Family,” with Father Stalin as its head,
watching over Mother Russia and his children people.”
17



This kind of defense mythology forged the belief of a permanent threat to the Motherland and
was aimed at consolidat
ing patriotic feelings and shaping a national identity based on antagonism
with those forces and countries that at a certain historical period were seen as the “enemy.” After
the Great Patriotic War this enemy was embodied by the Germans and during the Col
d War the
enemy clearly became the United States and NATO.


The most popular Russian federal television broadcasts after 2003 have drown heavily on this
mythology, based as they are on the principle that imagery affects loyalties.


Events have been ritual
ized to sustain stereotypes, the historical past, “discredited” in the
aftermath of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, is being re
-
habilitated and to an extent re
-
written, in some cases with the help of narratives subtly incorporating truths about the cy
nical
attitude of the Stalinist regime toward its own people (as in “Shtrafbat” and in “Deti Arbata” for
instance) to the main patriotic discourse, reinforced by pre
-
revolutionary nationalist values
sustained by the Orthodox Church.


“Shtrafbat” describe
s the patriotic
--

if vain, because of the cynicism of Soviet military
commanders
--

sacrifice of a battalion of GULAG prisoners (political convicts as well as criminals)
fighting and dying on the Western front during the Great Patriotic War. Many viewers ha
ve
noticed the criticism of Stalin’s regime and the realistic disclosure of the military role of GULAG
prisoners during the war as the main points of the series. This is, however, only the most visible
layer of reading. Beneath the critical truths lies the

patriotic myth that adds political and nation
-
building value to the artistic importance of the series.


The main message of “Shtrafbat” is that every Soviet citizen, independently of political status,
independently of religion, was willing to die for the
Motherland and this unity in the face of an
enemy deprived of soul was the only guarantee of salvation. The most emotionally rich scenes of
the series, in the last episode, are build around the blessing that a strong and tolerant Orthodox
priest administer
s before the final battle to all soldiers in the battalion. When a young soldier
asks if Jews, too, can receive the blessing the priest answers: “God has got many children of



16

Levada Centre
“Obshestvennoe Mnenie


Ezhegodnik 2005”

17

Elena Prokhorova, “
Fragm
ented Mythologies: Soviet TV Mini
-
Series of the 1970”
2003


28, PhD
dissertation, unpublished


7

different religious beliefs : Jews, Muslims, Christians. We are all united in on
e thing: We are
conquering back Russia’s land from the enemy.” The battle scene that follows acquires a
sacrificial and religious role, underlined by the solemn religious music played in the background.
Having participated in the battle, the priest, who i
s one of the only two survivors, has a mystical
vision of the Mother of God high in the sky and then wonders on the battlefield closing the eyes
of the dead, saying “God, take with you the souls of the dead fighters who defended the Russian
land.”


Broadca
st by the second channel of Russian television in 2004, “Shtrafbat” enjoyed a huge
success among the Russian public and, despite some offended noises from the military brass,
became a milestone of the television trend aimed at re
-
visit the Great Patriotic
War, sanctioned
at the highest level thanks to the subtle techniques employed to underline the patriotic myth it
carries.


Svetlana Boym explains that myth fragments can “slip into a love letter in verse memorized in a
Soviet high school” as they are “si
tes of shared cultural memories and of communal
identification.”
18

“To understand the Russian mythologies” she continues, “it is not enough to
trace their origins in intellectual history, state policy or actual practice. It is necessary to
remember that th
ey function in the culture as magical incantations, memorized or paraphrased,
but rarely interpreted critically.”
19


Television and Vladimir Putin


Vladimir Putin, virtually an unknown figure to the general Russian public until 1999 was elected
president
a year later with more
-
than
-
significant support of positive television coverage. Putin
acquired the aura of the strong leader of the new Russia at the end of his first term in office,
counting on overwhelming news coverage, as well as on the mythologisatio
n effort of state
channels. A January 2004 broadcast on the Fist Channel of Russian television (reaching 98
percent of the country’s population) is particularly telling in this respect.


It is the Oxthodox Christmas, the television cadre is that of a fair
y tale: a small lovely church in
the Russian Winter countryside, covered with snow that is perfectly white, untouched. Artistically
placed lights from the back, the side and from the top of tall trees near the church give the scene
the perfect postcard tou
ch. The scene is peaceful, no human trace disturbs it.

Then, suddenly, a
lonely figure with the peculiar movement of the shoulder of Vladimir Putin walks toward the
church. The camera moves slowly, with this lone believer advancing in the snow eager to me
et
little newborn Jesus. A solemn Orthodox priest with a wonderful beard meets the president. As
they walk together the last few meters toward the entrance one can almost feel the warmth
inside, smell the aromatic candles, admire the serenity of the icons.

Suddenly a small up
-
to
-
that
moment invisible crowd backstage joyfully welcomes the president. The light turns on the happy
faces in the crowd. Putin turns, smiles, waves and disappears inside the church, symbolically
leading his fellow believers.


This b
roadcast was in January 2004. Two months later Putin, who had rejected televised debates
with his opponents throughout the presidential campaign, was overwhelmingly re
-
elected
president of Russia. This particular broadcast was, I believe, key to a certain
“sacralisation” of
the figure of the president. The emotional power of this short reportage was incomparably more
poignant than other broadcasts centered on religious events, like for instance the solemn
Orthodox Easter celebrations at Christ the Savior Ca
thedral in Moscow, where Putin is regularly



18

Sv. Boym,
Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia
, 1995
-

5

19

Sv Boym, ibid.


8

shown taking part in the ritualisation and legitimization of power together with all major Russian
government figures and obviously the Russian Orthodox Patriarch.


The ability of federal channels to take advan
tage of national and religious events and center
them on President Putin, who plays a key role shaping the new mythologies of the strong state,
is obviously reflected in daily newscasts of the last years. Memo
-
98, a Slovak media monitoring
organization, t
ogether with the Russian Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, conducted
monitoring of Russian television programmes in March 2006. Using qualitative and quantitative
methods of analysis they measured who was shown on five federal television channe
ls (state
-
controlled First Channel, Rossiya and TV Center, gas giant Gazprom controlled NTV and private,
but loyal Ren TV), how often and how during the evening prime
-
time.


The study concluded that the coverage of President Putin was exclusively positive
, or at best
neutral in tone and that state
-
controlled broadcasters devoted a staggering cumulative 85
percent of their prime
-
time coverage to the activities of the president, the government and of the
Kremlin
-
loyal United Russia party. Meanwhile parties a
nd individuals seen as inconsistent with
presidential and government policies reached a cumulative 2 percent of mostly negative coverage
over the 31
-
days period.
20



Channel One allocated 91 percent of airtime in newscasts to reports on the authorities, of

which
71 percent were positive and 28 percent neutral in tone. Rossiya allocated 88 percent of airtime
to the coverage of the authorities


Putin 19 percent; government 53 percent; United Russia 14
percent, Kremlin administration 2 percent, similarly posi
tive or neutral. The opposition received
as little as 0.6 percent of coverage, mostly negative in tone. TV Center allocated 90 percent of
airtime to coverage of president (31 percent,) government ( 42 percent) and United Russia (16
percent). Unlike the fir
st two channels, TV Center showed some 8 percent (out of 90 percent) of
mildly negative coverage. NTV devoted 88 percent of its mostly positive or neutral news
coverage to president (25 percent) government (51 percent) and United Russia (11 percent.) Ren
TV (privately owned by Russian business concerns loyal to the Kremlin, with minority German
participation) devoted less news coverage than the others
--
64 percent
--

to president (10
percent) government (38 percent) and United Russia (16 percent,) while the

opposition to the
official line, including the communist party, were allocated 19 percent of coverage. Qualitative
analysis showed that this broadcaster was also far more balanced than the others in its tone.
21


Russia’s Television Picture


Since the star
t of Putin's first presidency the attention of those who are interested in Russian
political and media developments has focused on the Kremlin's crackdown on federal media and
on freedom of speech . While it is true that moves taken by the authorities sinc
e 2000 to assume
control

direct or indirect
--

on all major media operations have managed to deprive the majority
of the Russian public of unbiased information at the federal level, it would be an overestimation
to say that there have been no spaces left f
or creativity. These spaces were particularly frequent
in the regional media.


Russia's media industry, distorted as it is as a result of political pressure, has nonetheless been
growing steadily during the last few years, including at the regional level.

Economic growth and
advertising revenues, coupled with political patronage, but also with the accelerated penetration
of new technologies in the communications sector, have enhanced unparalleled development.





20

For Memo
-
98 report please see
www.memo98.sk/data/_media/Russia_first_report_eng.pdf


21

ibid


9

Some 2300 television broadcasting licenses ha
ve been issued in Russia since the 1990s.
Alongside 17 main federal channels more than 1000 companies do actually exist and broadcast.
Roughly half of them don’t have the state as stake
-
owner. However, only a handful of them can
claim to have really indepe
ndent editorial policies. Many companies produce local news,
entertainment and documentary programs, have full operating staffs and an established client
base, allowing them to operate on the basis of a steady advertising income. Their broadcasts link
Russ
ians to their own regions, districts, towns and sometimes villages.


25 percent of the Russian population, mainly in rural areas, receives only two national channels.
However, the mostly urban demographic distribution of the Russian population means that
most
Russians receive from 3 to 16 terrestrial channels (each major Russian city has from 5 to 10
private stations.)
22


Regional channels are usually affiliated with local political and economic groups and heavily
depend on them financially, which means tha
t they are directly involved as tools in local political
battles. Employees of these channels often are on their patron’s payroll and can hardly be called
journalists. Many, in fact, are actually proud to define themselves “public relations specialists.”

23

The degree of interference and political/financial pressure varies obviously from region to region.


Meanwhile, most commercial channels are either owned directly by Moscow
-
based networks or
are affiliated to one of the national networks disseminating p
rogrammes via satellite. This allows
regional channels to broadcast licensed programmes, which would otherwise be too expensive
for them to buy.


For instance, the regional television network TNT, that is part of the Gazprom Media holding with
NTV and oth
er major media companies, has 15 owned and operated stations and 330 affiliated
broadcasters with a potential audience of 76 million.
24

REN TV, which produces a large amount
of its programming, has 410 regional affiliates in Russia as well as in several CI
S countries. It
owns companies in 6 Russian cities and has a potential audience of 110 million.
25

The fastest
-
growing commercial television network, CTC (the first Russian television company that
successfully conducted an Initial Public Offering

IPO

in 200
6) has 8 owned and operated
stations and 330 regional affiliates broadcasting to more than 1000 big and medium
-
size cities
throughout Russia.
26



CTC’s Positive Strategy


Many regional television managers in the last years have switched affiliation in favo
r of CTC. The
channel, that does not carry newscasts and focuses entirely on entertainment, is considered
politically risk
-
free in an environment dominated by political concern. CTC prime
-
time
programming is based on serials, sit
-
coms and talk
-
shows. Forei
gn programmes make more than
50 percent of CTC broadcasting and it can fairly be said that CTC, a company that started
working on the Russian market only in 1996, is responsible for a conceptual turn in post
-
Soviet
television. CEO Aleksandr Rodnyanskii, i
n cooperation with Aleksandr Akopov
--

previously



22

www.obs.coe.int/online_publication/reports/tv_russia_
internews2006.pdf.en

prepared by Internews
Russia for the European Audiovisual Observatory, based on data current as of Dec. 2005 (March 2006)

23

Author’s personal observation based on regular monitoring of regional television companies and
regional jour
nalists since 1997

24

www.obs.coe.int/online_publication/reports/tv_russia_internews2006.pdf.en

prepared by Internews
Russia for the European Audiovisual Obser
vatory, based on data current as of Dec. 2005 (March 2006)


25

ibid.

26

ibid.


10

General Producer of the state channel Rossiya and founder in 2002 of Amedia, currently Russia’s
largest producer of TV serials and soap operas

have successfully diversified the perspective on
this particula
r format, dominated in the 1990s by criminal themes.


CTC targets the younger segment of Russian viewers and its philosophy, reflected in its
broadcasts, is to propose to viewers an appealing, modern and overwhelmingly positive view on
life, in contrast w
ith the gloom and doom often displayed by state channels.


This conceptual goal is clearly shared by Akopov. Already in 2000, still working for a state
channel, he said that “During the last years everybody has been trying to understand how our
national i
deology looks like and during all these years our evening news have been filled with
war, corruption and crime.” Meanwhile most viewers, he noted, “are interested in problems
regarding their family life, their jobs, their children and these issues are almo
st ignored by
television… Serials focus on the daily problems of the average viewer.
The main reason why
people are interest in serials is that they provide viewers a positive behavior model. This has to
do with psychology and with ideology at the same ti
me… Without large
-
scale positive examples
society cannot exist
.”
27



It is likely that in 2000 state
-
channels and their managers were not prepared for this kind of
conceptualisation of their role, also taking into consideration the slightly diminishing atti
tude of
the Russian elite, including the media and cinematographic elite, toward a product that doesn’t
naturally fit with the high standards of Russian art.


Commercial television, meanwhile, especially a privately
-
owned channel without the political
pre
ssure deriving at the beginning of this decade from the necessity to show loyalty to the new
Kremlin leadership in daily newscasts, could afford to be sensitive to this message.
The results
of the cooperation between CTC and Amedia have allowed CTC to be
come Russia’s fastest
-
growing channel, outpacing NTV as third major Russian national television channel in 2005,
following the First Channel and Rossiya.


IN 2003 CTC broadcast the first Russian period soap opera,
Bednaya Nastya

that was then sold
to 30

countries, including in Latin America. Amedia, in cooperation with Hollywood major Sony
Pictures, produced the serial. In 2004 Amedia and Sony Pictures authored the first Russian sit
-
com
Moya Prekrasnaya Nyanya,
that obtained outstanding rating results i
n Russia. The last
successful international production,
Ne Rodis Krasivoy
,
----
has surpassed all previous public
response, with an estimated 30 percent of the Russian population watching daily its episodes
since September 2005. This last serial has allowed

CTC to outpace at times extremely popular
shows on other channels, including on the First Channel, the clear market leader.


The technology of international production is particularly interesting and would be the subject of
a separate article. It is worth

mentioning here that the cooperation with Sony Pictures has
allowed the Russian side to overcome Russia’s on
-
going crisis of screenwriters. American and
Latin American screen writers have been mastering for a long time the rules of writing successful
sit
-
coms and soap
-
operas. Russian writers since the 1970s have been trained in authoring a
substantially different format
--
films for television
--

aspiring to artistic standards considered of
higher value and therefore less sensitive to the needs of commercial

production.
28



In the case of the serials produced by Amedia and shown on CTC, Russia bought the rights to the
shows from Sony Pictures Television International. As part of the deal, consultants from Sony



27

Alexander Akopov
“Serial kak Natsionalnaya Idea”
Isskustvo Kino 2000 (2)
http://old.kinoart.ru/2000/2/1.html

(the translati
on from Russian and the Italics are mine)

28

for a discussion on the subject see Akopov
http://old.kinoart.ru/2000/2/1.html



11

checked every detail of the script and filming. So
ny screen writers and directors wrote the scripts,
that were then translated into Russian and equips of Russian writers and directors adapted the
scripts to Russian reality, adding local details and local flavor and adapting or even eliminating
clearly un
familiar situations and characters. For instance in
Ne Rodis Krasivoi
, the story of an
ugly, but brainy and brave secretary in a fashion retail company, who is in love with her boss,
Colombian director Fernando Gaitan authored the 169
-
episode Spanish scri
pt, that was the
highest
-
rated “telenovela” in Colombia in 2000. The translated script was then adapted by
Russian authors, in constant cooperation with experienced international consultants. Other
countries, including Germany and India, had already bough
t the rights to the remake.
29


These details may be of little interest to the Russian public, that on the contrary has been
attracted by the glossy, but overall realistic atmosphere of the fashionable Moscow office in
which every second 20
-
years old Russian

girl just starting a career would dream to work. Many
can sympathise with the main character, a well
-
educated and not
-
very
-
pretty girl raised in a
conservative and fairly typical Russian family where the father is a former military officer who is
adaptin
g with some pain to the developments taking place to his world in post
-
Soviet times.
30



I find however necessary to notice the importance of international cooperation to create
positive
situations based on everyday modern life, appealing to the public and
having a huge educational
potential. As Akopov, Rodnyanskii, Dondurei and other media professionals have mentioned
frequently in the last few years, Russian authors are at their best adapting for the television
screen Russian and Soviet classical literatu
re. Extremely successful productions such as “
Idiot”,
“Turetskii Gambit,” “Master and Margarita,” “First Circle”

broadcast on the leading state
channels, are de facto “video books”
31

that have served several goals. On the one hand they
have an educational
and beneficial effect, raising interest among viewers to classical literature,
including authors, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who were dissidents in Soviet times. After every
ecranisation Russian bookshops have been prominently showed on their shelves the

written
originals of the televised production. This has clearly helped both sales and the dissemination
of good literature.


Not less importantly, however, these serials serve a more ideological function, helping to remake
a sense of history, reshap
ing the memory of the past, boosting a sense of national identity, as
discussed earlier. As some older viewers noticed, remembering their not
-
so
-
distant past,
everything in the new serials is viewed through an understanding, quasi nostalgic mirror,
everyth
ing on screen looks “nicer.” However, as in the case of “
Shtrafbat”

the main message,
the main emotional sensation, comes from the link with the “imagined community” that the
serials aim at creating.


Lastly, serials/video books are a genre at which the
highly educated Russian authors,
screenwriters and directors clearly excel. They are therefore an elegant way to overcome the
current crisis of screenwriters, that AMedia attempted to solve through international cooperating
and training in house a new gene
ration of screenwriters. The main producers and director of
Russian state channels could not
--
and probably wouldn’t either


operate in the same way as
privately
-
owned CTC, particularly after 2000, when Putin had just started building his “vertical of



29

See article on the adaptation of the original script “Telenovela takes off i
n many territories” in
http://www.variety.com/story.asp?l=story&a=VR1117937365&c=14

30

For an interesting discussion on films and television today, which ended up discu
ssing more serials and
their actors, please see
http://www.echo.msk.ru/guests/4943/

. This is the transcript of a radio broadcast. A
television critic, a cinema critic, a film director and a distinguishe
d commentator discussed the issue.

31

The use of the term “
video book”
in the Russian TV context belongs to Russian television expert Anna
Kachkaeva, who is also the television analyst of the Russian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
She has us
ed this term regularly in her regular radio broadcasts during the last year.


12

powe
r.” A more national approach to the national
-
identity boosting issue clearly implied
revisiting the most salient pages of Russian history.


Possible Future Developments


I believe both paths described so far address one and the same issue from two differe
nt
perspectives and are both linked to the tradition of the Soviet mini
-
series of the 1970s. So far the
two approaches have lived their separate lives, with different supporters and detractors among
the media elites. Commercial series like those broadcast
by CTC have successfully avoided
ideological overtones. However, as the problem of creating not only a national identity but also a
national ideology becomes more and more pressing for the Kremlin ahead of the 2008
presidential election, it seems likely th
at the presidential administration, having displayed in the
past a certain interest for the audience ratings of various television programmes, will be tempted
to tap into the huge potential of both state and commercial channels in terms of public attentio
n
and influence of all television series, including the less highbrow new Russian soaps.

In this respect it is curious and possibly revealing of future developments that actress Anastasia
Zavorotnyuk, who plays the main character in the successful sit
-
com

Moya Prekrasnaya Nyanya,
was asked to conduct

the concert on Red Square celebrating Russia Day on June 12, 2006,
together with former culture minister Mikhail Shvidkoi. He is currently the head of the federal
agency for culture and cinema. The concert was

broadcast by state channel Rossiya.
32


And, the deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov, who is directly involved
in the creation of a new ideology, in June 2006 told journalists that “A nation cannot exist
without ideology,” addin
g that “ building the vertical of power was and remains a necessity, but a
bureaucratic creation cannot last long, if it is not substantiated by an ideology that all the nation
will share.”
33

Television, as discussed earlier in this text, is widely recogni
zed in Russia as the
medium used by the authorities to socialize with the public and in this respect Surkov’s words are
a clear call for the television elite.

Television Context on Federal TV


The federal television context emphasizes the role of the stat
e as the sole “honest” deliverer of
information. In one of the most peculiar turns of the beginning of 2006 Russian counter
-
intelligent agents were portrayed in news and analytical broadcasts as fighting malign foreign
forces attempting to penetrate Russia
n civil society, in order to manipulate it. This in turn
underlined the positive image of Russian security agencies and a negative image of “the others.”
Once again the binary view of a world divided between “us” and “them” was replicated. Reality,
in bro
adcasts of this kind becomes possible only when framed within a strict matrix, in this case
news.


At the same time, federal broadcasts tend to disseminate a message that is promoting an image
of stability, where everything is generally fine and under the

vigilant control of state authorities.
In this respect, the lack of comparative analysis and depth that television experts have noticed in
most newscasts underlines the fact that the content of each distinct piece of information is



32

An on
-
line video of the concert can be found at
http://videonastya.narod.ru/video/Ko
ncert_DR_12_06_2006_Nasta/Den_Rossii.htm

and
http://www.zavorotnuyk.com/video/concert/12june.html

I would like to thank Anna Kachkaeva for
mentioning Zovarotnyuk’s participation to m
e.


33

For Surkov interviews see
http://www.newsru.com/russia/28jun2006/surkov.html

. The translation of the
quote concerning ideology is mine.


13

considered unimportant.

As mentioned earlier, the communication act with viewers, supporting
the impression of social bond, becomes paramount.


The paternalistic figure of President Putin, frequently on prime
-
time for hours taking questions
live from journalists, in the quasi
-
to
tal absence of other political live programmes on federal
television, becomes the only political reality that Russian citizens are invited to recognize.
34


The Regional Television Context
35


Regional television, meanwhile, in a way serves the “unwanted” goal

of balancing virtual reality.


Bearing in mind that most regional broadcasters are affiliated to one of the national networks to
complement their own production, it is useful to examine the content, as well as the conceptual
framework used by Russian reg
ional television. This exercise reveals a growing gap with the
federal picture, that the Kremlin has recently started noticing.


The main difference is that regional media, weak and unprofessional during the 1990s, have
matured as businesses and

although
they failed the task of creating better journalism


by and
large have managed to preserve until now a bigger degree of diversity than the federal media.


While the federal media, particularly since 2003, have been working intensely at shaping a
uniform, n
ational identity for Russia, based largely on nostalgia for the Soviet and imperial past,
the regional picture is more confused, often resentful, or at least dubious of this federal attempt,
particularly in the broadcasts of Siberian companies.


According

to historian Richard Sakwa
36

nation building in the Russian Federation after 1991 faced
some of the problems that brought down the USSR. Sakwa says that “Russia had never been a
nation
-
state and it was not a question of appealing to tradition but of creat
ing a new national
identity.”


In the 1990s the issue of national identity and nation
-
building was hotly discussed at all levels in
Russia. This discussion, however, took place in a context of de
-
centralization of power from
Moscow to the regions under pr
esident Yeltsin. As the authority of the federal government
deteriorated, local elites took increasing control of financial flows and natural resources in their
respective regions. This process was facilitated by the fact that Yeltsin needed constant supp
ort
from regional officials, in order to defeat his opposition.


As Robert Orttung and Peter Reddeway note,
37

Yeltsin made numerous concessions to the
regional elites, in some cases handing over very lucrative privileges. Regional laws were adopted,
freque
ntly violating Russian federal legislation, while many governors set up autarkic economies,
with a variety of regional barriers that often blocked the import/export of goods. Concerning the
media, Orttung says that “the typical governor dictated his prefe
rences to the regional media,
courts and local governments, as a way of perpetuating his own power and blocking any possible
opposition from encroaching on it….. Many argued that, by the end of Yeltsin’s term, the country
was in danger of falling apart.”





34

For Putin press
-
conference, please see
http://www.kremlin.ru/sdocs/appears.shtml?type=63380


35

Parts of this and of the following five sections were presented to the Annual 2006 Convention of the
association for the Study of Nati
onalities, March 23
-
25 at Columbia University, NYC.

36

Richard Sakwa,
Russian Politics and Society,
3
rd

edition, 2002, Routledge

37

The Dynamics of Russian
Politics, edited by Peter Reddaway and Robert Orttung, Rowman & Littlefield
, 2003


14

The content analysis of regional television broadcasts helps understanding to what extent this
situation was felt also by Russian regional audiences. A preliminary assessment, based on
regional newscasts submitted to the television contest “Novosti
-

Vremya Mestnoe,” organized by
the NGO “Internews Russia” in 1997
38

indicates that Orttung’s observation is correct, in relation
to the period that ended with the financial default of 1998. Newscasts and local programs at that
stage were excruciatingly borin
g, dominated as they were by biased reports featuring local
“talking heads” and reportages showing a country clearly disconnected geographically and
confused in terms of moral values and national identity. Only issues of poverty and distress
seemed to be

common everywhere across the federation, judging from hundreds of regional
broadcasting submitted to the contest.


This was a period marked by the almost total absence of a regional advertising market that could
sustain, at least in part, the development
of a professional media oriented to the needs of local
audiences. Fragmented audience feedback indicates conflicting feelings among regional
audiences. Despite becoming increasingly dependant on television for advertising and news,
viewers were also increa
singly dissatisfied with the over
-
politicized and Moscow
-
centered
newscasts and analytical programs of the federal channels. This feeling of alienation from the
“center” was reflected in the growing interest for local reporting as unprofessional as it coul
d be,
because local news were supporting the existence of a local/regional identity that in a period of
economic and social instability could help finding a certain balance in everyday life.


The situation has evolved since the 1990s.


The Russian Federa
tion, as its Soviet predecessor, is also a multi
-
national state, with some 27
million non
-
ethnic Russians living in a state with 128 recognized nationalities. It is in the context
described above that the question about the formation of a new Russian state
hood was debated
in the country and it is clear that under Yeltsin’s presidency a clear consensus, satisfying all the
different components of Russian society, could not be reached. In terms of nation
-
building, the
choice between empire and nation was far
from clear cut in the Russian Federation in the 1990s


Historian Vera Tolz writes that :
“After the downfall of the USSR, Russians in effect were
confronted with the fact that their previous attempts at nation and state
-
building had failed….In
the Russian
-
Soviet case, the end of the empire disrupted the basic state structure. In December
1991 Russia’s borders shrunk almost to those of Muscovy in the early seventeenth century. The
answer to the question: ’who are we, the Russian people?’ suddenly became more

unclear than it
had seemed to be for the Russian nation
-
builders when it was first posed in the eighteen century.
The related question of state
-
building has also proved to be very complicated. For centuries
Russia was the center of an empire which was con
ceptualized as a Russian nation
-
state. This
explains the confusion over what constitute the ‘just borders’ of the post
-
communist Russian
state, and over the membership of the Russian nation. It also explains why this confusion is
greater among politicians,

intellectuals and even ordinary people in Russia than in non
-
Russian
newly independent states, which also embarked on the road of state and nation
-
building in the
1990s.”
39






Regional Media Under President Putin





38

Floriana Fossato

was a jury member in this and later television contests organized by Internews
-
Russia
and has watched the broadcasts submitted by regional television stations

39

Vera Tolz,
Inventing the Nation, Russia

(London, Arnold 2001)


15

Federal news and analytical broadcasts m
irror distant realities and many Russians consider them
to an extent a form of “exotic” entertainment. They count on information on events taking place
locally from their own stations. And it is important to notice that since 2002 the tone and
emotional de
tail of broadcasts has been clashing increasingly with the framing given to national
events by federal channels, that are generally more tightly controlled, despite the fact that
regional television is trying to be as apolitical as possible.


Local broadca
sts, however, cannot avoid to include regularly among their programmes detailed
reports dealing with pressing social and health issues, like the spreading of HIV
-
AIDS infection
among the young population, the abolition of subsidies, children problems

all
issues that are
almost ignored by national channels.


Regional news provide a fascinating inside of local attitudes toward immigrants coming from
bordering countries

mainly China, North Korea, Central Asian states and Ukraine


and/or from
other regions
of Russia, mainly from the Caucasus. Regional coverage reveals an extremely high
level of “fear of the other,” and provides an interesting outlook of Asian (mainly Chinese)
penetration in the Russian Far
-
East and Siberia. In some regions live talk
-
shows (t
hat have
almost completely disappeared in federal broadcasts since 2003) include discussions on local
attitudes towards the war in Chechnya, raising nationalism and xenophobia, as well as issues
affecting local governance, corruption in first place.


This

diversity reflects what Darrell Slider pointed out at : “political life outside the capital follows
its own dynamic and the nature of this dynamic differs in every region. Variations among the
regions are perhaps more extreme than in any other existing f
ederation. Regions differ in the
extent to which they depend on agriculture or a particular industrial or raw material sector. …This
diversity greatly complicates the analysis of the state of affairs in Russian regions. There is no
‘typical’ region that co
uld be used to show common patterns and tendencies. Nevertheless, all
regions shared the formative impact of the communist political
-
economic system and responded
to a set of incentives that was implicit in Yeltsin’s policies towards the regions in the 199
0s.”.
40


In his analysis Slider, like most Western researchers, had at his disposal mainly data concerning
the regional print media. According to Slider, ‘’leading media, both television and newspapers,
were most often under the control of the regional admi
nistration . In those regions were there
was an opposition or independent newspaper, its distribution was severely limited. In several
regions journalists had no alternative but to have their newspapers published outside their region
and then smuggled back
. There have been numerous cases of blatant attempts to curtail the
expression of opposition views, including closing newspapers, withholding necessary newsprints
and supplies, conducting repeated ‘tax audits’ and intimidating

or even killing

journalists.

Suppression of the regional press achieved its intended result: it undermined accountability and
prevented the exposure of corruption.’’
41







Orttung, meanwhile, while acknowledging that “regional audiences turned to local broadcasters
and press for the
ir news” as a result of distrust for the federal media, noted that “at the regional
level, as at the national one, broadcasters and newspapers were generally loyal either to the



40

Darrell Slider,
Politics in

the Regions
(in Developments in Russian Politics 6, Palgrave Macmillan 2005)

41

Darrell Slider,
op. cit.



16

ruling authorities or to powerful business groups that had strong interested t
hat were at times
opposed to those of the governors. In regions were governors had been able to marginalize their
oppositions they had almost exclusive control over the media. By accrediting some sources and
not others and by doling out info to favored jou
rnalists the authorities could put the rest at
disadvantage. Governors often used their control over regional media to blame federal authorities
for the many unsolved problems in their regions. The media suffered from a lack of legislative
support, poor ba
cking from the courts, little public demand for better analysis and low levels of
professionalism among journalists.”


Although Slider’s and Orttung’s descriptions and conclusions clearly correspond to reality, the
situation concerning the regional broad
casting media has been more open to possibilities,
particularly during the period 1999
-
2006. This has partly been due to the appearance of
successful commercial media holdings in some Russian regions and partly because regional
executives (mainly governor
s and mayors of big regional centers) have been competing to assert
influence over the public with the help of regional televisions, thus in a way providing audiences
with alternative, although unfortunately not objective, information. Paradoxically as it

may be,
this situation in some cases created windows of possibilities that a number of television
companies were able to use, acquiring a certain degree of independence, rewarded by the loyalty
of regional audiences.



Dual Reality


In 2005 for the first

time audience
-
measurement agency TSN Gallup Media came to the
conclusion that the regional public largely disregards federal channels and networks for what
concerns information, relying mainly on news and analytical programs provided by regional

broadcast
ers.
42



This is an important finding, that has made a powerful impact among Moscow
-
based top media
managers. It also seems to have had an impact on the Kremlin political technologists, prompting
them to take measures at the beginning of 2006, aimed at ass
erting a certain degree of control
over regional broadcasts .


Quite interestingly, regional broadcasters offer more news and analysis than federal channels.
They clearly lead for what concerns broadcasting of films, serials and entertainment programmes.

A
ccording to the TSN Gallup measurement, the schedules of federal channels include only 8
percent of broadcasting time devoted to news and a mere 3 percent allocated to analytical
programmes. Regional broadcasters, meanwhile, devote nearly the double (15 pe
rcent) to news

and 7 percent to analytical programmes.





42

TSN Gallup Media report, presented at Internews
-
Russia media industry conference “Logika Uspekha,”
Moscow, Sept. 2005

0
2
4
6
8
10
12
14
16
18
20
News
Analysis
Films
Entertainment
Serial Shows
% of broadcast
Federal
Regional

17


Based on Source: TSN Gallup Media, Sept. 2005



The relative business success of some regional broadcasters has enhanced their community role
and at the same time created a situation of “dual
-
realit
y” confronting viewers. In the words of
regional journalists and members of the public, the gap between the “virtual reality” provided by
federal channels and the picture of the world covered by regional networks has increased
constantly since 2002.


Th
e field of confrontation however, is limited, for several reasons. Very few regional broadcasters
strive to be really independent from the authorities. Media content, though much less uniform
than at the federal level, is still shallow, careful and muffled
, as far as political coverage is
concerned. Unethical practices, including “information support contracts” with different regional
and local authorities have been widespread, particularly ahead of elections, and few journalists
and editors feel they are
damaging their own profession .


Furthermore, most of the time regional broadcasters have been unable for financial and
organizational reasons to cover major events taking place outside Russia and even in other
Russian regions, geographically distant. As
a result over
-
hostile coverage of key international
events, such as developments in Ukraine and Georgia after the revolutions of 2004 have not
been balanced by local coverage that regional audiences would trust. Meanwhile, coverage of
important domestic de
velopments, such as the Beslan tragedy, has been fully inadequate as
regional broadcasters depended fully on the controlled feed of federal channels and information
agencies.


Community Role


Regional broadcasters are not only informing their audiences. Ve
ry often they play a role
representing cumulatively local authorities, NGOs or even lawyers. They launch campaigns to
clean a town or repair roads, collect money to make a child operation abroad, call for potential
parents to adopt local orphans. Often cr
ime victims call their small municipal television company
before calling the police and elderly people approach them for help after every water leak in their
apartment block.


But as local journalists are helping people in those different ways they often

forget about their
major responsibility


to provide independent news and analysis. The lack of professionalism
remains one of the biggest problems of local journalists, together with their low self
-
esteem


many are simply afraid of covering federal and
world news. Regional universities usually lack the
basic ethics curriculum for their journalism faculties.


Democracy is Not an Issue Anymore


During a talk at Oxford University in October 2005 sociologist Richard Rose, a careful watcher of
socio
-
politica
l developments in Russia, noted an important trend that became visible since 1999,
marking a major change in Russian post
-
Soviet policy. As Rose noted, “democracy is not an issue
anymore” for Russian citizens, while other issues, like terrorism and/or econ
omic interest, have
come to the forefront. The lack of interest for questions related to democracy and civic society
building is, according to Rose’s observation, a deep trend indicating that “civic public interest is
currently opposed to economic interes
t, mainly through the media.”
43






43

Richard Rose, talk at St An
tony’s College, Oxford, October 2005


18

Economic considerations most definitely have been given a position of prominence over political
ones in the coverage of federal television channels, with the conspicuous exclusion of the
detailed coverage of President Put
in’s activity. The national television coverage of the “gas war”
with Ukraine at the end of 2005 has provided a clear display of what Bobo Lo has called the
“economisation of Russia’s foreign policy” to all international observers, but in the first place
to all
those who in Russia and in former Soviet states watch the news coverage of the First Channel of
Russian television.


The study of the regional media, meanwhile, allows us to see the real potential of civic
consciousness for Russian citizens, going
beyond the rhetoric of the national channels, dominated
by the geopolitical concerns of the Putin leadership.


When Even Apolitical Coverage Becomes Political


Despite taking a generally apolitical stance and presenting themselves mainly as the community
links at the local level, regional broadcasters have acquired an increasingly disturbing role in the
eyes of the Kremlin since 1999, for the simple fact that the diverse picture of the country that
they show differs more and more from the uniform “virtual
reality” provided by the federal
channels in the last years.


Since taking office in late 1999 president Putin initiated a series of reforms of the Russian federal
system, which have resulted in growing central control of the country’s regions. Following
his
landslide victory in March 2000 Putin started office with a package of political and economic
initiatives aimed at re
-
establishing the power of the federal government in relations with the
regions. In Putin’s own words, this operation was aimed at re
-
asserting a “vertical of power.”
Putin changed the way members of the Federation Council were chosen; gave the federal
authorities the power to remove governors and disband regional legislatures; strengthened the
Security Council and reorganized the countr
y’s finances in favor of the federal government,
removing the various inter
-
regional barriers and trade impediments that had appeared during the
1990s.


Putin was widely praised for the decisive manner in which he was able to oblige powerful
regional lead
ers to give in to his will. He divided the country into seven administrative districts (or
okrugs), each under the control of a presidential envoy, in charge of monitoring the regional
administrations’ compliance with Moscow’s changing rules. Putin either
imposed his reforms by
presidential decree and through the national legislature and the fact that his seven
representatives were almost all former security officials loyal to him personally enhanced a
pervasive feeling of vulnerability and fear among the c
orrupted regional elites, that also lacked
the political resources to oppose the president’s will.


The government and the presidential administration placed increasing emphasis on regional
issues during the second half of 2005, and several political and

economic indicators make it clear
that by 2006 regional issues have become a top policy priority.


For what concerns politics, an important rationale of this process is the promotion a more
uniform state structure. As part of this process, measures ai
med at reducing the number of
subjects of the federation have been taken in the last years. Leading federal officials have
advocated abolishing the scheme of ethnically
-
based regions, a legacy of the Soviet Union. There
were 32 ethnically
-
based entities an
d 57 territorially
-
based units among the 89 Russian
federation subjects. As the Russian Regional Report has noted, in recent years there has been a
shift toward greater focus on the ethnic Russian majority in the national policies, and the

19

importance of
promoting the information of one common nation is increasingly emphasized.
44

The total number of regions will decrease when a number of mergers of regions, currently under
way, will take effect.


A powerful indication that the Kremlin was extremely conce
rned by the new patterns of television
watching of the regional population, that as noted above, came to disregard federal news and
privilege local newscasts, came earlier in 2006. On 25 January 2006 a Petersburg broadcasting
company, Pyatii Kanal, was aw
arded 43 regional broadcasting frequencies, an unprecedented
occurrence, as 41 frequencies were awarded in a single tender. It was clear that federal
authorities were moving to rectify the perceived lack of balance between the federal and the
various regi
onal pictures and involve regional broadcasters more directly in the process of
promotion of a uniform state structure and national identity. The goal of the controversial
January tender is the creation of a new national television channel for the region
s. If successful,
the initiative, together with changing advertising trends, will significantly change the regional
television broadcasting picture, with important implications for the future direction of nation and
state building in the Russian regions .



It is unclear to what extent centralization tendencies will be effective and it is equally unclear
what will be their result. For the moment the methods used by the Kremlin, also thanks to the
lack of professionalism and ethical concerns of the Russian
media at the federal and regional
level, are producing a debate around the definition of the Russian nation that to a considerable
degree reflect pre
-
revolutionary thinking and Soviet theories and practices.


A question arises, on the possibility that
civ
ic nationalism may take root in Russia.
Central
authorities seems to have been playing a very risky “danger
-
control” game in the last years. A
Russia
-
wide survey by VTSIOM (All Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies) in 2004 showed
that 61 percent of re
spondents partly or fully approved of the slogan “Russia for the Russians”.
This is a 30 percent increase compared to 1998, when 31 percent of respondents said they
approved of the slogan.


By allowing this definition of the nation to emerge to a dominan
t place in the official and media
rhetoric, Putin and politicians close to the main security clans dominating the Kremlin have
pursued their immediate economic and political interest, attempting to strengthen their domestic
and international legitimacy.


The decision to abandon adherence to the de
-
ethnicised nation and state
-
building was taken by
Russian authorities as early as in 1992, according to Vera Tolz. Then, the Russian government
“felt that the idea of a civic nation, so new in the Russian cont
ext, would not appeal to the
population. Therefore the government appropriated the opposition’s definition of the nation in
linguistic terms, as the definition had a long tradition behind it.’’


The Putin government has gone further in this direction. Wh
ile at times paying lip
-
service to the
notion that the multi
-
ethnic composition of the RF makes nation
-
building along civic lines the
most viable option to secure the stability of the state, Russian officials at all levels have proven in
recent years that

the notion of a civil nation is still alien to most. Even some of the supporters
of this concept of a nation find it safer to rely on more traditional approaches when the stakes in
political battles are being raised too high. They have successfully under
mined the development of
civic society, strengthening cynicism and fear.


Despite a number of very nationalistic broadcasts in the regional media, and the recurrent use of
openly xenophobic vocabulary in regional newscasts during the last years, all ob
servers who



44

Russian regional Report Vol. 9 N.5, April 2004.


20

have had the chance of comparing federal and regional programs generally agree that the latter
are “rather unprofessional, but so refreshing and diverse after the heavy uniformity of Moscow.”
It is another country, or more precisely several ot
her countries, that could and should have the
chance of developing differently, if they wanted.