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Christopher Marcisz

The boob tube in Putin's Russia

MOSCOW

YOU MIGHT get the impression from western media reports that the airwaves in today's "increasingly authoritarian" Russia are little but warmed-over Soviet propaganda. The truth isn't that convenient. As Russia continues its bumpy rise in world affairs, what happens in the nation's kitchens and living rooms is a mosaic of the concerns and contradictions of this peculiar moment.

Coverage of the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin is extensive, loving, and often absurd. A good portion of the evening news recounts step by bureaucratic step what the president did that day. Occasionally things get carried away, as in August when the Kremlin released the famous topless fishing photos from his vacation in Siberia.

Outside the state-controlled networks there are variations. The network REN-TV does its best to keep an independent outlook, frequently interviewing exiled Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky and others. Last weekend, it reported that a banner put up by the pro-Putin United Russia Party, which read "Putin's Plan: Russia's Victory," had been defaced to read, "Putin's Plan: Russia's Disaster."

The regular newscasts feature a surprising amount of overseas news, and are free of soft features about health issues or lifestyle trends - and nothing at all about the child care custody travails of fading pop stars or the legal problems of long retired football players. So while the coverage usually finds ways to make Russia look good, you could reliably say that many more viewers in Russia than in America can name the current British prime minister.

All the networks know a populist bandwagon when they see one. In the past few weeks inflation has reared its head here, so the networks are racing to get out their hidden cameras to catch unscrupulous retailers in the act.

Most evenings there are a few political chat shows on, which reflect today's political culture here. They usually feature government officials or supporters facing off against critics, often Communists or nationalists, who make populist appeals to pensioners and others who have been left behind. Putin and his allies rarely get credit in the West for their formidable domestic triangulation skills, finding a way to make themselves appear to be the only moderate and sensible option.

Elsewhere on the dial, you will see a lot of imported ideas, adapted in strange ways.

Last year, a Russianized version of "Married with Children" debuted. In "Happy Together," Al, Peg, Kelly, and Bud Bundy have been replaced by Gennady, Dasha, Sveta, and Roman Budkin. While the American original was an often vulgar satire about downward social mobility, the new Russian one hews so closely to the same trappings that it becomes curiously about upward social mobility. The family has not been forced by economic straits to live with extended family members, and their apartment has a rare second floor.

This strange tension reflects in part a fact of Russian life today. We hear a lot about the nation's vast oil and gas wealth, which has paid off the country's debt, but the fruits of that windfall are confined to a very small slice of the upper class.

The small middle class is growing, but Russia is a vast country, and the average annual Russian salary is still only about $6,000. Parts of central Moscow and other cities resemble a nation on the rise, but for most people the post-Communist years have been difficult and disappointing.

So television remains a sort of escape. Dubbed imported movies are common, as are homemade police dramas in which the heroes of the various security services take down terrorists, smugglers, and corrupt businessmen.

For younger Russians, there are the music channels and reality shows, and by far the most popular comedy program among young people I know, "Comedy Club." The show is a mix of improv sketch comedy and stand-up, performed by a troupe of young men who have become famous.

To a foreigner like me, many of the idioms and jokes fly past, and it seems not too distant from the Soviet past, except perhaps with more fart and gay jokes. It has a cheesy set, the players confuse shouting and making faces with acting, and it features members of Russia's nepotistic show biz elite sitting in the front row for some high-profile ribbing. It is neither western nor wholly Russian, and almost completely devoid of political content.

And there are sports.

An entire state channel is dedicated to sports, but its disturbing history is a lesson to private channels that the Kremlin has a short leash. Many of its journalists found refuge at a smaller station called TVS, until in 2003, amid growing financial problems, the government pulled them off the air. The all-sports channel was hastily inserted into its spot on the dial, and Russia's ESPN was born.

Christopher Marcisz is a freelance journalist living in Moscow with his wife and daughter.

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