Between Truth and Time. A History of Soviet Central Television Christine Elaine Evans (Yale University Press, 2016)
This book tells much more that it promises. Through the history of Soviet Central Television from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s and the kaleidoscopic image of its major TV programs, this book shows the evolution of the Soviet political project in the era of late socialism. Rather than presenting television as a mere toolkit that served for ideological indoctrination of Soviet citizenry, Christine Evans tells a fascinating story, in which television producers, who tailored new television shows, did, in reality, something far more significant: they tested new forms of cultural and political rules of negotiations and, ultimately, elaborated new ways of life of the Soviet citizens.
Being intimate and compellingly visual, television was ideally positioned both to explore the moral and political ambiguity of the Soviet societal project and to address the political and ideological challenges of late socialism. Major characters of the Evans’ story are TV makers—writers, director, and editors—who are portrayed as skilled and creative professionals who knew how to navigate the complex world of censorship in order to secure the space for creativity and experiments. Evans shows how TV makers challenged restrictions imposed by the Communist rulers by drawing on the theatrical and cinematographic legacy of Russian avant-garde and building the post-war Soviet television culture on the foundation of artistic experience of post-revolutionary time.
Paradoxically, the demand on the original and inventive TV programing was coming not only from the audience, which in post-Stalinist era of relative intellectual freedom was, indeed, prepared for sophisticated and thought-provoking television production that would convey the atmosphere of new era. Soviet rulers understood the importance of cultural production in stabilizing the social and political life, too. Television programming in late socialism became an important mechanism of searching for new ways of unifying a diverse public, legitimizing authority, and performing the state’s responsiveness to its citizens. Creativity of television makers made these goals achievable without resorting to dogmas of a communist ideology but also without open questioning of their plausibility.
The Mass Culture as a Formative Mode of Social Organization
Exploring the imaginative technologies of Soviet television production, Evans reveals the paradoxical truth about the similarity between Soviet and Western society of that time. Pursuit of consumer identities rather than po- litical aims, private self-realization rather than abstract declarations could be found in many countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain after 1968, and these shifts were vividly reflected in television shows, films, and popular music that explicitly encouraged these developments.
What Frankfurt school thinkers once depicted as a specific feature of Western capitalism has now been discovered in the socialist context, too; on both sides of the ideological divide the mass culture became a formative mode of social organization and mechanism of exercising power. The difference was in details. In the West, mass culture was controlled by advertising and commercial imperatives.
Being intimate and compellingly visual, television was ideally positioned to explore the moral and political ambiguity of the Soviet societal project.
In the Soviet context, it was the ideological necessity to revitalize the state, to reimagine its relationship to the public that made the Central Television’s professionals important actors in a politically vital experiment under the rule of Nikita Khrushchev. The shift “from conversion to persuasion” as the primary means of mobilizing population had raised the status of mass media in Soviet society, and the Central Television was at the forefront of this change.
Insights on the Phenomenon of Stagnation
The title of the book Between Truth and Time tells about the paradigmatic shift that occurred in Soviet media landscape: from Truth, which was the title of main newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party, to its rival news program Time that was launched on the Central Television on January 1, 1968. The change could be read as a symptom of the loss of faith in the proclaimed “truth” about the imminent arrival of communist among Soviet elites that, ultimately, led to the understanding of the necessity to look for new ways of representing state and society that could be flexible enough to endure.
On both sides of the ideological divide the mass culture became a formative mode of social organization and mechanism of exercising power. The difference was in details.
The book by Evans adds important insights to the existing scholarship on the phenomenon of stagnation. Being closely intertwined with Gorbachev’s agenda and Cold War politics, the notion of a “stagnating” country shaped the image of late socialism through the series of false dichotomies between official and unofficial culture, between ideology and freedom, between state and society. According to some revisionist accounts given recent- ly by scholars, late socialism for many Soviet citizens was a stable, prosper- ous, and non-violent era with its own experience of progress and well-being.1
The book by Evans supplements this portrayal with an image of remarkably vibrant world of Soviet mass media, which alongside lm, popular literature, and music were more than a toolkit for ideological programming and certainly more than mere entertainments.
Growing Pessimism Posed a Challenge to Central Television
Christine Evans, however, does not simply dismiss “stagnation” in Brezhnev’s era as inadequate way to depict the complexity of late socialism in Soviet history.2 The sense of malaise, irony, and political disengagement that is widely remembered about the Brezhnev era cannot be simply discarded as invented and unreal.
What needs to be reconsidered is the role that stagnation played in the evolution of the Soviet project. Inertia of that time constituted a mood through which Soviet people made sense of their lives in the years of late socialism, but it did not exclude the openness to new connections and ways of being in the world. In fact, according to Evans, it was “stagnation” with all its entangled social, economic, and political troubles that made Soviet rulers worry about popular disaffection and forced them to look for television programs that could address these problems.
Growing pessimism about the Communist Party’s ability to deliver on its promises after 1968 posed a significant challenge to Central Television festive programming, but it also opened multiple opportunities for experiment and innovation. The Cold War, paradoxically, made the provision of attractive television programming even more important, as in the atmosphere of growing popularity of mass culture Soviet entertainment was expected to catch up and provide “worthy alternative.”
The “Letter Desk” as a Hub for Interaction
There are several paradoxical features of the Soviet system and society that history of Soviet television reveals. The conventional image of the socialist state portrays it as a completely top-down entity, in which the party rulers imposed the ideological dogmas onto the powerless and passive society.
The story of the “Letter Desk” on Central Television that was created in late 1950s reveals how the mechanisms of interaction with the society on television operated, providing the public with the channel for voicing their concerns and wishes. Letters from the audience were not only counted and tabulated in a manner resembling the treatment of sociological data.
What needs to be reconsidered is the role that stagnation played in the evolution of the Soviet project.
By 1960 the Letter Desk was producing annual reports that analyzed the viewers’ letters for the previous year, provided statistics on how many letters individual program desk had answered in a timely manner, and reproved those content desks that were less effective in communication with public. In a way, Central Television became a hub for interaction where the state responsiveness and public engagement were performed to compensate what was lacking in the county’s political life.
To reconstruct the stories of conception and creation of specific television programs on the Central Television, Evans employs impressive number of sources, from personal notes, professional publications, memoranda, scripts, and memoirs to statistics and correspondence between viewers and television editors.
Growing pessimism about the Communist Party’s ability to deliver on its promises after 1968 posed a significant challenge to Central Television festive programming.
The most fascinating part of the study takes readers to the backstage of creation of the most famous television programs, TV news, fictional miniseries, and game shows. Nearly all programs discussed in the book—the news program “Time”, miniseries “Seventeen moments of spring,” game shows “What? Where? When?” or “KVN” and others—have been perceived by the public as unique creations of the Central Television, iconic Soviet cultural products.
Evans, however, places these Soviet TV shows in the larger context of Western and Eastern European television and shows that they came to being in the dialogue between television makers that crosscut both state borders and ideological divide. In spite of common perception of Cold War as a period of political isolation and ideological hostility that had been maintained on the level of the official rhetoric between two blocks, Soviet television creators lived and worked in the international professional world that involved various interactions and influences.
The Soviet Central Television Legitimizes the Regime
These professional entanglements took many forms beyond direct program exchange; it included private screenings of foreign television for television producers, journalistic and scholarly analysis of foreign programs, and per- sonal relationships between Soviet and foreign professionals.
Television makers proved to be key actors not only in linking the Soviet cultural domain with the rest of the world; they have been vital in maintain- ing continuity between the Soviet and the post-Soviet television culture in Russia, too. By stressing the agency of television professionals, Evans adds an important insight to the increasingly common comparison between late Soviet Union and contemporary Russian state.3 And this is not simply a matter of continuities between generations of late Soviet and new Russian media elites, which is rather normal in spheres that require training and technical skills, like television.
Television makers proved to be key actors not only in linking the Soviet cultural domain with the rest of the world; they have been vital in maintaining continuity.
As Evans shows, the key function of the Soviet Central Television in the Brezhnev era remains relevant to official Russian media today—the search for unifying national idea that would legitimize power regime and provide foundation for social cohesion. This contemporary search began already in the 1970s, when cultural and political elites started to look for sources of social unification and political authority outside the Marxist-Leninist doctrine.
It is not surprising, then, that key television genres, formats, and strategies of Brezhnev era remain highly relevant to contemporary state television broadcast in Russia. This continuity not only gives the audience the sense of their own cultural history and tradition but also reveals the preservation of ideas and beliefs about television nature as a medium and its relationship to the state.
The key function of the Soviet Central Television in the Brezhnev era remains relevant to official Russian media today—the search for unifying national idea that would legitimize power regime.
- Neringa Klumbyte and Gulnaz Sharafutdinova. 2013. Soviet So- ciety in the Era of Late Socialism, 1964–1985. Lanham, MD: Lexin- gton Books; Vihavainen, Timo; Bogdanova, Elena (Hrsg.). 2016. Communism and Consumerism. The Soviet Alternative to the A uent Society. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.
- Dina Fainberg and Artemy Kalinovsky. 2016. Reconsidering Stagnation in the Brezhnev Era. Ideology and Exchange. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
- Leonid Parfenov: ‘Brezhnev XXI veka—eto kruto’ Novaya Gazeta, 17 July 2017, https:// www.novayagazeta.ru/artic- les/2017/07/14/73109-leonid- -parfenov-brezhnev-xxi-veka- -eto-silno
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