Moscow calling! St Petersburg loses its TV

Control of St.Petersburg’s television station, once free-thinking and vibrant, has been handed to producers from Moscow. Considered by Russians to be the country’s cultural capital, it will once more become the provincial city it was in Soviet times, says Dmitry Travin.
Dmitri Travin
3 December 2009

Soon Petersburg television will no longer come from Petersburg. Increasingly, Moscow is calling the shots. At any rate, many people who define the face of the television and radio company “Petersburg – Channel Five” are leaving their jobs in a hurry. This might not be of international interest (especially during the crisis, when millions of people are losing their jobs), if it did not reflect certain important political and cultural processes that have been taking place in Russia over the last 20 years. Petersburg, once the capital of the Russian empire, and to this day formally considered to be the cultural capital of the country, is in fact turning into an ordinary provincial city. Petersburg residents themselves are becoming ever more reconciled to this.

The euphoric times of perestroika

Petersburg television has a special place in the Russian media. In the highly centralised totalitarian state that was the Soviet Union, there was no space for regional initiatives. All the ideas came from the Kremlin. In Leningrad, however, (as Petersburg was called during the Soviet era), people believed the city to be the most Western and liberal place in the country; a place where progressive ideas might emerge. It was in Leningrad that the anti-Stalinist opposition was most active. Some of the opposition was real, some imagined. But even if part of the resistance was only in the minds and folders of state security investigators, it still demonstrated that the country was prepared to believe Leningrad had a special role to play.

During Gorbachev’s perestroika, when the Kremlin gradually began to loosen its grip and allow society to follow its own course, Leningrad television suddenly attracted the attention of the entire country for a short while. It was in Leningrad that several programmes were launched that were fundamentally new in the Soviet ideological system.

Bella Kurkova created the current affairs programme “Fifth Wheel” which openly expressed opinions that television viewers, who were tired of years of censorship, longed to hear. Tamara and Vladimir Maksimov created the “Musical Ring” and young groups of musicians from the underground were invited to participate. In the news programme “600 seconds”, Alexander Nevzorov discussed everyday Petersburg events concisely and without any ideological bias (alas, he subsequently abandoned this style and became one of the most radical anti-democratic ideologists in the country).

Of course, new television programmes from Moscow were also significant for the USSR. The current affairs programme “Vyzglyad” (View) (Vladislav Listev, Vladimir Mukusev, Alexander Lyubimov) and the “USSR-USA” linked television shows organised by Vladimir Pozner and Phil Donahue spring to mind. However, there is no doubt that Leningrad was every bit as bold and original in its programming as Moscow.

In order to understand the importance of the city’s own broadcast in Leningrad, with programming that attracted even the attention of the snobbish Moscow intellectual elite, one factor should be taken into account. During the Soviet period, Leningrad was quickly transformed from the capital city, which it was until the revolution of 1917, into an ordinary Soviet regional centre. This was not only because the country’s administrative bodies were transferred to Moscow. The Soviet system somehow managed to draw everything with any promise to the capital. Every year, fewer and fewer outstanding scientists, musicians and artists stayed in Leningrad, cultural life became less intense, and ever fewer opportunities were available for career-minded, driven individuals. One of the most important contemporary writers, Daniil Granin, reflected on the sad fate of Leningrad in a newspaper article entitled “A great city with a provincial fate”, which at the time had a huge impact and was widely discussed by the educated classes of the entire country.

Against this backdrop, the perestroika-era success of Leningrad broadcasting was of great significance to the city. This was subsequently backed up by the brilliant political careers of several Leningrad residents. Whatever most people may think about the actions of Anatoly Sobchak, Anatoly Chubais, Yury Boldyrev, Sergei Stepashin and Galina Starovoitova, it is difficult to dispute the fact that these people in many ways shaped Russian politics in the early 1990s.

In order to be successful, you must stop being a Petersburger

However, future problems were already discernible. In order to have a career in politics, Petersburgers moved to Moscow and became Muscovites. Essentially, the Soviet practice was quickly restored, whereby to be successful a Leningrader had to leave Leningrad.

Theoretically Petersburg could have kept its role in the Russian media sphere with its television channel competing with federal channels broadcast from Moscow. However, as soon as television journalists realised that censorship had become a thing of the past, the serious competitive advantages of Moscow became clear.

Far more money was invested in federal broadcasting.  Fascinating television shows appeared in Moscow. It was Moscow that bought all the best Hollywood films. Moscow producers invited the most popular singers to perform in televised concerts. Television series watched by millions came from Moscow (although many series were filmed in Petersburg, where production costs were much lower than in the expensive capital).

The only thing that did not depend on money was the boldness of opinion-based television journalism and the relevance of the discussions that were broadcast. However, when NTV (acronym for Independent Television) was created in Moscow, programmes from the capital proved to be just as bold and relevant as those from Petersburg. What’s more, those commentators working right next to the Kremlin had noticeably more access to information. Consequently, Petersburg television became provincial once more. Confirmation of this came in 1997, when the Petersburg television network was transferred to the Culture channel, so that it could be broadcast nationwide. Ever since, the “Petersburg” television and radio company has only catered for the regional viewer, and lost its nationwide significance.

Perhaps under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who had sufficient influence at federal level, this would not have happened, but Vladimir Yakovlev, elected governor of St. Petersburg in 1996, gradually came into conflict with many influential figures of the federal centre. Not surprisingly, he was not able to save Petersburg broadcasting. This was not really on his agenda anyway. By the end of the 1990s, provincial Petersburg television already served the interests of the provincial authorities. It was neither a “mouthpiece of democracy”, as it had been during perestroika, nor a commercially successful enterprise, as was required in a market-driven environment. The authorities were prepared to support the Culture channel in order to propagate Russian culture all over the country, but they had no reason to support the broadcast of a provincial television channel on a federal scale.

Paradoxes of the Putin era

Strangely enough, the era of Vladimir Putin gave Petersburg broadcasting a new chance. The blatant censorship of information and commentary on federal television, and in particular, the evaporation of NTV’s independence (the channel came under the control of commercial structures close to the Kremlin) made viewers yearn once more for independent television. Petersburg TV and Radio Company had no chance of any large-scale investments, but in principle, their television journalists could have taken a bold and incisive approach to tackling issues (as they did at the end of the 1980s). Losing out in the competition for entertainment programmes and films, they theoretically had the chance to win with their current affairs coverage and news programmes.

For a time, it seemed that this might actually happen.  By the end of Yakovlev’s term in power in particular, there was some liberalisation within Petersburg TV. The programmes of journalist Daniil Kotsyubinsky, for example, allowed discussion of controversial political topics without any censorship. Even harsh criticism of Yakovlev himself was permitted - the author of this article did so several times and afterwards, strangely enough, received another invitation to appear live on television.

With the new change of power in Petersburg (Yakovlev, who had difficult relations with Putin, was replaced by Valentina Matvienko – an obvious protégé of the Russian leader), the liberalisation of television was frozen for a while. Nevertheless, the range of broadcasting was increased once again. In 2006, Petersburg TV and Radio’s “Petersburg – Channel Five” (as the channel was called) was once more given the opportunity to broadcast in most Russian regions. Clearly the channel would not have been able to do this under Yakovlev.

Initially, under Matvienko, the city authorities’ strict control caused a significant drop in the freedom of Petersburg television. However, in a market environment, where broadcasting requires major investment, the city authorities could not hold their position at “Petersburg - Channel Five” for long. Control went to a private company, the National media group, where people who are very close to Putin play a key role.

Strangely enough, this meant a certain liberalisation. Journalists and experts were once more given an opportunity to analyse the political situation within an objective framework. Some of the commentators were even people it would have been impossible to imagine on federal television channels.

Most likely, this liberalisation can be explained by the fact that a channel with a low rating and serious financial problems had to find some way to attract the attention of a wide audience (and advertisers). Unlike the perestroika period, however, when a maximum of freedom was welcomed, the Putin era only allows freedom to the extent that it does not seem dangerous to the existing political system. So the activity of “Petersburg – Channel Five” did not resemble an intellectual revolution (as was the case at the end of the 1980s), but a kind of intellectual opposition.

On current affairs programmes, there was practically no discussion of controversial issues. The most influential opponents of Putin among politicians and experts were never invited on air. As soon as live discussions crossed a controversial line, journalists tried not to get into polemics, and instead toned down the issue and changed the subject.

In the end, journalists generally agreed that the political coverage on “Petersburg – Channel Five” was still better than what could be seen on the openly propaganda-minded federal channels. Unfortunately, however, the half-hearted opposition was incapable of attracting new viewers to Petersburg television. For intellectuals, television analysis proved much weaker than what could be found on the internet and the wider public were not interested in the subtleties of “opposition”. They wanted garish, expensive shows, but did not find them on the “impoverished” Petersburg television channel.

What next?

A private owner cannot endlessly support a channel in Petersburg that is unable to compete with federal channels. So it’s not surprising that “Petersburg – Channel Five” is being handed over to Moscow producers who seem to be able to make money. Whether they will actually do so remains to be seen. Alas, Petersburg managers and journalists have shown that they cannot oppose Moscow, where all the money in Russia circulates, and where everyone goes who wants to work with this money.

The only chance Petersburg has of preserving its position as a cultural and intellectual centre to rival Moscow, is if it becomes a freer, more European, and braver city than the capital with its billions of dollars. However, Petersburg has not taken this chance; it is increasingly becoming a Russian regional (oblast) centre.

In order to alleviate the shame of turning into a province, the city authorities try to flatter Petersburgers, and constantly hail them as the residents of the cultural capital of Russia. Putin brought the Constitutional Court to Petersburg, which had absolutely no effect on city life. Meanwhile, thousands of Petersburg intellectuals regularly move to Moscow, Europe or America, because they see no future for themselves in the backwater of St Petersburg.



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