In 2006 I was invited to take part in one of the great adventures of modern broadcasting – conquering the booming Russian television market. The company I was hired by, Potemkin Productions, had been founded by Tim, a British executive producer, and Ivan, a Russian entrepreneur who had made millions in advertising and wanted to do the same in television. In 2005, the year before I went to Moscow to work for Potemkin, the Russian TV advertising market had grown by 37 per cent to $2.33 billion (the world average was 5.8 per cent), making it by far the fastest growing media market in Europe. In the 1990s and the early Putin years television had largely been a plaything for oligarchs and a vote-winning tool, but now it was about ratings, formats and revenue. Flush with cash from advertising and backed by energy companies, the Russian channels were spending money as fast as they could – their problem was working out which programmes to make. The Russians were convinced that the British knew TV’s magic formula: most of television’s most successful formats had been invented in the UK. Simply saying you were a producer from London got you any meeting you wanted. Potemkin’s plan was to take British shows like The Apprentice, Come Dine with Me and Faking It and remake them with local talent. It seemed so simple.
The company was based well away from Moscow’s bazaar-like, traffic-constipated, car-horn-honking centre, on a quiet road on an industrial estate. With wonderfully sadistic Soviet irony, the road was called Way of the Orchards. We had a sausage factory to the right and Russia’s largest melted-cheese factory opposite. It was a far cry from Soho: no graduates in horn-rimmed glasses snorting coke and eating organic sandwiches here, just the blotchy faces and twinkle-drunk eyes of factory workers, and the tattooed bellies of the long-distance lorry drivers who ferried the sausages and cheese across one sixth of the world’s mud, ice and bogs.
Our grey warehouse building had no sign, no number on the black metal door. Behind the door was a dirty, draughty, prison-like room where you were met by a bored, unsober guard who would look at you each day as if you were a stranger encroaching on his living space. To get to our office you had to walk down an unlit concrete corridor and turn sharp right up two flights of narrow stairs at the top of which you were confronted by another black, unmarked metal door. There you rang the bell and an unfriendly voice would come through the intercom: ‘Who are you?’ The question was ridiculous: the guard on the other side of the door could see you on his monitor – he saw you every day. But still he asked and still you answered, waving your passport at where you guessed the spy camera to be. Then came the beep-beep-beep of the door being opened and you were inside Potemkin Productions.
Suddenly you were back in a Western office with Ikea furniture and lots of twentysomethings in jeans and bright T-shirts running around with coffees, cameras and props. It could have been any television production office anywhere in the world. But there was a difference. Going past the reception desk, the conference room, coffee bar and casting department, you reached a closed white door. Many would turn back at this point, thinking they’d seen the whole office. But tap in a code and you entered a much larger set of rooms: here the producers and their assistants sat and argued, here the accountants glided around with spreadsheets and solemnity, and here were the loggers – rows of young girls staring at screens as their hyperactive fingers typed out interviews and dialogue from rushes. At the end of this office was another door. Tap in another code and you entered the editing suites: little cells where directors and video editors sweated and swore at one another. And beyond that was the final, most important and least conspicuous of all the inconspicuous doors, with a code that few people knew: it led to the office of Tim and Ivan, and the room where the real accounts were kept. This whole elaborate set-up was intended to foil the tax police. That’s who it was the guards’ job to keep out, or keep out long enough for the back office to be cleared and the hidden back entrance put to good use.
I asked Ivan whether all this was necessary. Couldn’t he just pay his taxes? He laughed. If he did that, he said, there would be no profit at all. No entrepreneur paid their taxes in full: it wouldn’t occur to them. Taxes, he said, were just a way for bureaucrats to buy themselves holidays in Thailand. As for the tax police, they were much happier taking bribes than going to the trouble of stealing money that had been paid in the orthodox fashion. In any case, Ivan’s profits were already squeezed by the broadcasters. Around 15 per cent of any budget went to the guy at the channel who commissioned the programme: in Russian these kick-backs are known as otkat, ‘backwash’. A British producer who refused to pay the ‘backwash’ was out of the country within a year.
Whatever measures were taken the tax police would occasionally turn up anyway, tipped off by someone or just roaming around the estate. When the authorities came we knew the drill: pick up your things and leave quietly. If anyone asks say you’ve just come in for a meeting or a casting. The first time it happened I was convinced we were about to be handcuffed and sent down for fraud. But for my Russian colleagues the raids were a reason to celebrate: the rest of the day was invariably a holiday (deadlines be damned) as Ivan haggled with the tax police to keep down the size of the pay-off. ‘Only a dozen people work here,’ he would say with a wink as they looked around at the many dozens of desks, chairs and computers still warm from use. Then Ivan would bring out the fake accounts from the front office to support his case and they would sit down to negotiate, with tea and biscuits, as if this were the most normal of business deals. And in Russia it was. The word ‘bribe’ was never used. The officials would look at the fake books, which they knew perfectly well to be fake, and extract fines in line with legislation they knew Ivan did not need to comply with. So everything would be settled, and every role, pose, and line of dialogue would reproduce the ritual of legality. It was a ritual played out every day in every medium-sized business, every furniture company, restaurant, modelling agency and PR firm across the country.
I had been hired by Potemkin as a development producer. My job was to meet with creative directors and commissioning editors and persuade them to take our shows. Russian channels come in two groups. First the behemoths: Channel One, Rossiya-1 and NTV, known as the Central Channels. These are the battering rams of Kremlin propaganda, huge corporations quartered in a Soviet-era building the size of five football pitches. Meetings involved walking down miles of brown corridors, to a smoke-filled boardroom where a producer would quite comfortably say: ‘We need something to keep the nation pacified. The financial crisis has the Kremlin worried. Ideas?’ The other group was made up of the entertainment channels: TNT, STS, MTV. They didn’t touch news or politics, and were left to their own devices. Here the offices were open-plan, full of gaudy, glossy Muscovites who looked as if they’d just jumped out of a fashion magazine. Most had a background in advertising and marketing, had worked for Western firms, spent time in London and New York, spoke English. This was the new, desperately Western Russia unhampered by the past, and these were the channels I was meant to focus on. The vogue everywhere was for non-scripted, reality-based television – The Apprentice, Next Top Model, Big Brother. These shows had been successfully remade across the globe: they were sure-fire formulas that would work anywhere. Russian channels followed the pack, bought the rights, and asked Potemkin to help make them. Russians loved Mercedes cars and Benetton jumpers: surely they’d love Western television shows too? We were wrong. Most of the shows flopped.
The fundamental premise for most Western reality shows is what people in the industry call ‘aspirational’: someone works hard and is rewarded with a wonderful new life. The shows celebrate the outstanding individual, the bright extrovert. For the Russian version of The Apprentice, Vladimir Potanin, a metals oligarch worth more than $10 billion, was recruited to be the boss choosing between the candidates competing for the dream job. Potanin goaded, teased and tortured the candidates as they went through increasingly difficult challenges. The show looked great, the stories and dramas all worked, but there was a problem: no one in Russia believed in the rules. The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as blat – ‘connections’. Russian society isn’t much interested in the hard-working, brilliant young business mind. Everyone knows where that type ends up: in jail like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or in exile like the mobile phone billionaire Yevgeny Chichvarkin. Today’s Russia rewards the man who operates from the shadows, the grey apparatchik, the master of the politique de couloir – the man like Putin. Promotion in such a system comes from knowing how to debase yourself, how to suck up and serve your master, how to be what the Russians call a holop, a ‘toady’. Bright and extrovert and aspirational? Not if you want success. The shows that did work were based on a quite different set of principles. By far the biggest success was Posledny Geroi (‘The Last Hero’), a version of Survivor, a show based on humiliation and hardship. This chimed in Russia – a country where being bullied by the authorities is the norm.
Docu-soaps following the life of an institution such as a holiday resort or an airport never made it in Russia either, despite our best attempts to sell the genre. At the format’s peak, reality-based, non-scripted shows (not including talk shows) accounted for three-quarters of Western television output: in Russia it never got anywhere near that. What’s Russia’s problem with reality? The basic principle of reality-based programming is that the audience believes the characters are having real experiences, that the action is not predetermined. The producer’s skill lies in nudging and manipulating the heroes into behaving in an interesting way. Russian channel heads refused to countenance the idea that you could make ‘reality’ programmes which weren’t scripted beforehand. ‘Of course it’s all fake,’ audiences complained, and usually they were right. Towards the end of Putin’s second presidential term, while ‘scripted reality’ was playing out on television, the Kremlin’s propaganda team, led by the former TV executive Vladislav Surkov, was inventing a new political system for Russia called ‘managed democracy’: something that looked like democracy, with political parties and elections, but where the behaviour of the main players was scripted beforehand by the president’s men. No one in the audience believed that show either.
Heavy-duty propaganda is of course most evident on the news, which generally adheres to a strict formula. Item one features the president visiting somewhere – a hospital, a school, a farm. Item two is a serious piece of national news: forest fires, economic problems. Item three is a piece of foreign news, chosen to show that Russia’s problems are nothing compared with other countries’: if the Russian piece has been about forest fires, the next item will be about forest fires in Australia or the US; if the Russian news has been about economic problems, the next item will focus on economic problems in the West. The final item is always a happy piece: a tiger cub born in a zoo, Russian victory at the Eurovision Song Contest.
Another news-programme favourite has the president sitting at the head of a long table while along the sides sit the governors of every region: the western, central, north-eastern and so on. The president points to each in turn and each in turn tells him what’s going on on his patch. ‘Rogue terrorists, pensions unpaid, fuel shortages …’ The governors look petrified. The president toys with them: ‘Well, if you can’t sort out the mess in your backyard, we can always find a different governor …’ For a long time I wasn’t sure what this scene reminded me of, then I realised: it’s taken straight from the moment in The Godfather when Marlon Brando gathers the heads of the New York clans to discuss business. Tarantino repeats the device when Lucy Liu meets the Yakuza heads in Kill Bill – it’s a trope in gangster movies. I doubt this is coincidence. Putin’s PR men dress him like a crime boss (the black polo top underneath the black suit) and his soundbites come straight out of gangster movies (‘we’ll shoot the enemy while he’s on the shitter …’). I can see the logic. Who do the people respect most? Gangsters. Which movies do they like most? Gangster movies. The difference between Putin and Medvedev is that whereas Putin played (and plays) the role convincingly, the new president looks like a prefect taking part in a school production of Bugsy Malone.
I’ve never met a Russian who takes TV political coverage seriously. Other types of propaganda are subtler, more indirect, even surreal. There was a spate of prime-time documentaries about ‘psychological weapons’. One was The Call of the Void. It featured secret service men who told the audience about the psychic weapons they had developed. The Russian military had ‘sleepers’: psychics who would go into a trance and penetrate the minds of foreign statesmen to uncover their nefarious designs. One had entered the mind of President Bush, and then reconfigured the intentions of one of his advisers so that whatever hideous plan the US had hatched failed to come off. The message was clear: if the secret services could see into Bush’s mind they could definitely see into yours; the state was everywhere, watching your every thought. Other programmes were even stranger. The most expensive documentary ever shown on Russian television was called Plesen (‘Mould’). It argued that mould was taking over the earth, an invisible but omnipresent enemy whose evil spores were invading our lives, causing death and disease. When the film ended large numbers of fearful people went out and bought the ‘mould-cleaning machines’ that had been advertised in the film – its manufacturers had been among the producers. Under siege from psychic spies and airborne fungi, audiences are kept in a constant state of panic. The Call of the Void and Plesen both co-opted the visual and narrative style of high-budget Western science documentaries: at first glance you might think they were BBC or Discovery productions, with their close-ups of scientific equipment and talking-head ‘experts’. The Central Channels don’t only do propaganda. Right after the news they might show a daring social realist drama about the problems of being a teenager in suburbia, or a witty show in which comedians dissect the week’s celebrity news. The Central Channels, and Channel One in particular, win the audience’s trust by being open and contemporary one minute; then the next minute they manipulate that trust by embracing the government line.
Not everything is gloomy. TNT, the cleverest of the entertainment channels, made a version of the BBC sketch show Little Britain, Nasha Russia (‘Our Russia’), which now has a cult following. Though it bought the rights to the British show, the Russians invented new, more biting skits. One is about Russia’s only traffic cop who doesn’t take bribes: he can barely afford to eat and his wife constantly begs him to be ‘normal’ so he can feed his family. There have also been a few attempts to tackle unpalatable aspects of the past, with several prime-time adaptations of Solzhenitsyn novels. The most successful programme I made was a documentary about a bunch of teenagers who had been beaten up by some drunken policemen, and resorted to flash mobs to get justice. The film was for a youth-orientated entertainment channel, which meant it could get away with programmes on subjects the Central Channels couldn’t cover. But with every year I was in Russia, that got harder and eventually I was asked not to make any more ‘social’ films. The Solzhenitsyn adaptations were phased out and the past was explored instead in ‘patriotic’ programmes like The Name of Russia (a version of the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons), in which Stalin came third in the audience vote.
Nasha Russia is still on, but the trend is away from satire and towards sitcoms, a fading genre in the West that has found a new audience in Russia. The vast majority are imported, like some prefabricated house, from the US: every line, every camera angle is reproduced exactly, in the belief that a replication of form will mean a replication of success. The imitation is so slavish that it doesn’t fit Russian reality at all: in the Russian version of Married with Children, a comedy about a lower-middle-class family, the apartment they live in has two levels just as it does in the American original – but in Russia you’d have to be a millionaire to live in a split-level apartment. Recently the Russians have started to write their own sitcoms, and they do it very well, but the contradictions are more glaring still: Interni (‘The Interns’) is set in a hospital which in its pristine luxury bears no resemblance to any hospital ordinary Russians would ever see.
Before I left Moscow, Ivan and Tim managed to pull off a spectacular coup: they became the Russian partners of one of the world’s largest television companies. All the top companies were moving in: Sony, Endemol, BBC Worldwide. Small companies like Potemkin became their representatives and had exclusive rights to make local versions of their programmes, theoretically a far more profitable way of doing things for the corporations than simply selling rights to Russian channels. Tim and Ivan looked set: they went completely legit, were audited by one of the big four accountancy firms, and moved into new offices near Moscow’s main television studios. But things didn’t go smoothly. The Central Channels were annoyed that the BBC, Endemol and Sony wanted to make a profit on their patch. Commissioning editors and creative directors in Russia make their money by giving projects to their own production companies. As long as Tim and Ivan had been small and unassuming no one had bothered about them, but now they were insisting that only they could make programmes like Big Brother or Top Gear. In Russia this is a recipe for failure. As The Apprentice showed, Russia is not a country that celebrates aspiration.