How Soap Operas Can Save Us

Finally, Arshavin is leaving," one of my co-workers said. He was commenting on the drama surrounding the decision by Andrei Arshavin, one of Russia's best football players, to leave Zenit St. Petersburg to play for London's Arsenal team. My friend sounded both resigned and relieved, like a person who has learned that a favorite soap opera character has finally died after teetering on the brink of death for the last 38 episodes.

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"Don't get too upset," I answered. "Filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov has taken the new chairman of the Cinematographers' Union to court, and that is guaranteed to be a soap opera of its own."

The television miniseries industry is in crisis today as production companies have sharply reduced staff and are trying to unload existing material at a discount without making plans to shoot anything new. This has important consequences for Russia.

We clearly underestimate the significance of soap operas in our lives. If a monument to the liberal economic reforms of 1992 is ever built, the main figure should be a hero from a popular Mexican or Brazilian soap opera. Since Russians were glued to their television sets, never missing a single show, they neither had the time nor the emotional strength to stage an uprising against the government.

Remember when Rossia television attempted to cancel the "Santa Barbara" soap opera. It was met with public protests that were rivaled only by pensioners opposed to the monetization of benefits.

From Jan. 11 through Feb. 6, I counted no fewer than 42 messages on the RIA Novosti web site about Andrei Arshavin's negotiations with various foreign football clubs, and on peak days as many as 10 updates were posted on the story. Week after week, national television carried the story of Arshavin's wheeling and dealing.

If the ongoing saga of his quest to pick the right club at the right price resembled an action film, then the struggle for control of the Cinematographers' Union is closer to the psychological thriller "Twin Peaks."

The basic storyline runs like this: Last December, the Cinematographers' Union replaced celebrity film director Nikita Mikhalkov, who had been the union's chairman since 1997, with another film director, Marlen Khutsiyev. Mikhalkov rejected the decision. The Justice Ministry refused to register the change due to what it claimed were procedural violations. Mikhalkov's supporters filed a lawsuit calling for the decision to be annulled. Meanwhile, Mikhalkov is organizing a new convention. Both sides hold news conferences. Mikhalkov's opponents accuse him of corruption and of sucking up to authorities, while his supporters accuse the other side of fomenting an Orange Revolution.

At the same time, the media is contradicting itself, with Izvestia printing a column opposed to Mikhalkov one day, and then it publishes another piece by the newspaper's deputy editor attacking the blasphemous author the next day. The public has no idea what is going on, but it takes great pleasure in following the real-life soap opera played out by country's two leading masters of the screen and script.

"The Rich Also Cry" was the name of one of the first Mexican soaps shown on Russian television. It was precisely this series that kept Russians in their warm living rooms in front of the television and not rebelling on the streets against the government's shock therapy. Let's hope that the same themes, now unfolding in real life, will play their own therapeutic role during the present crisis.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.