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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Abroad, Forgetting Russia

I am sorry I missed my column last week. I went to London and completely lost myself in enjoying warm weather, clean streets and cheap meals -- not to mention concerts and exhibits (although both of those are things Moscow can boast of as well). Every time I used to go abroad, I felt so strongly attached to life in Russia and so afraid of missing some important development or event here that I would religiously watch television news programs, read English-language newspapers and make regular phone calls to Moscow -- just to stay in constant touch.


Strangely, it was somewhat different this time. I did not know what was going on three time zones to the east, and I did not really care. I guess that is not good, but I cannot help it. What is more, for the first time ever, as far as I can remember, I felt reluctant to go back home. It is not that England was especially appealing -- not with IRA mortar attacks at Heathrow airport, continued sex scandals shaking up the Tory establishment and the "House of Horror" in Gloucester, where the police discovered the remains of eight women buried in concrete. But it was still hard to come back.


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In Moscow, apart from experiencing interesting climatic changes (spectacular blizzards!) and listening to intriguing political rumors (Yeltsin to be removed?), I am busy finishing up some work for Russian state television.


I joined RTR (better known as Channel 2 or Russian TV) in March 1991 after working as a freelance journalist and broadcaster. The Soviet Union and Gorbachev were still in place, and the new "Yeltsin TV" was seen as the only democratic electronic media alternative to the big bad Gosteleradio monopoly. We went on the air in mid-May of 1991 with a six-hour-a-day time slot on Channel 2 given to us under a special Gorbachev-Yeltsin agreement.


RTR's news program, "Vesti," hosted by popular ex-Gosteleradio defectors, was an instant hit. Other novelties were the live political interviews and round table discussions, good commercial movies, and a few shows that had been rejected by Gosteleradio censors. As the editor-in-chief of the music department, I tried to give exposure to things traditionally ignored or ridiculed by Soviet television -- anything from radical rock and rap bands to contemporary avant-garde composers.


I liked the mission and the atmosphere of the early days at RTR -- dissident, risky and utterly non-bureaucratic. The peak of RTR's partisan media activities naturally came during the August 1991 coup. We were taken off the air and RTR's headquarters were surrounded by armored cars. Our camera crews roamed the streets, filming events and handing over recorded cassettes to Western broadcasting companies. Those were the good old heroic days.


After the failed coup, RTR turned overnight from being a champion of the opposition to being the mouthpiece of the establishment. The company started to grow rapidly, taking away big slices of Gosteleradio's resources and getting all of Channel 2's air time. I got down to serious, big-time work and immediately ran into serious, big-time problems.


I managed to get the rights to two popular British weekly music shows. They were quite expensive, but RTR did not have to pay anything because the programs were exchanged for advertising time (this is common practice nowadays, but the time mine was the only project of its kind). Ads for Mars Bars and Pepsi paid for the shows, and all the advertisers wanted in return was a guarantee that the programs would be aired according to schedule.


Punctuality was difficult to maintain at RTR, however. Stormy political and social events, in addition to the government's unquenchable urge to see itself on the air, led to constant delays and even cancellations of the music programs. Advertising agencies and clients would invariably get furious, while RTR heads would point to the force majeure clause in their contracts . After a couple of years of perpetual struggle with RTR executives and programming directors, I lost all of my sponsored Western shows.


My next failure occurred when I tried to produce a decent teenybop style of pop program, which proved too difficult a task in a country with virtually no decent pop music. In the end, there were people less discriminating than myself, and a number of trashy pop shows began showing up all over Channel 2. My program, renamed "Experimental Workshop" by the station, was pushed into a late-night programming ghetto.


I resigned. My experiment failed, a victim partly of incompetence, corruption and political games, and partly of my inability to cope with those things.