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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakhstan's 'Crossroads' at an End

It may have been billed as the ultimate happy ending, but for many television viewers in Kazakhstan, the last Sunday in September felt more like a day of mourning.

After no fewer than 465 episodes, the popular local soap opera "Perekryostok," or "Crossroads," the first of its kind to appear anywhere in the former Soviet Union, aired for the last time.

Fittingly, it ended with a wedding, and a note of celebration very different from its beginning almost five years earlier. Then, back in January 1996, "Crossroads" opened with a single mother giving birth in the basement of a run-down Almaty apartment block.

In casting an infant for that first scene, producers had to deal with an unusual problem — the superstition that it was bad luck for a baby to be seen by anyone outside its immediate family for the first weeks of its life. Eventually, in return for a promise that the program would help to pay for the child’s upbringing, they found a mother who agreed.

That wasn’t the only thing that sets "Crossroads" aside from other soaps the world over. Its own conception was distinctly unusual: The series began as a project from the British government’s Know How Fund to use television as a way to educate Kazakhstan in the ways of free market economics.

A team of veterans from British soap operas like "Coronation Street" and "Brookside" came to Almaty to help local players create a series that paid plenty of attention to everyday problems — and how to solve them. The British input lasted for an agreed 26 shows, after which the newly formed team of local writers and producers, together with a cast of actors who soon became household names across the country, took over on their own.

Made in Russian, "Crossroads" took as its starting point the fates of two families — one Kazakh, the other Russian — living on the same Almaty street intersection. The result was a distinct departure from the escapist glamour of other Latin American serials that dominated local television schedules at the time. Distinctive local issues such as finding health care or surviving a run-in with the mafia combined with more universal family and love drama.

When film director Abai Karpykov (whose "Fara" played in the Moscow Film Festival’s competition program last year) became chief producer at the end of 1996, he stepped up action elements in a bid to make the product more suitable to local taste.

Taking over at "Crossroads" certainly made an impression on him. "The main shock for a director used to working in the usual disorganization of the Soviet system was coming into a conveyor belt- style of production, where both creative and organizational decisions were decided smoothly, long in advance," Karpykov recalled.

"The other surprise was that we really managed to convince Kazakh viewers to give their attention and sympathy to a story grounded firmly in the very distinct realities of their everyday lives," he said.

"Crossroads" certainly managed that. Periodically ranked among the three top shows on Kazakh television, its two half-hour weekend prime-time broadcasts on the commercial channel Khabar were watched by as much as a fifth of the country’s 17 million population. Ratings stayed solid even against competition from the likes of ORT’s "Pole Chudes" (Field of Wonders), the local "Wheel of Fortune"-style game show rebroadcast by another Almaty station.

Though Khabar’s acting president Vladimir Rerikh made the decision to close "Crossroads" before its popularity waned, the channel is pressing ahead with another local series. Karpykov and his team are already in pre-production for "Sarancha" (The Locust), a detective series about a maverick ex-cop who comes out of an undeserved stretch in prison to carry on his own fight against crime and corruption.

Given local circumstances, Karpykov admitted, it could be well be another show set to run and run.