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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sports? The Economy? The Party That Delivers

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The late-night news on Channel One last Wednesday led with the Russian national soccer team's emphatic 4-1 victory over Switzerland in a European Championship qualifying game. The report featured highlights of the game, shots of ecstatic fans and of respectable middle-aged men in dark suits jumping for joy and hugging one another. One of the men bore a strong resemblance to Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, though the real minister has never been known to display his emotions in public before. Brief interviews with the players followed, then an interview with national team coach Georgy Yartsev.

The camera panned out to reveal not one but three ministers flanking Yartsev: Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, State Sports Committee head Vyacheslav Fetisov and, yes, Gryzlov. Yartsev said the support of those present (here he nodded significantly in the direction of the men in dark suits) and of the fans had spurred the team on to victory. "We all got a taste of national success today," Gryzlov said. "A sporting Russia is a united Russia," Fetisov proclaimed. "Or the other way around: A united Russia is a sporting Russia." (From his delivery it was hard to tell if Fetisov meant to capitalize the "u" in United Russia, so to be on the safe side I have opted for the lower case.)

"Yes, it would be hard to divide us now," Gryzlov said, working his way back into the conversation. "Success in sports, politics and the economy -- that's what we're working for." End of story.

The point was obvious: If not for the support of "those present," the team wouldn't have had a hope. Now that we have identified the key to success, shouldn't the government dispatch one of "those present" to every major sporting event? Would that make Russia the World Cup champion?

All in all, a blatant example of campaign advertising.

The national team's victory just happened to coincide with Channel One's airing of the third and final installment of a documentary film called "The Landscape Before the Battle." The presenter, Alim Yusupov, stared intently through binoculars, surveying the positioning of forces before the State Duma elections: "Left Flank," "Right Flank" and "The Center."

In terms of the election law, which requires the media to provide equal coverage of all candidates, the series was unassailable. The three installments were all of equal length. But journalists like Yusupov know a thing or two about covering election campaigns. And the documentary film genre allows a director to cancel out the words spoken by his subjects with visual images.

The film's first installment opens in a home for the elderly and handicapped. As soon becomes clear, this is a collective image of the Communist electorate. Sweet old women living out their lives in quiet dignity. Their lives, they say, were hard but full. Work was plentiful and the pay wasn't bad. Under the democrats they lost their life savings overnight. But most residents of the home don't think much of the current crop of Communist leaders, either.

A skillfully selected series of images sums up the lifestyle of the new "left": expensive suits, foreign cars, champagne and caviar, and ties to the oligarchs who bankroll the Communist Party.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov is shown in such a close-up that his face doesn't fit in the frame -- another means of evoking an emotional response in the viewers. Juxtaposed with the images of pitiful old women, it leads to one thought: "He got fat by exploiting the suffering of the people."

Of course, any face, even a taut young one, looks like something out of an anatomy textbook when you get this close to it. A face no longer young, and not exactly perfect to begin with, becomes a spectacle of pock marks, warts and gaping pores that forces the viewer to turn away from the screen in horror.

Zyuganov's former comrades who were expelled from the party for lack of discipline talk about the degeneration of the party and its leader, about how personal interests now trump those of the party and about Zyuganov's fear of actually running the country. The comments of his loyal comrades, on the other hand, are full of contradictions, proving that the Communists have no clear program, and that there is dissension in the ranks.

Yusupov nevertheless predicts that the Communists will remain on Russia's political Olympus for the foreseeable future. Why? Yusupov doesn't say. The answer comes instead in the closing words of an elderly woman from the home: "Life is hard because my strength is running low." The film leads inevitably to the conclusion that the "left" is also running out of gas.

The installment on the "Right Flank" is driven by the image of horse racing at the hippodrome. A jockey talks about horses. "Every horse is an individual. Those fillies have character." In the same way, every politician on the "right" is an individual, a difficult character, from Yavlinsky to Nemtsov to Chubais. This has weakened the right as a whole, the host observes. An elderly punter with an intelligent face sums things up: "Nemtsov is a blowhard. Yavlinsky is an eternal candidate. Zyuganov is yesterday's news. Who does that leave? Putin. I like him."

The bets are placed, the horses are off. The oligarchs are sitting pretty. You look at the well-groomed faces of Nemtsov and Co., their luxurious apartments and dachas, and you realize that they're cut off from the people. They don't understand the real problems facing the country. And you ask yourself: Who am I supposed to vote for then? Which party puts the interests of the country before its own?

The answer comes in the third installment: "The Center." The film begins with images of a once-great country: conquering outer space, bringing vast expanses of virgin soil under the plow.

This episode is interspersed with footage of a watch and watch factory. The watch is broken, but there are people out there capable of fixing it and restoring the natural flow of time, of making Russians proud of their country again, its past and its present. Yes, such people exist, and we know who they are. And you don't need binoculars to see them; these are not the minor figures featured in the first two installments. The frame is bordered by red, white and blue stripes. The United Russia logo is displayed in one corner. Party leader Boris Gryzlov appears against a Russian flag underlining that this, clearly, is the party to lead Russia.

There is no dissension in the centrist camp. The party is united in its aim to restore Russia to greatness. Sergei Shoigu sums up United Russia's priorities in the words of a song from the 1958 movie "On the Other Side": "That our homeland might prosper; there can be no other concerns." As the tune plays on, the party grows. Ministers, governors, the leaders of other Duma factions, athletes and entertainers receive their party cards.

Unlike the first two films, the third employs little off-camera narration, and when it does it's pure spin. "The Center" is less a film than a 40-minute campaign spot. Party bigwigs intone such slogans as: "The party of the future"; "The party of real action and transformation"; "The party that takes responsibility for everything that happens in the country."

So that's the lie of the land before the battle begins. And a few minutes later, the battle itself -- the Russia-Switzerland match. The third installment never makes clear what "action" United Russia plans to take, but that doesn't matter anymore. Now we understand: These are the men who delivered victory. We have the party to thank for the 4-1 victory. Such is the power of television campaign advertising.

But this time they might have gotten a little carried away.

Irina Petrovskaya writes a column for Izvestia, where this comment first appeared.