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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Voting and Forgetting

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Six months from now this will all be forgotten like a bad dream," celebrity spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky said on the election night edition of Svoboda Slova, or Freedom of Speech, on NTV. By "all this" Pavlovsky was referring to the presidential election, poll numbers and the like.

This got me to thinking: Why does Pavlovsky think this is all a bad dream? In the made-for-TV version of the presidential campaign that most voters watched, the whole thing looked downright festive. On election day itself the merriment reached such a pitch that I couldn't help thinking of "Front-Page Story," a sarcastic old Brezhnev-era song by Yuly Kim that cost the poet the right to publish under his own name:

"It's like the streets have all got more beautiful,
And sunlight floods into every home.
Today our workers (and the others),
Are all filled with a joyous enthusiasm.
Laborers, peasants and engineers,
Have left off their work in factories and fields,
Intellectuals and policemen
Are demonstrating their unity."

And another thing: Why should it take six months to forget "all this"? The television stations dropped the subject as soon as the votes were counted. After all, what's left to recollect or analyze, much less to prognosticate about? Everything is going according to plan.

Some pop group timed the release of their latest video to coincide with Putin's triumphant victory. The refrain of the song goes like this: "You and I are kicking back (...). Cutting loose on the weekend (...)" The video, featuring a computer-generated crooning Putin, was supposed to be shown at the close of the Namedni show. But when the show was already on the air, news broke of the fire at the Manezh in central Moscow. Host Leonid Parfyonov noted that the program had obviously been planned in advance, and that in light of the fire at the Manezh, the song had taken on an unintended meaning (in popular slang, the Russian verb "zazhigat" means "to cut loose." But its primary meaning is "to set fire" to something). The editors of Namedni opted to air a shortened version of the video on election night and cut it from the Monday rebroadcast of the show, doubtless owing to this uncomfortable ambiguity.

Namedni was a welcome break from the general exultation that reigned on the two state-controlled television stations. But there was plenty of rejoicing in a report by Maxim Sokolov, which featured the six inhabitants of a wide spot in the road called Kozla that both God and the Kremlin seemed to have forsaken. We watched them waving a red flag (the only one they had to hand, no doubt), arriving on skis to greet election officials who had ventured out with a portable ballot box. Some old ladies in another village stocked up on cut-price groceries at their polling station, then sat around a table singing little ditties about the election. Some Chechen women sang Putin's praises and implored him to supply water to their village every once in a while. New mothers at a Rostov maternity hospital fed their babies, who had been decked out in bibs by a local election official. "Being born today is an enormous civic responsibility," the official said. The bibs all bore the words: "Future President of Russia." The collective effect of all these scenes was a sense of absurdity that left me dumbfounded.

In Ilya Zimin's report on the 50th anniversary of the KGB I was struck by two old biddies, Volodya Putin's former schoolteachers, looking at the distinguished graduate's picture in a school yearbook. "Here's our fine boy," said one of the women, fondly stroking the photograph. "What a treasure he was." "I didn't think so," the other said abruptly. "That's because you were stuck with extracurricular activities," the other replied sharply. "People like him, pure and honest, were made to work in the KGB." The figures cited in Zimin's report were impressive. Under Gorbachev, only about eight percent of all government officials were chekists. That figure rose to 33 percent on Yeltsin's watch and to more than half under Putin. Hence the title of the piece: "Enormous Security Organ."

On Svoboda Slova they discussed a different set of figures -- Putin's nearly perfect score in a number of regions, including Ingushetia (98.2 percent of the vote), Kabardino-Balkaria (96.49 percent), Chechnya (92.3 percent) and Bashkortostan (91.84 percent). The sharp-tongued satirist Viktor Shenderovich remarked that results like that reminded him of Belarus and Turkmenistan. The dutiful journalists on the state television said nothing of the kind as they delivered glowing reports on Putin's landslide victory.

The following day a woman called in to a talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio. "I was wiped out yesterday and I missed the news," she said. "Can you tell me who came in first in Moscow?" The host Matvei Ganapolsky didn't miss a beat: "Ivan Rybkin," he replied. A number of listeners took the joke seriously.

News coverage on election day was not devoid of amusing incidents. When Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his bodyguard turned presidential candidate Oleg Malyshkin left their polling station, they embraced for the cameras and Zhirinovsky said, "Congratulations, Alexander. Job well done" (although Malyshkin's first name is Oleg). Later Savik Shuster, the host of Svoboda Slova, asked Zhirinovsky: "Where's Malyshkin? Already back with the security detail?"

On state-owned Rossia, the comedians Ilya Oleinikov and Yury Stoyanov aired a skit on their show, V Gorodke, that didn't quite toe the party line (the joke turns on the word "ptichka," which means both a little bird and a tick mark). A shabbily dressed pensioner (Oleinikov) enters a voting booth. An election official (Stoyanov) impatiently asks: "What's taking so long?" The pensioner, nearly in tears, steps out of the booth with an unmarked ballot. The official prompts him: "Just put a 'birdie' in one of the 'cages.'" "I feel sorry for the birdie," the pensioner sobs.

On the eve of the election, men of various cloths hit the airwaves on the nationwide stations. The patriarch, a mufti and a rabbi asked voters not to pity the "birdie" and to cast their ballots on election day. Ours may be a secular country in which church and state (and by extension, state television) are separated, but the religious leaders were given sufficient airtime to deliver their get-out-the-vote message. In this company, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov looked rather out of place as he exhorted his "flock" to vote. Judging by the impressive voter turnout, however, all this effort was not in vain.

"People vote however television tells them to," said a participant on Svoboda Slova. This time around television spoke with confidence and determination, and the country scarcely hesitated in making its decision. And then television declared the case closed.

Some day, an entirely different sort of television industry in a different sort of country will give viewers the full story. Just the way television today reports on the secrets of the 20th century. You have no doubt noticed the recent spate of programs about Soviet history. The trend makes perfect sense. When it's not entirely safe to talk about the present, you're better off talking about the past. It has been said that history is just politics cast into the past. This helps to explain some alarming coincidences.

Rossia aired a documentary on the Soviet ideologue and power broker Mikhail Suslov two days after the election. One scene struck me in particular. It's 1952. Stalin is old and infirm. He is obsessed with finding a successor. Lenin died without providing for a successor and Stalin doesn't want to repeat his mistake. During a party meeting he mounts the rostrum and says: "New people are needed in the party leadership." The audience freezes. No one knows whom the dictator has in mind and what it all means. No one but the unprepossessing man in spectacles sitting humbly in the middle of the hall. He is Mikhail Suslov, who would remain the party's ?minence grise for many years.

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