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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Extravaganza of Music! Comedy! Police! FSB!

Time and again, a phenomenon unfolds on television. Stiff-faced bureaucrats pack a huge concert hall, and after a speech by a leading Kremlin official -- often President Vladimir Putin himself -- the show begins.

What a patriotic extravaganza it is, combining Las Vegas glitz and the stuffy formalities of a Communist Party congress. There is even a part evoking Bob Hope entertaining the troops.

Performers represent many genres, from torch singers to classical pianists to comedians, and from sequined pop stars to the players of balalaikas. A virtually unchanging stable of performers migrates from concert to concert. These days they usually include Iosif Kobzon, an aging crooner; Denis Matsuyev, a winner of the Tchaikovsky piano competition; and Nikolai Baskov, a young tenor.

All this lures millions to television screens to enjoy a free concert that inspires patriotic feelings at a time when average Russians are often struggling and down on their country. There are Russian classics, Soviet standards and new favorites to celebrate holidays like Police Day, Defenders of the Fatherland Day and Security Services Day. The last was celebrated on Dec. 20, in honor of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

The concerts are usually in the Kremlin Palace concert hall, the former site of Party congresses. True to the hall's Soviet roots, a tsarist double-headed eagle, reinstated as one of Russia's official symbols, hangs above the stage.

Putin opened the Dec. 20 concert, broadcast on prime-time national television, with a speech praising the security service for fighting terrorism and -- recognizing Russia's growing problem with skinheads and hate crimes -- xenophobia, and for providing for a safe investment climate.

He then sat through the concert and clapped while Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, sitting next to him, appeared at times to doze. The concert ended with an announcer's rousing intonation, "Glory to the employees of the security organs of the Russian Federation!"

The ascent to power of Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, has brought with it a new respect for the security services and landed a slew of former security officials in top government posts, where they support the holiday in their honor. Though it does not merit a day off work, news programs and congratulations in banners stretched across Moscow's main streets celebrate the heroism of the security services.

But without a big concert, it would mean nothing. Having nearly faded away in the 1990s, the genre has made a comeback under Putin, along with the Soviet concept of choreographed celebration, in the view of cultural critics, who note a bread-and-circuses aspect to the concerts.

"Big Soviet style is returning," said Viktor Shenderovich, a political satirist who recently lost a by-election for a seat in the State Duma, where he had hoped to fight what he said was the Kremlin's effort to turn back the clock. "They have to distract people with something."

Concerts like these, with their oozy sentiment and kitschy acts, certainly feel like an anachronism, although the men dancing bare-chested as the backup for this year's acts would hardly have been welcome in Soviet times.

The head of Channel One television defended the concerts as a glue that united Russians on the "few days in the year when the country feels especially like a community." He spoke after the channel broadcast a grandiose concert on the 60th anniversary of Victory Day, which commemorates the Nazi defeat.

Slava Taroshchina, a television critic for the daily Gazeta, said she had watched the concerts with the eye of a Kremlinologist to note which way the political wind was blowing. "Why is television instilling this style that we fought against all of perestroika?" she asked, commenting on their "false grandeur."

Grigory Zaslavsky, a theater critic who writes about issues of power and culture, calls the concerts a "replacement for patriotism." He said he was so troubled by Russia's political and social situation that he had created an evening of theater called Cabaret.doc that mocked politicians and jabbed at the cacophony of pre-revolutionary, Soviet and new holidays that fill Russia's calendar, and spawn ever more concerts.

The concerts have plenty of competition as Russia's oil and commodities wealth bankrolls elaborate television serials and miniseries with Hollywood production values, as well as singing contests. Yet the biggest of the government concerts regularly draw top-10 ratings and nationwide viewing audience shares of 30 percent or more.

Not that all viewers are enthralled. "I work in the kitchen with the television on, cleaning potatoes, and my hands are too dirty to turn the channel," said Tatyana Makulova, a pensioner who was a theater director and watches the concerts with a trained professional eye.

"A catastrophe" is how she describes most of the acts. "The lyrics are awful," she said, although she acknowledges that the concerts reflect a need for "something patriotic and heroic."

One of the highest-rated concerts is invariably on Police Day, in November, which has held an unshakeable place in entertainment for decades. In Soviet times, performing artists used these concerts as an opportunity to seek powerful patrons and resolve any problems they might have had with the law.

The tradition continues today, said Artemy Troitsky, a music critic and cultural commentator, who said performers came to the concerts "for indulgences" from the authorities. "Russia is a country that lives and is ruled according to feudal laws," he said.

The evening-gowned and tuxedoed emcees of this year's concert kept repeating, like a mantra, "The police are not just a profession, they're a way of life," a morale booster, given that polls regularly indicate that the public considers the police among the most corrupt representatives of power.

"In Russia, there is always an alienation between the authorities and society, and these concerts are a way of overcoming this alienation," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst who finds the concerts fascinating. "The biggest concert was for the Interior Ministry because the police were respected least of all, and most of all required compensation for this lack of respect."