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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nemtsov and Gorbachev Tune In to the Past

Boris Nemtsov watches to recall a time when state television had more freedom. Mikhail Gorbachev watches to see what he missed during his busy years as president. Vladimir Ananich and scores of others just watch to relive their youth.

Ananich is the brains behind Nostalgia, one of two hugely successful cable television channels that offer viewers a trip back to the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras with a lineup of classic Soviet television programs. The other channel is Retro TV.

Viewers wake up to perform morning exercises along with the same trainers who put the nation through their paces 30 years ago, listen to the weather from the same date three decades ago and watch news from when the Soviet Union was a superpower.

With critics accusing present-day Russian television of turning Soviet with a pro-Kremlin news slant, perhaps the last thing anyone needs are channels that recycle old shows. But some viewers say that Nostalgia and Retro TV, which have been launched over the past 12 months, are the freest and most dissident channels now on the air.

Broadcasting executives insist that there is no political motivation behind the channels and that they are simply reliving the past.

"There is no ideological relationship, it is simply nostalgia. We just do it for ourselves," said Irina Zenkova, the general director of Nostalgia, whose logo is a hodge-podge of Russian and English letters with a hammer and sickle serving as the letter "G."

Ananich, who thought up the concept of Nostalgia and acts as its general producer, said the channel was an indulgence of his youth, a remembrance of things broadcast and not broadcast. "It is my youth," said the now-balding 46-year-old, who was a hippie in the 1970s.

In addition to old shows, the channel also has plenty of time devoted to the favored Western bands of his youth that would never have been allowed on Soviet television. Ananich is now trying to secure the rights to broadcast footage of The Doors on the channel.

Nostalgia aside, viewers tune in with the added knowledge of what is not being said, Ananich said. "We look at history with new eyes," he said. "You watch it with the subtext ... and understand what was happening."

Nostalgia is one of the top four channels on NTV Plus cable television, while Retro TV says it reaches more than 2 million viewers.

Much of the channels' programming is limited to reruns from the 1980s and early 1990s because few shows from before that were preserved or are in a good enough condition to broadcast.

Some programs are strikingly similar to what is shown today on state television: concerts featuring pop diva Alla Pugachyova -- although she appears much younger and thinner -- and news that is cloyingly pro-government and anti-American.

But many reruns from the perestroika era include fervent debates tinged with hope. Discussions of subjects such as how the organy, or secret services, should be prevented from ever regaining power have their own political resonance now that a former KGB agent is president.

One of the most popular programs on Nostalgia is "Born in the U.S.S.R.," a chat show in which the host interviews Soviet stars, celebrities and politicians who have often been out of public view for years.

Call-ins to show come from all over the former Soviet Union, Europe and the United States. Many viewers from the United States complain that the channel is trying to return to the Soviet Union.

"We are not returning to that country, we are returning to that atmosphere," Ananich said, adding that the present day is a tougher, crueler reality than back then.

Ananich is proud of the variety of guests that they have on the program. "One day we have an adviser to Brezhnev, and the next a dissident," he said.

Nemtsov, the liberal politician and former leader of the Union of Right Forces party, is not a figure usually associated with a desire to return to the Soviet Union, but he also has appeared as a guest.

He came upon the channel by chance when he noticed that there was a call-in taking place on "Born in the U.S.S.R."

"Live programs are a rarity in Putin's Russia," he said pointedly in a telephone interview.

Nemtsov was immediately put through live. "When they heard my voice, they started to laugh. They thought it was a joke," he said.

The producers then cut him off. Later they rang him up to double check and, realizing their mistake, invited him on.

Nemtsov called the concept of the channel "boring and uninteresting" but said he enjoyed his appearance on the chat show. "It's a very comfortable place, [with] straight questions. It smells of perestroika," he said. "I wouldn't say it is nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. but nostalgia for freedom of speech."

Gorbachev, who Ananich said was a regular viewer, has more reason to feel nostalgic. "He didn't have any time to watch television then," Ananich said.

He said Gorbachev enjoyed watching comedic impressions of him from the 1980s. "They were gentler then, not mean like now."

Seva Novogorodtsev, a cult DJ who played Russian rock on BBC World Service in the 1970s and 1980s, hosts a show that often looks at underground rock from that time. A recent show examined the truth behind the rumor that the Beatles had come to Moscow to play an exclusive concert for Central Committee members.

Another favorite show is the morning exercises, which brought a warm rush of blood to young men at the time -- and not because of the calisthenics. "It was the only erotic program," Ananich said, recalling how strait-laced television was back then. "I remember how men got up early to watch it, not to do exercises. It was very popular in the Army."