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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sappy About Stagnation

These days it seems that everyone in Russia — from the president to political dissidents — is waxing nostalgic for the Leonid Brezhnev era, when stagnation was king.

Commenting on the recent accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant, built during Brezhnev’s rule, President Dmitry Medvedev said: “It is clear to everyone that in recent years we have benefited from our Soviet inheritance. We have been using that inheritance to produce electrical energy and create new enterprises.”

The Radio Liberty web site recently ran the headline “Yury Shevchuk’s Soviet Nostalgia” above an interview with the cult rock musician. His group, DDT, was founded in 1980, a time when the term “rock music” was synonymous with “underground.”

Modern pop singer Alla Pugachyova described herself as a “Soviet singer” while visiting Baku to lay flowers at the grave of Geidar Aliyev, former president of Azerbaijan and first secretary of its Communist Party.

But I think the fans of the stagnation period — a time when nothing in the Soviet Union changed for years on end — don’t have to idle away the hours dreaming about the past. They can get the same satisfaction by surveying the current economic situation in almost any of the former Soviet republics.

Take, for example, last week’s celebration of the 215th anniversary of the founding of Odessa, my favorite Ukrainian city. Odessa is famous for its specific, local humor. When Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the city responded with a joke: Odessa was the first to congratulate Kiev on its independence and proposed that Odessa sign a pact with Ukraine guaranteeing noninterference in each other’s affairs.

I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to say that behind every other joke told on Russian television stands a native of Odessa. Popular satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky — who has a street named after him in Odessa — is a shining example of Odessa’s rich humor tradition.

Despite the city’s association with humor, Odessa’s anniversary celebration was marked by a bitter media war. Television channels that rely on the support from the mayor aired only interviews with citizens who were ecstatic about the holiday. By contrast, channels controlled by the mayor’s opponents showed footage of gloomy people with nothing positive to say about the event. A journalist from Radio Liberty, after watching news programs on all of Odessa’s nine television stations, concluded that it was impossible to determine what Odessa residents really think about the city’s birthday

I asked media analysts in Kiev if the television wars I had witnessed in Odessa were typical for Ukraine. They said such media skirmishes had been taking place all over the country for some time and that the Inter television channel, controlled by the oligarchs, had built its entire ratings base on negative coverage of the country’s prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko — the archrival of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians are pouring tens of millions of dollars into a television propaganda war to battle their opponents. While they are giving hungry journalists a lot of work at the country’s numerous television stations, most of the “journalism” they are producing is cheap, amoral and painful to watch. If this isn’t “journalistic stagnation,” I don’t know what is.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.