`I'VE had a television for ten years now. For nine years it served as a plant stand,'' says Nadia Andreyevna, a middle-aged, middle-class Muscovite. ``Now I turn it on. There is something to watch.'' Her husband tells a joke that has been around as long as the Soviets have been sending out a signal from their central tower: ``The most exciting thing about our television was when the set exploded.'' He laughs and shakes his head.
``Now I believe what they show me is the real world. I see [food] lines, I see drug addiction, I see Westerners. This is real life, good and bad. This is exciting.''
More and more Soviets are being drawn to the ``blue screen,'' as it's called here. In the era of glasnost (openness), Soviet TV has opened its horizons the widest, providing a small window to the West and a view of the darker side of life here.
The broadcasts run the gamut: from soft-drink commercials in English shown during American basketball games to rock videos, from politicians condemning one another to priests baptizing babies, from drug addicts to psychic healers.
Dima Dyakorov, an artist, says he watches TV for its ``shock factor.'' He recounts one discussion on a late-night show where a panel argued about removing Lenin from his tomb in Red Square.
``I was absolutely stunned. I thought I had simply misheard. But no, they were saying `Lenin,' not `Stalin.''' Dima slaps his forehead with the palm of his hand, laughing. ``It was anarchy on television. I was waiting for them to be dragged off by the militia.''
JUDGING by recent polls, it is this ``shock factor'' that draws most Soviet viewers. The most popular shows are Vzglyad (Viewpoint) with an 86 percent share of the audience and Before and after Midnight, which carries 79 percent. Both deal with controversial subjects such as AIDS, the Mafia, deficits, prostitution, and the role of the Communist party. These themes are revolutionary, considering that five years ago the most risqu'e production was a Czech dance troupe.
Some shows have even developed a cult following. 120 Minutes, broadcast from 6 to 8 a.m., offers the latest rage: psychic healer Alan Chumak. Each morning the handsome, spectacled Chumak tells ailing viewers to put a glass of water or milk in front of the screen, sit back, relax, and close their eyes. He then stares into the camera, making jerky, intense eye movements, his head tilting slightly from side to side, hands rotating low. For 10 minutes this goes on without a sound.
``He cured my neighbor. She had terrible headaches.'' Yelena Donovitsa says. ``Now, every morning I put a glass of water by the set, no matter what cure he has....''
When Chumak was taken off the air without explanation, thousands of letters poured in - and the next week he was back.
It is however, Western commercials that seem to throw Soviets into a trance. Advertisements for Western products have leaked through to the screen during Western basketball and hockey telecasts. Soviets will stand transfixed by the sight of Michael Jackson strutting on stage, or women in miniskirts smiling and singing as they gulp down fizzy sugar water, or well-dressed men and women traveling without a care and slapping down a piece of plastic to pay for the riches they confront at every turn. None of this corresponds to Soviet reality.
The impressions can be misleading, if not amusing. One taxi driver in all seriousness asked ``Do you really sing when you drink Pepsi-Cola?''
What stuns Soviets most is that the shows are still officially sanctioned and state controlled. ``Sometimes I wonder where I am when I watch television,'' Andrea Svetlanova says, widening her eyes and shaking her head. ``But then, we are going through a time of change. Television has become a mirror of our society.''