Fishbowl view of seven young Russians spawns tempest

Is Moscow's first reality TV show a cultural mirror or pornography?

Russia's first experiment in reality TV has won mega-ratings, but that's nothing compared to the storm of social debate it has triggered.

The racy "Behind the Glass," which ended its run over the weekend, locked seven young Russians into a glass apartment for 34 days, with viewers voting out one participant each week.

Critics, including the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, have called the show everything from pornography to badly-acted farce. But the producers say the show is merely a mirror held up to the post-Soviet generation of Russian youth.

The show's 20-somethings had audiences agape at their unfettered conversation, angry quarrels, and sexual display.

"We find people divided almost equally over the morality of showing such things on TV," says Yelena Bashkirova, director of the independent ROMIR agency, which surveyed public opinion on the program. "But almost everyone seems to have watched it."

The penchant of two female participants for running around the apartment semi-nude sparked angry letters to newspapers and heated talk show discussion.

"This show has opened some issues about what is appropriate on TV, and when, which are very similar to long-standing controversies in the West," says Yury Podtserkovsky, an analyst with the Komkon marketing agency. "This is a clear sign that Russia has entered the market world."

Excerpts were broadcast four times a day, including prime time, and viewers could watch 24 hours a day on a website.

"I find this much more interesting than soap opera, because it's real," says music student Maria Plisetskaya. But schoolteacher Svetlana Khmelnikova called the show a "poor quality soap opera."

Director Grigory Lubomirov acknowledges that the success of such hits as "Survivor" in the US led him to persuade Russia's independent TV-6 network to take a chance on "Behind the Glass." But he insists that his inspiration came from a Soviet-era novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, who wrote of a futuristic society in which everyone lived in glass houses with no way to conceal even their most intimate actions from a watching world. "This was deep sociological and psychological research," says Mr. Lubomirov. "And we have learned that the older generation of Russians do not understand the first free generation of Russian kids at all."

What the show revealed, says one cultural anthropologist, was a typical group of Russian youth who have left behind all Soviet-era stereotypes. "I was surprised at how apolitical, ungrammatical, sex-and-rock-music obsessed and consumer-oriented these kids were," says Ilya Vorobyov of Moscow State University. "We Russians always think of ourselves as occupying a higher intellectual plane, but after 10 years as part of the wider world, our young people seem to be pretty much like what you see in Europe or America."

According to the ROMIR poll of 500 Moscow respondents, more than 67 percent said they had tuned in to "Behind the Glass" at least once. Fifty-eight percent said they were sure the program was aired only for commercial reasons. While many deemed the show "scandalous," only 13 percent thought the government should close down such programs. Nine percent said there should be tougher controls.

"Russia is more conservative than many other societies," says Ms. Bashkirova. "But there is little doubt that we have become free and open. Our polls reveal that Russians have much the same basic values as other people."

Perhaps the most telling indicators were the show's "survivors," who shared in the $30,000 prize. Viewers chose Denis, a quiet, bespectacled advertising manager, and Zhanna, a student and the one woman who refused to remove her clothes or engage in any sexual liaisons.

"During all the controversy over that show, many people passionately defended the right of those participants behind the glass to do and say whatever they wanted, even on TV," says Mr. Vorobyov. "But it's now clear that most people actually didn't like what they saw. This is a worthwhile reality lesson."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.