Russian TV takes Soviet-era turn

A new station is part of a wider move toward reviving patriotism.

Islamic bandits. Sandstorms. A Red Army officer fighting venal bureaucrats to bring Communism to the wilds of Central Asia, liberate Muslim women from their veils, and spread the light of Soviet power.

It's "White Sun of the Desert," and just about every Russian has seen this 1960s film. Even now when it comes on TV, people drop everything to watch it.

This feel-good homegrown Russian flick is a nostalgic return to a time when Russian society radiated a collective purpose and national determination, one that has been beaten down since the collapse of the Soviet Union some 15 years ago. Movies like "White Sun" serve as ballast for a society overrun by Western fare like "Sex and the City," "Alien Resurrection," and "Doc Hollywood." And if Ivan Kononov has his way, it's the kind of programming that will help revive the traditional my-country-first patriotism that guided Russians for centuries and led to great triumphs in war, culture, and science.

Mr. Kononov is a top producer at Zvezda, a newly-launched state-run TV network. Zvezda, which means "star," is one of several government-funded initiatives ostensibly aimed at correcting what the Kremlin perceives is a dearth of national pride and identification with the state - especially among Russia's rudderless youth. "Until now, there is not a single TV channel oriented on the ideas of the Fatherland where priority is given to all things Russian," Kononov says. "You may call it propaganda, but we need to stop this tendency to beat ourselves up, stop selling out our country."

Zvezda, which kicked off in March and currently reaches about 50 million Russian households, so far spends most of its 24-hour cycle showing Soviet films, plus a few military documentaries and interviews with notable Russians. Kononov says programming will soon expand to include talk shows and open forums for young people to discuss their "burning questions," particularly the widespread aversion to military service.

Last month the Kremlin signed off on an ambitious five-year program, involving 22 government ministries, to buck up Russia's image at home and abroad as well as unspecified, but potentially ominous, efforts to "resist attempts to discredit and devalue patriotic ideas in the media, literature, and the arts." In addition to Zvezda, state subsidies will be offered to artists, journalists, and educators for introducing themes of national pride into their work, software experts will be hired to develop patriotic computer games and, for the first time since the Soviet era, schoolchildren will be required to take rudimentary military and civil defense training.

Also projected are steps to correct the allegedly false image of Russia held by many in the outside world, which Kremlin officials have often suggested is the work of "anti-Russian" and "cold-war minded" foreign journalists. A $30 million English-language, 24-hour satellite news channel called Russia Today will be launched later this year by the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency, to bring the "positive news" about Russia to the world. "I frequently watch the foreign television channels, and almost everywhere they are saying the same things [about Russia]," President Vladimir Putin told leaders of the Kremlin-sponsored patriotic youth group Nashi last week. "All they can talk about is crisis and breakdown."

Critics say the Kremlin's patriotism project is little more than an expensive PR offensive to paper over Russia's very real problems, particularly the state of the military. Zvezda, funded mainly by the Defense Ministry, is an attempt to stem the tide of draft evasion - only 11 percent of eligible young men were conscripted last year - by presenting a rosy view of Army life, they say. "This is just a bureaucratic approach that smells of Soviet methods," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet official. "They have failed in all attempts to actually reform the Army, so now they've decided to teach patriotism instead."

Some wonder why Russia, which already has three nationwide state-controlled TV networks, needs any new ones. News broadcasts on the big three already hew the Kremlin line and have sharply increased patriotic programming, including popular new films and miniseries such as "Soldiers," "National Security Agent," and "The Motherland is Waiting," that glorify military and state service.

But Kononov says Russia's existing channels have become hopelessly commercialized and addicted to Western-style entertainment. "Sure, they have some patriotic programming, but they mainly broadcast shows about crime, political scandal, and foreign films," he says. "There is little about them that can be called Russian."

Vladimir Pozner, host of a top-rated public-affairs TV program, says Kononov's concerns are widely shared. "There's no doubt that younger people today lack respect for Russia's institutions, that the sense of pride and love for one's country is at low ebb," he says. "But how do you teach patriotic feelings?"

He is even more critical of Russia Today's goal of remaking world opinion. "The negative image of Russia in the West today comes from what's happening inside Russia," he says. "We know from past experience that until we start changing ourselves in positive ways, we won't be able to do much about the way others view us."

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