Ilya Naymushin / REUTERS Watching Russian President Vladimir Putin on television at a youth library in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, April 2014.

Primetime Politics

How the Kremlin Shapes Russian Television

The plush blue curtains open, revealing a cluster of cheap eateries. The cameras focus on a young man who stumbles onto the set. He glances around and declares the place perfect. He is planning a birthday party for a millionaire, he says, and his client will love celebrating in this “style of poverty.” The studio audience erupts with laughter.

Filming is underway for another episode of Once Upon a Time in Russia, a popular comedy show on TNT, one of Russia’s most-watched television stations. But the producers are not satisfied. 

“No, no! We’ll have to do this again!” says Sasha, whose job is to encourage the crowd. “Clap and laugh like you mean it,” he chides the audience of around 100 people, most of them women. “We want the whole country to see how great this is, how much fun you’re having. I repeat: the whole country.”

The Internet may attract more eyeballs than it used to, but Russia is still a television nation, and it is state-run or state-connected channels that have the largest audience. The Kremlin has long used its power to control the output of daily news programs to manage public opinion. But as Russian President Vladimir Putin looks set to run for a fourth term next year, his administration is taking no chances with popular perceptions. And it is showing a new zeal for managing the message from entertainment programs.

A still from the opening sequence of Adaptation, a series produced and broadcast by TNT.

A still from the opening sequence of Adaptation.

Such control echoes Soviet times, when art was sanctioned and approved by the state. In the state-owned GlavKino studios on the outskirts of Moscow, where “Once Upon a Time in Russia” is filmed, there are many reminders of that past—but with subtle updates. The famous Soviet image of a woman with a red kerchief holding a finger to her lips and warning “Do not blab!” adorns the wall of one of the studio cafes—except now, it has the words “filming in progress” underneath.

Similarly, there Once Upon a Time in Russia. The storylines poke fun at contemporary Russian life, but in a way that justifies, rather than attacks, the country’s widespread corruption. Bribes to all sorts of people from security guards to officials are presented in a humorous, and familiar, light. The Russian leadership is mocked, but only lightly. In another much-loved show, Comedy Club, the actor Dmitry Grachev does a chillingly accurate job impersonating Putin. In one episode, he upstages an actor playing Donald Trump, dressed up with a parody version of the U.S. president’s hairdo.

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