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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.
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 are two sides to comedies, such as 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.
These shows give the impression of being self-critical, but are ultimately about building support for Putin’s regime, as Maxim Alyukov, a researcher who analyzes television output at the country’s independent Public Sociology Laboratory, told me. As the economy has floundered—partly as a result of Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea—the Kremlin has seen patriotic television programming as a way of diverting popular attention away from the “protracted crisis,” Alyukov said.
Putin is known to be a fan of Grachev, and has been seen on television howling with laughter at his performances. The Russian leader has even given his blessing for a film about the impersonator, which is revealing in itself: that such approval was needed, and the Kremlin sees potential benefit in this kind of satire.
Such shows are hugely popular. Once Upon a Time in Russia is watched by one in every 15 television viewers, according to the Russian market research firm Mediascope. And although the show’s producer, the TNT network, is nominally private, there is no disguising its ties to the Kremlin. Its ultimate owner is the media arm of the state energy giant Gazprom. TNT also makes Comedy Club.
As Russia’s relationship with the West has worsened, producers have found a soaring audience for shows using the tensions as a storyline. In the reality show Made in Russia, now in its third season on the state-run Moscow channel 360TV, young couples ditch their European-made car and clothes in an act of defiance against U.S. and European sanctions. Russia responded with its own counter-sanctions, including a ban on European food imports. The move initially hurt Russian consumers, but ended up boosting the domestic market. In this vein, the couples in “Made in Russia”—whose logo is a barcode made of strands of wheat—discover that Russian products are of better quality anyway.
The market for this kind of programing seems durable, at least for as long as Russia and the West remain locked in a standoff over Ukraine and other issues. “It’s impossible to give back Crimea,” a senior FSB officer says contemptuously in Adaptation, another TNT hit. “Everything else is possible,” he jokes. The intelligence officer is one of the lead characters in the series, which is a Russian version of The Americans and has been an enormous success. The network will start filming a second season this winter.
TNT turned down repeated requests for comment or interviews. But the message from these shows is clear. Russia is an emboldened country that is winning at home and abroad against the West. “An important part of Russian TV propaganda is to de-legitimize Western opponents,” Alyukov explained.
Spies are also the focus of state broadcaster Channel 1’s series Sleepers, which premiered in October. In this Russian version of the James Bond formula, a 007-type character working for the FSB grapples with terrorists and other adversaries while always beating the CIA at the espionage game.
But are the television messages enough to bring Putin a fourth term? Although he is widely expected to win in next year’s vote, he is finding it harder to achieve the 80-percent-plus approval ratings which he enjoyed after annexing Crimea in 2014. A growing opposition movement led by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny has gathered momentum, attracting tens of thousands to the streets to protest Putin’s rule.
As a result, politics are seeping into entertainment television more than at any time since the Soviet Union broke up, media watchers say. On Spotlight: Paris Hilton, a popular satirical talk show on Channel 1, four male hosts have traded their usual frivolous banter on current events for chit-chat that directly reinforces the state narrative. The show, whose name never had anything to do with the eponymous American socialite, returned from a five-year break earlier this year due to popular demand.
Since Putin came to power 17 years ago, the Kremlin’s media management has only sharpened in style, bringing both state and private operations under its influence. It has succeeded in transforming Russia’s under-financed, chaotic television industry into a glossy, carefully choreographed version of the truth.
This article was published in partnership with Coda Story.