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Video: Late Night With Alex And Dima

7 minute read
John Kohan/Moscow

It is 11:15 p.m. A suave young man in a red tie and gray pinstripe suit is seen walking through a grove of trees outside Moscow’s Ostankino television center. Vladimir Molchanov, 37, host of the late-night television show Before and After Midnight, is opening his monthly broadcast with an elegiac monologue on the passing of summer. By the time Molchanov has entered the studio, oak branch in hand, Soviet viewers have been treated to brisk, taped reports on an Australian stork breeder, a Japanese horseback-riding robot and the world’s largest egg. The 90-minute show also features videos from rock stars like Michael Jackson and Sting.

By the once staid standards of Soviet television, Western music videos and a smooth transition from the great outdoors to the broadcast studio seem revolution enough on the airwaves. But the millions of Soviets who watch Molchanov’s show find it spellbinding for other reasons. They tune in for a glimpse of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost: a prominent Soviet writer denouncing the “monstrous slavery” of Stalinism, scenes of rusting railway cars in an abandoned stretch of the Gulag, even rare film footage of Czar Nicholas II and the royal family.

Over on View, a hip late-night hybrid of 60 Minutes and MTV, co-hosts “Alex” Lyubimov, 26, and “Dima” Zakharov, 30, prefer what they jokingly call the “rough and macho” look. They wear T shirts and blue jeans. At times they may seem a bit cocky, inviting viewers to send in such oddities as leaden macaroni mixes or bread loaves containing glass chips for their “museum of shoddy goods.” But they are as earnest as Molchanov in exploring the boundaries of glasnost.

View, broadcast on Friday night, routinely touches taboo topics and raw nerve ends. The show’s reporters have interviewed young neo-Nazis, Soviet investigators on the Mafia beat and Afghan vets who brawled with police and have the bruises to show for it. Even the music carries a message, whether it be a video from the Eurythmics that uses snippets from the film 1984 or a satiric jazz ditty from the Soviet group Akvarium, complete with Stalinist-era newsreels and pictures of a booted foot atop a typewriter and a saxophone. The show’s philosophy, as explained by Zakharov: “The more glasnost there is on television, the more glasnost there will be in daily life.”

There is no equivalent to the Nielsen ratings in the Soviet Union, but according to the latest “popularity index” in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, Soviet audiences ranked View and Before and After Midnight in first and third place. TV viewers now have such an insatiable appetite for information that news and talk shows occupy seven of the Top Ten spots. As Boris Purgalin, a former scriptwriter for TV entertainment programs, notes, “Who would find sports interesting anymore, when talk shows turn into a real battle of opinions?”

Not too long ago, bored Soviet audiences found little of interest to watch but the evening news, an occasional “world of nature” documentary or the mildly spicy cabaret programs and quiz shows. Nor was late-night TV suitable for a working class that had to rise early to go out and build the permanent revolution. In the words of Estonian journalist Urmas Ott, state-controlled Central Television was like “preserved food: perfectly round and sealed, so that nothing spoiled, nothing changed, and nothing was very interesting.”

Gorbachev lost no time in freshening the menu when he came to power in March 1985. He pensioned off Sergei Lapin, who for 15 years had been guarding the airwaves from ideological “deviation” as chairman of Gosteleradio, the State Committee for Television and Radio. With a vigor that invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy, Gorbachev set about teaching the country a lesson in glasnost. He began to go on “walkabouts,” mingling with the masses and speaking his mind, as if unaware that cameras were recording his every move.

If the Soviet leader hopes to circumvent entrenched conservatives in the bureaucracy and pitch his policy of perestroika directly to the people, he has good reason to turn to television. Not all rural areas of the Soviet Union may have indoor plumbing, but TV antennas rise above the rooftops of wooden peasant huts in even the most isolated villages. In 1960 there were only 22 television sets for every thousand Soviets; by 1986 the number had climbed to 299. Gosteleradio surveys have found that up to 86% of their sample group consider television to be their primary source of news about the outside world. Moreover, 63% believe it to be the main influence in shaping their attitudes and values.

The state television system responded to Gorbachev’s call for perestroika by adding four more hours of programming each day to the two national channels. You can stay up late; you can get up early. A morning show called 90 Minutes proved so popular that it soon expanded to 120 Minutes. Now collective-farm workers can turn on their sets and get an update on how the harvest is faring in the Volgograd district. For prurient relief, they can watch music videos of East German TV dancers, slinking about in peekaboo sequined costumes.

Even Time (Vremya), the stodgy evening news program, regarded as something of a national institution in the Soviet Union, has had an injection of “new thinking.” A ten-minute investigative report, called Searchlight of Perestroika, has been tacked onto the end of the broadcast. The mini- documentary covers everything from illegal trading in moonshine to the environmental crisis of the shrinking Aral Sea and the problems of buying artificial limbs.

Some of the more intriguing experiments are going on in local TV studios. Good Evening, Moscow!, a daily news and commentary show on the Moscow channel, sends out a young journalist with an “express camera” to film slice-of-life vignettes on city streets. The show also cajoles officials to take the hot seat for questions called in by viewers. The Leningrad channel broadcasts the provocative cultural digest Fifth Wheel, focusing on “superfluous people” in the arts and letters, as well as the offbeat 600 Seconds news show, in which commentator Alexander Nevzorov races against a flashing digital clock to summarize the day’s events, from cultural calendar to police blotter. Journalist Ott from Estonian TV has been so successful with one-on-one celebrity interviews that his regional program Television Acquaintance has been imported to national television.

Television glasnost has had its glitches. In a country where “anchormen” have had merely to pick up a TASS wire and read it, few were prepared for the challenge of improvising on live television. The View crew, for example, was drafted from the World Service of Radio Moscow, where commentators had more freedom in preparing shows for foreign listeners. Molchanov, who began his career as a print journalist, recalls that “at the beginning, I had to take a gulp and realize that everything was possible when I went on live.”

But the new crop of younger TV hosts has proved a quick study in knowing what to say and show, especially at a time when things forbidden one month may be permissible the next. View host Zakharov compares it with being “a sharpshooter. You have to wait until the right moment to hit the target. But you must learn to compromise. That is part of the new tolerance.”

Some Soviet television critics take a measured view of the changes. The only truly fresh idea developed at Ostankino headquarters, they contend, has been the “music-information” program, a formula that has been successfully repeated three times in View, Before and After Midnight and 120 Minutes. Critic Lidiya Polskaya of Literaturnaya Gazeta even suggests that the two national channels should compete with each other to spur greater imagination and innovation. “The workings of Central Television are like a closed black box,” she argues. “There is no place for such a monopoly during a period of perestroika. The truth is that even after 40 years, Soviet television is still in the cradle.”

– Maybe so, but the baby has taken a first giant step. Says Molchanov: “Who would ever have thought three years ago that we would even have live broadcasts where tough and pointed questions could be asked?”

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