The Kamenskaia Television Series and the Conventions of Russian Television

By Konstantine Klioutchkine (Pomona College)

Production Values and Narrative Innovation

During the decline of the domestic film industry between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, television series became the dominant visual form in the Russian media. By the turn of the millennium, television series reached the broadest audiences; attracted leading actors, directors, and screenwriters; increasingly occasioned critical discussions in major cinema and literary journals; and even laid claims to the aesthetic and cultural status equal to that of the traditionally recognized forms, such as the feature film and the novel (Razlogov 78-79; Prokhorova 512-517; Beumers, “Cinemarket” 872, 889, 891, and “Soviet” 447; MacFadyen). While cinema was in decline, television series became a leading genre that represented to—and constructed for—Russian audiences the salient images of their social life and national identity. Accordingly, this pragmatic function of television series has been the central focus of scholarly analysis. By contrast, the purpose of this article is to turn to another aspect of television series—namely, to their aesthetic function, which has received relatively little attention from creators, viewers, and critics alike. In referring to the aesthetic function, I have in mind the semiotic complexity that results from a visual text’s effort to do more than satisfy the pragmatic expectation that it entertain viewers with a morally inflected narrative pertaining to their everyday lives. The additional meanings, which I group under the rubric of the aesthetic function, include the text’s commentary about its own poetics, about the resources of visual representation, and about narrative conventions in the culture of which it is a part.

In terms of semiotic complexity, the show that stands out among others is The Seventh Victim (Sed'maia zhertva, 2003), the last segment of the third season of the Kamenskaia television series (dir. Iurii Moroz, 1999-2003; Aleksandr Aravin, 2004- ). Each of the series’ seasons is comprised of several segments, each of which, in turn, is comprised of a varying number of episodes; The Seventh Victim consists of four episodes. The Seventh Victim foregrounds the principles of its own aesthetic organization and in doing so initiates a range of questions about the nature of contemporary popular narratives, about modes of storytelling on television, and about the cultural status of television series. In exploring these questions, The Seventh Victim engages the resources of the television medium in ways that are unusual for the country’s other visual texts. The show relies on the accomplishments of the Kamenskaia television series, which achieved the highest production values among Russian television series up to 2002. The most expensive crime show of the time, Kamenskaia offered visibly superior image quality, more sophisticated camera work and set design, more complicated plots, better scripts, and tighter editing (Prokhorova 517-521). The Seventh Victim drew on Kamenskaia’s achievements in order to experiment with a radically different way of making its meanings, to offer narrative innovations, and to comment on the conventions of Russian television. This essay places Kamenskaia as a whole in the context of the country’s television series, and then examines The Seventh Victim to point out the ways in which this show highlights the standards prevalent in the country’s television industry and the directions the industry has taken since 2003.

During the height of their cultural prominence, television series were dominated by the criminal genre. Crime stories proved overwhelmingly successful, while romantic, familial, comedic, or historical narratives were slow in appealing to viewers. The formative role in the development of crime shows belongs to three series, Streets of Broken Lights (Ulitsy razbitykh fonarei; multiple directors, 1997-1999), Criminal Petersburg (Banditskii Peterburg; multiple directors, 2000-2003), and Kamenskaia, which established organizational principles and production expectations not only for crime drama but for other genres as well (Razlogov 78-79; Prokhorova 518-520). In her benchmark analysis of post-Soviet television series, Elena Prokhorova has described the broad consensus about the specificity of Russian television, shared by producers, critics, and the public alike. The basic premise of Russian television series involves violating the conventions of Western television and cinema. Like 19th century Russian novels, the country’s television series are “baggy monsters”: rather than adhering to a single genre, they mix them; rather than developing coherently organized and hierarchically ordered plot lines, they combine multiple loose stories; rather than focusing on visual representation, they privilege dialogue as the formative expressive element; and, finally, rather than emulating the gloss of the Western television image, they emphasize the smudge of the Russian picture. These prescriptions are frequently conceptualized as a realist aesthetic: like the nation’s novels, its television series reject the formulas of Western television entertainment in order to capture the moral truths of real life (Prokhorova 517-9).

This aesthetic ideology has had disastrous consequences for the production values of Russian television. While rejecting foreign conventions, Russian shows also reject the very televisual essence of the medium in which they are made. David MacFadyen has observed that one of the chief problems of Russian television is its inability to look sophisticated. His initial explanation is “little cash, cheap screenplays, cheap direction, and cheap camera work”. MacFadyen also emphasizes that, like the late Soviet detective dramas, their recent inheritors “are driven by dialogue, not action.” Reflecting on the nearly exclusive focus on dialogue, Polina Barskova points out that the crucial model for Russian television series is the Soviet telespektakl', that is, a filmed version of a theater-like performance that emphasizes acting and conversation to the detriment of televisuality, the medium’s distinctive feature. [1]

The work that has achieved a measure of success in escaping the pitfalls of domestic series involves the opening installments of Streets of Broken Lights by acclaimed director Aleksandr Rogozhkin. Prokhorova’s analysis reveals the principles of Rogozhkin’s poetics. Streets of Broken Lights offers absurd comedy as it shows rather than tells a story of social chaos. The director relies on purposefully messy filming locations, sitcom inspired situations, visual black humor, as well as morally and politically provocative images. Reviewers pointed out that Rogozhkin’s episodes are shot from “the perspective of garbage disposal” (Prokhorova 520-1). Released in 1997, Rogozhkin’s work influenced later series. Yet, Rogozhkin’s epigones translated his perspective of the dumpster into dumpster production values. Cheap sets, primitive camera work, stilted dialogues with clumsy humor replaced the creative squalor of Rogozhkin’s visual text. In the run-of-the-mill series, Rogozhkin’s formative poetics of realism became the poetics of cheapness.

Kamenskaia: Western Values

In the turn-of-the-century television context, Kamenskaia stood out for its attempt to approximate the standards of Western television. The most expensive Russian TV-series until The Brigade (Brigada; dir. Aleksei Sidorov, 2002), the show boasted relatively high production values: a crisper image, logical and well-motivated plots, an ability to generate suspense, genre purity, tighter editing, and superior acting (Prokhorova 519). Commenting on the creative standards of the show, director Iurii Moroz said that the series was conceived as a television film (telefil'm) rather than the more common drama or telespektakl' (Pepeliaev). Visuality superceded dialogue. Music videos and advertising fashioned influential models: “One can no longer shoot the old way,” commented Moroz, “the image is now the most important thing” (qtd. Kureev). Advertising became a particularly important reference point for the show’s organization: the series as a whole can be watched as an introduction to the middle-class consumerist lifestyle.

The show’s early episodes begin with the heroine waking up, taking a shower, and having a healthy breakfast in an IKEA-inspired apartment. [2] Once she arrives in the kitchen, the camera slowly pans over the stove, lingering on the brand names of the appliances. Viewers recognized the advertising aspect of the show and responded to it by counting the number of product placements per episode. [3] Hygienic lessons, nutritional advice, and product placement would have been out of place in the show’s hyper-realistic competitors, such as Streets of Broken Lights or Criminal Petersburg. Kamenskaia’s poetics bonded the series’ high production values to the ideal image of a new way of life. The heroine herself showed what it was like to be a professional woman in a society far more civilized than that portrayed by the competing series.

The Seventh Victim: Semiotic Consumption

Drawing on the series’ poetics, The Seventh Victim takes Kamenskaia’s organizational principles of focusing on visualization and escaping the realism of Russian television in a radically new direction. Whereas Kamenskaia’s important distinction consisted in promoting the consumption of products, The Seventh Victim promotes the consumption of images. Challenging the scenes that portray Kamenskaia’s middle-class morning transpiring along with product placement, The Seventh Victim opens with a sequence of provocative photographic images from an art album whose pages are being turned by a male hand. The provocation inherent in these images involves the viewer in the process of semiotic consumption, the core narrative principle of the show.

marinina with childBesides identifying the organizational framework of The Seventh Victim, the photographs opening the show also mark its deviation from—and commentary on—the standards of post-Soviet mass culture and, in particular, on the country’s serial literature and television. The photographs treat the theme of mother and child in a sadistic key: both mother and child are undergoing torture inflicted by someone absent in the image; in addition, they appear to torture each other (Fig. 1). Most immediately, the image of the defiled bodies of child and mother invites a revaluation of the relationship between The Seventh Victim and its progenitor, Aleksandra Marinina’s novel of the same title. Horrific in its own particular way, The Seventh Victim is out to expose the derangement of its mother-text.

Marinina’s best-selling detective novels share the realist poetics of the post-Soviet detective television series. [4] The writer’s interest lies in addressing the ethical and psychological problems facing her contemporaries (Nuzov). Marinina’s language and her treatment of the psyche are profoundly moralistic, and she owes both to late Soviet ideology. The essential detective goal of her writing is to expose the various moral shortcomings of her contemporaries and then to humiliate the morally deficient characters. Replicating the psychology of the Homo Sovieticus, Marinina paints the struggle of the collective positive hero—represented by the undifferentiated labels “kandidat iuridicheskikh nauk” (doctoral candidate in jurisprudence), “maior militsii” (militia major), “polyglot,” “rabotnik oboronnoi promyshlennosti” (worker in the military industrial complex), “intelligent,” “intellectual,” and “aristocrat”—against the collective villains: “raznochintsy-meshchane” (consumerist petit bourgeois), “deklassirovannye elementy” (déclassé persons), degenerate intellectuals, and corrupt bureaucrats. [5]

mothereinsteinAs the images of mother and child suggest, The Seventh Victim mutilates its source, reducing the original text’s capacity to speak and giving it a different way of seeing (Fig. 2). The show evacuates Marinina’s moral bathos and repeatedly indicates that its own focus is not morality but rather narrative and cultural conventions. The interest in meta-commentary is linked to the strategy of generating semiotic surplus for the audience’s consumption. The show invites viewers to follow not one but two detective plots. While the first plot consists in identifying the murderer, the second plot involves interpreting the symbolic implications of the images in order to grasp the logic of the show’s fictional world. The semiotic game, of which the viewer becomes a part, is symbolized by the photograph of Einstein sticking out his tongue (Fig. 3). The photograph hangs in the police office in the place traditionally reserved for portraits of Lenin or Dzerzhinskii and evokes the distinction between the semiotic polysemia of the modern world and the certainty of truth in the moral world of Marinina’s novels. In order to succeed in the game, the viewer has to accept the former and abandon the latter.

author makes charactersAs The Seventh Victim severs the ties with its authorial origin, Marinina’s novel, the show turns to the nature and functions of authorship in its own diegetic world, as well as in the cultural narratives on which it comments. At the initial stage, authorship is attributed to the murderer who guides the lives and deaths of the victims—and the detectives as well. The show is interspersed with scenes in which the murderer rehearses his crimes by manipulating wooden figurines (Fig. 4). The worldview that drives his behavior is profoundly aesthetic. He believes that taking control of one’s death endows life with dignity, for this gesture prevents human beings from physical degradation and moral derangement. Ultimately, death bestows aesthetic order on the disorder of human existence. Beyond providing the rationale for the murderer’s actions, this aesthetic conception of the role of death serves as a commentary on the nature of the detective genre, in which death is the paradigmatic event that endows the narrative with coherence.

Visual Narration

victim 1The initial moves in the semiotics of the plot are offered in the scene of the first murder (Fig. 5). The victim is a forty-year-old woman who indirectly represents the show’s target audience, predominantly female and middle aged, as well as the detective Kamenskaia and the writer Marinina, both about forty. The body of the victim is suspended amidst the branches of a tree against the background of a lake; a few sheep complete the picture. Translating this image into a correct set of concepts―or into correct cultural idioms―will yield the keys to the puzzle. A random comment by one of the detectives about his love of fishing offers the clue. The scene should be read in the Christian vein: the murderer is a demonic shepherd of the characters and viewers, the catcher of men with his first black sheep on a hook.

This puzzle, along with the solution, belongs to the series only—it is not present in Marinina’s novel. The latter offers instead a moral message that one’s pleasures will be one’s undoing. Validating this message, the novel refers to the painting The Seven Deadly Sins by Hieronymus Bosch, which includes an image of a man swallowed by a whale. According to Marinina, the fish represents the life of sin that swallows the sinner (388). The victims in Marinina’s novel serve as illustrations of the writer’s moral point: the first one, a former dancer, dies because she wishes to perform for the murderer. Although the show helps illustrate Marinina’s point by putting the first victim on conspicuous display, it radically departs from Marinina’s message. Whereas Marinina’s goal is to purvey morality while entertaining the audience with an engaging plot, the goal of the show is to comment on popular culture by treating viewers to semiotic puzzles.

catcher of menThe second murder rearticulates the Christian idioms the “catcher of men” and “the fisher king” (Fig. 6): the murderer suspends a man over a river and fishes him in and out, eventually drowning the victim. When the detectives arrive at the scene, they fail to grasp the logic of what has transpired. The show emphasizes the detectives’ failure by way of a sophisticated pun, related to the comment about the love of fishing from the scene of the first murder. As the police fumble about, a passing fisherman remarks: “zdes' kleva uzhe ne budet” (fish will no longer bite here). The play on the word “klev” involves three meanings: “fish will not bite ” (kleva ne budet), “this will now be an unhappy place” (klevo ne budet), and “the police will find no clues” (clever ne budet). Consistently relating the notions of fishing and detection in the broad framework of multi-cultural references, the text makes deliberate use of this pun, relying on the common association between the Russian slang “klevo” and the English “clever” in the minds of Russian learners of English during the 1970s and 1980s, the time when the series’ director, script-writer, and average viewer came of age. The scenes featuring the first two murders orchestrate visual and verbal puns into a tightly woven puzzle with meta-textual implications. This kind of sophisticated effort at constructing a multilayered text emerges as unique in post-Soviet television series.

cutting fish

The immediate narrative message of this visual-verbal game is that Kamenskaia has not yet managed to be “clever.” Although she has a vague presentiment of the murderer’s philosophy and a sense that she should be reading his messages for their symbolic meanings, her attempts to decode the visual clues remain unsuccessful, as in the scene in which she attempts to reveal the significance of the fish by cutting into one with a knife (Fig. 7). As the detective fails to discover meaning, the viewer receives an indication that Kamenskaia, with her fingernails matching the color of the fish’s blood, might herself acquire a measure of agency as murderer—and, hence, as author.

The correct interpretation of the meaning of the fish image comes to Kamenskaia in a dream of a fish suspended in the air and evoking the first two victims (Fig. 8). The fish represents those who find themselves on the murderer’s hook and, most importantly, the detective herself. The final confirmation of this message comes when the murderer catches her and her husband and forces them to move like “fish on sand” (Figs. 9-10).

Kamenskaia hanging fish
fish on sand
fish on sand lesha

This critical moment reveals the murderer’s intentions and adjusts the logic of authorship in the show’s diegetic world. In accordance with his philosophy, the murderer has planned to give his own life aesthetic shape by committing suicide and becoming the seventh victim himself. The first six killings did not illustrate the deadly sins but rather rearticulated his aesthetic message while also testing Kamenskaia for the role she had been assigned. The murderer chose his particular victims because they had lived out the narratives of their lives and his authorial task was to complete their individual stories. Investigating the murders, Kamenskaia came increasingly close to puzzling out their implications. Thus, she confirmed her detective skills and earned the role of the executioner. In a key narrative twist, Kamenskaia assumes the murderer’s authorial function in becoming the agent who bestows aesthetic completion on the lives of the characters, including that of the murderer whom she proceeds to kill.

Visuality and Meta-commentary

The transfer of authorial agency from the murderer to Kamenskaia serves as a commentary on the logic of authorship in the detective genre. In it, the authorial function is distributed between criminals and detectives. While the former work on rearranging the laws of the world to reflect their particular criminal vision, the latter work on discovering that vision and arranging it in a sequence of events that ends with the removal of the criminal and the restoration of the world now properly policed. In The Seventh Victim, the function of writing the stories of the victims belongs to the murderer, but in the Kamenskaia series as a whole authorial agency belongs to the detective, whose work frames the narratives of both victims and criminals.

In order to understand the radical difference of the commentary on authorship offered by The Seventh Victim, one needs to compare it to the conclusion of Marinina’s novel. Rather than having Kamenskaia execute the murderer, Marinina makes her put him in jail. The novel then ends with a profoundly Soviet moral lesson: while the murderer wishes to be executed, the humane Russian government decides to abolish the death penalty. At the end of the novel, readers are encouraged to join the author in righteous jubilation―rather than getting his morally degenerate death wish, the murderer will suffer in jail for the rest of his life (413).

poster for Finch, Seven

Whereas the novel concludes with this moral message, the series continues its meta-commentary, extending it far beyond the comparison between the criminal and the detective in terms of their respective authorial functions within the detective genre. Further exploration of the nature of authorship involves a re-reading of another aspect of the novel. One of the show’s more pointed comments on Marinina’s text involves the relationship between the film Seven (David Fincher, 1995) and the novel, written in 1998. Whereas Marinina’s indebtedness to the film would be apparent to most readers, the show reveals the source from which Marinina borrowed the central moral conceit of her text, Bosch’s image of a man swallowed by a whale. The immediate source of this image is not Bosch’s painting The Seven Deadly Sins, but the advertising poster for the film Seven, which includes elements of the famous painting (Fig. 11). In identifying the novel’s origins, the show comments on one of the patterns in Russian popular culture as manifested in Marinina’s work. While the reference to Bosch lies outside the writer’s poetic framework, the advertising poster of a Hollywood blockbuster is fully within it. Actual familiarity with the history of painting is irrelevant to the writer and her readers. Yet, it is important to simulate the possession of knowledge in a mass culture that prides itself on kul'turnost', on valuing cultural achievements over material gains.

tape bosch eye
men in black

Having exposed the origins of the novel’s moral focus, the show provides an alternative vision of its own relationship to Bosch’s painting, a vision that goes to the heart of the question about the nature of authorship (Fig. 12). In Bosch’s painting, a reproduction of which appears on the cover of a cassette in one scene, the images representing the sins surround the all-seeing eye of God, located in the center of a circular composition. In the show, the all-seeing eye—that is, the lens of the camera—belongs to the ultimate creator. Figuring out who that creator is involves acquiring a finer understanding of the problem of vision, an understanding that pertains to the medium of which The Seventh Victim is a part. The show indicates that the characters gain insight into this problem toward the end of the story by way of an allusion to the film Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997; Fig. 13). As Kamenskaia approaches an understanding of the game in which she has become embroiled, she buys a set of glasses for herself and her co-workers. The final group shot of the detectives wearing the glasses suggests that they have acquired an ability to perceive the semiotic universe in a new and different light.

argusThe show’s concluding statement on the nature of vision and authorship appears in its last scene focusing on the murderer’s dog, which watches Kamenskaia and her husband as they walk down a boulevard basking in a white, new, and different light (Fig. 14). The overexposed image should be read as a pun on the concept of “exposure” and as another comment on the logic of the detective genre. The figure responsible for the process of exposing in this last scene is the dog, which turns its head back and forth from the characters to the viewers, submitting both to the power of the camera’s gaze. In this final scene, the authorial function is withdrawn from both the murderer and the detective, and it is assumed by the watchful Argus as the symbolic representative of the medium of television, the arch-author, which constitutes the respective experiences of the characters and viewers.

This notion of television, implied in the final shot of the show, relates to the opening scenes of The Seventh Victim, in which the criminal plot takes its beginning from a message Kamenskaia receives when she is invited to be a guest on a television program involving a telemost, a live link: the viewers located in the center of Moscow ask their questions in real time. The murderer uses this opportunity to ask a question that initiates the game he will play with Kamenskaia throughout The Seventh Victim. In Marinina’s novel, the reference to the telemost serves to reflect the populist view that Russian television lacks responsible government control and that criminals are able to use the medium for their evil schemes. By contrast, the show’s treatment of television is similar to its treatment of the detective genre: it explores their respective capabilities as forms that themselves can determine what kinds of messages they produce. The show’s treatment of the detective genre points out the ways in which it distributes authorial roles, provides explanatory narratives, exposes relevant facts, and maintains moral discourse. The show’s treatment of television calls attention to its dominant cultural role in organizing viewers’ lives. In addition to this fairly predictable message, the show’s treatment of television points out the ways in which this medium can transcend its pragmatic function and serve as a means of semiotic experimentation, as well as cultural and media commentary.

Old Standards and New Directions

Calling attention to the potential of television to perform a greater range of cultural functions, The Seventh Victim presents itself as a model of how this can be done: it emphasizes visualization in a visual medium, orchestrates a visual-verbal game in creating its meanings, foregrounds the conceptual problems of visuality and television, comments on the logic of the detective genre, and explores the way in which a culturally significant product, Marinina’s detective novel, is made. The Seventh Victim shows how a television text can mine a richer repertoire of creative resources and how it can pose a broader range of questions than Russian television series usually ask.

What accounted for the attempt of The Seventh Victim to do more than is expected of a Russian television series? The initial answer should reside in the decision of the producers of the Kamenskaia series to use made-for-TV film, as well as advertising and music-video, rather than TV-drama as reference points for the technological and creative standards of their show. Although Kamenskaia was limited―until The Seventh Victim ―to pursuing the pragmatic goal of offering entertaining stories pertaining to viewers’ lives, its production values were visibly superior to those of other shows. The investment that had gone into mining televisual resources in the series as a whole prepared the semiotic effort evident in The Seventh Victim. This particular set of episodes was produced under special circumstances: it was the last work of director Iurii Moroz and his team on the Kamenskaia series. As the director’s last work, it no longer concerned itself with meeting the standards of the industry and the expectations of the viewers, but rather emphasized exploring the principles of its own organization and reflecting on its cultural context. Special production circumstances invited experimentation and meta-commentary, and made possible the foregrounding of the aesthetic function of the text.

Developments in the Russian television industry also played an important role in conditioning the poetics of The Seventh Victim. Although responsible for creative decisions in the show, Moroz is not a director inclined to privileging aesthetic concerns in his work. After directing Kamenskaia, Moroz joined the Central Partnership production company as one of its leading producers and continued directing television series and feature films. [6] None of his works aims to foreground aesthetic concerns to the same extent as does The Seventh Victim, and his experimentation in this particular segment of Kamenskaia has to be explained in terms of the circumstances of its production rather than ascribed solely to the director’s individual approach to this particular text. Besides concluding the effort that went into the first three seasons of the series, The Seventh Victim also marked the conclusion of the period when television—rather than cinema—fashioned the space for creative experimentation in the country’s visual mass media. The investment of industrial and cultural resources into television during the years of cinema’s decline made possible the production of a television text with a radically innovative poetics based on the conversion of high production values into semiotic complexity.

The difference between The Seventh Victim and other episodes of Kamenskaia (and from other Russian series) has passed largely unnoticed. The lack of recognition highlights the expectations of the audience, critics, and the industry with regard to the country’s television series. Before addressing these expectations in conclusion, I would like to cite a viewer response indicating that, despite this general disregard, the show’s difference was noticeable and was, indeed, noticed. On a webpage devoted to Kamenskaia, a viewer shared the following thoughts about the show:

After the last segment of the third season, in which Kamenskaia became, literally, a murderer and almost a mystic, the first segment of the fourth season seems far-fetched. One director got drowned in philosophical depths, and the other ended up stuck in shallow waters. At least Moroz attempted to ask the eternal questions within the format of a series. Aravin [the director of the fourth season], by contrast, dumbly followed the laws of mass culture. People want bread and circus, and Aravin caters to their desires. All the while, he is also trying to advertise chocolate, although the earlier seasons of Kamenskaia did the same.

Considering the limitations of an internet discussion board, the viewer does a remarkably articulate job of describing both Kamenskaia and The Seventh Victim. She comments on the special role of product placement in the series as a whole and identifies the philosophical complexity, as well as the unusual treatment of the detective, as distinctive features of The Seventh Victim. Moreover, she recognizes that the uniqueness of The Seventh Victim endows this segment with a high measure of finality. The viewer senses that in this segment the narrative moves so far beyond the conventions of domestic detective series that its continuation into the fourth season appears implausible.

Isolated acknowledgments notwithstanding, the general indifference to the show highlights the directions of innovation that Russian television series have taken after 2003, when the cinema industry began to rebound. The model of a semiotically complex text combining high production values, experimental visualization, and forays into meta-commentary left no impact on Russian television series. Instead, the space for aesthetically significant effort was reclaimed by the resurgent cinema industry. The cinema’s come-back closed the window on the period when television attracted the industry’s resources. Television series were relegated to the status of an aesthetically indifferent form responsible primarily for providing formulaic entertainment and disseminating moral values.

Despite this re-adjustment in the status of television fiction, the two distinctive aspects of The Seventh Victim, its high production values and its aesthetic self-consciousness, remained relevant for Russian television series, although in radically different ways. Whereas technological investment and aesthetic exploration in The Seventh Victim worked in combination with each other, in the television series that came after 2003 these two aspects developed separately.

The television industry’s recognition of the need to improve the quality of its shows found its most acute expression in the initiative of Aleksandr Akopov and the A-Media Production Company, which led to the creation of a large-scale project aimed at bringing the standards of Russian television closer to those in the United States. Importantly, this project was conceived in the wake of A-Media’s participation in the production of the mini-series The Brigade and The Idiot (dir. Vladimir Bortko, 2003), and reflected the producers’ dissatisfaction with the production standards of those shows (Klioutchkine). The project involved importing U.S. television experts to carry out extensive training of their Russian counterparts. This effort yielded Poor Nastia (Bednaia Nastia; multiple directors, 2003), a 120-episode historical costume drama co-produced with significant creative and financial investment from Columbia Tri-Star Pictures and Sony Pictures (MacFadyen). Although its quality was, arguably, quite high, the show displayed little interest in narrative experimentation and focused instead on offering popular entertainment and celebrating the nation’s history. Whereas Poor Nastia was an attempt to develop an original script, A-Media’s ensuing successful projects were knockoffs of Western products: My Beautiful Nanny (Moia prekrasnaia niania; multiple directors, 2005), based on the US comedy series The Nanny (1993-1999), and Beauty is Only Skin-Deep (Ne rodis' krasivoi; dir. Aleksandr Nazarov, 2005 - ), based on the Colombian telenovela I Am Betty the Ugly (Yo Soy Betty la Fea; dir. Fernando Gaitán, 1999). In returning to the telenovela as a model, A-Media, as it were, acknowledged defeat. The goal of relying on US television expertise was to escape telenovela standards, which became a benchmark of post-Soviet viewers’ expectations after the release of the Brazilian Isaura the Slave (Escrava Isaura, 1976) in the USSR in the late 1980s. Beauty is Only Skin-Deep returns to the nation’s favorite genre in order to tell a moral tale based on a Cinderella plot that features an unattractive girl destined to be successful, owing, in large measure, to her hard work.

The aesthetic function in Russian television series was appropriated by screen versions of Russian literary classics as well as of other culturally significant fiction on historical subjects. Vladimir Bortko’s mini-series The Idiot set the standard for what would count as aesthetic effort on television for years ahead. Released in the same year as The Seventh Victim, Bortko’s series monopolized the aesthetic function, thus preventing the recognition of its presence in the genres that did not rely on the nation’s canonical and near-canonical literature. A high number of screen versions of the classics have come out since the release of The Idiot in 2003, including Master and Margarita (dir. Vladimir Bortko, 2005), Doctor Zhivago (dir. Aleksandr Proshkin, 2005), The First Circle (V kruge pervom; dir. Gleb Panfilov, 2005), Children of the Arbat (Deti Arbata; dir. Andrei Eshpai, 2004), The Moscow Saga (Moskovskaia saga; dir. Dmitrii Barshchevskii, 2004). In comparison with Bortko’s inaugural mini-series, later screen versions of culturally significant literature have made a measure of progress in offering better acting, advanced set design, superior lighting, and more varied camera work. What these television series lack, however, is an interest in producing a sophisticated cinematic text rather than a glorified TV-drama, an interest in relying on the broader repertoire of aesthetic means that the medium of television lays at the creator’s disposal. This objective appears superfluous in the shows that gain aesthetic distinction by the sheer reference to the literary texts on which they are based.

The trends I have outlined reflect a consensus between the television industry and the audience about Russian cultural expectations regarding domestic television. Even as television series continue to dominate the experience of Russian audiences, there remains a sense that they fail to engage with viewers’ everyday lives, a problem that Elena Prokhorova identified as crucial for Russian television at the turn of the century (517-9). One of the chief reasons for this failure consists in the perception that television cannot provide more than moral edification packaged as increasingly glossy but nonetheless low-quality entertainment. Yet, relating to viewers’ experience in a world progressively dominated by the developing electronic media would require of the television industry an effort in exploring televisual resources in order to develop new ways of storytelling. The possibility of such a development, however, remains foreclosed in view of the archaic cultural consensus that television—unlike the press, theater, and cinema—is not a medium for innovation.

Konstantine Klioutchkine, Pomona College


I would like to thank Susan Larsen and Sanja Lacan for their comments and suggestions.

1] On “nekhudozhestvennost' ispolneniia” as a continuing problem of Russian TV-series, see also Zvereva.

2] Viewers were sensitive to this aspect of the show. One viewer even wrote: “Osobenno nravitsia ee [Kamenskoi] utro”.

3] See, for example, viewers’ opinions on the internet discussion board devoted to the series.

4] For an introduction to Marinina’s work, see Nepomnyashchy.

5] Any novel by Marinina can offer valuable information about the conceptual conflations characteristic of post-Soviet popular culture. For particularly instructive passages in The Seventh Victim, see Marinina 64-71.

6] Since leaving Kamenskaia, Moroz has directed two series, Women in a Game without Rules (Zhenshchiny v igre bez pravil, 2004) and Vaniukhin’s Children (Deti Vaniukhina, 2005), as well as the feature film The Spot (Tochka, 2006). However, Kamenskaia remains his most acclaimed work.

Works Cited

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Beumers, Birgit. “Cinemarket, or the Russian Film Industry in ‘Mission Possible’.” Europe- Asia Studies 51.5 (1999): 871-896.
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Konstantine Klioutchkine© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07