Issue 24 (2009)

Vladimir Pozner: One Storey America (Odnoetazhnaia Amerika 2008)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2009

americaVladimir Pozner’s sixteen-episode documentary mini-series One Storey America  continues a long tradition of Russian intellectuals’ travelogues about their trips to the West, among which are Denis Fonvizin’s diaries, Nikolai Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler, observations of nineteenth-century Russian literary classics about their experiences in the West, and of course Soviet writers’ travelogues. A special place among these projects belongs to travelogues about the United States. On the one hand, America inspired several generations of twentieth-century Russian writers and artists (from Vladimir Maiakovskii, Lev Kuleshov, and Sergei Eisenstein to Maksim Gorkii, Mikhail Kalatozov, and Boris Polevoi); on the other hand, the United States played the role of the arch-enemy in the Soviet Cold War-era culture.

Pozner is a postmodernist traveler who is fully aware of Roland Barthes’s pronouncements on the death of the author.  Instead of an original title for his media project, he recycles the most recognizable one, a title familiar to Russian viewers from Il’ia Il’f and Evgenii Petrov’s notes about their trip to the United States between October 1935 and January 1936. Moreover, following in the steps of Pierre Menard from Jorge Luis Borges’s "Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote," Pozner retraces the steps of his famous predecessors (Il’f and Petrov) in order to create an open-ended and dialogic narrative about America. 

One of the key devices that define the narrative stance of Pozner’s series is his ongoing dialogue with Il’f and Petrov’s text. Sequences about particular places usually open with quotes from Il’f and Petrov, presented by a voiceover and accompanied by an animated image of a 1930’s typewriter, followed by Pozner’s comments on Soviet writers’ impressions of America.  Pozner, together with a Russian and American companion, traveled sixteen thousand miles visiting New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Peoria, Colorado Springs, Gallup, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Lon Angeles, El Paso, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, Washington DC, and finishing the trip back in New York.  The series includes 160 interviews with both celebrities, such as Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Phil Donahue, Pete Seeger, Milla Jovovich and Michael York, and with everyday Americans.  Pozner tried to give preference to the latter in order to allow the voices of common Americans be heard by Russian viewers. Notably, Pozner mentions in his interview to that Gates spoke to him for an hour but he included only one minute of his interview (Rebel’). In contrast, he gives more than ten minutes to Christopher Young, a death row inmate of Louisiana State Penitentiary, to talk about the story of his life.

americaPozner notes that Ilf and Petrov came to the US on an assignment from Pravda; therefore one expects Pozner to offer a simple inversion of the Soviet travelers’ impressions of American life. Pozner, however, rejects outdated dualistic schemes and perspectives in favor of a dialogic imagination.  He acknowledges that despite Pravda’s imprimatur for the trip, Il’f and Petrov wrote an insightful and honest account of their American Odyssey.  Pozner also never reduces his position in the ongoing dialogue with Il’f and Petrov to a single point of view. Sometimes he disagrees with them, sometimes he adds a new subject because he thinks they omitted something essential (Pozner adds an episode about Thanksgiving Day as the major American holiday), and sometimes he chooses a different location for a similar theme. For example, in order to show American penitentiary system, Pozner chose Louisiana State Penitentiary instead of the world famous Sing Sing, the prison Il’f and Petrov visited for their discussion of American prison system. Thus the creators of the series were able to focus on many issues relevant to contemporary prison life in the US (overcrowding, racial relations, industries benefiting from prison labor). While Il’f and Petrov chose to talk to Henry Ford, the symbol of American industry of the time, Pozner instead interviewed Bill Gates, the symbol of American technological leadership in the contemporary world. Pozner’s dialogic structure of the narrative purports to avoid many trappings of a traveler’s notes, above all stereotyping the host country. His travelogue is unfinalized and emphatically polyphonous.  As Pozner repeats several times throughout the series, his primary interest is not some abstract idea of the country’s national spirit, but its people in all their diversity and differences.

Although the idea of this road television series belongs to Pozner (he wanted to make this series since 1978), the patriarch of Russian television doesn’t conceal the collective nature of his project’s authorship. Pozner co-hosted his trip with a Russian actor and media personality, Ivan Urgant and an American writer, Brian Kahn. Urgant is the youngest out of the three travelers and fulfills the role of the youngest brother from a fairy tale. He puts on the mask of a naive and cheerful joker whose participation in the trip turns into the story of his education alongside the wise and knowledgeable Pozner. While Urgant plays the role of a naïve Russian learning about the new land, Kahn fulfills the function of a typical American, proud of his country and sometimes defensive about Pozner’s uncomfortable questions and Urgant’s naïve but insightful observations.  Several times during the series Urgant and Kahn argue with each other about attitudes toward money in their respective cultures, about the fate of Native Americans and many other cultural matters. Meanwhile, Pozner serves as a mediator who possesses the advantage of equal knowledge of both countries. 

While Urgant’s and Kahn’s identities are presented primarily as national identities, Pozner’s identity differs dramatically.  He transcends national boundaries and has cultural ties with multiple communities in Russia, Europe, and the US. Born in Paris, raised in New York, Pozner lived for many years in Germany, the Soviet Union and Russia, and he stresses that all these cultural links are very important for his sense of a transnational self. 

Pozner’s paradoxical ability to combine the point of view of a native with a distanced and sobering view of a representative of a different culture becomes a very important narrative device, which is laid bare in the first and last episodes of the series, when Pozner visits New York, the city of his childhood, which has changed a lot since his youth.  On the one hand, in these framing episodes the television series becomes closer to the genre of the personal film. Episodes one and sixteen tell a nostalgic homecoming story, as Pozner stops by the place where his family’s apartment used to be, visits his high school, and finds his favorite books in the school library.  On the other hand, while establishing this personal connection with New York, Pozner continues speaking Russian to Urgant. They also agree jokingly that they will assume other people’s personalities, those of Il’f and Petrov, and try to see the city at least in part through their eyes. Pozner claims to play Il’f while Urgant agrees to play Petrov. They even start the first episode with an approach of Hudson harbor from the ocean side, parodying the arrival of Il’f and Petrov on board the “Normandy”. Finally, Pozner makes his identity even more complicated and multilayered when, during his conversation with the citizens of Gallup in episode six, he answers the question about his home country by claiming that he is a European whose favorite city is Paris. Khalid Koser calls an identity such as Pozner’s a transnational identity based on a network of linguistic and cultural ties with multiple cultural communities. Pozner’s identity eschews the limiting perspectives of an identity privileging a national point of view. He is a migrant living “’in between’ nations” and preserving his ties with an entire network of cultural communities (27).

In his film Pozner performs such a transnational identity as a model that ensures a tolerant dialogue. Everywhere he visits in the US, this multi-faceted identity opens doors for him and his friends and allows him to establish genuine dialogue. Only in one case the communicative power of Pozner’s transnational identity runs aground. When he visits a US navy ship in Norfolk, Virginia, and asks sailors about the effect of the war in Iraq on people’s respect for the armed forces, the officer stops the interview and orders Pozner not to ask political questions.  Soon the film crew is forced to leave to ship.  Pozner comments that this was the only place in the entire country where he suddenly thought he was in the Soviet Union. After the visit to the naval base, his American co-host defends the navy officer’s decision not to allow the discussion between Pozner and the sailors. Kahn argues that the US is in the middle of the war on terror and the navy has the right not to answer journalist’s questions. While Pozner allows Kahn to express his point of view, he reserves the last word for himself, remarking that a journalist in a free country, especially in the one that mentors the entire world how to be a democratic society, should have the right to ask anybody any questions he has. Kahn calls Pozner a troublemaker. Both stick to their opinions.

Pozner gathered a great trio of personalities, complimenting each other in the course of their trip across America. However, Urgant as his Russian sidekick wasn’t Pozner’s first choice. Initially he wanted to invite Russia’s premier television journalist Leonid Parfenov who left Russian’s main television channels because his journalistic integrity matched poorly with the glamour propaganda style of Putin-era state-controlled television. Parfenov had to decline the offer because he couldn’t abandon his editorial commitments as editor-in-chief of the Russian version of Newsweek. Parfenov is perhaps the only contemporary Russian television journalist who would be able to speak to Pozner on a par. Even though Parfenov doesn’t know America as well as Pozner does, his masterful, I would say poetic, command of the Russian language and unmatched power of observation and insight would have made One Storey America an even more remarkable event on Russian television. One can only regret that we will never see the fruit of Pozner’s and Parfenov’s collaboration. 

Pozner also considered making the series with Nikolai Fomenko, a showman and motor racer, whose tight schedule didn’t allow him to join the project.  Then came a candidate whom Pozner claims to have rejected himself. Channel One suggested a stand up comedian Mikhail Zadornov, known for his heavy, at times unnecessarily spiteful, criticism of American culture and its influence on post-Soviet Russian life and politics. In this case Pozner politely declined the offer, because he wanted to give a friendly portrait of America and its people against the grain of jingoistic and bigoted perspectives on America that dominate contemporary Russian media.

americaIn an interview to the Russian Service of Voice of America, Pozner explained why he made his television series about America in 2008 (Massal’skii). He noted cautiously that many Russians have a stereotypical vision of America and his film tries to complicate such a perception of the United States in Russia, to present the former Cold War nemesis neither positively not negatively, but as objectively as a journalist can. In her recent article in New York Times Cathy Young notes less cautiously and more straightforwardly that “in recent years, anti-Americanism has been carefully cultivated by official and semi-official propaganda, especially on government-controlled television, which manipulates popular insecurities and easily slides into outright paranoia.” Pozner seeks to intervene in that dynamic.

Pozner’s film appears against the background of state-sponsored anti-western television programs, such as Mikhail Leont’ev’s However (Odnako) orMaksim Shevchenko’s Judge by Yourself (Sudite sami) and the opinions of anti-American and anti-Semitic radio commentators (Alexander Prokhanov and Maxim Shevchenko), creating an image of America as a major threat to Russian national security. On 12 September 2008, Channel One commemorated in the program Closed Screening the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon with a screening of the documentary Zero. Made by the Italian journalist Giulietto Chiesa, the documentary claims that the attacks were orchestrated by American imperialists in order to unleash a new war. The effect of this propaganda campaign is obvious: “A staggering 43 percent of Russians agreed in a poll last year that one of the goals of the foreign policy of the United States is the total destruction of Russia.” (Young)

The Russian journalist Leonid Radzikhovskii notes that after Russia’s loss of her status as a superpower, and due to the lack of any democratic political process in Putin-era Russia, anti-Americanism became a key trope of post-Soviet Russian politics.  If America is the big enemy, then Russia’s status in the world is less marginal, as is suggested by Russia’s subordinate economic role as supplier of raw materials to industrialized countries and outsider in the world market of high technologies. If America is the imminent threat, then national security can justify the existence of a paternalistic government suppressing free elections and the freedom of press.  Pozner’s television series attempts to sober Russian viewers drugged by anti-American propaganda on government-controlled Russian media.  In his interview to Voice of America he notes that in both countries new leaders are coming to power and his film tries to anticipate and promote the possibility of rapprochement between the two countries: “I always was and remain an advocate of the rapprochement between Russia and America.” Channel One broadcast the opening episode on Monday, 11 February 2008. The next fifteen episodes appeared every Monday over the course of several months till 26 May 2008.

Pozner takes a clear-headed, yet affectionate view of America and does a genuine public service to Russian viewers by providing them with an antidote to the paranoia narratives they receive via state television channels on a regular basis. On Russian blogs about Pozner’s film one can easily see how neglected the Russian case of Anti-American paranoia is. Some bloggers even claim that the documentary was financed by American intelligence. However, the real sponsors of Pozner’s film are less mysterious.  Among them are Russia’s Channel One and Gazprom-Bank, the American Ford Foundation and McDonalds, and the Russian Federal Agency on Culture and Cinematography. 

The film includes amusing but well motivated product placements. Like Il’f and Petrov, Pozner, Urgant, and Kahn drive a Ford Explorer, because Ford is one of the film’s sponsors.  The crew christen the car Henrietta (in honor of Henry Ford), thus making it a character in the film. Several scenes are dedicated to the car and to the crew’s visit to Ford’s famous plant in River Rouge. In the last episode Pozner includes a comic and sentimental farewell scene when Urgant and Pozner part with their faithful Henrietta. The farewell scene also gives an insight into how Pozner works as a promoter of ideas and products. He admits that the American automobile industry has not been doing well recently but emphasizes that, despite all the criticism, their Ford was a superb, reliable and comfortable vehicle. Instead of simply promoting the product, Pozner admits certain general flaws of the national car industry in order to establish trust with the listener and then, in a specific example, promotes very efficiently a specific car of a specific company, which happens to be American. Moreover, by personifying their car, Pozner establishes an emotional link between the viewer and the promoted product, the emotional link which he uses very elegantly to promote sponsor’s product at the end. 

During the Cold War, Pozner promoted with great success the Soviet regime on American television, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he applies his rhetorical gift to promote cultural dialogue between two countries together with cars and fast food. What an irony of fate! In the book version of their travelogue, One Storey America 2, which Pozner and Kahn released together with the film, Pozner quotes the last sentence from Nikolai Gogol’s “Nose”: “For no matter what folk say to the contrary, such affairs do happen in this world—rarely of course, yet none the less really.” This paradoxical maxim applies to Pozner’s life and art perhaps even better than to Major Kovalev’s chase after his own nose around the imperial capital.

By its form, production and distribution circumstances Pozner’s One-Storey America is a transnational film. It is a road movie about a protagonist who exists “in-between” national cultures and transcends their borders. The series has international backing, and according to Rossiiskaia gazeta the release of the film on Channel One will be followed by the release of an English-language version on one of America’s television channels (Treneva). Pozner conceived his One-Storey America as a multimedia project.  Parallel to the television series he co-authored with Brian Kahn a book version of the travelogue for AST/Zebra-E Publisher. Urgant appears in this book as the author of the photographs. It is a shame the authors didn’t come up with a computer game based on this wonderful television series. Perpetual migration as a mode of story-telling will continue in a sequel to Pozner’s One-Storey America—a road TV series about France, Tour de France. Pozner and Urgant plan to travel around France, partly by bicycle, and release a television series and a book about French culture, a twenty-first century multimedia remake of Letters of a Russian Traveler.

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary

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Works Cited

Koser, Khalid. International Migration. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, NY: Oxford UP, 2007.

Massal'skii, Vadim. "Vladimir Pozner o svoem seriale "Odnoetazhnaia Amerika"." Portal Golosa Ameriki, 26 February 2008.

Pozner, Vladimir, Brian Kahn. Odnoetazhnaia Amerika. Moscow: ACT Zebra-E, 2008.

Rebel,' Alina. "Pervyi kanal otkryl Ameriku Poznera." Gazeta.Ru [Moscow] 12 February 2008.

Treneva, Elizaveta. "Vdogonku za Il'fom i Petrovym." Rossiiskaia Gazeta 13 February 2008.

Young, Cathy. "From Russia With Loathing." New York Times 21 November 2008.

One Storey America, Russia, 2008
Color, 16 episodes 735 minutes
Idea: Vladimir Pozner
Director: Valerii Spirin
Scriptwriter: Olga Spirina
Cinematography: Vlad Cherniaev, Kirill Speranskii, Mikhail Kozlov, Andrei Pitinov, Mikhail Mchedlishvili
Computer Graphics: Sergei Volkov and  Anton Markovskii
Music: Ekaterina Chemberdzhi
Hosts: Vladimir Pozner, Ivan Urgant, Brian Kahn
Producers: Natal’ia Solov’eva, Vladimir Pozner, and Rimma Shul’gina
Production: Channel One, with the state financial support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Vladimir Pozner: One Storey America (Odnoetazhnaia Amerika 2008)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2009

Updated: 27 Mar 09