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Open Access Publications from the University of California

From Truth to Time: Soviet Central Television, 1957-1985

  • Author(s): Evans, Christine Elaine
  • Advisor(s): Slezkine, Yuri
  • et al.

The Brezhnev era (1964-1982) was also the era of television. The First Channel of Moscow's Central Television Studio began to reach all eleven Soviet time zones in the same years, 1965-1970, that marked the beginning of a new political era, the period of decline, corruption, and cynicism, but also stability, relative prosperity, and vibrant popular culture, that came to be called, retrospectively, the “era of stagnation.” Nearly all of the iconic images and sounds of this period were mediated by television: Brezhnev's slurred speech and corpselike appearance, the singing of Iosif Kobzon and Alla Pugacheva, the parades and funerals on Red Square, and Olympic figure skating, to name just a few. Quotations and jokes drawn from specific TV movies and shows are ubiquitous in post-Soviet memoirs and the press. Most strikingly, several of the most important programs created during the 1960s and 1970s are still a prominent part of current Russian television.

This dissertation analyzes the political and ideological dilemmas of the Brezhnev era through the lens of television, the medium with which that era is so closely associated. Seen from the perspective of its most famous television programs and their producers, Brezhnev-era cultural life appears far more fluid, experimental, and innovative than the binary categories of “official” and “unofficial” culture suggest, helping to explain the powerful nostalgia for precisely the “official” mass culture of this period in Russia today. Two changes in post-Stalin Soviet politics combined to encourage this experimentation. The first was the growing importance, after Stalin's death, of persuasion, rather than coercion, in mobilizing the Soviet population, as well as the eagerness of a reinvigorated intelligentsia to participate in revitalizing the socialist project during the 1960s. The second key factor was intense pressure from Cold War competition with the West. In order to respond to foreign radio broadcasting and offer an appealing Soviet alternative to the Western popular culture that was penetrating Soviet borders, the Communist Party leadership encouraged Central Television's staff to seek new styles and genres of television broadcasting. Far from being ritualized or formalized, therefore, some of the most popular and politically important programs on Central Television during the Brezhnev era were the site of significant cultural and political play. This experimentation began in the late 1950s, but it continued and in fact went further after 1968. At the height of the era of “stagnation,” a key group of television programs were involved in a search for new ways of engaging and uniting the Soviet population in an unfamiliar ideological environment: one in which the universality of enthusiasm and participation in a common mission were no longer assumed, and that was focused primarily on the present, not the future.

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