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December 14, 2006

"Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important," Soviet leader Lenin once said, reflecting his view of the propaganda value of that new medium. Now [2006] it's 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's popular film and television industry is beginning to flourish again, thanks in part to a leader, Vladimir Putin, who apparently shares Lenin's view. "This is a story of revival, of success, but success with a bitter twist. This is the story of Russia's Reel Resurrection," Don Murray reports.

Like the Soviet Union itself, the film and television industry was in near-collapse in the early post-Soviet era. However, there was freedom of the press. Under Putin, the industry is doing well but "Russia has fallen back into authoritarianism," says Russian journalist Masha Gessen.

That is the twist.

According to Gessen, "we had an imperfect but basically free media in the 90s and at this point we have no widely accessible, independent media of any sort in this country."

Vladimir Putin
That means, Don Murray says in his documentary, "More control, less democracy, above all in the window where the country sees itself – television and film. Like so much in Russia over the years, this was a revolution from above, a benign revolution this time, pushed and encouraged by a government determined to restore an industry and a country’s sense of itself. But even benign revolutions have victims, and the victims this time are those too critical, too disrespectful of the leader."

Two of the main personalities in this documentary, leading names from the Russian film and television industry, have seen their careers go in opposite directions under Putin. And they interpret that quote from Lenin differently.

"Movies are still the most important of the arts," says actor and director Stanislav Govorukhin. They should instill in young people, "“the meaning of honour and self-esteem," he says.

Viktor Shenderovich is also a well-known director and performer, and also agrees with Lenin but adds, "it's not movies in themselves that are most important, but the ideological hammer which has been used to brainwash people."

Stanislav Govorukhin
Beginning in the 1960s, Govorukhin was a star of the Soviet film system. He also directed some of the most popular Soviet TV series, including The Meeting Location Cannot Be Changed. Under Gorbachev, he became a fair-weather dissident, making a famous documentary called No Way to Live. But he quickly soured on Russian democracy under Boris Yeltsin, filming an angry elegy called The Russia We Have Lost.

He became one of the leaders of Democratic Party of Russia. As well, he became an MP and pushed through a bill to support the film industry by making it tax exempt. In the 2000 presidential elections, he was one of Putin’s opponents. According to Laura Belin (see Links below), "Govorukhin did not even urge viewers to vote for him, but spent most of his time attacking Putin and other rivals." He left parliament in 2004 and went back to making films.

Viktor Shenderovich
Shenderovich was "one of Russia’s best-known entertainers – a sort of Russian Rick Mercer," according to Don Murray. He is best known for the late 1990s satirical TV show, Kulky (Puppets). "Each week, Shenderovich’s puppets mocked Russia’s previous president, Boris Yeltsin, and the Russian political elite. Yeltsin tolerated the mockery. His successor, Vladimir Putin, ordered the show and Shenderovich off the air," says Murray.

In 2005, these two Russian stars, with their opposite outlooks and experiences, ran against each in a Russian parliamentary by-election. Govorukhin was now supported by Putin, recruited by him. Shenderovich was ignored by the vast Russian state media, which Putin controlled. Govorukhin won. When interviewed by Don Murray, he had this to say about his opponent:

"I feel only contempt for people like Shenderovich. I couldn’t care less about him, either as an artist or as a citizen … the entire country knows me, while Shenderovich is supported by a small group of traitors within the 'intelligentsia' from which the enemies of Russia have always been recruited.”

And Shenderovich says this about his opponent:

"At one time, he called Putin a national disaster. But just a few years later, he himself joined that national disaster. Mr. Govorukhin easily integrates into any power structure."

Murray observes that, "Govorukhin and his allies wield their words like truncheons. Words like 'enemy of the country' and 'traitor' have a terrifying resonance. These were the words that condemned intellectuals to death under Stalin. And if words aren’t enough, there are bullets. The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October was a contract killing and it was a message: dissent will be punished. The louder the dissent, the harsher the punishment.”

Politkovskaya was the 14th journalist murdered since Putin became president at the end of 1999. "Not one of their killers has been convicted. No one knows who ordered the deaths, no one accuses Russia’s security services directly. But all understand that those who kill opponents of the Kremlin do so with impunity," says Murray.

On August 27, 2007 the arrests of 10 people in connection with the murder of Anna Politkovskaya were announced in Moscow. Later that week, the authorities released two of the suspects. The case has met skepticism from many of Politkovskaya's supporters. For Don Murray's take on all this, read "Murders, martyrs and legacies."

One of the successes of modern Russian media is the made-for-TV series. Three of the biggest hits have been based on classics of Soviet literature. One is based on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and another on The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

A third made-for television series hit, based on Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone, was directed by Govorukhin. He said he, "wanted to shoot a film about a country that no longer exists, and about people who will never exist again."

It’s ironic that these three novels were written by critics of the Stalinist regime. For Russia’s new leaders, the message is, perhaps, see how much better life is now.


Don Murray's World - Don Murray reports from abroad

INDEPTH: RUSSIA - A profile - CBC News Online | Feb. 28, 2005

Stanislav Govorukhin: A Filmmaker Moves Out Of The Duma By Laura Belin, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Stanislav Govorukhin - Official Site (in Russian)

Stanislav Govorukhin - Wikipedia

Victor Shenderovich - Official Site (in Russian)

Victor Shenderovich - Wikipedia

Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen - Bloomsbury Author Information

Masha Gessen's Moscow Times columns (the last of her 81 columns ran October 12, 2006)

Internet Resources On Russian Cinema - a good launch pad from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London

Encyclopedia Of Soviet Writers (includes biographies and "Works of Soviet Literature summarized for those unable or too lazy to read them in the original.")

Johnson's Russia List (news about Russia from many newspapers and publications)

NOTE: The CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites. Those links will open in a new browser window.


reporter: Don Murray
producer/director: Alex Shprintsen
editor: Catherine McIsaac
principal camera: Maurice Chabot
camera: Anatoly Grishko
camera assistant: Alexander Kovalev
translator: Marsha Gershtein
research: Pam Clasper
visual research: Greg Hobbs, Steve Nicholls
graphics: Jeff Goldhar, Marika Gal, Brian Groberman
music consultant: Patrick Russell
senior producer: Jet Belgraver


Monday, September 3 , 2007 at 7 PM ET

Thursday, December 14 at 10 PM ET
Friday, December 15 at 1 AM ET
Friday, December 15 at 4 AM ET