April 2006

Elizabeth Kiem


Samizdat Soap Operas

I thought I was a stalwart fan of the made-for-TV novel, but the Masterpiece Theatre-ization of the Soviet canon makes me ornery.

Right around the time that Masterpiece Theatre was wrapping up a juicy “Bleak House” that had dictated my Sunday schedule for six weeks straight, television audiences in Russia were making history.

They were watching an expensive, years-in-the-making, sanctioned-by-God-and-the-father adaptation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle.

That bothered me.

There is something wrong about a mini-series depicting the Gulag. There is something aesthetically wrong and something politically wrong and the much-ballyhooed broadcast was for me, something of a proverbial straw.

The back story here is that Russia is having a major made-for-TV moment. It began in 2003 with a ten-part rendition of The Idiot. The series was a commercial and critical phenomenon and proof that Russians are eager for soap operas a step above the Brazilian serials that have been standard fare for fifteen years.

And so the producers have piled on. The Idiot was followed by a lovely but quirky adaptation of Dead Souls, then by Ilf and Petrov’s The Golden Calf, and then by The Master and Margarita, a novel with supernatural content and an equally fantastic reader devotion. TV serials of Anna Karenina and Doctor Zhivago are forthcoming.

See, the classics of Russian literature are replete with counts and peasants, balls and gypsy ensembles. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were masters of the saints and sinners; Chekhov gave us the golden age of country life and dreams made mortal. They are all fine fodder for the Masterpiece Theatre treatment.

The great novels of the Soviet era, on the other hand, are inherently dissident. What happens to dissidence when you dress it in vintage fur and hawk it on state TV? What happens to Bulgakov’s masterpiece, the one he once threw into the fire and which he knew would never be published in his lifetime, when Margarita is played by an actress best known for her role as forensic crimes investigator?


Harrison Salisbury, reviewing The First Circle in 1968, wrote that Solzhenitsyn was a 19th century novelist who emerged in the latter 20th century -- one who should be put among the ranks not just of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but Balzac, Zola, and Dickens. Russia’s only “living classic.”

Now, the only Dickens I know (and throw Thackeray in here too) comes from PBS, BBC or Merchant Ivory, and that’s okay by me. But somehow the notion of Russians getting their Solzhenitsyn from a small-screen production, the trailer of which rivals Hollywood thrillers in portentous cliché, is not okay. As it turns out, eighty eight percent of The First Circle’s audience were doing just that. They had never read Solzhenitsyn’s novel.

Put aside, for a moment, the poignant justice in the fact that the television version is narrated by Solzhenitsyn himself; disregard the aptness of the serialized form, which is just how Russian readers would have been introduced to the novel, had the journal Novy Mir been permitted to publish it in the early 1960’s. These are winsome appeals.

But then there is this: the first episode of the series aired less than three weeks after the conclusion of The Master and Margarita. Viewers of Solzhenitsyn’s story of complicity and tyranny were not tuning in to witness the rehabilitation of a sensation; they were just getting their fix of that opiate of the bourgeosie -- period TV.


Much was made in the press of the fact that The First Circle was shown on state television. This was interpreted as a great irony and telling turn of events for perhaps the most famously banned novel of the Soviet period.

The more relevant point here is that all television in Russia is state television. The First Circle could not have been broadcast through independent channels, because there is no such entity with a national audience under Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Indeed, President Vladimir Putin has been a vocal booster of the new trend. He likes to see national culture flowing freely to all his citizens. And why wouldn’t he?

Ever since a public opinion organization surveyed viewers of The Idiot to execute an “anatomy of a success,” the Kremlin has known that a homegrownl industry would work in the state’s interest. First of all, having a nightly appointment with the TV keeps people out of trouble. And then there was this provocative statement about the popularity of one of the series: “a newsmaker in the absense of news,” said one reviewer.

How convenient for the Putin regime, which has been closing up independent media outlets at almost the same pace as it has green-lighted production of new made-for-TV classics. In a tradition that dates back decades, the Kremlin is advocating cultural excellence as a mask for cultural control.

So is my discomfort then, with this latest series, simply a political response? Do I approve of cinematic Dostoyevsky but rebuke adaptations of Solzhenitsyn out of outrage that dissidence has become utterly coopted?

Am I worried that with the popularity of the TV watching crowd both the comically subversive The Golden Calf and the famously subversive Master and Margarita will be reprinted with covers showing scenes from the “TV hit” and discussion guides in the appendix written by God knows what cultural bureaucracy?

I do remember the delight I felt when I discovered that director Vladimir Bortko had managed to return to The Idiot all the novel’s circuities of thought and moments of prolonged despair that had been abridged from earlier film versions. Perhaps I am wrong to judge before I have seen his treatment of Master and Margarita; perhaps he has captured the wet evils of Moscow as surely as the yellow fears of Petersburg.

Perhaps I am secretly afraid that when I do watch it -- the telegenic version of a book that lives in my mind as a tortured manuscript with scorched edges, I might not find anything to criticize.