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Tacky TV: Cultural Leaders Assail Bad Foreign Shows

August 20, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ What happens when more than a dozen of Russia’s best writers, composers, musicians and other leading lights of the cultural world get together? They grouse about TV.

``It’s turning people into zombies,″ filmmaker Rolan Bykov fumed. ``When I see that tooth decay commercial on TV I turn it off!″

``We should express our contempt,″ he told fellow members of a special presidential commission on the arts and culture. ``People make millions of rubles on these programs. This isn’t freedom. It’s entrepreneurship’s filth.″

His comment might sound like cultural snobbery, but there is a distinct crassness in the air in Russia today, where the wild scramble for wealth seems to have eclipsed almost everything else.

At times it seems Russia got the worst of a bad bargain after the Soviet Union collapsed five years ago and state funding for the arts began to dry up.

Some of the country’s best talents _ dancers, musicians, filmmakers, writers, painters _ now have to work abroad to make a living. At the same time, Russia has been inundated by some of the worst of Western popular culture.

Composer Leonid Dashkevich was stunned when he sat down and tallied the number of foreign shows on Russian television. ``I counted 23 a day,″ he told the group. ``And they are showing monstrous things!″

The airwaves are awash in bosom-heaving soap operas like ``New Victim″ and ``First Love″ and tacky, hard-sell commercials.

Some of the television programming is similar to what is shown in the United States, but the quality is often lower _ movies filled with sex and violence that flop in the United States are shown, unedited, on Russian TV. Late at night on weekends, one of the main television channels runs soft-porn shows _ Playboy Channel programming and an erotic French program.

Pot boilers, badly translated, are on sale everywhere, while the works of some of Russia’s greatest writers are going out of print or unread. Literary magazines and publishing houses are dead or dying.

Shops and kiosks are crammed with trashy B-movies full of sex and violence, while Russian cinema struggles to stay afloat. Once-banned rock is eclipsing classical music.

Many people, caught up in the scramble to get ahead, simply don’t have time for literature or music anymore. Others have been seduced by the gaudy thrills of the low-brow.

The participants in the roundtable Monday rued the end of steady funding for the arts _ but not the stifling conformity the Soviet system extracted in return. And none of them seemed to expect the cash-strapped Yeltsin government to find more money for the arts.

One even offered a mild defense of popular culture.

``When I listened to Elton John’s records, I realized rock and roll can be nice,″ said Mstislav Rostropovich, the illustrious conductor and cellist.

Rostropovich, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, retired as conductor of the National Symphony in Washington and now spends a lot of time in Russia.

President Boris Yeltsin asked the blue-ribbon panel to kick around ideas for promoting the arts during his second term, which began this month.

He assembled a creative bunch and they had a lot of ideas: fining publishing houses guilty of bad grammar, holding national competitions to identify and foster young musical talents, creating a state publishing house for serious literature.

The discussion ranged far and wide, but kept coming back to television, which has undergone an immense transformation in the past few years. The racy new fare has replaced stodgy Soviet programs, and commercials, something new here, pound out at viewers.

While Western-style programming is immensely popular, many Russians, especially intellectuals, are offended by what they see.

Some participants in the meeting suggested regulations keeping the most blatant sex and violence off the air during hours children might be watching or instituting a rating system for TV shows and movies.

Others favored requiring broadcasters to produce their own series instead of relying on imports and to air a set amount of cultural and educational programming.

Sergei Kapitsa, who for years had a popular science program on Soviet television, recalled how shocked he was when he heard his grandson say, ``I don’t read books.″

``Television,″ Kapitsa said. ``This is the arena in which the ideological battles of every culture are taking place.″

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