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© RIA Novosti. Iliya Pitalev

NTV’s poetic duel

by Anna Arutunyan at 28/06/2012 21:35

Amid a tumultuous summer of arrests, rumored clan wars and ominous excursions into the woods, the head of the federal NTV channel, Vladimir Kulistikov, decided to engage new culture minister Vladimir Medinsky in a poetic duel.

Kulistikov took umbrage with Medinsky’s public request that NTV refrain from airing a controversial war movie on the anniversary of the start of WWII.

Not only did Kulistikov refuse to comply with the suggestion, he also responded with an acerbic poem poking fun at Medinsky’s “Stalinist” ways.

NTV was recently vilified by the protest movement, after airing “documentaries” painting antigovernment demonstrators as paid flunkies of the U.S. State Department. Yet the incident with Medinsky would have passed unnoticed – except that it struck a chord with critics who saw it as evidence that irrevocable tectonic shifts are occurring in Russian society.

Writer and culture critic Alexander Arkhangelsky warned that Kulistikov’s poetic answer “is much harsher proof that the system is falling apart than all the protests put together.”

The incident between Medinsky and Kulistikov broke so many taboos, Arkhangelsky wrote on his Livejournal blog, that “keeping the system together will be more difficult than getting Chaika and Bastrykin to be friends again.”

Arkhangelsky was referring to the rumored clan war between the Prosecutor General’s Office, headed by Yury Chaika, and Russia’s Investigative Committee, headed by Alexander Bastrykin, credited with instigating the arrests and raids against oppositionists who took part in a May 6 rally that turned violent.

Earlier this month, Bastrykin, apparently snapping under the pressure, allegedly took a Novaya Gazeta journalist out to the woods and threatened him. The incident was interpreted as proof that not all is well with the country’s elite.

Russian culture often serves as an even more vivid indicator of what’s really going on in the power structures. As the infighting – if that’s what it really is – trickles down to the mass media, it’s harder to keep a lid on it.

Medinsky, who gained notoriety for his campaign against stereotypes of Russians, sent a recommendation to Kulistikov suggesting that NTV not air the film “I serve the Soviet Union” specifically on the anniversary of the war.

The 2012 movie, which features a love story and Gulag inmates fighting the German invasion, sparked an outcry among patriots. It seemed like exactly the kind of thing that Medinsky, a crusader against historical falsification, would criticize.

The culture minister’s problem with the movie, according to an official statement on the ministry site, was that the film “has no positive characters wearing Soviet military uniform.” But Medinsky’s letter to Kulistikov was, for a minister routinely labeled as a “propagandist” by his critics, relatively mild: he said the ministry respected freedom of expression on TV and had no intention of interfering in editorial policy.

Medinsky was accused of pressuring the channel, which would have been a legitimate charge, except that state television in Russia undergoes far more stringent pressure in the form of unspoken orders and telephone calls.

Kulistikov, who in the past tried to demonstrate a veneer of independence by asking provocative questions during an interview with Vladimir Putin (and getting Putin visibly irritated), lashed out at Medinsky with a poem.

“Minister Medinsky, you are a great scholar,” his ode – a spinoff of a song by Soviet dissident Yuz Aleshkovsky, originally addressed to Stalin – began. “You seem an innovator, with your Twitter and your blogs, but look closer, and woodchips of Stalinism are flying out from your computer.”

Alexei Pankin, a media expert and editor of WAN-IFRA-GIPP Magazine, believes that the incident demonstrated a major shift. But he attributes the poem to what he calls Kulistikov’s trademark rudeness.

“The government is taking the side of popular sentiment,” he told The Moscow News. “Of course manual control [from the Kremlin] of what goes on air will remain, but in this case a state official took a public stance, which corresponds with that of the majority… The government is starting to understand that it is too liberal for a country that is on the whole very socially conservative.”

Dmitry Babich, a conservative observer, believes that Kulistikov’s poem is anything but an example of daring defiance of government pressure. “[Kulistikov] just understands what he can get punished for, and what he can’t get punished for,” Babich told The Moscow News.

The more liberal Alexander Arkhangelsky, who is a veteran of Russian state television, believes that the conflict is ultimately indicative of a major shift in official decorum.

“The culture minister makes a direct, public request to the head of a TV station – in response, the TV head publically humiliates him,” Arkhangelsky told The Moscow News.

According to Arkhangelsky, this is a major break from the past, when TV chiefs met behind closed doors with politicians. “By doing this, [Kulistikov and Medinsky] have uncovered the fiction of the government system, demonstrating it for all to see,” Arkhangelsky said. “Real power lies with other people. In the past, this was concealed. Now they’ve stopped hiding it.”

And this, Arkhangelsky believes, could be a sign that the system itself is in peril.

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