"FEDOR MIKHAILOVICH LUCKED OUT WITH VLADIMIR VLADIMIROVICH": THE IDIOT TELEVISION SERIES IN THE CONTEXT OF PUTIN'S CULTURE
Konstantin Klioutchkine 10.07.2005 kinokultura.com
The Idiot television series, which ran during two and a half weeks in the middle of May 2003, became the television event of the year in Russia and was seen as a harbinger of new beginnings in television culture. Critics hailed this ten-hour, ten-part series as the most faithful and comprehensive dramatic rendition of Dostoyevsky's original. The audience favored the series above most other programs: The Idiot garnered some of the highest ratings of any domestic television series to date – an average of ten million viewers watched each episode of the show. The success of The Idiot received ultimate confirmation in September 2003, when it won seven out of twelve TEFI awards in the main industry competition.
Prevailing opinion was that in the aesthetically inferior medium of television, native production, in decline during the preceding two decades and dominated by low-quality Western models, had seldom if ever risen to the level of The Idiot. Among the prominent features that critics identified as responsible for The Idiot's achievement were its creators' reliance on a national classic, their faithfulness to the original, and their focus on the nationalist aspect of its message. The series drew on a canonical text to remind its viewers that the Russian "soul" – that is, the nation's identity – consisted in "kindness, empathy, simplicity, sincerity, selflessness, and meekness," and that the Russian narrative was one of self-sacrificial suffering. Although the extreme emphasis on these features of Russian national identity was, in fact, new to post-Soviet culture, The Idiot deserved attention less for these narrow distinctions than for its broader significance as the most successful text in the genre that had come to dominate Russian media.
The remarkable degree of The Idiot's success suggested that viewers and critics had already been prepared to appreciate it because of preceding cultural developments, and that the show was a continuation of, rather than a departure from, the broad trends already underway in Russian television and cinema. Instead of offering aesthetic innovations in the medium of television, The Idiot engaged industry trends and cultural horizons that had extended over the period from Brezhnev to Putin, corresponding to the life experience of most Russian television creators and viewers today. These trends included late Soviet melodrama, the Soviet tradition of psychological theater (familiar to many viewers through television broadcasts from prominent theaters), post-Soviet television series, and – in an apparent contradiction to The Idiot's nationalist message – Latin American telenovelas and North American daytime soap operas.
The goal of this essay is to explore the intersection between the text of the series and the discourse surrounding it in order to offer an account of the way in which the series has come to occupy a prominent place in the culture of Vladimir Putin's first presidency. I shall begin by placing the series in the context of recent trends in the Russian television industry, and then shall explore the series' poetics, focusing on those aspects that found particularly frequent reflection in statements by its creators, critics, and viewers. In addition to addressing the prevailing views on the series, I shall also identify those elements of its text that received relatively little attention in the discourse about it but played a crucial role in affecting its broad popularity. Ultimately, I shall argue that the series, while claiming importance as an expression of Russian national values, achieved its remarkable success with audiences due to its creators' reliance on melodrama, telenovela, and soap opera – the genres that had played a formative role in the television culture of late- and post-Soviet Russia.
My conception of the object of my essay – as located at the intersection between the text of the series and the discourse surrounding it – extends to my understanding of the category of its authors or creators. When I refer to the creators of the series, I have in mind a discursive construction that has evolved at the crossroads between the text (with its various manifestations of authorial intentionality) and the statements to the press made by various participants in the production of the show, as well as comments by critics and viewers who have articulated their understanding of authorial intentions. As a television series, The Idiot is not a text whose ambiguity has occasioned disagreements among creators, critics, and viewers as to the nature of the show's authorship. On the contrary, the various participants in the discourse surrounding the series have tended to agree about the hierarchy of persons responsible for authoring the text, as well as about what they attempted to achieve. Producer and director Vladimir Bortko, is, of course, at the top of this hierarchy; the actors, depending on the centrality of their characters or the prominence of their preceding careers, come next; important authorial contributions also come from the co-producers of the series, Valery Todorovsky and Aleksandr Akopov. Despite some variations among individual opinions, most of the creators, critics, and viewers agree about the core significance of the text. Although Bortko is generally seen as the series' chief author, its creators, critics, and viewers generally recognize that it is precisely the collectivity that is important in the authorship of The Idiot. The collective authority that expressed itself in the series represented those in the television industry and, more broadly, at the helm of national culture, whose goal was to rediscover its uniquely national essence and to give it direction at a new stage in its development.
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The rise to prominence of the domestic television series occurred at the turn of the century. In her study of the genre's development from the 1970s through 2002, Elena Prokhorova writes that the domestic series gained a sizeable presence on Russian television only in the fall of 1999, the first year when all major channels began to include them in their prime-time programming. By the end of 2001, domestically produced series were already surpassing imports, both in sheer numbers and in terms of cumulative ratings. The 2001 statistics prompted some of the commentators to talk about the "serial revolution" on national television. Today, the online retailer Ozon.ru offers more than one hundred domestically produced series, an overwhelming majority of which were created after 2000.
The rapid proliferation of domestic television series played an important part in the developing cultural regime of Vladimir Putin's first presidency. By contrast, television broadcasting during Yeltsin was dominated by shorter genres such as newscasts, political talk shows, imported cop shows, and imitations of American game shows, such as Wheel of Fortune or Who Wants to be a Millionaire. These popular genres reflected two important trends of the 1990s: the instability of the political landscape – with its kaleidoscope of events, personalities, and ideas – and the precarious economic conditions that miraculously made and unmade personal fortunes. During Putin's presidency, the growing economic and political stability undermined the popularity of the shorter genres. Importantly, the restrictions on televised political expression impaired the appeal of newscasts. Looking for news outside politics, viewers increasingly turned to television series. The Idiot became particularly representative of this trend. Running in the same time slot as the venerable news broadcast Vremia, The Idiot so consistently outperformed it that one reviewer called the series "a newsmaker in the absence of news."
Beyond purely political concerns, however, television series came to embody a new sense of time in the more stable social, economic, and political context. Putin's television time was no longer measured in the same short attention increments and one-day memory spans of programs that dominated the Yeltsin era. The growing popularity of television series corresponded to viewers' desires to follow long and complicated narratives, rather than to focus on fragmentary programming. Besides capturing the new perception of time in the more stable political and economic context, television series also conveyed a new sense of a specifically national way of life. The potential of serial genres to fashion narratives that bond a fragmented public into a national community had been established as early as the nineteenth century, when the serial novel performed this function. Drawing on this potential, television series provided viewers with the sense that they were "living along" with characters who shared the same set of values, portrayed with periodic regularity on the screen. The power of the television series to create a community was instrumental to Putin's culture, one of whose main ideological objectives consisted in reestablishing national identity, especially in the medium of television.
Despite its strong correlation with Putin's cultural regime, however, the rise of domestic television series had begun before Putin came to power and was initially conditioned by developments in the television and cinema industries of the 1990s. The Yeltsin period saw a drastic decline in domestic production as foreign films and television series captured the market. Domestic studios had difficulty adjusting to the new competitive environment, in which investments in native shows had to be correlated to the price television channels paid for Mexican soap operas, between $8,000 and $30,000 per episode. Nonetheless, a number of significant domestic series did appear, among them The Secrets of St. Petersburg (Peterburgskie tainy, 1994), based on Vsevolod Krestovsky's serial novel Petersburg Slums (Peterburgskie truscheby, 1864-1867) and Streets of Broken Lights (Ulitzy razbitykh fonarei, beginning in 1997), which became the most successful television series before The Brigade (Brigada, 2002). The financial crisis of 1998 made it cheaper to produce television series at home than to buy them abroad, giving domestic production a significant boost. Domestic cinema production, by contrast, continued to decline until 2003. As economic conditions improved, the population began to spend money at the box office and the government increased subsidies. Furthermore, the success of domestic television series during the first years of Putin's presidency encouraged increased investment in cinema.
Throughout the 1990s, the decline of cinema pushed the industry's elite professionals, whose careers had been established since the 1960s and 1970s, to search for opportunities on television. Most of those who would come to participate in The Idiot – including actors Oleg Basilashvili, Mikhail Boyarsky, Vladimir Ilyin, Andrei Smirnov, Aleksei Petrenko, Olga Budina, Aleksandr Lazarev, Larisa Malevannaya, Aleksandr Domogarov, and Anastasia Melnikova – had worked in crime dramas, which had come to dominate domestic teleserial production since the last years of the 1990s. Director Vladimir Bortko took part in the preliminary stages of the production of Streets of Broken Lights before he shifted his attention and directed the first two episodes of the popular Gangland Petersburg (Banditskii Peterburg, 2000), continuing thereafter as the show's producer. The episodes directed by Bortko anticipated the poetics of The Idiot, rejecting contemporary trends in cinematic and television representation in favor of the theatrical organization of the visual text. The casting strategy of the show also prefigured that of The Idiot as Bortko relied primarily on famous Soviet stars (Kirill Lavrov, Oleg Basilashvili), while also introducing younger actors (Aleksandr Domogarov, Anastasia Melnikova).
When domestic television series came to the forefront of public attention in 1999, crime drama dominated the medium. Despite the popular view that the prevalence of crime series corresponded to the realities of Russian social life, the public, the government, and the industry reached a consensus that new shows had to move away from criminal topics in order to do a better job of exploring "real problems of regular people." That year, the government increased support for television series, underwriting six comedy and drama productions in order to help the audience "reflect on everyday life." Despite the growing social and economic stability and the decrease in crime, the goal of producing a show about everyday life remained remote until the release of The Idiot, as none of the domestic comedies and non-criminal dramas was able to establish a strong competitive presence in prime time.
Although investment in domestic teleserial production began to grow before the election of Putin, it accelerated exponentially after he became president. Whereas in 1999 the budget of an episode of the popular police procedural Kamenskaya averaged $30,000, in 2002 the budgets of the series The Brigade and The Idiot ran between $200,000 and $300,000. This tenfold increase was particularly striking since, according to the experts, creating a television series remained a riskier investment project than buying a Latin-American telenovela, even though a domestic series, unlike a foreign product, could be syndicated and released on video. One explanation for the risk television channels took in pursuing this kind of investment was that the returns were now evaluated not in monetary, but rather in symbolic currency. Beyond the cash investment and returns, television channels came to rely on the symbolic potential of serial genres in order to establish their identity and compete with rivals since, in the new political context of Putin's presidency, adhering to political affiliations and ideological platforms – the former means of achieving distinction – no longer fulfilled this goal. Importantly, the demand that the channels search for a new way of establishing their brand identity coincided with the overwhelming public realization that another search for identity was underway as well – one for Russian identity as a nation. The television series became the space in which the search for these identities took place.
Writing in 2002, Elena Prokhorova offered an instructive account of the series' progress in capturing the unique patterns of national life: the proliferation of frontier subgenres, such as crime dramas and police procedurals, allowed domestic television to articulate marginal discourses, however central those margins may have seemed at the turn of the millennium. The discourse of the mainstream remained unarticulated while the country was steadily moving toward social, economic, and political stability. Indeed, viewers complained that the series did not offer them what they increasingly wanted – stories about "working people," "family relationships," and "absolutely Russian heroes." The few non-criminal series that had been produced, such as Simple Truths (Prostye istiny, 1996-2000) or Family Affairs, Funny Affairs (Dela semeinye, dela smeshnye, 1996), failed to express a recognizable "system of values, conventions, and social types" and "were received without enthusiasm." A curious dynamic that reflected this failure and contributed to the success of The Idiot was the increase in the broadcasts of productions from the stages of Moscow and Petersburg theaters in 2002. The demand for representations of everyday life was such that Valery Todorovskii, the future producer of The Idiot, came to believe that "those who [succeeded] in making a truly Russian soap opera [would] win the television market." The soap opera that managed to achieve this goal soon after Todorovsky's statement was The Idiot.
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It might seem counterintuitive that the series, while appealing to a classical text in search of profound spiritual values, would also manage to convey to contemporary viewers a sense of their everyday lives. The basis for the success of this project lay in the series' reliance on melodrama, a mode that had offered values to the masses from its inception in the wake of the French Revolution and would do so again in the newly stable context of Vladimir Putin's political regime. The creators of The Idiot extracted melodrama from Dostoyevsky's already profoundly melodramatic text and then enhanced it by tapping into melodramatic television genres to which the audience had been thoroughly accustomed. The discourse about the series recognized this pattern: the prevalent opinion that the series addressed somber spiritual values did not drown out comments about the melodramatic rapture of the text.
As an aesthetic mode, melodrama involves applying pressure to everyday language, characters, and events in order to reveal their links to the domain of spiritual forces and moral imperatives. In melodrama, everyday language builds up to a feverishly excessive pitch; basic character types of parents, children, lovers, and friends reveal themselves to be villains or heroes; commonplace tensions escalate to the intensity of scandal, yielding truths about good and evil. Developing after the French Revolution, melodrama's social role was to reintroduce the experience of moral values to a world that had lost its social cohesion and traditional beliefs. Cultural critics and historians have come to recognize the melodramatic mode as a central fact of modern sensibility, which requires postulating moral values in a world devoid of a theology or a universally accepted social code. Historically, melodrama has assured audiences that their daily lives continue to partake of a universal moral order. Like other nineteenth-century novelists such as Balzac, Dickens, and Henry James, Dostoyevsky drew on melodrama to explore the complex relationship between spiritual values, ideology, and psychology in his contemporaries' everyday lives.
As a product of the newly stable sociopolitical context in Russia, The Idiot television series reflected society's desire to rediscover national spiritual values after a decade of post-revolutionary chaos. Dostoyevsky's novel provided the creators of the series with convenient material, allowing them to offer their interpretation of national values while meeting the melodramatic expectations of contemporary television viewers. In the television series treatment, Dostoyevsky's original lost a measure of its complex and problematical nature, but acquired a peculiar cultural resonance and a new political implication.
While many nineteenth-century novelistic melodramas lend themselves to conversion into a television series, the producers' selection of The Idiot, as a family novel with gothic, sensationalist, and picaresque aspects, is particularly fortuitous. The novel comes complete with a family's three daughters who need to be married, a range of eligible bachelors; an opposition between good and bad male characters, another between a fallen woman and honest ones; an atmosphere of scandal; and, finally, an abundance of relationship talk. The gothic and sensationalist aspects of the novel help sustain the series' long dialogues, which build up to abrupt resolutions. The picaresque element allows for a convenient division into episodes, introducing new adventures of the main hero as he navigates the world of marital intrigue. The tenor of the audience response reflected the generic essence of the novel. Viewers evaluated the lovability of the hero and the compelling nature of the dramatic situations he came across; one viewer commented that Prince Myshkin in Yevgeny Mironov's treatment was a man ladies fall in love with for his spiritual qualities, while another remarked that the atmosphere of scandal was sustained owing to the "beautiful Russian language" that the characters spoke.
The stylistic horizon at which Dostoyevsky's text, the screenplay, and viewers' perceptions met becomes particularly apparent in the series' final scene where, departing from Dostoyevsky's original, Generalsha Yepanchina offers the final account of events. Her monologue sounds as appropriate to a Soviet dacha as to the Swiss clinic where the scene takes place:
So what shall I tell you about, Lev Nikolayevich? Lebedev, Ganya, Ptitzyn, and Varvara Ardalionovna live as before [...] Ippolit passed away two weeks after the death of that... woman. Kolya has become very contemplative and he'll grow up to be a good person. Well, as for us – Ivan Fyodorovich is still working, Aleksandra is still with me, Adelaida married Scherbatov. They're doing all right, and their relationship might get even better. Aglaya got married [...]
In this scene, the screenplay's language departs from Dostoyevsky's original and moves to the idiom of the late Soviet middle class. It is remarkable that actress Inna Churikova is able to utter – without irony – such of Vladimir Bortko's phrases as "that woman," "Ivan Fyodorovich is still working," "Aleksandra is still with me ," "he'll grow up to be a good person," "their relationship might get even better," "Adelaida married Scherbatov." The great achievement of Inna Churikova and Yevgeny Mironov, the two actors whose performances critics have singled out, consists in their success at overcoming the irony of the original by making Bortko's and Dostoyevsky's words entirely their own. The evacuation of irony from Dostoyevsky's text receives an instructive manifestation at the end of Part Three of the series, whose main question concerns the essence of Nastasya Filippovna's character. The melodramatic convention calls for a character's identity to receive a forceful and clear articulation along the virtuous/sinful opposition. Although Dostoyevsky's text figures Nastasya Filippovna as "shameless," references to her maintain a high degree of indeterminacy, often ironic. Thus, Totzky refers to her as a "colorful woman," and she ironically identifies herself as "a belle-etage virtue." The series incorporates these ironic identifications, but for the sake of clarity offers one of its own. In his final lines of Part Three, Rogozhin calls Nastasya Filippovna "a whoring bitch," first in undertone and then one more time with full melodramatic force.
The evacuation of irony from Dostoyevsky's text denies it its essential verbal feature – the subject's alienation from his own language. Whereas Dostoyevsky's characters struggle with language that always already belongs to "the other" and his readers wrestle with the ambiguities of the text, the characters of the television series enjoy sharing their unambiguous language with the new national community. By contrast, the two renditions of Dostoyevsky's novel that immediately preceded the teleserial, Fyodor Mikhailovich's rewriting of it published by Igor Zakharov and Roman Kachanov's film Down House (both 2001), emphasized the ironic potential of the novel as they offered chernukha (dark humor) versions of contemporary social reality. The creators of The Idiot were able to overcome the "disease of chernukha," commonly seen as a major affliction of post-Soviet culture, and to talk about positive national values without irony.
The foregrounding of the colloquial and mundane aspects of Dostoyevsky's text created a verbal environment that viewers perceived as both hallowed by tradition and intensely contemporary. In this environment, the series put forward effective models of relationship talk that corresponded to viewers' understanding of how their essential concerns should be articulated. The language of love, as a crucial aspect of relationship talk, is central both to Dostoyevsky's novel and to the series. In comparison to its Western counterparts, Russian culture is short on models for relationship talk, a dearth consistently experienced at least since Nikolai Karamzin and, perhaps, most influentially registered by Nikolai Chernyshevsky in the essay A Russian at a Rendezvous (1858). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, domestic cinema and television paid little attention to this issue, and during the first two years of Putin's presidency, domestic television series, focusing as they did on criminal themes, addressed it very little as well. In choosing The Idiot, the creators of the series selected a text that stood out among Russian literary masterpieces in supplying abundant examples of how a man should talk to a woman. What Prince Myshkin had been able to do in the novel and Yevgeny Mironov accomplished onscreen was to translate the idea of self-sacrificial love for one's fellow being into lingua d'amore. The hero's willingness continuously to explicate his philosophy in the genre of relationship talk allowed the characters of the novel and viewers of its screen version to interpret Myshkin's Christian idea as the expression of romantic love for individual women (this [mis]interpretation drives the logic of his demise and serves as the basic narrative principle of both texts). Myshkin's exceedingly long philosophical monologues became acceptable to viewers because they were perceived as expressive of his feelings toward specific female characters. By relying on the ideological psychologism of Dostoyevsky's text, the authors of the series offered compelling models of everyday language and, at the same time, articulated their ideological message.
This message is robustly straightforward, despite the authors' insistence that their goal was to be as faithful as possible to the complexity of Dostoyevsky's novel. The series foregrounds Myshkin and Yepanchina as the carriers of a positive national idea at the expense of other, more ambiguous, ideologues in the novel. Thus, Radomsky's exploration of liberalism in Russia and Lebedev's discourse on Aleksandr Herzen's idiom "the carts delivering the bread" – two passages that are of importance to the ideological texture of the original – are reduced, respectively, to twenty and ten seconds of screen time in Part Six of the series. Particularly revealing is the function of these two monologues: in the two party scenes they appear, these monologues serve as background noise against which important relationship talk is about to unfold. The series' ideological message is nowhere more forceful than in its final scene. Whereas the only character in the novel who maintains contact with the deranged Prince is the Western-style, skeptical liberal Radomsky, in the series it is Yepanchina who comes to the Swiss asylum to perform this important task. Here, she delivers the message the authors of the series distilled from Dostoyevsky's text as follows: "Get well, Prince, and return to Russia, because this entire abroad is simply a fantasy, and we who are abroad are a fantasy as well, as you can see for yourself." In response, the series' Myshkin departs from the original by issuing a faint smile, which clearly bespeaks the creators' hope for the nation's and his own future.
Moments like this one undermine the ambiguous nature of Dostoyevsky's text, which makes it difficult to envision a hopeful future, as well as to assign clear moral evaluations to the characters. The particularly expressive articulation of Nastasya Filippovna's "shamelessness" was discussed above. A similarly forceful identification of Rogozhin as evil occurs when Myshkin tells him the story about a drunken soldier who cheated the Prince by selling him his tin cross as a silver one, thereby symbolically "selling out Jesus." Relating this story to Rogozhin, Myshkin departs from the original text and touches him on the chest in the area of his heart while uttering the words "the betrayer of Christ." The camera emphasizes Myshkin's gesture and establishes Rogozhin's status. Aglaya, the last of the major characters, is among the more ambiguous in Dostoyevsky's novel, but the series treats her in a sharply negative way, downplaying her youthful naivety and emphasizing her exasperatingly selfish and manipulative behavior.
Lesser characters also receive a much sharper moral evaluation in the series than they do in the novel. Particularly characteristic among them are Lebedev and Ippolit, both of whom the series treats as unequivocally negative, the first as little more than a base liar and the latter as a manipulative self-aggrandizer. This treatment neglects a crucial point of the novel, which consists in the parallelism between each of these characters and Myshkin. Like the Prince, Lebedev is a teller of tales on Christian themes who at the end of the novel develops an irrational attachment to a woman (Nina Ivolgina) in whom he perceives a unique spiritual quality. Ippolit is also similar to the Prince in that he is another ideologue whose ideology forcefully affects his relations with people. Myshkin believes that Ippolit's views on existential abandonment are profoundly valid and, in fact, experiences this abandonment himself. By omitting such ambivalent details, the series redefines the terms of the moral conflict inherent in the novel. In Dostoyevsky's text, the confrontation between good and evil takes place within characters who struggle internally with their mutually contradictory impulses. In the series, by contrast, the struggle between good and evil unfolds not within but between characters. This important rearrangement shifts the novel's narrative to more emphatically melodramatic lines. Rather than exploring the ambiguous middle ground between the melodramatic extremes both within and between characters (as does Dostoyevsky's novel), the series tells the story of virtue's path through adversity on the way to a hopeful conclusion.
As the embodiment of spiritual values, which the series puts forward before the national audience, Myshkin has to be read in the context of late- and post-Soviet positive heroes. Comparing Yevgeny Mironov's treatment of Myshkin to that by Innokenty Smoktunovsky (in Gheorgy Tovstonogov's theater version of 1957) and Yury Yakovlev (in Ivan Pyriev's film of 1958), both director Vladimir Bortko and the actor himself insisted that their goal was to place a greater emphasis on the character and to portray him as a "philosopher." Bortko thought that Yury Yakovlev's interpretation of the character had been limited by Pyriev's focus on the plot and social conflicts, while Innokenty Smoktunovsky's suffered from the emphasis on Myshkin's mental infirmity. By contrast, Bortko and Mironov envisioned Myshkin as a profoundly sane, albeit idiosyncratic, person. In their view, Myshkin's idiosyncrasy consisted in his commitment to acting on his spiritual beliefs and in his penchant for intellectual activity, that is, for asking questions about the meaning of life and national identity. Placed in the context of post-Soviet screen heroes who preceded him in enjoying viewers' overwhelming sympathy, Myshkin compares to Danila Bagrov of Brother and Brother-2 (Brat and Brat-2, dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 1997 and 2000) and Sasha Belyi of The Brigade, and shares with them a range of qualities that viewers see as characteristically Russian: simplicity, transparency, integrity, self-effacement, and good intentions. In contrast to them, however, Myshkin is an intellectual and a loser. Casting Myshkin as a positive hero for the new cultural environment, the series offers an "intelligent," whose esoteric braininess, clumsy but endearing humanity, and lack of touch with real life turn him into an appealing victim. Ultimately, these personal features link the Myshkin of the television series to a cohort of intelligentsia heroes of the Brezhnev era, such as the endearingly pathetic Andrei Buzykin of Autumn Marathon (Osenny marafon, dir. Gheorgy Daneliya, 1979), Zhenya Lukashin of Irony of Fate (Ironiya sudbi, ili S legkim parom, dir. Eldar Ryazanov, 1975), and Yury Detochkin of Beware of the Car (Beregis avtomobilya, dir. Eldar Ryazanov, 1966).
That creative intellectuals would offer this kind of nostalgic image of a new hero confirmed both the fears and expectations shared by the participants of a forum on the problem of the intelligentsia that took place as part of the 1999 Moscow International Film Festival. At this event, Irina Khakamada bemoaned the lack of positive heroes in the Russian media, saying that "in the Russian tradition, the hero is a victim, practically embodied in the image of The Idiot in contemporary society." Director Sergei Solovyev, less concerned with the social effectiveness of intellectuals, was instead hopeful that Russian society would develop mechanisms for supporting idiosyncratic individuals: "Personally, I want social conditions to develop in such a way that would allow individuals to co-exist and to exist on their own." In Bortko's series, the guarantor of this kind of social improvement is Yepanchina. Representing Mother Russia, she is also, implicitly, the symbol of benevolent state power. Soon after the series aired, this implied symbolism found realization in the country's political life as Aleksandra Matvienko achieved a state-supported victory in St. Petersburg's mayoral elections at the end of 2003, a sign reminiscent of the Brezhnev era and suggesting that state power was sufficiently consolidated to project a more humane face to some segments of the population.
Despite the creators' emphasis on faithfulness to Dostoyevsky's text, the series' treatment of language, narrative, and ideology consistently extracted from the novel the kinds of melodramatic aspects that lent the text to effective consumption in contemporary cultural and political contexts. Although critics had to be right when they observed that it was difficult to imagine another cinematic version of the novel that would render more of its dialogue and scenes in their original sequence, the inevitable decisions the creators of the series had to make in adapting Dostoyevsky to the screen took them down the melodramatic path, and, by extension, to the kind of interpretation of the novel that could be embraced by a mass audience. The series' dual tendencies toward being faithful to the original, on the one hand, and toward reflecting contemporary popular expectations, on the other, are especially apparent in the creators' treatment of its chronotope and visual organization. As the series evinces its creators' consorted attempt to approximate century-old aesthetic conventions, it also, perhaps paradoxically, engages the more recent conventions of popular melodramatic genres.
The purposeful archaism of The Idiot appears striking when the show is compared to other domestic series that became increasingly "western" as investment in them grew. If an average scene of a television series lasts two to three minutes and a character's lines cannot be more than several sentences long, The Idiot's scenes are about four times longer. Not only Myshkin, but also other characters routinely speak for several minutes at a time. Myshkin's speech in "The BrokenVase" scene is a remarkable eight minutes long. Besides being exceedingly long, the majority of the scenes of the series take place indoors. The outdoor scenes function primarily to provide viewers with occasional pictures of what Petersburg and its environs might have looked like in Dostoyevsky's times. Even though the novel itself privileges indoor settings, the series often goes a step further in taking the events inside. A particularly characteristic scene at the beginning of Part Six features a conversation between Myshkin and Yepanchina. In the novel, this conversation takes place on the terrace of Myshkin's dacha at seven o'clock on a summer evening, when there still is abundant light outside. In the series, this conversation takes place inside the dacha in utter darkness with the two characters, as it were, on a theatrical stage illuminated only by the light of the candle placed on the table between them. Whereas in the novel, this scene deals with rather pedestrian questions of Myshkin's intentions as a bachelor and potential husband, in the series it acquires new symbolism. By huddling the two chief positive characters around the candle and surrounding them with the darkness of the night, the series must be suggesting that the true meaning of their meeting consists in joining forces to maintain the fire of spiritual values amidst the darkness Russian life. Apart from its new symbolism, this scene is indicative of the way in which the series creates the impression that events take place on the stage of a theater, one that heightens the symbolic pitch of the text by eschewing nonessential detail. The theater-stage effect is especially apparent in the series' penultimate scene, "The Vigil," in which Myshkin and Rogozhin converse in front of a deep blue cloth that looks like a stage backdrop.
The strategies evident in the scene design, camera work, lighting, as well as acting, complement the series' treatment of time and space. The frequently low lighting, regular reliance on sepia tone, and intermittent use of black-and-white effects perform a number of functions. They evoke the earlier media of photography and early film, as well as create a Gothic atmosphere with the sense of diffuse menace hovering over the protagonists. The black-and-white photography enhances the opposition the series draws between good and evil (Rogozhin and Nastasya Fillipovna wear black and usually emerge out of the dark, and Myshkin vice versa). The camera is predominantly stationary and relies on two kinds of shots: the mid-range shot setting up the scene or taking in several characters in static poses, and close-ups highlighting the faces of the interlocutors. The more characteristic use of mid-range shots occurs in group scenes, such as those at the Yepanchins. As one of the characters is holding forth a monologue, the camera switches from the speaker to the listeners, giving them an opportunity to make a loaded facial expression or gesture or to assume a significant posture. The "overacting" emphasized by the static camera conveys the heightened emotional pitch of the melodramatic narrative, a standard feature of silent cinema. Since at issue in the series are matters of good and evil, as well as love and hate, the characters consistently find themselves on the verge of hysteria and collapse. The actors' histrionics appropriately communicate these liminal states. Close-up shots, focusing on the actors' faces and obscuring the background, highlight facial expressions. The enormity of emotional drama and spiritual crisis often renders the characters mute, relegating them to the language of pantomime, sometimes enhanced by artificial effects. While most actors behave in this realistically unlikely but melodramatically coherent way, Rogozhin performs special feats of mute expressivity. In a number of scenes, the camera closes in on his face, illuminated against a dark background, capturing his eyes bulging out of their sockets and profound perspiration on his forehead and cheeks. Since these features are standard for Rogozhin throughout the series, it is the artificial tear escaping from one of his eyes that conveys the particular extremity of his role as a character driven by the power of evil.
The aesthetic framework of The Idiot bespeaks the goal of its creators to bring their rendition of Dostoyevsky's text closer to its original by simulating conventions of photography and early cinema as well as the "achievements of Russian psychological theater." The viewers readily perceived that the series' aesthetic orientation was conceived as an alternative to the conventions of contemporary television, particularly as they manifested themselves in domestic crime dramas, based, both creators and viewers believed, on American models. Furthermore, authors and viewers agreed that the series provided a timely opportunity to recover a set of inherently national values. The very archaism of the series' aesthetics was conducive to the broad recognition of the series' Russianness. The use of such features as slow pacing, loose plots, overly dramatic acting, and inferior image quality had long been perceived as indicative of strategic resistance to foreign models, as Elena Prokhorova convincingly argued in her article.
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Prokhorova's argument, however, concerned crime dramas whose patterns of audience appeal did not quite apply to a melodrama such as The Idiot. What still requires identification are the models that had conditioned viewers to be able to enjoy a Russian work in this mode, especially since no native melodramatic series had succeeded before or since; as one critic put it, "a novel from the middle of the nineteenth century could have very little to do with our own lives." When The Idiot was being conceived and produced before 2002, the standards of drama were set by Latin American telenovelas and North American daytime soap operas. When the series came onto the screen in 2003, current standards of dramatic production on Russian television were already represented by the newly purchased and released television series – Sex and the City, ER, and The Sopranos. As a result of this rapid shift, The Idiot was produced in one context and consumed in another. By 2003, the purposeful archaism of The Idiot marked a step back from leading North-American shows – not to domestic television, which was short on non-criminal serial drama, but also, and more importantly, to the rich Latin American tradition.
Despite its creators' focus on returning to national aesthetic standards, what The Idiot proved most successful in achieving and what in large measure accounted for its remarkable success was a return to Latin American telenovelas and, to a lesser degree, daytime North-American soap operas. Telenovelas and soaps had dominated Russian television series in the 1990s and maintained a measure of popularity later, despite the rise of domestic series and the arrival of prime-time North American productions. A discussion of the strong affinity between the poetics of telenovelas and The Idiot is best approached by way of statements by the show's creators, critics, and viewers, which contain consistent references to the telenovela. Since the term "telenovela," like "melodrama," carries pejorative connotations, references to the genre are often disparaging. And yet, despite their frequently scornful tenor, these references emphatically signal that both producers and consumers of The Idiot shared the telenovela as a crucial interpretive horizon.
The importance of the telenovela for the creators of The Idiot becomes clear from comments by Aleksandr Akopov, the former General Director of the Rossiya television channel and currently the president of the A-Media Company, which participated in the production of the series and has remained a major player in the Russian television industry. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, which commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the release on Russian television of the Brazilian telenovela, Isaura the Slave, Akopov opined:
Russia is in the vanguard of serials. Together with Germany, it makes them better than anyone else because the best directors and actors are involved in making them. The very fact that Poor Nastia (Bednaia Nastia [a new series in production at the time of the interview]) is of a higher level than any Brazilian equivalent is self-evident, and especially better than any American production because right now Americans make such lengthy productions only for daytime broadcast and don't invest terribly much in those.
That Akopov has since changed his mind, acknowledging the high technological and aesthetic standards of North American television series, makes his 2003 statement particularly revealing in establishing the role telenovelas and daytime soap operas played as benchmarks of creative achievement in the production of The Idiot.
References to the relevance of the telenovela to The Idiot also appeared in statements by director Vladimir Bortko, who normally disparaged telenovelas and emphasized the seriousness of his project, but also reluctantly acknowledged its affinity with the lower genres. In one interview to Izvestiya, Bortko distinguished his series from substandard television fare: "I thank my fellow countrymen who preferred a screen version of one of the most complex works by Russian classics to soap operas and action films." In the same interview, however, he recognized the melodramatic aspect of The Idiot by pointing out that it offered "an engaging plot with passion, attempted murder and suicide, love, and jealousy." In another interview with the same newspaper, Bortko commented on the low status of the genre Dostoyevsky appropriated for his novel by saying that The Idiot was "almost a detective story and certainly a melodrama." "In fact," Bortko continued, "it was written as a kind of "soap opera" for a cheap newspaper." Ultimately, Bortko's view was that although it would have been easy for the creators of the show to produce "an entertaining melodrama," they "made an effort to convey all the complexity of Dostoyevsky's novel" in order to "make the viewers think."
Critical responses also registered the links between The Idiot and the telenovela. One critic believed that the telenovela had set the standard for all Russian serial productions, writing: "Many have tried to create a domestic television serial that would be distinct from the Latin American family saga with its intricate network of family relations." Although this critic's goal was to differentiate The Idiot from the telenovela, he implicitly grouped them together as stories about family life as opposed to crime dramas, including The Rendezvous is Set (Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzya, dir. Stanislav Govorukhin, 1979), Experts Are on the Case (Sledstvie vedut ZnaToKi, dir. Vyacheslav Brovkin, Yury Krotenko, Viktor Turbin, Vasily Davidchuk, Ghennady Pavlov, 1971-1989), Beyond the Wolves (Po tu storonu volkov, dir. Vladimir Khotinenko, 2002), and A Murderer's Diary (Dnevnik ubiytzy, dir. Kirill Serebrennikov, 2002). The pattern of disparaging telenovelas and at the same time establishing their links to The Idiot was common in the reviews of the show. Another critic thought that the series would appeal to average fans who would enjoy following sudden turns in the fates of their favorite characters because Vladimir Bortko managed "to capture the entire novel on film, with all of the passions of the numerous heroes and all of the complexities of their intertwined destinies." "By comparison," this critic believed, "the complicated sufferings and family relationships of Brazilian and Mexican Lucias and Antonios [were] simply a naïve fairy tale." Yet another critic wrote: "Russian viewers had to pass through the existential test of Mexican teleserials in order ... to arrive at Fyodor Mikhailovich." Audience response suggested that while viewers recognized the status of The Idiot as an expression of human and national values, they also watched it as a telenovela, falling in love with the characters, appreciating the portrayal of scandals, and describing it as "a detective story of emotions."
Indeed, the series shares with telenovelas an abundance of easily recognizable generic features, including, in the words of one review, "spiritual suffering, countless betrayals, romantic perversions, insanity, foolish actions, whether because of despair or pride, the sudden appearance of some fully grown offspring whose existence is known to no one, villainous fathers who hunt for young beauties..." Like the telenovela, The Idiot focuses on passions and suffering in the context of family relations and relies on criminal subplots. Similarly to The Idiot, telenovelas explore the combination of national and human values, often setting their narratives in a vaguely pre-industrial past. Oppositions between demonic and spiritual men, as well as between loose and honest women – staple fare in telenovelas – also fashion the character structure for The Idiot. Finally, the telenovela is a highly theatrical genre relying on rigid camera work, long close-ups of the actors' faces, theatrical sets, "overacting," and incessant relationship talk, all features central to the aesthetic organization of The Idiot.
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When it is placed in the context of industry trends and cultural horizons, The Idiot evinces an instructive dynamic revealing the language shared by the producers and consumers of the show. In animating a nineteenth-century literary text, which they saw as formative for the national tradition, what the series' creators also achieved was to relate to viewers on the basis of shared cultural experiences that had spanned the period from the relative middle-class prosperity of Brezhnev's rule to the newly stable environment of Putin's reign. In moving toward Dostoyevsky's text by relying on the conventions of photography, theater, and early cinema, the creators also engaged the aesthetic conventions of Latin-American telenovelas, which they shared with the viewers. As they reached for an articulation of national spiritual values, the creators also succeeded in developing a language of everyday life to which viewers were able to relate. While striving to articulate a new national ideology and offer an image of a new national hero, the creators also managed to reanimate the hero of Brezhnev's culture in his relationship to power. A measure of disjunction between the creators' stated intentions and the ways in which the series actually appealed to the viewers stems from the creators' emphasis on the seriousness of their project and reluctance fully to acknowledge their indebtedness to melodrama. Yet it was precisely the melodramatic, as a mode that has traditionally brought moral values to the broad public, that made viewers appreciate the show as much as they did. Despite a measure of disjunction between the creators' intentions and the patterns that accounted for the reception of their text, the series proved highly successful in engaging the relevant cultural horizons shared by both authors and viewers.
The patterns of production and reception of The Idiot are characteristic of Putin's cultural regime. The authors embraced the task of establishing a new national grand narrative, which was also a key cultural objective of Putin's presidency. In constructing such a narrative in the series, the creators began with a literary classic and included early cinema, the tradition of Russian theater, and the myth of the role of reading in Soviet culture. A narrative of this kind had to work by way of excluding or transcending the recent past of national television. Yet these excluded aspects, such as the melodramas of the Brezhnev era and Latin-American telenovelas of the 1990s, folded back into the viewing experience of the audience, prompted by the cultural and creative experience of the authors that they resisted acknowledging fully. Critical reception the series reflected the ambiguity of the text. While emphasizing the moral import of the new grand narrative, critics also tended to register, if often reluctantly, the morally questionable sources of pleasure the series ostensibly foreclosed, yet all the while continued to tap. In large measure, the success of the series was conditioned by the ability of the audience to legitimize its visceral enjoyment of the show by acknowledging its moral message.
To the extent that the authors of the series represent the generations of the nation's cultural elite that played a prominent part in determining cultural production during the early years of Putin's rule, The Idiot, as their creation, provides insights into the important question regarding the relative roles of cultural elites and political power in Putin's cultural regime. On the one hand, the turn to posing questions of national identity in the genre of television series, which manifested itself in the The Idiot, predated the development of Putin's culture. On the other hand, the show's melodramatic narrative about mainstream national life owed much of its success to the patterns of viewer interest and attention that developed in the new economic and political climate of Putin's rule. Putin's cultural regime and The Idiot as its representative product shared the ambiguous desires both to construct a new national tradition, which would exclude morally questionable aesthetic trends, and, at the same time, to tap into the popular appeal of the very trends this tradition purported to exclude.
Ultimately, the cultural dynamic reflected in the production and consumption of The Idiot pointed to a symbiotic relationship between the cultural elites and power. This symbiosis received a curious manifestation in the title of one of the reviews of the show: "Fyodor Mikhailovich Lucked Out with Vladimir Vladimirovich." It is not immediately clear from the review whether its author was aware of the ambiguity of the latter referent: while the show was directed by Vladimir Vladimirovich Bortko, the country knows only one Vladimir Vladimirovich – Putin. Yet, in an important sense, the referent of the name is not ambiguous, for the two Vladimir Vladimirovichs were engaged in the same cultural project, guided by the goal of reanimating the national narratives of the past while also catering to the desires of the present. The poetics of The Idiot television series epitomized the conservative populism of Putin's cultural regime.