Culture Clones

Reported by Anya Ardayeva, Moscow correspondent, Feature Story News

WALTER CRONKITE: For many years the Soviet Union was famous for its world-class ballet houses, opera companies, and symphony orchestras. The collapse of the USSR meant a severe decline in Russia's high art, and the rise of imported, Western pop culture. It's impacted films, music, and television. Some Russian artists resist the trend, while others are adapting Western styles to Russian sensibilities. Correspondent Anya Ardayeva [are-dah-yay'-va ] files this story from Moscow.

["Yesterday" sung by Russian singer]

ANYA ARDAYEVA: In the old days of the Soviet Union it was as certain as red flags, statues of Lenin, and vodka toasts. You could travel across a dozen time zones from the Baltic to the Pacific, and in every state run hotel, dinner guests would be listening to a Russian crooner singing "Yesterday."

If, in the past, Russians wallowed in Western simplicity, today they hear discord and complexity such as Detsl.

[Detsl rapping in English]

ARDAYEVA: Detsl rapidly shot to fame after his first song, called "Tears," won the hearts of teenagers nationwide. The song was about love, problems in school, and fights with parents. But while he's adapted an American musical genre to Russia, Detsl says his personal goal isn't simply to copy Americans. He wants to develop rap that taps the Russian soul.

DETSL: I want to be a Russian rapper, you know, and I don't want to be like some kind of rapper that came out of nowhere. I have a history in Russia. It's not American hip-hop. It's Russian hip-hop, in Russian language, about Russian problems.

[Detsl raps in Russian]

ARDAYEVA: Detsl isn't alone in trying to identify and develop a new Russian musical sound. But he is facing intense competition from those content simply to import Western musical ideas and cash-in on them.

[Female Singer]

ARDAYEVA: This is the sound of "Litsei"—it means "College." And if it reminds you of the "Spice Girls," there's a good reason for that. "Litsei" is the latest in a long string of Russian "Girl Bands." In some cases they are direct copies of their Western counterparts, inspired by managers who boast a long term commitment to short-term commercialism. "Litsei" is the creation of producer Alexei Makarevich.

ALEXEI MAKAREVICH: (Via Translator) This industry has become more organized now. If in the early 90s the old art died and nothing new was born, today there are dozens of FM radio stations which broadcast hundreds of new songs. Radio stations are very commercial, and the question of real art isn't that important anymore.

ARDAYEVA: Russian TV also features a growing number of programs directly inspired by the West.

["Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" music]

ARDAYEVA: If the music sounds familiar that's because it's the theme tune from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Only here, the prize is a million rubles. That's roughly thirty-thousand US dollars—still a princely sum to most Russians.

[Audio of host asking questions]

ARDAYEVA: "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" first appeared in Russia two years ago. Unlike its US counterpart, it's won fans among the intelligentsia because its questions are much tougher than those posed by Regis Philbin. Russia's Regis is Maxim Galkin, a former comedy actor. This is the first TV quiz show he's ever hosted.

MAXIM GALKIN: (Via Translator) The idea of the show is really simple. And it's popular because puzzles are popular, they're published in every newspaper. Every reader and every viewer always wants to compare his level of knowledge with other peoples. So when the viewer sits in front of his TV set, he compares himself with the contestants, sees if he knows more than they do.

ARDAYEVA: These days, Russian TV listings would look very familiar to most Americans. A Jay Leno look-alike for a time battled a David Letterman look-alike on an opposing network. "Wheel of Fortune" is hosted by a team bearing a remarkable resemblance to Pat Sajak and Vanna White. But as with Russian hip-hop, some shows are already trying to adapt the Western model for a local audience.

["On My Own" show open]

ARDAYEVA: "Ya Sama" means "On My Own." At first it appears to be a cross between Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Ruth. The show gives Russian women a chance to publicly raise once forbidden sexual issues. Program director Irina Semyonova says the show is a ratings hit, in part because of its shock value.

IRINA SEMYONOVA: (Via Translator) Neither in the Soviet Union, nor in the early days of Russia was there a program of this kind. Because no one ever discussed their personal life. There was even a slogan: "The communal is more important than the personal." Everything relating to the best worker of the Communist Party was permitted, but people's private life was not. There was no sex in the Soviet Union, and a party member couldn't get divorced without facing career problems. It looked as though personal life simply didn't exist. Women had to solve their problems by talking to their mothers or friends. The idea of this program was simply revolutionary.

[Sound from "On My Own" discussion]

ARDAYEVA: The programs' guests—mostly female—discuss the problems they're facing at work or at home. The audience of men and women then discuss the stories they've heard. And while it has the appearance of an American-style talk show, Irina Semyonova says she's covering some uniquely Russian ground.

SEMYONOVA: We made people think about things. Russia is a very patriarchal country, especially in the villages where people still say "If a husband beats his wife it means he loves her," or "The kid needs a father even if it's a bad father." I think we made people question these ideas a bit.

ARDAYEVA: The emergence of broadcasts like "Ya Sama" and artists like the rapper "Detsl" suggest that there's a limit to how long Russian popular culture will be dominated by Western imports. While American movies still play to crowded theaters here, and Hollywood provides the inspiration for many Russian gossip columns, there is still a place for pop artists who are authentically Russian, and who owe nothing to the West.

[Russian artist Kirkorov singing]

ARDAYEVA: For over a decade, Philip Kirkorov has been one of Russia's most popular and flamboyant performers—a Liberace, Michael Jackson, and Prince all rolled into one. Kirkorov's fans are middle-aged and older Russians, and he says the main secret of his success is that his songs touch the Russian soul.

PHILIP KIRKOROV: In all my songs I want to project all my soul and my heart. All my songs are about love. And people feel it. And then maybe, that's why people like me. Now I feel in Russia very good. I feel like a king.

[Russian artist KIRKOROV singing]

ARDAYEVA: "The king" never sang "Yesterday" all those years ago, but his songs reflect the romance and simplicity of a time gone by. Philip Kirkorov is a showman who knows his audience, knows what makes Russians grow misty-eyed over dinner. And even some of his younger competitors in the music industry, like the lead singer of the girl-group "Litsei," Nastya Makarevich, acknowledge that the ways of the West may not be here to stay.

NASTYA MAKAREVICH: (Via Translator) Everything that is happening now has come from the West. I don't think it will work here. It might stay, but only for a short period of time. Here people like tear-jerking songs, which they can sing while sitting together at the table.

[Singer singing "Yesterday"]

ARDAYEVA: Just as today you don't see Russian couples canoodling over "Yesterday," tomorrow you might not see Russian teens bopping to carbon copies of Britney Spears or The Backstreet Boys. Russian popular culture is coming into its own. Artists are slowly finding inspiration at home and realizing that entertainment devised in the West doesn't always translate into Russian.

For the Russia Project, I'm Anya Ardayeva, Moscow.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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