Nastya Kochetkova was weeping on stage. She was wiping off her black mascara-filled tears with awkward childish gestures, as if she refused to believe in the judges’ treason. The girl came across as funny, clumsy, and confused: her legs were out of sync with the ridiculously high heels, her arms led a separate life from the rest of her body, her absurd pink skirt kept creeping up, and her fat torso overflowed the stupid corset like dough. But, sincere and touching, she seemed to be the only real thing in that celluloid puppet show called the Star Factory.
No sensible person would ever watch this singing pageant designed to supply cannon fodder for show business. But I was chained to the screen by the call of professional duty. Because it is not simply yet another entertainment project, but a sign and symbol of the Putin era. The sign and symbol that did not come about at once, but only over time.
Ten years ago, a project called Star Academy was all the rage in the West. People are selected off the street through casting. They are placed in a reservation and taught how to sing. Concerts take place once a week, with some contestants dropping out each time (remember poor Nastya.) The final winner receives fame and fortune. A year after its launch, the show was produced in Russia on licence, but under a different name – the Star Factory. This was no chance change in semantics. Construction of the chain of command was in full swing in the country. Ideologues were searching for a theoretical basis for sovereign (or, more exactly, souvenir) democracy. The image of a factory as something mechanical, obedient, and ready to oblige fit in ideally with the social fabric that was forming around the chain of command.
So factory life flourished in earnest in the TV world. It was easy to see it coming to a head during election campaigns or elections. During the second presidential term, there were even two factories on air at the same time. None other than Pugacheva, Russia’s perennial shadow power diva, ran one of them. The current Factory season, its eighth, is special. Whereas a single producer was previously in charge of the contest, now as many as four heroes of the pop scene have been called under the banners, and their names sound like music itself: Krutoi, Matvienko, Drobysh, and Meladze. Moreover, Alla Borisovna is soon set to open her own talent agency too. In other words, demand for the cookie-cutter shows ahead of 2012 has never been stronger.
Senior colleagues affectionately call Star Factory contestants “deli foods.” Again, the nickname is spot-on. Because all of us are deli foods in one sense or another. The same chefs have been stuffing us with the same fillings, all the while repeating that any other fillings are bad for us. And as long as these chefs hold the reigns of power they have privatised, no other menu is forthcoming. Only small variations in the ingredients are allowed. Casual observers then get all worked up and start discussing meticulously, in a Freudian way, the relations within the tandem. They contemplate Putin and Medvedev’s visions for development of the Russian state as announced by the Premier and the President’s team players. And they interpret the antagonism of those visions as a standoff building up within the tandem. They spend a lot of time comparing statements by Medvedev and Putin on Libya, and they spend as much time discussing how the junior attacked the senior on air. And the horrible sound bite “split” is bound to ring out in the heated atmosphere of bold forecasts.
Only it is all in vain. Any differences within the tandem are stylistic rather than political. No new casting is on the cards for this particular star factory. The key words here are from prison slang: “We’ll work it out.” By the way, even in tsarist Russia, the Tsars were perceived by their subjects to be entitled to some additional, material signs of supreme power. When the peasant Klyukin ended up in a bath with an heir to the throne, Konstantin Pavlovich, he believed it his duty to share with Nicholas I forthwith a very important finding: “I saw his bare chest overgrown with hair in a cross pattern, something no person of non-royal blood can ever have.”
Our rulers do well, though, without any visible signs of power. Putin’s naked torso, abundantly exposed to the people during his extreme travels, bears no hair cross. Perhaps Medvedev has one? Anyway, this is irrelevant as long as the factory of democratic values is run from a single centre.
Brilliant outcomes of this worldview, ones that shine a light on all state institutions, were demonstrated several days ago. REN TV reporter Asya Goizman decided to give an in-depth account of the Public Chamber proceedings. The result exceeded all expectations. The first item on the agenda was surprisingly urgent: the public figures began discussing the relations between pathologists and coffin makers. While there was not one coffin maker to be seen in the meeting hall, the pathologists were widely represented. They were clearly flattered by the attention paid by the high assembly to their problems. They wanted to solve one of them – the possibility of cutting bodies open without the relatives’ consent – on the spot.
As soon as the pathologists stepped out of the Chamber, the public figures got ready to discuss a problem of no less urgency – the image of the modern mother on the Internet. The image remained unfinished though, as the chock-full agenda required their undivided attention to the fate of stray dogs in a big city… Saltykov-Schedrin must have been turning in his grave out of jealousy of Asya Goizman, who managed to discover a wealth of common sense in a regular session of the Chamber
It is a pity the nation’s best people – from Tina Kandelaki to Kucherena – have not taken it upon themselves to look into yet another case out of the life of the voters. Old ladies are diligently gathering snow in one of the God- and tandem-forsaken villages in the Orel Region. It is their only source of water. The village lacks even a water mains. Putin is unlikely to visit the old ladies. The orphaned landscape with burned out, tilted houses and stooping women whose looks make my heart ache is bad television. The snow leopard Mongol is a totally different matter. Although it is ill now, it will certainly recover soon. Putin himself, who visited Khakasia where the snow leopard lives, passionately wishes him well. He also wishes well to seals, Black Sea dolphins, saigaks, and Przhevalsky horses. And well they will be, no doubt whatsoever. The state-protected Przhevalsky horse will be better off than the Orel Region old ladies, whose snow is melting away by the day in the spring.