Russia was the largest and the culturally predominant republic of the U.S.S.R., and the history of Russian television up to the disintegration of that country in 1991 is inseparable from that of Soviet television. Moreover, in spite of the changes that have taken place since then, Russian television remains the principal inheritor of the traditions (as well as the properties) of its Soviet predecessor.

Regular television broadcasting began in Moscow in 1939, though the service was interrupted for the duration of WWII (1941-1945). Broadcasting was always given a high priority by the Soviet authorities, and television expanded rapidly in the post-war years, so that by the late 1970s there were two general channels that could be received over most of the country and two further channels (one local and one educational) in certain large cities. There were also television stations in the constituent republics and studios in most large cities. Apart from a gradual extension of the coverage of the two national channels until the first, at least, could be received in virtually the whole of the country, this situation remained little changed until 1991. Because of its size the Soviet Union was a pioneer of satellite transmission: by the mid-1980s both national channels were broadcast in four time-shifted variants to eastern parts of the country, while the first channel was among the earliest television programmes to be made available world-wide. Regular colour transmissions began in 1967, using the SECAM system.

Administratively, television was the responsibility of the All-Union Committee for Television and Radio (generally known as Gosteleradio), the Chairman of which was a member of the Council of Ministers and of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Equivalent committees existed in the constituent republics, with the exception, owing to a quirk of the system, of Russia itself. Only in May 1991, after sustained pressure from the Russian parliament, did a separate Russian oganisation start its own television transmissions; its programmes, broadcast for six hours per day on the second channel, were in the summer of that year a focus of opposition to President Gorbachev. Broadcasting was financed out of the state budget, the receiving licence having been replaced in 1962 by a notional addition to the retail price of television sets.

The social, political and economic upheavals that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet system have led to major changes in Russian television. The period since 1991 has been characterised by a rapid growth of commercialisation and a continuing debate concerning the rôle of the state in owning, financing and controlling the content of the electronic media. There has also been continuous disagreement between the executive and legislative branches of power over which of them should exercise control over broadcasting. Up to now this has invariably been resolved in favour of the former, and the entire structure of Russian television has in effect been put into place by a series of Presidential decrees.

One aspect of the involvement of the state in television is the Federal Service for Television and Radio, a regulatory body with relatively few powers, whose principal function is to issue licences to broadcasting organisations. There are in addition two broadcasting companies wholly owned by the state: the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (RTR), the organisation founded in 1991, and "Peterburg--piatyj kanal" ("St Petersburg--the fifth channel"), converted into a state company in 1993. A third state company, Ostankino, which was created out of the former Gosteleradio when the Soviet Union disintegrated, was abolished in 1995. Its functions were taken over by "Obshchestvennoe rossiiskoe televidenie" ("Russian Public Television", ORT), owned 51% by the state and 49% by a consortium of banks and private companies. ORT produces its own news bulletins, but otherwise is essentially a commissioning company. Publicly-owned broadcasting organisations continue to exist in each of the regions of Russia. The proliferation of state companies and the rapid inflation from 1992 onwards has meant that allocations from the state budget have covered an ever smaller proportion of the costs of these companies: for both ORT and RTR this had declined to 25% by 1995. The shortfall is made up by revenue from advertising.

In the commercial sector two companies, NTV and TV6, aspire to national coverage, though at present their programmes can be seen in certain large cities only; both commenced operations in 1993. There are also several hundred local stations, and cable television has started to appear in certain large cities. There has been little or no foreign investment in Russian television; CNN were involved in TV6 when it started up, but subsequently withdrew from the operation. NTV is owned by a consortium of banks which also owns the daily newspaper Segodnia and the main television listings journal Sem' dnei and can be said to be part of Russia's first media conglomerate. An interesting feature is the growth of independent production companies, the oldest of which, ViD and ATV, date back to 1990, when they were "semi-detached" outgrowths of Gosteleradio. These now provide programmes for the various broadcasting companies, especially ORT and NTV.

The changes since 1991 have had an equally profound effect on programmes and their content. In Soviet times television was first and foremost an instrument of propaganda, serving the interests of party and state, and this purpose was reflected in all news bulletins and political programmes. The main evening news programme, Vremia (Time) was shown simultaneously on all channels and often ran far beyond its allotted forty minutes (a cavalier attitude towards the published schedules is characteristic of both Soviet and Russian television). All programmes were in effect, if not formally subject to censorship, and caution usually prevailed: the popular student cabaret KVN was taken off the air in the 1970s for being too daring, and a high proportion of the non-political programmes consisted of high culture (opera, ballet and classical drama), films made for the Soviet cinema and sport, all of which could be guaranteed in advance to be inoffensive.


Because of its importance as a means of propaganda, the effects of glasnost' were felt more slowly in television than in the print media. By the late 1980s, however, a certain liberalisation could be discerned: KVN returned to the screens, and previously taboo topics began to be discussed in programmes such as Vzgliad (View) and Do i posle polunochi (Before and After Midnight). These were followed by a range of lively and innovatory productions originated by ATV (see above), as well as by attempts to liven up news presentation, though as late as 1990-91 all of these programmes were liable to suffer cuts imposed by the censors or even to disappear altogether; the suspension of Vzgliad in January 1991 was a particular cause célèbre. In the circumstances it is not surprising that the removal of all restrictions after the collapse of the August 1991 putsch led to a brief flowering of creative talent (and the emergence of long-forbidden programmes) that may prove to have been something of a golden age of Russian television.

The 1990s have seen a gradual westernisation of Russian television with the appearance of genres hitherto eschewed. Among these are game-shows, such as Pole chudes (Field of Miracles), which is based on Wheel of Fortune and which is one of Ostankino/ORT's most popular programmes; talk-shows, such as Tema (Theme) and My (We), which likewise have clear ancestral links with their American counterparts, and soap operas. These are almost invariably imported from the U.S. (Santa Barbara), Mexico (Los Ricos también lloran, Simplemente María and others), Brazil and elsewhere; home-grown versions have been few in number and short-lived. A number of British and U.S. crime series have also been imported, for example The Sweeny and Moonlighting. One genre to which Russian television has remained immune is situation comedy, though in the area of satire it is worth mentioning NTV's Kukly (Puppets), which uses the format of the British Spitting Image and which has occasionally succeeded in annoying the authorities. Films made in the U.S. and other Western countries are now widely shown, though in 1995-96, presumably in response to complaints from viewers, there has been a marked increase in the number of Russian/Soviet films being broadcast. Religious programmes of various types, most connected with the Russian Orthodox Church, but some originating with certain strands of western Protestantism, are now transmitted, but literature, classical music and serious drama have disappeared almost totally from the screens.

This westernisation has by no means met with universal approval, though it is not only a reaction to Soviet isolationism, but also a response to commercial pressures. All channels are now dependent on income from advertising, and while the relationship between audience ratings and the prices charged for advertisements is not as sophisticated as in the West, there is a requirement to show programmes which will attract viewers. Advertising is lightly regulated and takes many forms, including spots between and during programmes and sponsorship. It tends to be unpopular, partly because of the unfamiliar intrusiveness, but mainly because a high proportion of the advertisements are for foreign goods which are not widely available or (especially in 1992-94) for disreputable financial institutions which subsequently collapsed. Nevertheless, while some companies prefer to re-cycle advertisements previously used in their older markets, the best Russian-produced examples of the form will bear comparison with anything shown in the West. A noteworthy, even notorious example is the sequence of advertisements produced in 1994 for the now-defunct MMM, which featured the fictional Lionia Golubkov and his "family". The rapid growth of advertising has led to widespread allegations of corruption, particularly in connection with Ostankino/ORT, and the murkier side of Russian television received prominence in March 1995 with the still unsolved murder of Vladislav List'ev, originator and presenter of several popular programmes and Director-General-designate of ORT.

Commercial pressures have not entirely succeeded in supplanting political pressures, though the latter are incomparably subtler than in Soviet times. Nevertheless, in both areas the long-established Soviet practice of "telephone law" (whereby a person in power uses that instrument to convey his or her wishes/instructions) continues to prevail. Ostankino and its successor ORT have had a reputation for being "pro-presidential", but this is principally due to the perceived slant of their news coverage. Indeed, certain programmes produced for these channels by independent production companies have been accused, somewhat contradictorily, of giving opponents of the President too much air time, and it is generally considered that the demagogic nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskii largely owes his political career to television. In general, state-owned companies (including and perhaps especially ORT) are more likely to come under political pressures, particularly during periods of heightened tension, such as the run-up to elections, while commercial companies retain more freedom of manoeuvre. One of the principal concerns of NTV has been to build up a reputation for independence and lack of bias in its news programmes.

The outside observer can occasionally discern signs of the growth of informal power networks involving politicians and businessmen with media interests, and this development, together with the subtle combination of public and private patronage and political and commercial pressures, suggests that post-Soviet television in Russia may end up following most closely the French or Italian patterns, albeit that there is no evidence that anyone has deliberately set out to achieve this result. If, however, the reaction against all forms of westernisation which became noticeable in the mid-1990s continues, there may well be a partial retreat towards Soviet models, although any "re-sovietisation" of Russian television, with its implied enhancement of the rôle of the state, will inevitably encounter serious financial obstacles. Whatever happens, it is difficult to see how television in Russia can escape the effects of that country's continuing political and economic instability.

-J.A. Dunn


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