This article in the London Review of Books by television executive Peter Pomerantsev explores the challenges of corruption in the entertainment business as well as various reasons why attempts to adapt Western reality TV programs for a Russian audience never really worked out.
The fundamental premise for most Western reality shows is what people in the industry call ‘aspirational’: someone works hard and is rewarded with a wonderful new life. The shows celebrate the outstanding individual, the bright extrovert. For the Russian version of The Apprentice, Vladimir Potanin, a metals oligarch worth more than $10 billion, was recruited to be the boss choosing between the candidates competing for the dream job. Potanin goaded, teased and tortured the candidates as they went through increasingly difficult challenges. The show looked great, the stories and dramas all worked, but there was a problem: no one in Russia believed in the rules. The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as blat – ‘connections’. Russian society isn’t much interested in the hard-working, brilliant young business mind. Everyone knows where that type ends up: in jail like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or in exile like the mobile phone billionaire Yevgeny Chichvarkin. Today’s Russia rewards the man who operates from the shadows, the grey apparatchik, the master of the politique de couloir – the man like Putin. Promotion in such a system comes from knowing how to debase yourself, how to suck up and serve your master, how to be what the Russians call a holop, a ‘toady’. Bright and extrovert and aspirational? Not if you want success. The shows that did work were based on a quite different set of principles. By far the biggest success was Posledny Geroi (‘The Last Hero’), a version of Survivor, a show based on humiliation and hardship. This chimed in Russia – a country where being bullied by the authorities is the norm.