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Parfyonov, bathtubs and propaganda

File Photo of Russian Television StudioIf you were trying to sum up most Russian state-run TV to a visitor from Mars, a mix of propaganda and pure entertainment wouldn't be too far off the mark. While the propaganda is almost always boring, it is often balanced with something so light-hearted it verges on the mindless.
File photo of Russian television studio It looks like people who work for TV can turn nearly anything into entertainment. And when it comes to turning history into nostalgia-spiked entertainment, Leonid Parfyonov is the heavyweight champ.

For the last few months, he has been hosting a Channel One show called "Kakiye Nashi Gody" (which loosely translates as "We Are So Old"), a more glamorous and entertaining version of his "Namedni" ("The Other Day"), which aired on NTV in the 1990s and early 2000s and covered the period 1961-2003.

Between the last episode of "Namedni" in 2004 and the start of "Gody" in November, domestic TV has changed a lot. Parfyonov was axed from NTV in 2004 for refusing to accept censorship of his show, which had by then turned into a news/analytical programme. After editing Russian Newsweek, he focused for a while on TV documentaries.

But Parfyonov's light-hearted, slightly detached (or snobbish) attitude towards the country's recent history has remained the same.

Unlike the ascetic "Namedni", which consisted mainly of archive footage, shots of Parfyonov visiting places he was talking about, and talking heads commenting on historic events, the new show is shot in a huge studio imitating a Stalin-era courtyard, with extras imitating a regular dvor crowd and a fancy orchestra playing period tunes on a stage in the corner.

The idea behind the whole thing is apparently different, too. While "Namedni" was an attempt to revisit the recent Soviet past from a fresh, post-Soviet perspective, "Gody" is a search for the most entertaining details of that past, served up attractively for the contemporary viewer.

Parfyonov's co-host, good-looking blonde Tatyana Arno, was most likely hired for entertainment value, too. Dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, or sitting in a bathtub talking about bathrooms in khrushchyovka apartments (no nudity or water involved, though), she certainly does things that Parfyonov wouldn't be able to.

Still, to Parfyonov's credit, while turning history into pure entertainment and avoiding some sensitive subjects, he still preserves a certain rebelliousness. In a recent "Gody" episode, for example, he invited Khimki Forest activist Yevgenia Chirikova to discuss the 1962 uprising in Novocherkassk, which was brutally suppressed by the authorities.

Spoiling the effect, however, the show then switches to a comparison of women's fashion in the 1960s and now. The transition is so quick that most viewers would forget about protests and focus on the entertainment.

In another segment, about a notorious art exhibition at the Manezh, where Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev described abstract paintings as "shit", viewers can see a controversial painting featuring poet Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Putin and Jesus Christ in the background. But this "rebelliousness" is quickly erased by pro-Kremlin commentator Mikhail Leontyev, who comes on to talk about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Parfyonov recently created some buzz with his speech at an awards ceremony, in which he decried the current state of Russian TV. Although his criticism was in many ways accurate, it was still weird to hear it from an insider who has done a lot to create the existing system.

And Parfyonov's new show only proves that he is still part of that system ­ slightly rebellious, but nevertheless perfectly compatible with it.

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