Mass Culture and the Production of the Capitalist Subject in Post-Communist Russia

Julia Vassilieva & David Neil Bennett. Continuum. Volume 26, Issue 5. 2012.

While Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chavez was hailing George Bush as ‘Comrade’ for instituting ‘communism for the rich’ with his Keynesian bailout of American corporations in October 2008, the post-communist Kremlin was conducting its own debate about the wisdom of U-turns in political economy. The recent so-called ‘meltdown of capitalism’ has hit Russia’s economy as hard as any other. During 2008, the country’s top ten billionaires alone lost an estimated US$150 bn, and by March 2009 the Russian stock market had fallen by nearly 80%, factories were going bust, unemployment was soaring, living standards plummeting, and GDP had slumped by 9.5%. The Russian counterpart of Western debates between Friedmanites and Keynesians over how best to manage the latest ‘crisis of capitalism’ is the struggle currently being played out between two Kremlin cliques: the so-called ‘rational economists’, or liberals, who oppose state rescue packages for big business, and the so-called siloviki or ‘statist patriots’, committed practitioners of capitalism as communism for the rich (a phrase we owe to J. S. Mill). Irrespective of how this political and ideological struggle is played out in Russia (linked, as it is and at the time of writing, to the personal power-struggle between the liberal-affiliated President Medvedev and the siloviki-indebted Prime Minister Putin), there are no reports, as yet, of significant numbers of Russians calling for a second proletarian revolution that might institute communism for the poor. Having entered what has been called (perhaps with a nod to Lyotard) the post-communist condition, Russia appears to have changed its political economy irreversibly and there is no way back from the privatization of national resources and production, the institution of a market economy, and the emergence of a full-blown consumerist culture that began with Gorbachev’s perestroika policy in the 1980s and has since turned Moscow into the home of more billionaires (74 of them) than any other city in the world and into the second largest market (after Dubai) for luxury goods.

While Russian political and economic reforms during the last 25 years have been carefully scrutinized by the West for their successes and failures, much less attention has been paid to the subjective dimension of these reforms. And yet the quantum leap from the docile bodies of the Soviet regime to the self-regulating, entrepreneurial subjects of liberal democracy and the market economy was no less impressive a feat of social engineering than the transition from state-owned to private property and unfettered business competition. During the 1990s, it was widely taken for granted in the West that inside every Soviet citizen was a free-enterprise spirit just waiting for the Soviet state apparatus to collapse in order to escape and declare itself. In this paper we shall argue a different view, offering an analysis of one of the ideological apparatuses of the post-communist condition—a Russian television show—that were mobilized to persuade the population of the world’s largest country to embrace a long-demonized economic and political model.

When it was decided (not by any democratic process of consultation, such as a referendum or election, but by a handful of politicians and economists) to embrace the ‘Western’ model and implement a transition from state socialism to capitalism as quickly as possible in Russia, the task confronting the power-elite was not only how to effect a shift from a governmental or public form of property to a private one, how to supplant a command economy with a market one, or how to move from five-year productivity plans to free-market competition; it was also, in large part, a task of ideological engineering—one of dismantling and reshaping a complexly overdetermined system of values, beliefs, and attitudes. When the Bolsheviks came to power after the October Revolution in 1917 they unleashed an unprecedented propaganda campaign to achieve a comparable aim; in ways that we shall illustrate, the post-communist power-elite has used the mass media for its own project of social engineering, to a degree that has been largely unacknowledged and unexplored both in the West and in Russia itself. This paper argues that mass entertainment was one of the critical means of producing a seismic shift in what the Politburo used to call ‘the Soviet mentality’, preparing it to embrace an unregulated model of capitalism. Whether Russian mass-entertainment itself is a post-Soviet phenomenon remains a moot question. Soviet Socialist Realism (the cultural counterpart of Stalinism’s command economy and five-year productivity plans) was a mass culture without being a medium of popular entertainment. The moralistic cultural production of the Soviet era was heavy with ideological freight but notoriously light on enjoyment: its anti-consumerist ideology was prosecuted with all the earnestness and none of the entertainment-value with which Western mass culture periodically salves its own conscience with anti-consumerist messages. In accordance with Leninist dogma, Soviet propaganda insisted that pleasure should be derived from labour, and it consequently down-played other potential sources of pleasure. The second edition of the Big Soviet Encyclopedia (1950-1958) defined the social role of television accordingly:

In the USSR and other socialist countries, television delivers information about the work of communist and workers’ parties and state structures; it shows the specificities of the socialist way of life; it shapes popular opinion, the ideological, ethical and aesthetic education of the masses, and contributes to the propaganda of the politics of peace. Soviet TV, as an effective means of communist education of workers, plays an important role in the ideological work of the Communist Party of the USSR; it provides an outlet for workers and peasants, industrial specialists, state and party officials, scientists and artists to express their views.

For several decades, then, Soviet television audiences were fed a strict diet of news, propagandist documentaries, and ‘quality TV’, consisting of adaptations of nineteenth-century literary classics or serials devoted to re-enacting World War Two or the October Revolution. In the wake of Gorbachev’s perestroika, the introduction of new formats such as melodrama, soap opera, variety shows, sitcoms, and musical entertainment—ranging from Mexican ‘telenovellas’ to Madonna’s video-clips—amounted to no less than a paradigm shift. Other media underwent similar transformations: instead of such typically Soviet magazines as Working Woman and Peasant Woman there suddenly appeared Russian editions of Cosmopolitan (in 1994), Elle (in 1997), and Vogue (in 1998). The billboards and neon signs illuminating Soviet cities, which for 70-odd years had displayed state slogans such as ‘People and Party are United!’ and ‘Long Live the Communist Party of the USSR!’, were given over to advertisements for Coca-Cola, Snickers, and Chanel. For the most part, this reinvention of mass culture remains critically unexplored within Russia, where the divide between elite and popular culture remains deeply entrenched and academics continue to regard mass culture with suspicion and disdain, having good historical reasons for not joining their post-Birmingham-School Western colleagues in celebrating mass culture as evidence of popular tastes, popular agency, and creativity. Several recent Western studies of Russian popular culture, such as Adele Baker’s (1999) collection Consuming Russia: Popular culture, sex and society Since Gorbachev, Dmitri Shalin’s (1996) Russian culture at the crossroads, Catriona Kelly and David Shepherd’s (1998) Russian cultural studies, and Birgit Beumers’ (2005) Pop culture Russia: Media, arts and lifestyle have all made important, if disparate, contributions to our understanding of the rise of popular culture in Russia; however, in the interests of reconstructing the ‘genealogy’ of that popular culture, they have tended to emphasize the continuities between the Soviet and post-communist eras while underestimating, in our view, the radically different functions for which mass culture was mobilized in the wake of perestroika—in particular, its mobilization for what we are calling the production of the capitalist subject. A case in point is Beumers’ monograph: while it strives to foreground the specifically popular aspects of the Russian culture it canvasses, its analysis replicates some of the biases traditionally exhibited by the Russian intelligentsia toward mass culture, stressing the utility of television, film, and the press as sources of information rather than of entertainment:

With the advent of Gorbachev’s reforms, however, the main interest of people, educated or not, lay with politics and history. For the first time in years they were allowed access to the previously blank pages of Soviet history: they could read previously censored works of literature, watch films that had been shelved, discover hitherto hidden historical facts in documentaries and historical novels. They were able to hear things about their country that they were aware of but that had never been pronounced in the open. The interest of television viewers was first and foremost in the analytical programs about the past and in innovative, live (rather than prerecorded) coverage of current affairs (Beumers 2005, 16).

Thus, Beumers concludes authoritatively, ‘the most important and most popular were the news programs’, and she accordingly devotes the bulk of her chapter on television to a discussion of programmes of political analysis, allocating less than two pages to, for example, TV game shows. However, while news programmes might represent the most important broadcasts for Moscow and St Petersburg intellectuals, who were acutely aware of Soviet practices of censorship and were the main bearers of the ‘hunger for truth’, the vast majority of the Russian population, by the late stage of the socialist phase known as ‘the period of stagnation’, were either ideologically brainwashed or cynically disengaged and depoliticized, much more interested in televised sport than in current affairs. Beumers’ conclusion is not supported by the evidence: during the 1990s it was neither news nor political-analysis programmes but the Mexican telenovella The Rich Also Cry (Los Ricos También Lloran, 1979), first purchased for Russian television in 1992, that topped all the Russian television ratings: every episode was watched by 43% of Moscow’s population, while across the territory of the former USSR the show’s viewers were estimated at approximately 100 million (Kelly 1998, 220).

Our case study is drawn from one of the under-researched and under-appreciated areas of Russian mass culture: adaptations of globally-successful TV formats. We shall be reflecting on how one of the most popular Western game shows, the Wheel of Fortune (Pole Chudes), was introduced to Russia in 1990, and on the role it has played in the production of a post-communist subjectivity. Wheel of Fortune (Pole Chudes) provides an entry into the complex of re-configured cultural and political forces that have been shaping the contours of what has come to be understood as ‘New Russia’; the significance of the Russian appropriation of the show, we suggest, lies in the fact that it became instrumental in training Russian viewers in new market realities such as a money economy, entrepreneurship, business competitiveness, and upward mobility. As Albert Moran (1998, 78) illustrated in his influential monograph Copycat television, transporting a TV format from one national context to another always entails processes of cultural translation and adaptation. We suggest that the adaptation of Wheel of Fortune for Russian television brings into sharp relief how social context, value system, and power balance can all bear on the process of cultural adaptation. We shall be exploring three aspects of the transplantation of Wheel of Fortune to Russia—the production context, the distribution context, and the ‘content’ of the show—demonstrating how they have been intertwined in symptomatic and revealing ways, and offering a detailed analysis of the cultural idioms deployed in the process of the show’s appropriation.

The Russian version of Wheel of Fortune (Pole Chudes) was first broadcast on 25 October 1990 and quickly became recognized as the most successful show on post-communist Russian television, retaining its top rating throughout its now 20-year history. The show’s format is simple, although its modifications of the original American format (first broadcast in 1971) are, as we shall see, symptomatic of the distinctive cultural conditions for which it was adapted. Aired weekly in prime time on Friday nights, the Russian show’s game consists of three rounds with three participants in each: players compete to guess a word or phrase, letter by letter, having spun the wheel of fortune, which resembles an oversized roulette wheel divided into sections with numbers or signs indicating the points to be won or the ‘chance’ or ‘prize’ to be taken, should the contestant correctly guess the required letter or word. The winners of each round ultimately compete for the top prize, which might be a car or a Moscow flat, while other participants leave with smaller prizes, such as white goods or luggage—all prizes being Russian-made (a token of the show’s patriotism and a reflection of the fact that the prizes function as advertising for the brands that donate them to the channel). The producers make a special effort to bring participants from all over Russia, including its most remote territories, courting the broadest possible audience by projecting an image of an ethnically and socially diverse nation.

Having run for two decades, the show has become a key part of Russian mass culture, an inescapable reference point for other game shows and TV programmes in general. Though marketed as ‘pure entertainment’, the Russian show’s distinctive subtitle, ‘The Capital Show’, announces its didactic dimension while its ideological significance is manifest in the multilayered connections the show has forged with the market realities of finance, business, competitiveness, and entrepreneurship in all three of the dimensions that we have distinguished: its production, distribution, and content. While the history of the show is emblematic of the changes involved in ‘capitalizing’ the production and distribution of Soviet TV, its content has been geared to familiarizing Russian viewers with, and grooming them to handle, the new capitalist reality.

Known locally as Pole Chudes, or the Field of Miracles, the Russian adaptation of Wheel of Fortune was a prized project of Channel One and its leading producer, Vlad Listyev. As the main government channel during the Soviet era, Channel One commanded a domestic and international audience of 180 million viewers, though its power rested on more than its geographical reach: for many years it had been an official organ of the Party line, telling the Soviet people not only what to watch but how to live. As such, Channel One was a lucrative prospect when the process of privatization began in Russia and television production became profitable for the first time with the introduction of on-air advertising. At the beginning of the 1990s the channel was still subsidized by the government, which contributed US$150 million to its programme production and broadcasting costs, while advertising was bringing in only about $80 million, which was mainly appropriated by corrupt producers and auctioneers. The revenue-earning potential of the channel was nonetheless enormous. The notorious and now fugitive tycoon, Boris Berezovsky, was the first to realize both the commercial and the political potential of television, ahead of other Russian businessmen. ‘I didn’t expect to make quick money on Channel One,’ Berezovsky recalled in 1996, ‘but I believed that Channel One was an important instrument of political influence. All the events that happened later—in particular, the presidential election of 1996—proved that I was right’ (a reference to the fact that Yeltsin’s election victory, in spite of his growing unpopularity, was engineered by a widely-televised pre-election campaign) (Khlebnikov 2000, 145).

Using his personal connections with Yeltsin, with the President’s family, and with the Kremlin inner circle, Berezovsky launched a powerful bid to privatize the channel. By the end of 1994 he had succeeded: on 30 November, Yeltsin signed a decree permitting the privatization of Channel One, which was instantly renamed Popular Russian Television. The Russian government bought 51% of shares in the station and was responsible for financing its production and broadcasting. Berezovsky personally bought 20% of shares, his companies acquired another 16% but, given his personal influence over Yeltsin, total control of the channel effectively passed to Berezovsky. More impressive still was the fact that Berezovsky had had to invest a mere $320,000 dollars to achieve this. In accordance with the corrupt practice of undervaluing government assets in the process of privatization, the capital assets of the channel were estimated at a mere two million dollars.

Having acquired financial control, Berzovsky needed to take control over the channel’s programming. The only person standing in his way was the creative head of Channel One, the producer of the Russian Wheel of Fortune, Vlad Listyev. There are conflicting accounts of how the relationship between the two unfolded; according to one version, Listyev wanted a fairer and more transparent management of the channel, including a more equitable distribution of its advertising revenue; according to another version, he tried to sell advertising time at a higher price and for greater personal profit (Khlebnikov 2000). On 20 February 1995, Listyev announced that he was ending Berezovsky’s monopoly on advertising revenue and declaring a moratorium until more ethical norms were developed and implemented. On the evening of 1 March, Listyev was killed on the landing in his house on returning from work. His funeral turned into an outpouring of popular grief, but most of the shows he had developed on Channel One survived him, including the Wheel of Fortune. The circumstances of Listyev’s assassination were investigated by the American journalist, Paul Khlebnikov, the Forbes magazine editor who specialized in Russian and Eastern European politics and economics but who primarily investigated murky post-Soviet business dealings and corruption. In September 2000, Khlebnikov published his book, Godfather of the Kremlin: The decline of Russia in the age of gangster capitalism, bringing Berezovsky’s notorious career to light. In July 2004, two months after launching the Russian edition of Forbes (celebrated for its motto, ‘The Capitalist Tool’, and for its lists of American millionaires), Khlebnikov was killed on a Moscow street. The history of Channel One, and of its Wheel of Fortune in particular, thus epitomized the bloody history of the ‘transitional’ period of ‘gangster capitalism’ in Russia. As we shall see, however, the lessons it offered Russians in the ‘capital’ of its subtitle were also tellingly conveyed by the show’s format, selected from among dozens and dozens of available Western game shows for adaptation to Russian television.

What the post-Soviet power-elite had to overhaul was not just the ethical dichotomy between communist and capitalist social models and the Marxian dogma of the dialectical inevitability of the former superseding the latter. After 70 years of painful experimentation, the communist model had to a large degree discredited itself; but there were other dichotomies to be overhauled, such as those between competition and egalitarianism, individualism and communal cooperation, consumerism and spirituality—dichotomies that had a much longer history, and a much more powerful sway over the Russian popular mentality, than 70 years of the Soviet regime had. To adopt Max Weber’s (1930) terms, the spirit of capitalism in Russia had never enjoyed the legitimation that the Protestant ethic had afforded it in Western Europe and North America since the sixteenth century. On the other hand, many of the traditional values of the Orthodox Church—whose influence survived 70 years of state-promulgated atheism before being officially rehabilitated, under Yeltsin, with the state-funded rebuilding of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which the Bolsheviks had destroyed—were seamlessly incorporated into Communist education. For centuries before Bolshevism, Russians had been taught that the interests of Society and State took precedence over the citizen’s interests, that collectivism and solidarity were to be valued above individualism, and hence that economic accumulation, competition, and social inequality were not the natural or inevitable order of things. The much-celebrated ‘Russian Idea’, a major theme of such significant Russian philosophers of the turn of the twentieth century as Vladimir Soloviev (1948) and Nikolai Berdyaev (1947), held that the Western way was inextricably linked with capital and corruption and was to be shunned in the name of a harmonious and egalitarian Russian society invested in spiritual, not material, values. Similar views were promulgated through the fictional protagonists of the Russian literary canon, from Pushkin’s (1965) ‘Miserly Knight’—devoured by greed and destroyed by the power of money—through Dostoevsky’s (1990) Alesha Karamazov—denouncing his attachment to earthly values to save his soul—to Goncharov’s (1954) Oblomov, whose laziness was supposed to epitomize ‘Russianness’ in contrast to the entrepreneurial German spirit of his literary alter-ego, Schultz. The national disdain for venality and materialism reached its culmination in the work of one of the most distinctive voices of the Russian ‘Silver Age’, Marina Tsvetaeva, whose 1922 poem ironically entitled ‘Praise to the Rich’ poignantly foregrounded the Russian intelligentsia’s conviction that concern for money reflected smallness of soul and a reluctance to trust in providence (Tsvetaeva 2008).

Such was the seductive spiritual stereotype of the Russian national character on which the Bolshevik revolution built when it set about dismantling the burgeoning entrepreneurial culture that had been developing (despite that national character) during the late Tsarist era. Attacking the ideology of private property and destroying its material base, the Bolsheviks were eager to conjoin traditional Orthodox attitudes toward wealth and the anti-materialist spirit of Russian philosophy with the anti-consumerist spirit of communism. As Leonid Gozman and Alexander Etkind (1992) have argued, the Soviet socialist system was ‘fundamentally non-economic or even anti-economic’ (and hence ‘deeply anti-marxist’) since its political economy was driven by spiritual and political ideals—‘philosophical notions of man and how he should be’—rather than by economic ones:

That is why it has proved so hard for Gorbachev and his economic advisers to make the transition from the old [socialist] methods to “economic methods of management”; the system they are managing is fundamentally non-economic or even anti-economic. In order to transform it, it is necessary to go far beyond its boundaries into the spiritual realm (87).

It was this challenge—of reconfiguring the spiritual realm in order to transform a non-economic value-system into a materialistic one—that post-communist mass culture took on. The producers of that mass culture forged a number of transitional apparatuses for destabilizing the dichotomies between Russian and Western, collective and individual, spiritual and material, in facilitating the transition from old to new. The Wheel of Fortune, both the trope and the TV show, proved an ideal device for realizing these aims by working though a number of contradictions towards one overriding goal, that of demonstrating the positive value of capital and legitimating consumerism. In this respect, the show’s appropriation for Russian conditions differed from other transnational adaptations. Whereas adaptors of the original American version of the show in other developed Western countries could take for granted an already-established market economy and commensurate forms of self-regulating entrepreneurial subjectivity, in Russia the show was appropriated to help produce those very structures and forms. A 1992 comparative study of US, Danish, German, and Swedish versions of the Wheel of Fortune described it as ‘a game show in which popular participatory and consumerist modes of address compete’, suggesting that this competition between modes of address was played out differently in the respective national adaptations in ways that reflected differences of national culture (Skovmand 1992). The (Danish) researcher found that both the US and the Danish versions manifested a ‘sense of constituency’ (or community) that invited ‘participatory viewing’, whereas the German version lacked that sense ‘and consequently the show relies on its consumerist address and appears primarily as a vehicle of advertising’, while the Swedish version aimed to project a ‘pan-Scandinavian’ sense of constituency but fell short of successfully addressing so heterogeneous an audience and thus ‘comes across as simply a slightly more up-market edition’ of the German, consumerist version (98-9). Moran (1998, 79) reports other symptomatic findings of comparative studies of national TV game show cultures: ‘Pfeffer (1989) contrasts French game shows as celebrations of education and intellect, values that are institutionally dominant in French culture, while American game shows celebrate merchandise and consumerism’, and whereas German shows supposedly stress steely competitiveness, British versions emphasize humour, community, and supportiveness. In Russia, the market for competitive intellectualism or education-as-entertainment was tapped by the quiz show, Chto? Gde? Kogda? (What? Where? When?), which has been televised since 1975, but it was outstripped in the ratings by Wheel of Fortune, despite its producers’ attempts to reinvent it in 1991 (shortly after the Wheel was introduced) as an ‘intellectual casino’ rather than an ‘intellectual club’ by introducing monetary prizes and the slogan: ‘Intellectual casino—the only casino where you can earn money using your own intellect’. The Russian adaptation of Wheel of Fortune differed from other national versions in one key respect: rather than advertising consumer goods as such, it advertised consumerism as a way of life and money as its enabling mechanism. The game show and its commercial breaks mirrored one another, powerfully reinforcing the role of the programme as a means of social constructivism and effectively collapsing the generic boundaries between the game and the advertising: while the game show advocated the value of accumulating money, the advertising explained how to spend it.

Explicit representations of money have played a distinct role in the Russian consumer revolution; as Ekaterina Salnikova (2001, 202) observes in her analysis of newly-introduced techniques of TV advertising in post-communist Russia:

Advertising sought to show what everyone dreamed of seeing and having, and money was its top priority. Money was shown in the clips on any occasion. It was counted, given away, used to make payments, saved, taken out of the safe and put back in, paid to lucky investors who risked their savings with a financial company or commercial bank. Pragmatic Western advertising shows money very rarely, so as not to remind the viewers of the purchase and pragmatic aspects of sales. Showing money in Russia, with its traditional lack of practicality, meant presenting it as a visual image.

The need to boost the image of money in Russia derived from the largely non-monetary character of the Soviet economy, at least as it was experienced by much of the population. The economic stability of the Soviet system depended on its providing just enough to feed the people (up to 80% of the average Soviet family income was spent on food): maintaining shortages of everything was one way of keeping a populace preoccupied and disciplined. As Gozman and Etkind (1992, 92) point out: ‘Enserfed by a residence permit, waiting his turn in a queue for decades, living in medieval conditions, man is completely and totally dependent on those who control the permits, the queues and the housing’. Given the constant shortages of commodities irrespective of consumers’ purchasing-power, there was little point in accumulating money in the Soviet economy: far more important was possessing the right connections to facilitate exchanges of favours or the direct bartering of goods. Indeed, the Soviet reliance on bartering explains one of the most distinctive—and, from the Western point of view, most quaint—features of the Russian Wheel of Fortune, one that attests to the show’s ideological function as a ‘transitional mechanism’ for smoothing the gear-change from communism to a post-Soviet economy and mentality. The Russian adaptation of the show is the only one in the world in which the contestants not only leave with goods but also arrive with them. As if visiting friends and expecting to engage in polite barter with their hosts, participants in the Russian show always bring gifts for its presenter, Leonid Yakubovich, and the show has now accumulated such a quantity and variety of gifts that it has established a Museum of Gifts for storing and displaying items ranging from national costumes to home-made jams. The display of gifts is now fittingly located in one of the pavilions at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, previously known as the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnovo Khozyaystva, or BДHX/VDNKh). While the quantity and diversity of gifts, their characteristic hand-made aesthetic, and their often obscure symbolism might seem puzzling to foreigners, the phenomenon makes perfect sense for Russian audiences, who expect to ‘pay’ for access to the more expensive and otherwise inaccessible consumer goods with items that they have either produced themselves or that are easily accessible in ‘remote’ regions of Russia but which assume an exotic aura in Moscow.

Even more telling than the ritual of gift-giving is the Russian adaptation’s use of the show’s central metaphor and its distinctive cultural resonances in Russia. As a concept in ancient and medieval philosophy, the Rota Fortuna referred to the capricious nature of Fate, but whereas in classical Greece it was used to decorate gambling venues and as a hopeful sign of good fortune in commerce, medieval writers typically focused on its tragic aspect—the misfortune rather than the windfalls that the goddess Fortuna’s random spinning of her wheel could deliver—as a reminder of the mutability and ephemerality of earthly things (Robinson 1946, 210-1). When the trope was appropriated by the American game show in 1971, this tragic aspect was almost entirely eclipsed by consumerist optimism and glamour, but in Russia the wheel remained laden with contradictory connotations, tapping into a number of culturally embedded convictions about the absence of determinism in the economic realm and beyond. Indeed, it was precisely the dual connotations of the Wheel of Fortune—its ominous threat of misfortune as well its promise of miraculous grace, both of which notions were prominent in Russian symbolic space—that enabled the show to be transplanted with great ease to Russia. Among other things, the trope of Fortune’s Wheel allowed for a symbolic rehabilitation of ‘filthy lucre’ by coupling money with what, for Russians, was traditionally a ‘noble’ way of acquiring it: gambling. The Russian adaptation of the show deliberately reinforced the element of chance in the game, in contrast to other countries where producers have attempted to present it as a contest regulated by rules and testing intellect, downplaying the role of randomness in the process. (In Indonesia, the show was banned by the government precisely because it relies on chance rather than being a ‘fair’ game [Moran 1998, x]). Thus, whereas the American version of the game includes two options in addition to the dollar prizes available on the wheel—‘Bankrupt’ and ‘Lose a turn’—and the UK version adds a third option—‘Lose a spin’—the Russian version multiples the elements of chance and gambling by incorporating six possibilities besides the winning of points, possibilities that include such deliberately destabilizing options as ‘Chance’ (which allows a player to make a mobile phone call to a number given by a randomly selected member of the audience whom they can consult about the answer to a question) and ‘Prize’ (if the wheel stops at ‘Prize’, the contestant must decide whether or not to accept an unidentified prize of indeterminate value hidden in a box, and then leave the game, or to accept 750 points and continue playing). By stressing risk and randomness, chance, fate, and gambling, the show provides a means of bringing money as a concept to the forefront of public consciousness while simultaneously ameliorating its negative connotations for Russians, by representing the acquisition of wealth in a ‘good’ way, as sanctioned by centuries-old Russian tradition. As the political analyst Nina Khrushcheva (2006, 15) has observed of post-communist market competition:

Whatever Russian reformers might say, wealth in Russia is far from being perceived as a noble achievement; it is a curse, a misfortune, something to be ashamed of and sorry for.

Culturally, it is forgivable to be wealthy, but only if wealth is brought about in a ‘good way’: by virtue, by divine miracle, by inheritance, even by gambling, as a challenge ‘to test one’s fate.’ The gambler, indeed, is the same as the fool in a fairy tale: shrewder than anyone else, more agile than anyone else. There is a certain logic in fate’s protection of the carefree man: after all, who else would worry about someone like him? And there is a Christian method to support the theory: the last shall be first!

The traditional Russian tendency to believe in notions of fate, providence or luck, rather than to seek rationalistic explanations, was reinforced and exploited by the Soviet system itself. Glossing what they call ‘The Great Secret’, Gozman and Etkind (1992, 92) explain:

Arbitrariness depends on secrecy. The state, holding a monopoly of the distribution of everything from medicines to a place in the grateful memory of our descendants, cannot allow people to understand what is distributed by what rules. The regime continually proclaims the principles of justice and equality and continually infringes them, so any attention to the distribution process by citizens is very dangerous…. The ideal subject of the totalitarian empire should not think about how things are distributed at all. Above all, he should not think about the fact that people work for money with which they can then buy something.

In forging a new culture of consumerism (or consumption as entertainment and self-definition), the Russian elite exploited the same lack of transparency—and the disinclination of ‘the ideal subject of the totalitarian empire [to] think about how things are distributed at all’—on which the Soviet regime had depended. When the elite group of businessmen, later to be known as the oligarchs or kleptocrats, set about establishing a capitalist economy by redistributing state-owned property through privatization, they did so in ways that were largely opaque to the masses whom they dispossessed. In such conditions, the Wheel of Fortune provided a metaphorical explanation of the process of privatization for the general Russian populace. For those whose privileged access to inside information and the right government connections enabled them to appropriate the bulk of the country’s natural resources and industries as personal fortunes, the notion that the nation’s assets were redistributed by chance and not through corrupt, behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, was highly attractive—and it was this same group that gained control of Russia’s television and other mass media.

On the other hand, the 1990s were a time when a New Russian might move from rich-list to hit-list with dizzying speed. During this period of ‘gangster capitalism’, killings became a common way of solving contradictions between various groups, and the Russian adaptation of Wheel of Fortune consequently activated another cluster of local associations, those of ‘Russian roulette’. In the Russian production, the wheel spun in the studio game is called the ‘barrel’, reinforcing the allusion to the infamous game with a revolver—an intertextual reference that carried more than semantic force for the first Russian producer of Wheel of Fortune, Vlad Listyev. The show simultaneously acknowledged the murderous aspect of the emergent Russian business culture while attempting to put a positive spin on it.

In general, the show has succeeded by tacitly acknowledging the pervasive anxieties and fears of the Russian public while simultaneously refuting them, symbolically, by generating an illusion of common participation and sharing in plenitude and wealth. In many ways, the symbolic functions served by Wheel of Fortune in Russia correspond to the role ascribed to popular culture by Fredric Jameson (2007, 40-1) in his essay, ‘Reification and utopia in mass culture’:

Our proposition about the drawing power of the works of mass culture has implied that such works cannot manage anxieties about the social order unless they have first revived them and given them some rudimentary expression; we will now suggest that anxiety and hope are two faces of the same collective consciousness, so that the works of mass culture, even if their function lies in the legitimation of the existing order—or some worse one—cannot do their job without deflecting in the latter’s service the deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collectivity, to which they can therefore, no matter in how distorted a fashion, be found to have given voice.

But the ease with which the show could be plugged into the complex of cultural forces at work in ’90s Russia cannot be explained without an understanding of the nationally-specific cultural idioms that were mobilized in the Russian version. The process of adaptation of the American format mirrored ‘what was to be done’ with the country as a whole: it had to be ‘westernised’, but since the Western model had been repeatedly discredited and demonized during the Soviet era, that model had to be smuggled into the country camouflaged as something that reaffirmed national values. The Russian adaptation of the game is broken up with ‘entertainment numbers’, one of which has attained classic status on YouTube after first being broadcast on the show, encapsulating, par excellence, the ‘nationalizing’ and ‘traditionalizing’ tendencies to which we are referring. This is a song-and-dance number performed by a troupe of heel-stamping singer-musicians of diverse ages and both sexes, dressed in pastiche traditional Russian costumes that allude to both village culture and early twentieth-century city life, and accompanying their singing with balalaika and piano accordion, on a stage incongruously framed by a backdrop of glossy automobile and motorcycle prizes and a foreground dominated by the over-sized, roulette-like wheel of fortune. The troupe performs and sings about a distinctive quadrille that was initially borrowed from the West but reinvented as quintessentially Russian and ostensibly Moscow-born and bred. Connoting humble peasant culture, rural vitality and festivity, and the harmoniously cooperative Family, this kitsch performance (as incongruous to a Western audience as a Morris dance might be in the English version of Wheel of Fortune) implies that the game show that it serves to introduce might also be rooted in Russian folk traditions, or at least is patriotically in tune with such traditions. By emphasizing continuity not change, tradition not modernity, the indigenous not the imported or transnational, and the dance of cooperation rather than competitive individualism, the performance provides an invisible suture between the capitalist values that the Wheel of Fortune promulgates and the traditional Russian national mindset.

No less symptomatic is the national idiom adopted by the Russian producers as the local title of their adaptation of Wheel of FortunePole Chudes, or the Field of Miracles. While the concept of fate has traditionally occupied a key place in Russian culture, the symbol of the wheel of fortune as such was less well-known and the producers replaced the English title with a phrase derived from the film The Golden Key, itself based on an adaptation of Pinocchio by Alexei Tolstoy and renamed Buratino. In this moral fable-cum-adventure story, Buratino is told by his arch enemies (the cat Basilio and the fox Alice) that if he wishes to become rich he should go to a ‘field of miracles in the country of fools’ where, if he buries his money at night, a money-tree will have grown by the next day. The phrase, a field of miracles in the country of fools, was well-known during the Soviet era, though the darker irony of its use as the title of a national game show would have been lost on all but the Russian intelligentsia, who were aware that the lyrics and music of the Buratino song were written by Bulat Okudjava, a rebellious and romantic bard who was a cult figure of the Russian underground culture of the 1960s. The use of the song’s phrase as the game show’s title could thus be seen as an attempt to engage that segment of the Russian population, the intelligentsia, that was traditionally the guardian of spiritual values and potentially capable of producing the most articulate critique of the rapidly spreading materialism and consumerism. (As later developments have shown, however, in the process of shock economic therapy the intelligentsia was quickly reduced to a condition in which daily survival, not cultural critique, became its priority.)

The Russian acculturation or nationalization of the show has also taken several other forms. A broad spectrum of high-profile Russian ‘personalities’, ranging from film directors, actors, singers and comedians to politicians, have been invited to invest their cultural capital in the programme through guest appearances, reaching out to different segments of the populace. Meanwhile, the show’s most dominant personality was strategically reinvented in 1992, following Vlad Listyev’s death, by installing Leonid Yakubovich as its presenter. Prior to producing Pole Chudes, Listyev had built his reputation on politically controversial programmes such as Vzgliad (Look), which reported numerous dysfunctions and civil-rights failures of both the Soviet system and the transitional period of perestroika. (In 1989, for example, Listyev had interviewed Afghan students studying in Russia who criticized the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan, and in the same year he reported a Moscow theatre director’s ‘blasphemous’ suggestion that Lenin’s body should be removed from the Mausoleum in Red Square and laid to rest underground; Vzglyad was banned in 1991 when it tried to report an anti-Soviet demonstration in Vilnius). Listyev’s style, which he carried over to Pole Chudes from his previous TV career, was challenging and argumentative; he had an aura of the maverick and the political activist, which was of limited appeal to Russian audiences (contrary to the received Western view that dissent was wide-spread in Russia at that time). By contrast, his successor Yakubovich was deliberately and conspicuously remote from political issues; avuncular and down-to-earth, his demeanor, vocabulary, and jokes encapsulated another set of characteristic features: ‘Russian’ canniness and practicality. More interested in everyday survival than political struggle, shrewd and sly, he was simultaneously ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘no one’s fool’; as such, he could be seen as a post-communist incarnation of Russian adaptability and survivalism, the personality-traits famously epitomized in Solzhenitsyn’s apolitical peasant character, Ivan Denisovich (though Solzhenitsyn himself proved to be no less disaffected with the post-communist state of affairs in Russia than with the communist one). Yakubovich was thus an ideal choice for presenter of Pole Chudes and his ‘personal charisma’ has defined the tone of the programme for the past 18 years, underwriting its popular appeal as ‘pure entertainment’ while leaving the ‘real politics’ of the show, its promotion of capitalist values and practices, in the deep shadow of the carnivalesque spectacle.

The game format of the programme assumes a special significance in the context of the transitional period in Russia. As Bakhtin (1984) suggests, periods of major social shifts are often accompanied or anticipated by a certain carnivalization of culture, which itself can function as a mechanism of change. The end of the twentieth century—the end of the Soviet era in Russia—proved Bakhtin’s point: the millennial overthrowing of previous restrictions and taboos was also a time of unrestricted playfulness and theatricality in Russia, of wild parties and tireless, extravagant celebrations, and while first-hand experience of these revels may have been confined to the privileged few, they provided a Zeitgeist-defining background-spectacle played daily on television. The ludic Pole Chudes, with its high risk and high stakes, its opulence and gambling, made a significant contribution to this carnivalization of mass culture, as was reflected even at the level of transformations in its mise-en-scène. When the show was first introduced to Russia in 1990, its studio décor was restrained, deferring to the minimalist aesthetic of Soviet-era TV and attesting to the hard economic times (prosperity, even for the power-elite of TV management, was yet to come). The programme was recorded in a small studio decorated with plaster columns and a few three-dimensional geometric shapes on the floor, evidently leftovers from a previous TV production, and the wheel of fortune itself was painted black and white. By the mid-1990s, when the advertising revenue had started to flow in and the programme was proving its money-making potential, the mise-en-scène changed radically: the show was now recorded in an enormous, multi-level studio with an amphitheatre for the audience; the wheel in the foreground became bigger, faster, and brighter, and in the background was a towering display of cars, white goods, and advertising banners. The austere monochrome aesthetic was replaced with an explosion of coloured neon light and the studio began to resemble a luxury shopping mall, or prestige car showroom, laced with a Las Vegas aesthetic. It was consumer paradise, indeed, ‘the wheel of all excesses’, to use Marina Tsvetaeva’s (2008) phrase: a liminal space of infinite promise and dream, a theatrical space where anyone might achieve a magical transformation (from poor to rich) through play.

The transcultural significance of play has been acknowledged and interpreted by a variety of disciplines and theorists, ranging from Huizinga’s (1955) notion of Homo Ludens, grounding human uniqueness not in reason but in play, to Piaget’s (1952) socio-cognitive definition of play as a naturally-occurring mechanism for learning, especially the learning of social skills and role-taking. The symbolic functions of game-playing thus extend well beyond pastime and entertainment, bearing crucially on subject-formation and psychological development. In contrast to other national adaptations of the Wheel, the Russian version includes a large proportion of children in its programmes, not as contestants but as the players’ family members, who are invited to perform in the studio for the audience’s pleasure, to recite a poem, or to dance. It has become established tradition for Pole Chudes‘ adult participants to bring along their children to demonstrate their talents, and clips of such performances now attract hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube. By this device the Russian Wheel of Fortune at once maximizes its market by positioning itself as a family show and addresses its didactic messages about ‘capital’ to the most impressionable segment of its audience, the one still learning about social role-taking. Indeed, the first generation of participants and audience that the Pole Chudes of the 1990s groomed in competitive consumerism, in risk-taking as play and in gambling as the means to wealth, is the current generation of 30-to-40-year-olds who are now occupying key positions in Russian business.

According to a survey entitled ‘Money in our life’, conducted in Russia by the Public Opinion Foundation in 2002:

The overwhelming majority of those interviewed (83%) believe that compared with Soviet times, money plays a far more significant role in contemporary life. The focus group participants note that under socialism people felt easier about money—there was enough for minimal needs and thinking about money was not habitual. In the new economic conditions and with substantial social stratification, you have to constantly think about money: [in the words of one of the St Petersburg respondents,] ‘The market economy we’re building now makes us this way. We say that money is the most important thing for us today’.

The president of the Public Opinion Foundation, Alexander Oslon (2006), makes this point even more poignantly in his article, ‘The spirit of money in Russia: The emergence and might’. Echoing Max Weber’s terms, Oslon argues: ‘From a historical viewpoint, we have grounds to claim that the post-revolutionary era ended by making way for the spirit of money in Russia, which had become for many the way of thought, ideology and even religion’. Not, it must be said, that the triumph of consumerism has been accepted uncritically in Russia itself. In September 2008, Moscow’s intellectual press initiated a debate on the question, ‘What Does it Mean to Lose? The Experience of Perestroika’. The opinions of Russian political analysts ranged from the view that perestroika was essentially a revolution, ‘a serious democratic mobilization’ (Artem Magun), to an understanding of perestroika as a ‘restoration’ marking the ‘defeat of the leftist project’ and coinciding ‘with a wave of conservatism in the West itself’ (Boris Kagarlitsky, in Kagarlitsky and Magun 2008, 2). Despite differences in political orientation, however, the commentators shared the opinion that perestroika ‘ensured the triumph of capital on a previously unprecedented scale’. While the Kremlin’s factions argue over how to save the achievements of capitalism in Russia, then, and the Moscow high-brow press ruminates over exactly when perestroika failed to fulfil its emancipatory promise, we can rest assured that Pole Chudes will go to air as usual next Friday, and that on the following morning Russians around the country will take their weekly savings to the nearest retail outlet in order to fulfil their most important duty as post-communist citizens, the duty of being consumers.