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Chaplygin Street Blues

Alexander Nevzorov is the Soviet empire’s video warrior. An ex–movie stuntman, Nevzorov hosts 600 Seconds, an immensely popular program on Leningrad television that features gruesome true-crime stories and propaganda in the service of the Mother-land. Wearing his black leather jacket and trademark sneer, he is equal parts Geraldo Rivera and Leni Riefenstahl. Until recently, 600 Seconds was a semiharmless distraction for hard times, the Soviet equivalent of a few minutes with the New York Post. Now, sadly, it is Nevzorov who has become the televised face of Mikhail Gorbachev’s latest allies in the defense of empire: the army and the KGB. As the semioticians might say, he is the sign of the times.

Nevzorov won huge popularity three years ago by exposing his audience of around 80 million people to the world of corruption and vice. His was the scream in the agitprop cathedral and people loved it. Night after night, as the clock ticked away frantically in the corner of the screen, Nevzorov showed police dragging bulletriddled corpses from the Neva River, cajoled rapists and murderers into live confessions, and exposed the dalliances and secret luxuries of the local Communist party elite. The show’s biggest coup was discovering that the former Leningrad Party chief, Vladimir Solovyov, used his position to finagle for himself a luxurious Mercedes-Benz at the cost of a boxy Soviet Volga. Solovyov promptly lost his Party card. Other Party plutocrats met with similar televised embarrassment. “I’m probably responsible for the heart attacks of about forty apparatchiks,” Nevzorov boasted.

There were also moments of high comedy on 600 Seconds. One night Nevzorov reported that a drunken man in a Leningrad park, while trying to bugger a sheepdog, nearly lost his genitals when the dog spurned the advance and bit. The man later sued the show for “greatly impairing” his sex life. The case was laughed out of court.

Despite his attacks on the Party, few people ever had any illusions that Nevzorov was a knight of liberal reform. He describes himself as a monarchist, and his extraordinary access to the KGB and the police was always a bit suspicious. When Anatoly Sobchak, an urbane law professor who wants to build stock markets and free trade zones in Leningrad, was elected mayor a year ago, Nevzorov made it clear that his contempt was not limited to Communists. He despises the new class of intellectuals under Sobchak who now run the Leningrad City Council, which is known as the Lensoviet. “Democrats with cabbage in their beards,” he calls them.

When I was in Leningrad recently, 600 Seconds showed a tape of a city council liberal frantically combing his bald spot. “So this is the last hope of the city?” Nevzorov sneered in the voice-over. Then, armed with a minicam, Nevzorov and his crew stormed the headquarters of the Movement of Civil Resistance, one of the council’s more radical factions, as if they had uncovered Hitler’s bunker. “The place is a pigsty,” Nevzorov said. Then, in a move that would have earned him an immediate libel suit in the West, he showed file footage of a pile of guns and said, “It’s difficult to imagine how many arms these people have.” There was never any proof that the guns belonged to the movement. But too late. It was time for the next item.

On other nights, Nevzorov has accused Lensoviet deputies of welshing on their alimony payments, wandering drunk through the streets, and conducting shady business deals. And as for Sobchak, “His sole policy is survival at any cost,” Nevzorov said. “If the Germans attacked [Leningrad] again, he’d start learning German just to stay in power.”

After years of endless grain harvest assessments, intermediate Polish lessons, and Boy Meets Harvester Combine movies, Soviet television may have needed Nevzorov badly. He was pugnacious, malicious, and wonderfully crude. He provided a thrillhungry country with a nightly video frisson and his libels were somehow easy, or convenient, to overlook. Even Sobchak tried hard not to mind too much. “Nevzorov is a journalistic cowboy from the Wild West who does what he can to stay in the saddle” is about the worst the mayor would say.

Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to understand what Nevzorov calls “the weapon of television.” Just after Gorbachev came to power in 1985, his adviser Alexander Yakovlev remarked, “The television image is everything.” Especially in such a vast and varied country, television is an unequaled means of information, unification, enculturation. It should be no surprise that a regime in collapse will try to keep its grip on television. It should be no surprise, either, that the tragic symbol of the current swerve to the right is the television tower in Vilnius.

The subversive element in Soviet television did not begin with 600 Seconds. Leonid Parfyonov, the young host of the Sunday news show The Day Before, told me recently with just a little irony that after Andrei Sakharov, the most effective dissident in the 1970s was the official evening news program Vremya (“Time”). “It was only then that people could see how decrepit our leaders were,” Parfyonov said. “They’d watch Brezhnev talking, losing his place in his speeches, mumbling like an old man falling apart, and they began to think: ‘This is the leader of our great state?’ It had never been like that. Stalin was untelevised. He was like some magical eastern god. No one knew that he was a tiny, pock-marked monster. There was no window on Stalin as clear as television.”

For nearly three years, Gorbachev’s omnipresent television image—vigorous, spontaneous, intelligent—was almost enough to sustain a movement. The mere contrast with the gray cardinals of the past created a euphoria that is now becoming hard to remember.

Glasnost on television developed more slowly than in the printed press. One of the reasons Gorbachev was so effective on television, after all, was that his aides were always able to choreograph the evening news. A breakthrough moment came in 1988 with the advent of two shows from Moscow that were relentlessly irreverent: Alexander Molchanov’s monthly talk show, Before and After Midnight, and the magazine program Vzglyad (“View”). Every Friday night, the three young hosts on Vzglyad shattered one totem after another. They interviewed Afghan vets, punks, Orthodox priests, and KGB agents; they showed rock videos; they pushed the limits.

In Leningrad, television was even more exciting, not only with Nevzorov’s 600 Seconds, but also with The Fifth Wheel, a daring, if earnest, magazine show with a distinctly liberal tilt. Produced by a woman named Bella Korkova, The Fifth Wheel at its best had the kind of relentless, floating attention of a Claude Lanzmann or Frederick Wiseman documentary. I remember watching one night as a former executioner from the gulag, now living in a squalid flat, described how he shot his victims. “Show me,” the interviewer said. “Show me how exactly.” And, slowly, the man brought his index finger to the back of the interviewer’s head and said, softly, “Pop!”

Television also helped explode the myth of a unified Kremlin leadership. Boris Yeltsin became a kind of underground legend after he was forced out of the Politburo in 1987. But it was not until the televised Nineteenth Party Congress in June 1988, when he took the podium to attack his rival Yigor Ligachev, that the entire country saw just how divided and how painfully ordinary were the men that ran the country. A year later, at the first session of the Congress of People’s Deputies, television carried “gavel-to-gavel” coverage. The session opened with the tableau of Sakharov speaking fearlessly and Gorbachev listening intently, and it all went on from there. “This was the last euphoric moment of perestroika,” the historian Leonid Batkin said. “It was the moment when what needed to be said was said and it was all on television.”

The days of euphoria are long gone. Nevzorov, like a classic apparatchik, has shifted easily with the times, and what was once a sordid amusement has now become a centerpiece of the Kremlin’s turn toward authoritarian politics. At times, it seems as if Nevzorov’s role in the current move to the right ranks just below the ministerial level.

Ever since Gorbachev abandoned his support of a five-hundred-day radical economic reform program last October, the leadership has taken on a vindictive new face. The KGB, the Communist party, and the army have joined forces with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalist cultural figures to form a powerful front against the proindependence movements in the Baltic states and elsewhere.

Nationalism, a mythic vision of boundless, timeless Mother Russia, has begun to replace the vanishing myths of the revolution and the “bright communist future.” To campaign for the recent referendum on the preservation of a Moscow-controlled union, Gorbachev went on TV and quoted not Lenin but the eleventh-century Kievan prince, Yaroslav the Wise. In Minsk recently, he tapped into centuries-old Russian xenophobia, warning that “foreign research centers” and other ominous sources are helping to foment discord in the country and to “plant” alien ideas. He sneered at the “so-called democrats” who would challenge him. And that is Gorbachev. The minister of defense, Dmitri Yazov, and the KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, are not so restrained.

When troops stormed the television tower in Vilnius last January, killing fourteen people and injuring hundreds more, the Kremlin desperately needed a propaganda voice. This would take some imagination. Such liberal newspapers as Komsomolskaya Pravda and Moscow News were already beginning to print damning reports that jibed with the foreign news accounts read over the Russian-language services of the BBC, Radio Liberty, and Voice of America. In fact, from the moment of the Lithuanian tragedy, Moscow News suddenly became an opposition paper, and its editor, Yegor Yakovlev, and lead columnist, Len Karpinsky, quit the Communist party in despair. The now ultraofficial evening news program Vremya was sufficiently obedient, heaping the blame for the tragedy on the pro-independence movement in Lithuania, but the Kremlin knew that it would have to be more creative than that. Vremya could not carry the burden alone.

Enter Nevzorov. Enter New Age propaganda. The day after the shootings, Nevzorov and a crew drove from Leningrad to Vilnius and quickly shot a ten-minute film called Ours. The result was an extraordinary specimen of the propaganda art that embraced the military as the embattled defenders of empire. Nevzorov called Vytautas Landsbergis’s pro-independence government in Lithuania “fascists” who had “declared war” on the Soviet state. With a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder and snippets of Das Rheingold booming on the soundtrack, he informed his viewers that the dead in Vilnius did not fall from the soldiers’ bullets. No, they died in “car accidents” and from “heart attacks.” Nevzorov never bothered to talk to a single Lithuanian on the air. “I could have shown sweet Lithuanian flags waving in the air, but I didn’t,” he said. This was the army’s show—with production credits to the KGB and the Communist party.

To some degree, Nevzorov’s broadcast, and the endorsement it won from the Kremlin leadership, were as chilling as the events in Vilnius themselves. The Supreme Soviet, with a push from the Kremlin leadership, ordered Nevzorov’s film shown three times on national television. The Communist party daily, Parvda, which for years had suffered the scorn of 600 Seconds, now praised Nevzorov as a “brilliant professional,…an intrepid person.” The paper said Nevzorov’s film was convincing proof that “the responsibility for the deaths of innocent people lies with the chief Lithuanian ‘democrat’—Vytautas Landsbergis.” The echoes of 1968 and Pravda blaming the tragedy of Czechoslovakia on the Czechoslovaks stunned the prodemocracy movement. At a demonstration outside the Kremlin, the placards read, “1968—Prague, 1991—Vilnius, Where Next?” and “Vremya and Nevzorov: Shame!”

The broadcast lost Nevzorov some of his popularity, but it turned him into a crucial political figure of the period that has now become known as “post-perestroika.” His cubicle office on Chaplygin Street in Leningrad has steadily become a political headquarters for local reactionaries. Every day, right-wing members of the Leningrad council and leaders of conservative groups like Motherland and the United Workers Front come to meet with him and see if they can get their grievances aired on 600 Seconds. The office is decorated with a tsarist flag, a bullet-proof vest, and a classic Bolshevik recruitment poster that has been doctored to read: “Have You Killed Any Democrats Today?”

Nevzorov says his alliance with Gorbachev is probably only a temporary “coincidence of positions.” Instead, he feels more at one with the men who carry the hardware, the soldiers who bear the ideals of Peter the Great and Alexander Nevsky. “These are our great Russian defenders,” he said, and then, exasperated, “Look, there is chaos in this country. It’s better to bring in the tanks now when we are not talking about hundreds and thousands of deaths…. A military coup, a military dictatorship, will be around for a while. It’s only logical. If there are no healthy forces in society and everything is headed for chaos, it is only natural that power should be seized by a structure that can maintain authority and order.”

In the days after the Vilnius affair, Nevzorov intensified his nationalist campaign in other short films. In Riga, he hailed the decision of the shadowy “Black Beret” forces to storm the local police station, an incident that left at least five dead. He tirelessly promoted the nascent career of the Soviet Union’s leading military hate-monger, Lieutenant Viktor Alksnis. It was Alksnis, the leader of the conservative Soyuz faction in parliament, who helped to bring down the last liberal Communists in Gorbachev’s circle—Eduard Shevardnadze and Leonid Bakatin. Lately, Alksnis has been busy egging on Gorbachev “to finish the job he started” in Lithuania.

Nevzorov’s tactics are simple. He means to scare the hell out of his viewers, all in the service of the Motherland. If the Baltics become independent, he warns the audience, Leningrad will suddenly be overrun with hundreds of thousands of refugees: “There will be tent cities, hunger, fights, deaths, and with all the weapons we have!” Those who are with him are “ours.” Those who are not are “radical scum.”

Nevzorov denies constant accusations that he is serving the KGB and other obvious masters: “I am completely independent, my own man.” But he also makes no pretense about his loyalties. The KGB and the army “are the only two institutions holding the country together.” The Leningrad newspaper Chas Pik (“Rush Hour”) reported that the Public Committee for the Support and Protection of the TV Program 600 Seconds includes eight directors of large defense enterprises and several key leaders of the Leningrad military-industrial complex. As proof of his connection with the army, Nevzorov brags that Defense Minister Yazov gave him a hunting rifle as a present. His connection with the KGB is more emotional. Nevzorov’s grandfather was a KGB officer—in Lithuania.

They say I am the spitting image of my grandfather. He was a hero, wounded many times, in the line of duty. This is a source of great pride for me,” Nevzorov said. “The KGB is a great group of guys.”

For Nevzorov’s video opponents, the censor’s axe, has fallen. In early December, just as Gorbachev was moving to the right, he made a crucial appointment, installing a career apparatchik, Leonid Kravchenko, to take over Gostelradio, the huge bureaucracy that runs central television. Kravchenko did not wait long to bring television into sync with the ominous times. In January, he barred Vzglyad from broadcasting an interview with two of Shevardnadze’s aides, and the show has never reappeared. In the halls of the Supreme Soviet recently, a reporter asked Kravchenko what he wanted in his broadcasts.

Objectivity,” Kravchenko said.

And who decides what is objective?”

I decide,” he said.

Since then, the censors have been increasingly active. They banned a fiftyminute film on a meeting of Russian liberal intellectuals in Rome. Kravchenko, according to the film’s director, said he objected to the appearance of such émigrés as Vladimir Bukovsky and didn’t care much for the title of the conference itself: “Are We a Great People?” Vremya‘s coverage has become so primly obedient, so Partyline, that it is reminiscent of the programs of a decade ago. yeltsin, after calling for Gorbachev’s resignation in February, now practically has to beg to get on television, and on the eve of the March 17 referendum on the union, Kravchenko rejected the Russian leader’s application to appear on the air. Nevzorov, for his part, is convinced that censorship is fine when the programs in question “demoralize the Motherland.”

Once Vremya reverted to its old ways, the last refuge for independent reporting was the year-old Television News Service, which goes by its Russian acronym, TSN. The night after the violence in Vilnius, one of the anchors, Tatyana Mitkova, was preparing to go on the air with a far more balanced report than had appeared on Vremya. But as she told my colleague at The Washington Post, Michael Dobbs, the censors rushed to the TSN studio just minutes before air-time and cut twelve pages out of her script and rewrote it to match the official line. Mitkova refused to appear on the air, and a standin announcer had to read the doctored report instead. On another broadcast about Lithuania, Mitkova looked into the camera and said angrily, “That is all I am permitted to report.” Her audience, accustomed to reading hints after decades of practice, understood her all too well.

As the returns from the referendum came in, the inevitable happened. Kravchenko fired Mitkova and two others, replacing them with more pliant anchors. The last straw came when the censors cut a TSN script—including a report on Yeltsin—by 80 percent, and the host refused to go on the air. Now Kravchenko is threatening to suppress a new independent Russian republic television station that is scheduled to begin operations in April. The producers of The Fifth Wheel in Leningrad are also feeling the pressure. “They haven’t strangled us yet,” said one of the show’s hosts, Viktor Pravdiuk, “but their fingers are tightening around our throats.”

March 28, 1991

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