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 …

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