- Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire That Lost the Cultural Cold War
The title of this book suggests that its focus is going to be Soviet television, but that would be only partly true. Here “prime time” refers not to the heaviest viewing hours in front of the tube but instead to the decades immediately following the death of Joseph Stalin, specifically the 1950s to the 1970s. This period saw the creation of a Soviet “media empire” that included not only television but also motion pictures and radio, all of which represent the major emphases of the book. According to Kristin Roth-Ey, these media underwent enormous expansion during Khrushchev’s “thaw” and its immediate aftermath. They sought at one and the same time to raise the cultural level of the population while inculcating in it true Soviet values. These artistic and ideological aims, however, were not necessarily shared by their audience, whose numbers grew as dramatically as the media they patronized but whose tastes often ran in a more bourgeois and certainly less high-minded [End Page 88] direction. In other words, the Soviet audience expressed a preference for the “masscult” of the West that Soviet authorities condemned but often found themselves having to make their peace with, either through limited importation or outright emulation. Thus the Soviet Union lost the cultural Cold War.
In two sizable chapters on the film industry, Roth-Ey notes that, in addition to the increase in production and infrastructure, Soviet cinema internationalized itself in unprecedented ways. The Soviets participated in film festivals around the world and sponsored their own in Moscow and many other cities. Moreover, their films often earned global honors, thus affirming their place in the pantheon of “Soviet cinema-art,” to which all serious directors aspired. By contrast, Soviet audiences preferred entertainment to edification, often plunking down their rubles for crowd-pleasers from abroad, especially India. To remain competitive, Soviet filmmakers had no choice but to hold their noses and copy the foreign imports. Likewise, while the star system was anathema to a society that officially valued heroic character over individual glamour, Soviet moviegoers loved their stars no less than Americans. Picture postcards of screen performers were all the rage during the golden age of Soviet moviegoing, and Soviet Screen became one of the most popular and widely published magazines in the country.
A relatively brief chapter on radio concentrates on foreign broadcasts to the USSR. As with cinema, the growth of radio reflected the regime’s commitment to cultural uplift. The fact that, especially after the Second World War, Soviet listeners were increasingly able to access a variety of signals from abroad ranging from Voice of America to Vatican Radio was an unintended consequence. In the author’s view, foreign broadcasting introduced the Soviet populace to new models for media. The authorities’ efforts at jamming foreign broadcasts were expensive and self-defeating to the point of blocking out their own signals. Trying eventually to provide some of the information and popular music that made Western broadcasts so appealing, they developed pale imitations that made homegrown radio look even feebler than it already was.
Soviet television receives the same considerable attention accorded cinema by the author, and it may be the freshest and most interesting part of the book. This is appropriate given Roth-Ey’s conclusion that Soviet television “proved in the end to be the dominant face of Soviet culture in the media age” (280). Like the movies and radio, television had strong state support from its inception, and Soviet audiences were quick to embrace it. Party and cultural elites, however, initially regarded television not as art but instead as byt, that is, everyday life. It took a cohort of “TV enthusiasts” to see the potential in the medium and begin shaping it as an antidote to Stalinist [End Page 89] bombast and fakery. In their hands, Soviet television offered viewers worthy individuals who modeled personal...