15 January 2009

Putin's pro-natalism meets format television

Close to the end of his second term, the now-former president Vladimir Putin publicly began to emphasize the severity of the demographic crisis in the Russian Federation. The media often describes Putin as the man who had brought short-term stability to that country through oil and gas revenue. Journalists also argue that his main goal is to reclaim the so-called great power status for Russia within the international arena. Yet, as Putin himself had announced, the state's efforts may only be sustained by a healthy population growth. (See my May-06 blog No Children. No Future.)

Instead, the opposite is true. After the collapse of the USSR, millions of ethnic Russians remained in the former Soviet republics - from the Baltic to Kazakhstan. More important, Russia's death rate (in part - a result of alcohol-, tobacco-, and pollution-related factors) significantly exceeds its birth rate. Combined with a Gastarbeiter-migrant flood from the former non-Slavic Soviet territories and beyond, the state became rather alarmed (its seeming lack of effort to repatriate those ethnic Russians notwithstanding).

It is not uncommon for the modern government to be actively involved in promoting pro-natalism, most overtly in an immediate postwar setting. (See Mary Louise Roberts' article "The Dead and the Unborn: French Pronatalism and the Abortion Law of 1920", for example.) A new state may also require a growing population to physically sustain its industry and mentally uphold its ideals. (See David Hoffman's Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941 about state advocacy of strong, patriarchal families in the 1930s.) What, then, was Putin's solution to the Russian demographic crisis?

Most immediately, the now-former president's pro-natalist program involved various types of financial benefits granted to new and future mothers. While critics scoffed at the program's long-term effects, there was a spike in the Russian birth rate last year. Less obviously, the state has been attempting to construct and promote a new Russian identity through various means, including the consolidation of history teaching in schools. (One has to consider that from the mid-1930s and until 1991, Soviet schools taught a curious blend of ethnocultural patriotism and dialectic materialism. By contrast, many texts published in the 1990s went too far in the opposite direction.) Most recently, a plethora of blockbuster films regarding accepted patriotic subjects, including Alexander Nevsky and the Polish invasion of Moscow in 1612, has been released.

Yet, I wondered whether the state would use mass cultural methodology to address the subject of children more directly. And, it did!

While post-Soviet Russian television had borrowed much from its North American counterpart, including the proliferation of reality content, it also exhibits certain differences. For example, one of the most popular types of content to broadcast is a series, which is essentially an extended film with no possibility of a sequel. This format ranges from as few as four to as many as sixteen episodes. Expectedly, all such series are driven by plot and advertising alike. Here, Russia's "serious" film actors and A-list celebrities frequently play major roles. So, their star power combined with exciting, unrealistic plots, is capable of attracting a wide audience.

One such four-part series is Atonement - Starting All Over. Marta. (Искупление - Начать сначала. Марта.) - an over-the-top, sappy "chick-flick". Maria Poroshina (known to the North American audiences through her role in Night Watch and Day Watch) plays Marta. An attractive, successful forty-something, this woman evaluates her life: she recalls that success did not come easily: abandoned by her husband, she spent years in poverty. One of the ways in which she had earned money was through...........surrogate motherhood. Not once. Not twice. THREE TIMES: repopulating the early post-communist Russia one surrogate baby at a time.

Throughout the series, Marta and her best friend debate the pros and cons of being a surrogate mother and have endless discussions about the biological gift of motherhood and the joy of raising children. She searches for the three that she had once carried to term for other parents and tries to have a baby of her own. Most important, Marta reconnects with the prince charming from her past, who uses martial art skills (!) he evidently picked up in Soviet-era Afghanistan (!) to teach the bad guys a lesson or two (or THREE?!). The ending is, of course, very happy.

This particularly terrible example of Russian format television was created by a Russo-Ukrainian production and distribution company, Star Media. One of its major partners is Russia's most prominent state-owned television, the First Channel. The connection between such exaggerated case of pro-natalism is not only conceivable but also - likely.

Whether this type of mass cultural propaganda ends up contributing to the aversion of a demographic catastrophe remains to be seen. I just hope that the Russian state's next effort involves a better screen play.