By Andrei Babitsky (editor-in-chief, Prague Watchdog)
Even the less discriminating viewer cannot help having one or two problems when watching Russia’s NTV television channel. In the end, the problems lie not in the ideas that guide the program-makers – there is, after all, a plethora of obscurantism of all kinds to be found on practically all the Russian channels now – but in the fact that NTV has managed to become the undisputed, invincible leader in the field of sheer unbridled nastiness, by the use of methods which reduce all reality and human motivation to biological needs.
Re the obscurantism: in contrast to channels like ORT and RTR, on NTV it is quite possible to encounter unexpected flashes of the democratic line favoured by the station’s former editors who were sacked by Vladimir Putin. But the lack of balance, the sensationalism, the absence of any aesthetic or ethical restrictions give a distinct advantage to the creators of this remarkable form of television: if a reactionary approach to a problem is required, the genre can plumb purple depths of a kind that that shatter all the taboos of polite society
On October 31 we were shown I Will Answer for Everything, a film about Colonel Budanov, the man convicted of murdering a Chechen girl. The idea underlying the film – of Budanov as a hero of the Chechen war – was clear enough. That, after all, is how many people in Russia think of him. One also needs to remember, however, that this section of Russian public opinion idealizes Budanov and believes that the murder of any Chechen at all is a forgivable and even necessary act. The makers of the film seek to appear to their viewers in a different capacity – that of objective, disinterested observers who adhere to the normal, decent rules of human morality. They therefore raise the inevitable question of whether the Colonel feels any remorse for what he did. Throughout the film he insists that if there had been any chance for him to erase the murder from his biography, to make amends for the harm he caused, he would have taken it. But then, several times, he adds that all the sins of others have been unloaded onto him, and that he does not intend to carry that burden. It is clear that in this case the remorse is only a declaration: the murderer who experiences the crime he has committed as an existential nightmare is ready to accept universal ignominy because that is how the meaning of what he has done reveals itself to him. As the film progresses, the theme of repentance gradually gives way to one of triumphant heroism, which grows in a crescendo. We see Budanov at his training school, where he is greeted by his fellow students, he fires a gun with both hands. "That’s the way he’s used to," a journalist explains. The Colonel climbs into the driver’s seat of a tank and complains that the vehicle is not up to standard. The tank roars off on its way. The paratroopers whose lives he saved by going against orders, taking his regiment to the scene of the battle and getting them out of a tricky situation, thank him as they take a walk with him along a quiet avenue. Attention is given to the Colonel’s present circumstances: he is unable to find a permanent job, and is already on his thirteenth temporary one. His wife expresses her unshakable faith in her husband and his cause.
There is not much about the murder of Elza Kungayeva in the film. Budanov rode into the village, captured her, killed her in a trailer. On camera, he is unable to remember the circumstances, the episode is shrouded in the darkness of temporary insanity. The dead girl’s father is allowed to say a few words about what a pleasant house the Norwegian authorities have given his family. Not a word about the charge of rape, backed up by evidence during the trial but not followed by prosecution, about Budanov’s unrestrained drunkenness, the beatings he inflicted on his subordinates. Only a sequence of snapshots: Budanov at his father’s grave, Budanov in a circle of friends, Budanov wearing army combat uniform for the first time after nine years in prison.
I am familiar with Budanov’s case and am aware that the film excludes a large amount of damning material that was gathered by the investigators. The idea behind the film – never directly put forward, but always present in the background – is that this is a killer who was right.
Last Saturday there was another film, about terrorists. I don’t even recall its title. Its message was that certain forces – read Western countries – are blowing up Russia in an attempt to change the geopolitical map of the world. All of it primitive, Soviet-style, but not even propaganda, just information garbage flavoured here and there with a semblance of ideas.
NTV is a kaleidoscope of animal energy and invented characters. Stars, someone getting worked up, puffing out his chest, taking to drink, getting stuck with the treachery of friends and relatives. Gangsters, millionaires, cops, hookers, midgets, freaks. I don’t know how Vladimir Kulistikov, a man with whom I worked at Radio Liberty for many years and who created NTV as it is today, can live in a world where a human being resembles an organism that is intended solely to consume, equivalent to a digestive system and a vague sexual energy. But perhaps Kulistikov doesn’t live in that world, and his task is simply to reveal it to us, the viewers.
(Translation by DM)