Annals of Russian Hypocrisy: They Gobble Up American Culture!

We’ve heard it from the Russians so many times. They are a nation of erudite, high-class artists, who could never be entertained by anything so mundane as to have originated in an American mind, much less would they ever lower themselves to simply copy such a thing, because they couldn’t come up with anything better themselves. Right?

Well, let’s just see.

The Moscow Times reports that Russia has won a cinema award by copying a famous Hollywood film:

Director Nikita Mikhalkov won a special award at the Venice film festival last weekend for his film “12,” a Chechen-themed remake of Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men.” Mikhalkov’s movie tells of 12 jurors who must decide the fate of a Chechen teenager charged with murdering his stepfather, an officer in the Russian army. Though all but one are convinced of the youth’s guilt, the single skeptical juror forces the others to discuss the case, slowly uncovering their personal stories and the emotional involvement behind their decision. Mikhalkov stressed that “12” was not a commentary on the Kremlin’s policies in Chechnya, although the boy’s story is told through scenes recreating vicious battles between federal troops and separatist guerrillas. “We are not really speaking about Chechnya in this film,” he told reporters Friday. “These people are judging this young boy, but the viewers can see the way in which this boy has grown up and what he had to go through in life.” The film stars Sergei Makovetsky and Sergei Garmash. Mikhalkov, who also stars in “12,” beamed when he was presented with the Special Lion for overall work at the awards ceremony Saturday night. “Grazie, grazie. I want to thank the magnificent Russian artists that worked with me. … Italy has always been very generous to me and I’ll always be very grateful,” he said. Mikhalkov won the Golden Lion in 1991 in Venice for “Urga” and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1994 with “Burnt by the Sun.” The top award Saturday went to director Ang Lee’s spy thriller “Lust, Caution,” while Brian De Palma took the Silver Lion for best director in “Redacted.”

Robert Amsterdam reports that Russians, in a classic display of really amazing hypocrisy, are gobbling up American culture like candy even whilst they haughtily condemn all things American, first citing AV Club:

In a story that suggests that American-style capitalism may end up damaging Russia as much as communism, the Russian version of the wacky ’80s sitcom Perfect Strangers is a big hit in the comedy-starved nation. Originally airing on ABC from 1986 to 1993, Perfect Strangers was about a pair of cousins–nervous Larry (Mark Linn-Baker) and funny foreigner Balki (Bronson Pinchot)–living together in Chicago. The Russian version, which is called Brat’ya po-raznomu (a much funnier title than Perfect Strangers, actually) is about “two guys, one with a Moscow psychology, the other with a provincial outlook,” actor Anton Eldarov told The Hollywood Reporter. “Two ‘grotesque’ types — exactly the same ethos as the U.S. series.” Warner Bros. International Television, which produces Brat’ya po-raznomu, is planning Russian versions of other crappy U.S. sitcoms such as Suddenly Susan, Step by Step and Full House. Quick: What’s the Russian translation for “How rude?”

and then the New York Times:

Turn on the sitcom that is the hottest television show in Russia, and it all seems so familiar. Moored to his living room couch is a shoe salesman who is more interested in watching sports than conjugal relations. His wife has shocking hair and an even more shocking mouth. A couple of ne’er-do-well teenagers round out this bawdy, bickering bunch. In fact, the show is an authorized copy of the American sitcom “Married With Children,” with a Russian cast and dialogue but scripts that hew closely to those of the original. This knockoff is such a sensation, especially among younger viewers, that its actors have become household names, and advertisements for its new season are plastered around Moscow.A drumbeat of anti-Americanism may be coming from the Kremlin these days, but across Russia people are embracing that quintessentially American genre, the television sitcom, not to mention one of its brassiest examples. And curiously enough, it is the Russian government that has effectively brought “Married With Children” to this land, which somehow made it through the latter half of the 20th century without the benefit of the laugh track.

The show’s success says something not only about changing tastes here but also about Russia’s standing. Sitcoms are typically grounded in middle-class life and poke fun at it. The popularity of Russian versions of “Married With Children” and other adaptations of American sitcoms suggests that Russia has gained enough stability and wealth in recent years that these jokes resonate with viewers. “ ‘Married With Children,’ with its satire on the American middle class, fits the style of our channel well,” said Dmitri Troitsky, a senior executive at the Russian channel TNT, a Gazprom-owned network whose programming bent is roughly similar to that of the Fox network in the United States. “It seemed interesting and topical for us to do a parody on the Russian middle class.”

These days, American visitors in Russia could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon some bizarre realm of reruns. Adaptations of two other shows, “Who’s the Boss?” and “The Nanny,” are also popular here. All three programs are distributed by Sony Pictures Television International, which has created versions of them and other American programs around the world, often in partnership with local producers. “The Nanny,” which was first broadcast here in 2004, was such a hit that after running out of episodes to copy, some of the show’s original American writers were commissioned to create 25 more episodes, said Ron Sato, a Sony spokesman.

“Married With Children,” which ran from 1987 to 1997 in the United States, has been renamed “Schastlivy Vmeste,” or “Happy Together.” Its setting has been moved from the Chicago area to Russia’s heartland metropolis of Yekaterinburg. The sniping couple, Al and Peg Bundy, have become Gena and Dasha Bukin. The thrust is the same: sending up family life as outrageously — or as vulgarly, depending upon your point of view — as possible. A typical bit: In the living room, Gena suddenly tells Dasha to take off her clothes. Dasha is elated that Gena finally wants to have sex, and then Gena says, “No, Dasha, I’m simply dying of hunger, and hope that that will take away my appetite.”

Natalya Bulgakova, a spokeswoman for TNT, said the show, which had its debut last year, is now the most popular scripted series among Russians ages 18 to 30. (Older Russians typically roll their eyes at mention of “Schastlivy Vmeste,” as if they briefly wonder whether life under Communism was not so bad after all.) TNT is owned by Gazprom-Media, which is controlled by Gazprom, the Russian national resources behemoth that is controlled by the government. Asked about the show, Gazprom-Media said in a statement that it did not interfere in its stations’ programming decisions.

While even Americans who do not speak Russian could discern the American roots in “Schastlivy Vmeste,” it is fair to say that many Russian viewers might not. But even Russians who do would seem unlikely to be bothered by the show’s origins. Russian television has come a long way from the staid, politically tinged fare of Communist times, and these days there are many channels offering a steady diet of movies, dramas, game shows, soap operas and reality shows — some locally produced, some imported and dubbed. News programs, which are tightly overseen by President Vladimir V. Putin’s administration, are another story. As in Soviet days, they rarely divert from the Kremlin’s point of view. Barbed political satire, which thrived after the fall of the Soviet Union, has been suppressed.

Sitcoms were first broadcast in Russia in the 1990s, when the country was on the brink of economic collapse, but both original sitcoms and copies of American ones achieved poor ratings. People were struggling and seemingly not in the mood for breezy jokes about the lives of the comfortable. Unable to identify with the sitcoms’ characters, Russians instead flocked to dubbed Latin American soap operas.

Only recently, with the economic upturn, has the sitcom taken hold. “This is probably the last television genre to be adopted in Russia,” said Elena Prokhorova, who studies Russian television and is a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia. They did not work before, she said, because “sitcoms require a very stable social life.” The producers and actors of “Schastlivy Vmeste” said that while the Russian scripts followed the outlines of the American ones, they had made changes for a Russian audience, fashioning plots around Russian holidays and using sets that better resemble interiors in Russia. Viktor Loginov, who plays Gena Bukin, looks younger than Ed O’Neill, who played Al Bundy, in part because the show is geared toward younger audiences.

They also insisted that the humor was more Russian. “We try to capture the so-called Russian soul so that it will be accepted by our Russian audience, so the character becomes a guy from the street,” said Mr. Loginov, a classically trained actor. Still, the feel of “Schastlivy Vmeste” seems far more American than Russian. Classic Russian humor tends more toward narrative satire than slapstick. Though “Married With Children” was something of a shock when it first appeared in the United States, provoking advertiser boycotts, two decades later the Russian version has not stirred a similar reaction. Russian television critics note that, as in much of the world, television here has become home for a lot of relatively coarse fare. Daniil B. Dondurei, editor in chief of Cinema Art magazine, said he saw a darker significance in the success of shows like “Schastlivy Vmeste.”

“Today, people are becoming accustomed to not thinking about life,” he said. “The television is training them to not think about which party is in Parliament, about which laws are being passed, about who will be in charge tomorrow. People have become accustomed to living like children, in the family of a very strong and powerful father. Everything is decided for them.”

2 responses to “Annals of Russian Hypocrisy: They Gobble Up American Culture!

  1. guzhy shouts:
    yea, and ‘ugly betty’ in the u.s. was first ‘ni rodis krasivoi’ in russia.
    ‘schastiviye vmeste’ is pretty good, and yea, it’s a direct copy. the only difference is the blubbering but loveable husband in the russian version naturally is a heavy drinker.
    in my humble opinion mikhalkov is a fraud. yea, i know he’s made a few good films, and he loves playing the ‘russki muzhik who’s a brilliant artist’ thing, but he also implicitly and explicity supports a ruling party that’s trying to bury freedom of expression. what kind of artist does that?? in the u.s. he’d be an average actor doing flomax or viagra commercials.

  2. 12 by Mikhalkov is excellent film.

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