‘The Soviet Era Now Seems Much More Peaceful...’
Interview with Kirill Nabutov
October 23, 2023
  • Kirill Nabutov
    Soviet and Russian sports commentator, TV presenter, journalist, producer
  • Aleksei Medved
Russian journalist Kirill Nabutov talks about his work on television, compares censorship in the Soviet era and today and discusses politics in sports, in particular the current situation for Russian athletes and the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee from the IOC.
You began your television career at the turn of the 70s-80s on Soviet TV. How is modern Russian TV similar to Soviet TV and how is it different?

I started out in television more than 40 years ago. In the technological sense, Soviet and modern Russian TV are two different worlds. Three generations are now behind us.

But today Russian society is again, as in Soviet times, dealing with propaganda, albeit more aggressive and militant. The Soviet era now seems much more peaceful versus today.

Still, I graduated from university in June 1979, a few months earlier I had begun working at Leningrad Television, and in December Soviet troops were going into Afghanistan. It was from that moment that something began to change in society: not very noticeably, not in the public space, but in people’s conversations, in their heads.

How has the situation changed in editorial offices? I worked briefly in TV in 2019-20, where I witnessed the potent dictates of the bosses, as well as the bans on covering certain news. Was there anything like that when you worked in TV?

This is already the era of “corporate Orthodox Chekism.” In our time, everything was a little different. It would never have occurred to anyone to do a report on Solzhenitsyn or talk about Sakharov. It was forbidden to name the athletes representing the Zenit Leningrad Sports Society. Because Zenit was a sports society of defense enterprises. Accordingly, if we had said that an archer representing Zenit Leningrad won the Soviet championship, then this would have meant that there were defense enterprises in Leningrad. You had to say that the archer representing the regional council of the Zenit Society had won. Meaning that somewhere in Leningrad Region there is a defense enterprise, but not in Leningrad. It was quite comical censorship.
In other words, back then there was censorship, but perhaps it was not so militant, publicly aggressive or commercialized. Indeed, there was no commercialism at all...
Telecourier, a Saturday evening program that aired on Leningrad TV and then St Petersburg TV.
Source: Livejournal
Can the late 80s and early 90s be called a golden age for Russian television?

I think so. From 1987 to 1992 was the most colorful and fruitful period. It stood in stark contrast to what we had seen before.

Indeed, the TV programs Musical Ring and Telecourier appeared, in which you were involved...

... and also Before and After Midnight by Volodya Molchanov, Vzglyad, 600 Seconds (Alexander Nevzorov), and Musical Ring and Telecourier, which you mentioned, the idea for which was proposed by probably the most brilliant creator on Soviet TV, Vladimir Maksimov. And, of course, Adam’s Apple, the first TV program for men in the USSR.

Let’s move on to your documentary work: how did your work on documentary series, films and programs begin?

The first such big project was The History of One Shot (you can watch it on my Youtube channel Nabutovy, where we post individual episodes bit by bit). It was autumn 1997. At that time, I started to get very interested in history, genealogy, dig up information on my ancestors, and I watched history programs made by St Petersburg TV. But the history broadcasts were terribly out of date.

I suggested that historian Lev Lurye make a series of programs to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the October coup. At the same time, they began to look for a presenter – and again many were not up to it. I had to do it. This is how I got involved with history.

At that time, NTV was actively taking up the topic. They released a lot of documentaries with Yevgeny Kiselyov and Leonid Parfyonov, who were walking back and forth across the frame. That was the “American style.” The country had seen people walking around the frame for the first time in 1978.

At that time, they showed an American documentary series in which Soviet directors took part – I remember Roman Karmen – called The Unknown War. In the Soviet Union, it was shown as The Great Patriotic War. The host was the legendary Burt Lancaster, and it was he who walked back and forth. He recited a memorized text but did it so organically that it seemed that he had seen all the fronts of all the wars of the world.

In the 2010s, you made films related to the history of World War II, namely Secrets of the Finnish War, The Siege of Leningrad and Blokadniki. What stories struck you personally?

The stories told by eyewitnesses and participants in the events of those years.
It was not people just playing the role of veterans like today. There are almost no real veterans left, but back then we found a lot, and their stories were heartbreaking.
One story went into the film Blokadniki. Our heroine Irina Borisovna Bogdanova spoke about the end of winter 1942 in Leningrad. It was the terrible first winter of the Blockade, when a huge number of people died in their own apartments. Many were so weak that they could not move and died from hunger, immobility or cold. Detachments of Komsomol girls were organized to regularly check Leningrad apartments. They walked around the apartments and looked to see if anyone was alive or if there were corpses.

In one of the apartments on the Petrograd Side, she, then seven years old, was discovered by such a detachment. She was sitting next to the bodies of her grandmother and mother. She had sat there for several days... They saved her. Later, she was put in an orphanage, grew up, lived a good life and is still alive.

During filming, we brought her to the apartment where she had been found. Some very nice young ladies lived there, they invited us in and welcomingly hosted us. We were filming, and Irina Borisovna was describing how the apartment had been arranged and where everything had been. I asked her where she had been sitting when she was found next to the bodies of her relatives. She turned and whispered to me: “I can’t show it, because the owners still have to live here.” I think we even inserted this phrase into the film.

Did channels order your films, or was this a personal initiative of you and your company?

It happened both ways. The television world is a market. On the one hand, there are representatives of TV channels and platforms. On the other hand, there are producers who work in the free market, and everyone knows each other. And either the channel contacts the producer or, conversely, you contact the channel and pitch something to collaborate on. Afterward, negotiations begin about what the product will be, how much it will cost and whether sponsors will have to be brought in. In the end, you agree on the amount [of money] and shoot the film.
Over the past 15 years, pressure from censorship has steadily increased – we won’t touch this, we don’t say that. Now, we must emphasize the role of the Orthodox Church and the KGB, and the Cheka of course, and the NKVD, how wonderful they all were.
Basically: “don’t criticize the priests, don’t criticize the Chekists.”

So, you can make a great film and spend money, time and effort, and then they can tell you that “it is not suitable stylistically,” but so be it, they will air it at night and pay you six kopecks, while you spent 600 rubles. It’s good that today, thanks to the Internet, you can promote things yourself.
Olympic figure skating champion Kamila Valieva. Source: Wiki Commons
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has suspended the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). Are there any ways left for Russian athletes to participate in the games? And what exactly does a country lose when it is excluded from the games?

Of course, there are ways. In my opinion, in the IOC’s phrasing there is an obvious desire not to cut ties, but rather to delay making a decision. And the messages about neutral status as an option for participation speak to this.

As for the scale of the loss for the country, in my opinion, the Olympics have long ceased to be something special, exceptional, their popularity among the general public is low. Athletes who might have become champions will not get the chance, and they will suffer from non-participation in the Olympics.

In addition, new sports have been added to the program, making the Olympics even more cumbersome and expensive. It will not give a boost to Russia specifically, but the organizers are clearly trying to increase the popularity of the Olympics and expand the audience. For instance, cricket is wildly popular in India and Pakistan, which combined have a population of almost two billion.

What can Russia do in this situation?

Russia today has again chosen tactics similar to those the USSR followed in 1984 when it boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. But whereas Soviet bureaucrats attributed the decision to risks to the safety of athletes, as well as the rise of terrorism and crime in the US, today the reason is supposedly the desire of the West to humiliate Russia.

In addition, in Russia there is a lot of talk about establishing new games with the BRICS countries. But I am sure that the people who are making such statements on behalf of Russian sport understand perfectly well that there is no other international institution that unites all sports like the IOC. In any case, there is no alternative yet, though the IOC, like the UN, is facing a serious crisis.

The second reason why no one wants these hypothetical [BRICS] games is the TV ratings. You can organize competitions with athletes from India, China, Tajikistan and Myanmar, but no one will watch them. Viewers are much more interested in watching Champions League matches and following the best soccer players in the world.

Such conversations began back in 2019 amid the sanctions for doping. Even then, some former Soviet sports bosses began to suggest that Vladimir Putin should create “friendship games” for handpicked countries. We have experience: when in 1984 the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics, our athletes were given a sweet pill called “Friendship-84.” I worked them. I remember tears of resentment in the eyes of some athletes, of my friends. They came from the GDR, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other socialist countries. Many of them would have contended for Olympic gold medals but were forced to compete among themselves at the “Friendship Games.”
Years later in Russia, all Olympic champions were given a lifetime pension by the decree of President Yeltsin. But the winners of Friendship-84 were not. After all, they were not Olympic champions.
Only much later was a special resolution adopted to equate the games. Interestingly, athletes are now promised in advance to be paid Olympic bonuses if they win the BRICS games. Still, the athletes themselves will know that they are not Olympic champions.

How many athletes, in your estimation, have left Russia since the beginning of the war?

I do not know the exact number, but I sense that only a few have left. However, I am not counting athletes who compete in commercial sports and permanently live abroad. For example, hockey and tennis players.

How do you explain the case of Arkady Dvorkovich, who was recently reelected as head of the International Chess Federation? Why is this happening?

It seems to me that Dvorkovich is already outside the system of power [in Russia] and it is hard to levy specific accusations against him. But I want to point out one interesting fact: the Russian athletes who changed their sports citizenship (see Yuriy Marin on this in Russia.Post) are mostly chess players. It is the highest figure across all sports. Dozens. But sports citizenship is not like ordinary citizenship. It is a temporary, compromise move.

How much does it affect athletes, especially in team sports such as soccer, not to have strong opponents to compete with now? After all, all championship tournaments are closed off to Russian teams.

To understand that, athletes need to compete. Sport is unthinkable without competition. Playing against weak teams, you can score 10 goals, but this will not make you great. By the way, note that Alexander Dyukov, the head of Gazpromneft, who is on the UEFA Executive Committee, officially stated that his mandate ends in 2025 and he would regret it if he cannot continue being a representative in UEFA.

Russian sports bureaucrats understand that the country has an interest in staying in all the sports associations it was a member of before the war. Note that as soon as any deputy starts to make statements about going to the Asian Federation (AFC), he is politely pushed aside. Everyone understands the difference between the Asian Federation and UEFA.
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