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Russia: New TV Channel To Tend To Country's Spiritual Needs

Patriarch Aleksii II celebrating Christmas Mass in January (file photo) First came patriotic-military television. Then the Kremlin announced a plan to establish a television network to improve Russia's image abroad. Now, Russia's first national Orthodox television channel is due to hit the airwaves this week, to cater to Russia's spiritual needs. Media observers say they detect a clear pattern.

Prague, 26 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Savior channel (Spas, in Russian) is due to begin broadcasting on 28 July.

Initially, only owners of satellite dishes who subscribe to NTV-Plus will be able to watch the programming. But station managers hope to expand to cable and eventually terrestrial broadcasts.

The Soyuz channel in the Sverdlovsk Oblast city of Pervouralsk began broadcasting Orthodox programming at the start of this year. But Savior is the first channel aiming to go nationwide.

The Russian Orthodox Church has long campaigned for its own channel, especially after the military launched its own defense-themed, patriotic TV network, called Star, earlier this year.

Patriarch Aleksii is on record as saying the soul of the country must be nurtured by television programs free of commerce and politics.

It appears he will get his wish -- but only partly. Despite its spiritual mission, the Orthodox channel is a commercial venture, financed with private funds. It will even include commercials, station General Director Aleksandr Batanov told RFE/RL.

"For example, I have on my desk a bottle of Holy Source mineral water [a popular Russian brand that is a joint venture between the Orthodox Church and a commercial company]," Batanov said. "It would probably be the right decision for them to turn to our advertising department. Or let's say, [we would be a good partner for] products that are marketed, above all, as domestic goods. I think there are enough Russian producers to whom we can offer advertising time or offer program sponsorships. For now, we will follow this path."

Batanov says interest on the part of businesspeople who describe themselves as Orthodox believers has been strong.

"These are businesspeople who position themselves as people of faith, people who are Orthodox," Batanov said. "We have held talks with them and they have shown interest in becoming advertisers or sponsors of programs on our channel. We have done the math and we have an idea of how it's going to work out."

Commercials, of course, are only a small -- albeit important -- part of the equation. Station managers say religious programs will make up 40 percent of airtime. The other 60 percent will be taken up by general interest films, documentaries, and talk shows -- all domestic productions of suitable moral content.

Despite assertions that the station will be financed by “Orthodox entrepreneurs” and not the state, journalist Sergei Varshavchik, who has followed the story for the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” told RFE/RL that Savior's plans appear to align perfectly with the Kremlin's.

For years, President Vladimir Putin has spoken of the need to inculcate a new sense of patriotism in Russia's youth. He has fostered close relations with both the military and the Orthodox Church, and often mentions the need to support Russian values and enterprise. Putin may be inspired by Russia's tsarist past, specifically the slogan "Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and National Spirit," which was coined in the early 19th century during the reign of Nicholas I.

Varshavchik said it is hard to believe that the timing of the Savior channel's launch is pure coincidence.

"This all falls under a larger education program that you could call 'Patriotic Education, Orthodoxy, National Spirit,'" he said. "You'll notice that all these channels are not opposition channels, they are not public channels. This is not public television, which has been much discussed. These are all channels approved by the Kremlin."

Varshavchik said the Russian Federation is a country of many faiths, even if Orthodoxy is dominant. He wonders if a channel focusing on all religions, rather than one, might not be more suitable.

"We have a secular and multi-confessional country," he said. "So [if we were going to be fair] we should really have a Muslim channel, a Buddhist one, a Baptist one, a Jewish one, et cetera. Or, we could have a general religion channel to influence this or that."

That, however, does not seem to be a sentiment shared by many Russians, as an informal poll of public opinion conducted by RFE/RL's Russian Service on the streets of Nizhnii Novgorod found this week.

"I think this is needed because many people are forgetting moral values," one young woman said. "People need to be reminded to strive not only for material values but for moral and spiritual ones as well."

"I'm not especially religious," one man said. "But in principle, I'm not opposed. Maybe someone needs it and it will be in demand. I'll have a look and see. If it's quality material, then why not?"

That's something the Kremlin, and prospective advertisers, will be only too glad to hear.

See also:

Patriotic TV Channel Nearing Launch, But Will Anyone Watch?

Here Comes The Sun For Putin's Patriotic Youth