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How A Harrowing Family Story Became Russia's Talk-Show Sensation

Maria (left) and Angelina (right) Khachaturyan attend a court hearing in Moscow on June 26, 2019.
Maria (left) and Angelina (right) Khachaturyan attend a court hearing in Moscow on June 26, 2019.

MOSCOW -- Since July 2018, Aurelia Dunduk has often sat under the bright lights of Russian television studios, defending the integrity of her three daughters against a barrage of accusations and an excruciatingly detailed public dissection of her family's history.

That month, investigators say, 17-year-old Maria, 18-year-old Angelina, and 19-year-old Krestina killed their abusive father, Mikhail Khachaturyan, in the living room of their third-floor apartment on Moscow's northern outskirts.

Dunduk, Khachaturyan's estranged ex-partner, who fled his household after years of violence in 2015, has emerged as a key witness in the murder investigation -- and a frequent guest when Russia's raucous TV talk shows turn their attention to a case that has divided Russia and fueled a national discussion about domestic violence.

On air, Dunduk has been accused of prostitution by Khachaturyan's 21-year-old nephew Arsen, undergone lie-detector tests, and watched her 22-year-old son Sergei be physically assaulted by relatives before millions of viewers during a September 2018 filming of prime-time talk show Pust Govoryat (Let Them Talk).

The latest program to tackle the high-profile case was a new talk show hosted by Ksenia Sobchak -- a prominent public figure who has been a journalist, socialite, entrepreneur, and presidential candidate -- that featured Dunduk and relatives of the Khachaturyans as guests in its February 10 premiere on state-owned Channel One.

In interviews promoting Dok-tok, which can be translated as Doc-Talk, Sobchak said the program would be "not about shouts and conflicts in the studio" -- a clear attempt to distance it from Russian talk shows that offer just that -- but about "reflective discussion." To facilitate that discussion, she promised to approach familiar topics in a brand-new way.

"Dok-tok: A new genre that allows us to see deeper," Sobchak said as the first episode, and the first of several devoted to the Khachaturyan case, got under way.

Ksenia Sobchak
Ksenia Sobchak

After two episodes, the main innovation seems to be one that drew negative reviews from some critics: Reconstructions of the alleged abuse by actors in a series of clips made specifically for the show.

Within the first 15 minutes of the opening credits in the premiere, this approach also elicited a seemingly visceral reaction from Dunduk, who sat in the studio and watched an actress playing her teenage self being raped by another playing Mikhail Khachaturyan.

As she turned her face away in apparent disgust, and another studio guest seemed to cringe as he looked on, the cameras zoomed in on Dunduk to project her response onto the screens of thousands of viewers watching at home.

Later, when Dunduk was pressured to acknowledge that Sergei was not fathered by Khachaturyan, Sobchak said that while Dunduk's "disloyalty" and the confusion about the identity of Sergei's father did not justify Khachaturyan's actions, they "explain his behavior."

"Now his abuse toward his daughters sound completely different," Sobchak said at the start of the second episode. "This is no longer madness," she added, but "a clear sense of grievance and bitterness."

'Exploitation Of A Sensation'

The Khachaturyan case has become a mainstay of Russia's talk-show circuit, a family tragedy for which the appetite of viewers -- and that of decision-makers at the main channels, several of them state-run -- has seemed insatiable. Since investigators launched their probe into the killing over 18 months ago, alleged details of Khachaturyan's abuse of his daughters have been leaked to the press in a constant stream.

Anna Kachkayeva, a television critic, called coverage of the case on Russia's prime-time talk shows the "exploitation of a sensation" -- the killing itself, results of DNA analyses, and the various claims about the family's life plastered over the pages of newspapers and TV screens.

The crime became telegenic, Kachkayeva said, because of the emotions, the abuse, the different characters involved, and the tragedy itself. The vast archive of video and photo material found online also provided a trove of information for TV producers to mine -- and, in Sobchak's case, to use for fictional reconstructions of some of the most shocking alleged events.

Presenting the Khachaturyan family story without hysteria, in order to first and foremost bring attention to the topic of domestic violence and the need for a law, has been left to more marginal channels, Kachkayeva said. A sober, long-form documentary on the case was released last year by TV3, a far smaller outlet than Channel One and its primary competitors for viewership.

In teasing the third episode of Dok-tok's discussion of the Khachaturyan case, Sobchak promised "only the facts." But the problem with the show's reconstructions, critics said, is that the facts relating to an ongoing investigation remain disputed.

While a Dok-tok reconstruction showed the three sisters attacking their sleeping father on the night he died, their lawyers maintain that they did not act in concert. Footage from a camera mounted on a landing, which was released by Russia's Investigative Committee, shows Krestina running out of the apartment at around the same time the killing was allegedly taking place.

Kachkayeva is skeptical about the format of Dok-tok and other shows like it. "All of this makes it possible to exploit the topic, creating an endless television drama," she said. "The manufacture of emotions is their main task."

The Khachaturyan case is one of a handful that have put the dire problem of domestic violence in Russia in the spotlight, attracting attention to an issue that activists say has long been virtually ignored.

On January 30, the case took a major turn when prosecutors ordered investigators to drop premeditated murder charges and treat the sisters' alleged actions as self-defense, potentially paving the way for an end to their prosecution. A new analysis of evidence is currently being conducted, after which their lawyers expect a final decision to be made.

Demonstrators rally in support of the Khachaturyan sisters in St. Petersburg in August 2019.
Demonstrators rally in support of the Khachaturyan sisters in St. Petersburg in August 2019.

'Disappointing Debut'

Sobchak's talk-show debut was widely anticipated, in part because she is one of the most famous people in Russia. She is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the late former St. Petersburg mayor who was Vladimir Putin's boss and mentor in the early 1990s, and she ran against Putin in the 2018 presidential election -- a move critics said was aimed to lend legitimacy to the vote in which he secured a fourth term.

The day after the first episode aired, it was panned by critics who described it as yet another sensationalist and superficial offering for Russian viewers. "The promised breakthrough turned into a classic case of disappointment," popular tabloid Komsomolskaya pravda declared.

"Behind every interference in a stranger's life stands someone's heartache," television critic Slava Taroshchina wrote in the newspaper Novaya gazeta. "Attempts to improve the design of the entertainment show format, to identify the source of a problem, to find its trigger, only serve to deepen that heartache."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.