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'Blat' And Blotchy Faces: Life In Russia's Television Industry

Peter Pomerantsev, a former British TV producer who worked in Russia from 2006 to 2010, describes his experiences in Moscow in a comical essay in the "London Review of Books."

Pomerantsev worked for Potemkin Productions (a joint British-Russian venture) and became deeply involved in the Russian television industry. Russia was both the fastest-growing media market in Europe and complex. The Russian television industry was, in his view, beset by corruption and full of propaganda.

Pomerantsev describes the Russian television industry's enthusiasm for reality TV shows:

“The Russians were convinced that the British knew TV’s magic formula: most of television’s most successful formats had been invented in the U.K. ... Potemkin’s plan was to take British shows like 'The Apprentice,' 'Come Dine With Me,' and 'Faking It' and remake them with local talent. It seemed so simple."

Pomerantsev notes the corporate culture of Moscow was different than in London:

“It was a far cry from Soho: no graduates in horn-rimmed glasses snorting coke and eating organic sandwiches here, just the blotchy faces and twinkle-drunk eyes of factory workers, and the tattooed bellies of the long-distance lorry drivers who ferried the sausages and cheese across one-sixth of the world’s mud, ice, and bogs.”

Instead, his office was located in a simple business district.

Pomerantsev describes the building where Potemkin Productions was housed in similarly bleak terms:

“Two flights of narrow stairs at the top of which you were confronted by another black, unmarked metal door. There you rang the bell and an unfriendly voice would come through the intercom: ‘Who are you?’ The question was ridiculous: the guard on the other side of the door could see you on his monitor – he saw you every day. But still he asked and still you answered, waving your passport at where you guessed the spy camera to be. Then came the beep-beep-beep of the door being opened and you were inside Potemkin Productions.”

Of course, business in Russia has long been made difficult by a cruel tax regime, something that Pomerantsev personally encountered while working in Russia:

“Taxes…were just a way for bureaucrats to buy themselves holidays in Thailand. As for the tax police, they were much happier taking bribes than going to the trouble of stealing money that had been paid in the orthodox fashion."

The production company's “taxes” were discussed over tea and biscuits during raids. Such stories reveal why Russia is ranked a dismal 123rd on the 2010 Ease of Doing Business rankings and 154th on the Transparency International rankings of corruption.

Yet Pomerantsev notes reality shows failed to catch on in a Russia where individualism is not celebrated:

"The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as blat – 'connections.' Russian society isn’t much interested in the hard-working, brilliant young business mind. Everyone knows where that type ends up: in jail like Mikhail Khodorkovsky."

Not exactly an inspiring message for Russia’s young entrepreneurs in a country eager to reform.

-- Joseph Hammond

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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