Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
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Towering inferno

By Shohdy Naguib

Ostankino television tower resembles a syringe and is familiarly referred to by Muscovites as "The Syringe." By extension, this metaphor is commonly used to describe people's addiction to a certain mixture of psychotronic programming applied by tele-injection. As such, starting from the early 1990s, Russia's population has undergone a prolonged treatment with a drug that has not brought it relief, but on the contrary, has had many adverse effects on the health of society. Opinions would vary as to the gravity of the malaise or the subtle motives of the programmers, yet by common consent, the tower stands for brainwashing and fragrant corruption.

Built in 1967 -- at that time it was the tallest building in the world -- it has since remained Europe's highest (533 metres). A snapshot with the "raising rocket" monument -- honouring the USSR's achievements in the exploration of the outer space -- in the foreground and the Ostankino tower behind it is an often met memorable image of glory of the Socialist state and its myth. It is by far an Olympic achievement for the Soviets as it dates to that period in history when the communists rather optimistically devoted themselves to the task of "catching up with and leaving America behind" -- a lost race, which is viewed by some as the one big mistake, that logically prepared the nation for the Perestroika farce.

The Ostankino tower is in itself a multidimensional symbol, hence when it caught fire, the tower at once became "a symbol multiplied by itself" -- as one Russian journalist put it -- one that has many different interpretations. An array of these would be useful for a group psychoanalysis, while the unprecedented four days of total television blackout in one of the world's most populous cities has been a perfect opportunity to assert the power of the media's grip on the public awareness.

The tragic events that came before the Ostankino fire became a blur and lost their urgency once the "nasty box" went blank. It appears that TV is the most powerful image-generating tool that none of the alternative media is able to rival. The absence of newsreels in the capital, where all the political life and media are amassed, has itself become the top news, even the blasts and fighting in Chechnya were suddenly a far-away and dim issue.

Contrary to the grim expectations, the main channels made their comeback in Moscow on the fourth day after the Ostankino fire, albeit barely visible in some parts of the city. The two government-owned channels came out in a "coupled mode," sharing the same bandwidth for a while until further repairs made it possible to separate them. Both of them showed news and favourite soap operas: "basic ration." An elderly woman was repeatedly shown by both channels in a caption, her words being routinely attributed to all the babushkas (grandmothers), who are usually regarded as the country's most active electorate. She said something like: "An emptiness has come into life, news and soaps are badly lacking."

Obviously, Moscow did not experience information shortage during these days. Anyone could easily find what was needed in the alternative media: radio, newspapers and the Internet. Only the quality of information was different: less imposing and relatively free from excessive emotional dribble. The burning of the tower clearly demonstrated the fact that TV remains a tool for exerting political pressure rather than information media. Not that this fact was hidden before, but the developments that followed made it easily perceived.

The Internet news sites traffic surged, print media sales went up, videotapes sold better. People enjoyed the amazingly pleasant weather that reigned in and around the capital for a whole week; they spent more time outdoors and socialising. Suddenly it was like the old times, when Muscovites would stroll by the evening streets talking, murmuring and laughing, when a far away sound of accordion would set an emotional key for a whole neighbourhood and people were much closer to each other as they hugged and grouped in the chill of the night. That was the "age of innocence," before the freezing winds of capitalism blew, bringing about insatiable greed, violence, separation and distrust. Then, in the course of the "initial accumulation of capital," all of a sudden it became scary to walk the streets after sunset, the armed doors became a must, while the TV menu was becoming increasingly exciting.

The advance of pluralism brought about a great variety of entertainment programmes and a whole new world of different points of views, some of which were truly bizarre and deserve to be categorised as social experiments on a huge scale. Such were the sessions of parapsychology conducted by Kashperovsky, during which millions of people claimed they were cured of various malaises by simply watching the man and listening to his soothing voice.

Watching the fire from my window, while browsing the news sites and chatting with my online Moscow friends, I asked them the same question: "How does it feel to be without tower?" (in modern Russian slang "tower" also means "head, reason"). Invariably the answer contained assurances that the person is not watching TV at all, which is also true about myself. A review of the discussion forums in the wake of the fire shows profound disgust with the television coverage of the relatives mourning the drowned submarine crew; praises to the Almighty for the Heavenly judgement being done; curses for the journalists whose whining brought down the USSR; calls for doing away with the TV-sets for the sake of peace of mind and soul, etc.... Not a word of defence for the media people apart from the debasing excuse of their dirty deeds done for the sake of improving their material situation. People do not trust the mass media as a whole and television is foremost of them all.

Ironically, during the summer months, Russian viewers witnessed unusual advertisements of books by a best-selling contemporary writer Victor Pelevin whose fiction has had a great impact on the minds of the "cyber-generation." Inserted amongst the customary detergents and sanitary towels hokum the short ads left many of us in disbelief. Pelevin's last novel "Generation P" has the famous picture of Che Guevara on its cover and explores the dark world of advertisement business, marketing and media manipulation. It contains an essay written in the great revolutionary's spirit and is truly worthy of Che. Describing the state of modern man, the essay introduces the concept of two types of objects: the first type is the one the people have always known (like a TV-set switched off) and the second type is the one we have come to know only recently (a TV-set switched on). The tremendous difference that separates the two is that the viewer's awareness is being manipulated by the camera crew and the post-production thus being drawn into an illusionary reality. Now, according to the Buddhist philosophy, our separate existence is itself just an illusion, which can be properly dealt with using the age-old spiritual exercises. However, what can be said of an illusionary being which is immersed in another illusion? A double illusion! Its fate is truly lamentable, that of an empty glove. What can be done in this horrible situation? Watching TV upside-down or simply using it as a radio may help.

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