Subject essay: Christine Evans
The most popular Soviet television program of the 1960s was a satirical game show and contest of wits called Club of the Merry and Resourceful, known by its initials in Russian as KVN. First broadcast in April 1961, KVN drew on Soviet traditions of student amateur theater and Odessan Jewish humor. It also aimed to replicate the excitement and emotions of spectator sport–KVN‘s ambitious young producers referred to the show as “intellectual soccer.” The show was organized as a competition between two teams of students, almost exclusively male, from elite technical universities and institutes, who competed in contests of humor, knowledge, and improvisation, before a jury of celebrities and an audience of “fans.” KVN quickly became a national craze, performed throughout the Soviet Union in schools, factory clubs, and rural houses of culture. Famous players and team captains became household names, appearing on other television shows and enjoying lucrative perks from team sponsors. In 1972, although it was still very popular, KVN was canceled.
The show may have been doomed by the expansion of the Soviet television audience in the decade since KVN‘s first broadcast. From 1965 to 1970, the number of television sets per Soviet family doubled, from roughly one set per four families, to one set per two families, with much greater saturation in urban areas. In 1967, Moscow’s Central Television moved into the powerful new Ostankino television center, and began satellite broadcasting. Its signal reached roughly 70% of Soviet territory by 1970. Soviet authorities, accustomed to limiting the distribution of critical and unconventional arts and media to the urban intelligentsia, may have felt KVN‘s satire was not acceptable fare for television’s increasingly provincial and rural audience.
There were practical and political reasons for the show’s demise as well. For years, rumors and press accounts charged that fame and money were corrupting the show’s “merry play.” KVN‘s satire and irreverent student protagonists were also a poor fit for the more repressive political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even after it began to be filmed and edited in advance, rather than broadcast live, KVN did not please the censors. Disillusioned, and subject to tighter limits on what could be said on air, the teams’ young players had become “ungovernable,” according to KVN‘s producers and editors. The arrival, in April 1970, of Sergei Lapin, as the new head of radio and television, likewise doomed the show. Lapin, an ideological hardliner closely allied with the Politburo’s chief propagandist, Mikhail Suslov, was particularly hostile to KVN. Lapin had initiated the removal of prominent Jewish television personalities from the air; he likely objected to KVN‘s distinctly Odessan Jewish style and prominent Jewish players.
KVN returned to the air in 1986, brought back during the years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. (It remains a very popular show among Russians today). It would be easy to see the cancelation and return of KVN as a reflection of larger trends: two eras of reform and experimentation–the early 1960s and the late 1980s–with two decades of repression and cultural stagnation in between. But in fact, experimentation on Central Television never really went away during the 1970s. KVN was gone, but many very popular new game shows were created in the early 1970s.Let’s Go, Girls! (1970) was a kind of Soviet beauty contest, with young bakers, tram drivers, and factory workers competing in professional, housekeeping, and style contests. Its counterpart, Let’s Go, Guys! (1971) featured athletic contests and motorcycle racing. Another extremely popular humor program of the late 1960s, 13 Chairs Pub–set in a Polish bar inhabited by lovably corrupt, shallow, and foolish ne’er-do-wells who wore Dior dresses and sang and danced in Polish, English, and German–was not canceled until 1980, when conflicts between the Polish government and the Solidarity protest movement finally made the show’s exotic setting politically unacceptable. 1976 saw the first broadcast of a quiz show, called What? Where? When?, that focused, like KVN, on intelligentsia youth and was set around a roulette wheel in the Ostankino Television Center’s bar. All of these shows raised, however indirectly, highly politicized questions of ethics, values, and the nature of authority in Soviet society.
KVN‘s cancelation exposed the political risks of television entertainment, but game shows and other popular TV programs also offered solutions to the Soviet state’s Cold War problems. Game shows could direct consumer demand, define Soviet norms of taste, and promote acceptable popular music as an alternative to Western styles. These objectives were especially important during Détente, when the easing of military competition with the United States increased the stakes in soft, cultural arenas. Quiz shows and other entertainments also offered a way to focus on the moral and intellectual superiority of Soviet people, rather than on their standard of living. The imperative to entertain audiences in order to influence them ensured that Central Television’s staff continued to experiment with lively, original, and popular shows and genres throughout the 1970s.