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Screening Socialism

TV in the USSR

Early History

According to Soviet sources, a biologist named P.N. Bakhmet’ev made the first proposals for transmitting television images in 1880 (Dizard1963: 39). Few authors today support this claim.  However, there is more consensus around the role of Boris Rosing, who was the first to use the cathode-ray tube as a receiver, and patented the system in 1907, and transmitted “very crude images” by 1911 (Dizard 1963: 39; Burns 1998: 119; Iurovskii 1998: 55). The first test transmissions in the Soviet Union began in April 1931, albeit with only 30 lines of definition and at 12½ frames a second (Iurovskii 1998: 57). The first experimental broadcasts of still images began later that year, with moving pictures transmitted a year later, and with sound by November 1934 (Paulu 1974: 36; Iurovskii 1998: 58). Soon, there were several dozen television receivers in existence, created by amateurs (Iurovskii 1998: 57). In 1938, the USSR imported American technology, and began test transmissions from the Moscow and Leningrad Television Centres, with regular transmission beginning in March 1939 (mostly consisting of news reports, but occasionally concerts, too) (Paulu 1974: 37; Iurovskii 1998: 59). However, two years later, the war curtailed broadcasts, which did not resume until 1945. (Dizard 1963: 39)

Development of a National Infrastructure

Following the war, the resumption of television broadcasts was not seen as a priority, and only with the reconstruction of the Television Centre in 1948-49 were Central Television broadcasts able to resume in earnest in 1951 (Paulu 1974: 37), with what would later become known as the ‘First Programme’ (Iurovskii 1998: 62). Across the late-1950s and early-1960s, television continued to grow, both in terms of take-up amongst the public (although speed of production of receivers continued to be a problem into the 1960s), and also in terms of the number of stations, which rose from 3 in 1954 to 121 by 1965 (Iurovskii 1998: 65; Roth-Ey 2007: 283, 285). In addition to these, a number of ‘amateur’ stations run by enthusiasts cropped up around the country (mirroring the development of radio, both in the Soviet Union and worldwide), before increased government scrutiny of both the quality and ideological content of such broadcasts brought these experiments to an end in the 1960s (Roth-Ey 2007: 285-288). 

Meanwhile, on an official level, the number of channels broadcasting country-wide increased: a second (Moscow) channel was added in February 1956, a third channel for educational programmes in September 1964, and a fourth in November 1967, coinciding with the opening of a new Television Centre at Ostankino and the beginning of colour broadcasts (Paulu 1974: 37).  Satellite broadcasting from the Molniia (‘Lightning’) Satellite began in April 1965 (Paulu 1974: 37).

Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, television rapidly acquired enormous popularity amongst the Soviet populace, achieving a high level of saturation by the early 1970s. In its early days, this brought with it fears about the effect of the medium on viewers, whose passion for television was seen by some critics to be potentially damaging to Soviet cultural ideals (Roth-Ey 2007: 293-305). However, by the mid-1960s, once the novelty of the new technology had died down, there seems to have been a tacit acceptance amongst cultural elites that television was here to stay, and great excitement amongst the political hierarchy about the propaganda potential of the new medium.

Political Control

Soviet mass media producers were subject to the usual range of legal and professional checks on their work to ensure that it conformed to the Party line, ranging from laws on freedom of expression and ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ to checks on the dissemination of printed material through Glavlit, the main censorship organ. While many shows initially went out live, the strained ideological climate of the post-1968 period meant that the authorities were heavily involved in both the composition and the editing of shows, while the ability to pre-record shows provided additional security from ideological slip-ups (Iurovskii 1998: 76). Television productions were verified at a number of levels before being broadcast; workers who were deemed to have failed in their duty of care were subject to sacking, demotion or, at best, a reprimand, particularly after the arrival of Sergei Lapin as President of the State Committee on Radio and Television in 1970.

This Committee (the name and affiliation changed a number of times, and was changed to ‘Gosteleradio’ in 1978) was in charge of decisions concerning television broadcasting in the USSR.  It comprised a central group of decision-makers, led by a chairman, to whom answered a number of departments who were in charge of producing programmes in various areas of production (news, propaganda, children and youth, etc.). Each department contained an editor, as well as a number of workers who put together the programmes (Paulu 1974: 53-54).  Republic and regional broadcasters were structured on a similar model, albeit on a smaller scale, with a high level of supervision by local Party elites. 


Soviet programming was predicated on the notion that television should mobilise the Soviet public. In 1960, the State Committee for Radio and Television declared that: “The main task of Soviet radio broadcasting and television is the mobilization of our country’s working people for the comprehensive construction of communism in the USSR” (Paulu: 95-96).  But, lacking expertise in the medium, early post-war television programming in the Soviet Union failed to make the fullest use of the medium, leading to frequent complaints from viewers. However, within the Party hierarchy – particularly on a local level – many officials disdained the medium, paying scant attention to its specificities, meaning that broadcasts remained wedded to the rhythms of the newspaper and the political lecture (Roth-Ey 2007: 289).

In the early 1960s, following the Central Committee’s sharp criticism of the quality of television broadcasting, officials began to focus more of their energies on the fledgling medium (Roth-Ey 2007: 288). However, there was a mismatch in expectations: while Soviet authorities saw television as a medium for mobilisation and for education, surveys showed that audiences regarded it primarily as a medium of entertainment (Evans 2010: 68-72). This meant that shows offering traditional ‘propaganda’ fare, such as Leninskii universitet millionov (Leninist University of Millions, 1974-1985), though ideologically ‘correct’, were largely failing to engage viewers. Faced with the increasing popularity of western radio broadcasts, viewers’ demand for entertainment received growing recognition, as it was feared that some Soviet viewers might ignore domestic media entirely if broadcasters did not do more to cater to their needs.

A particularly successful solution to the problematic demand to balance ideological correctness with entertainment was the development in the 1960s and 1970s of Soviet quiz shows such as KVN (1961-72, 1986 to date) and A nu-ka, devushki! (Come on, Girls!, 1970-87), which pitted teams against each other in performing tasks to win prizes (see Evans 2010: 141-183; Ostromoukhova 2004), and other staples of Soviet television, such as Kinopanorama (Cinempanorama, 1962-95), Klub Kinoputeshestvennikov (Club of Cine-Travellers, 1960-2003), Goluboi ogonek/Novogodnii ogonek (Little Blue Flame/Little New Year’s Flame, 1962-85), Muzykal'nyi kiosk (Musical Kiosk, 1960-95), (Iurovskii 1998: 73). The formats of such shows became part of the furniture for many viewers, while hosts such as Valentina Leont’eva and Nina Kondratova became honoured ‘guests’ in countless Soviet homes.

There were also attempts to innovate in terms of fictional programming which, at least until the mid-1960s, had been confined to broadcasting theatrical plays. A landmark in this respect was the first Soviet mini-series Vyzyvaem ogon' na sebia (Drawing Fire, 1965), which focused on the heroism of a group of Soviet female partisans during World War II.  In the 1970s, this was followed by a number of popular serials, such as Teni ischezaiut v polden' (Shadows Disappear at Noon, 1971), Semnadtsat' mgnovenii vesny (Seventeen Moments of Spring, 1973), and Vechnyi zov (The Everlasting Call, 1973-83). Most of these shows focused on historical situations, in contrast to other socialist countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, or the GDR, where current issues were more prominent (see Bren 2010). One area where Soviet television was particularly strong was in children’s programming.  Animations such as Ezhik v tumane (Hedgehog in the Fog, dir. Iurii Norshtein, 1975) and Cheburashka (1969, 1971, 1974, 1983) retain their popularity to this day, and were frequently exported abroad, while a daily programme like Spokoinoi nochi, malyshi! (Good Night, Children! 1964 to date) is also fondly remembered by generations of post-Soviet adults. 


In the face of Gorbachev’s reforms, many of the ‘old guard’, including Sergei Lapin, erstwhile Chairman of the State Committee for Broadcasting were removed. This turnover of personnel led to rapid changes in content. While news programmes such as Time continued to offer an image of ideological continuity, other shows appeared which were qualitatively different from anything broadcast previously.

Reflecting the transformed international climate, television ‘bridges’ linked the Soviet Union and United States and invited citizens to debate international issues amongst themselves. Current affairs shows such as Vzgliad (Viewpoint, 1987-94), Do i posle polunochi (Before and After Midnight, 1987-91), 12-i etazh (12th Floor, 1985-87) and Prozhektor perestroiki (Perestroika Searchlight, 1987-89) began to uncover social problems that had rarely, if at all, been discussed in official mass media outlets (Mickiewicz 1997: 65-82). Similarly, domestic dramas, such as Gruppa riska (Risk Group, 1991) began to offer social commentary, while imported dramas, such as the Brazilian soap Slave Izaura (Escrava Izaura, Rede Globo 1976, first broadcast in the Soviet Union in 1987-88) and the Italian Mafia drama Sprut (La Piovra, RAI 1984-2001, first broadcast in the Soviet Union in 1986) also offered viewers a glimpse of a different world.

Perhaps the most notable of these changes was the broadcasting of parliamentary debates and congresses, which had previously remained largely ritualistic and off limits to the Soviet people. By giving the public a chance to see politicians debating current issues in the flesh, television began to allow the public to see and hear their representatives in action and helped to form public opinion (Mickiewicz 1997: 83-97). But perhaps, too, by focusing on the personalities of figures like Yeltsin and Gorbachev, it also ushered in the modern era of mediatised politics that we see today.



Bren, Paulina. 2010. The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Burns, R.W. 1998. Television: An International History of the Formative Years. London: IEE.

Dizard, Wilson P. 1963. 'Television in the USSR', Problems of Communism 12/6, Nov-Dec 1963, 38-45.

Evans, Christine Elaine. 2010. 'From Truth to Time: Soviet Central Television, 1957-1985'. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Urovskii, A. Ia. 1998. 'Istoriia telezhurnalistiki v Rossii' in G.V. Kuznetsov, ed., Televizionnaia zhurnalistika. Uchebnik.  Moscow: MGU, pp. 54-90 [in Russian].

Mickiewicz, Ellen. 1981. Media and the Russian Public. New York: Praeger.

Mickiewicz, Ellen. 1997. Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power in Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ostromoukhova, Bella. 2004. 'KVN – "Moldezhnaia kul’tura shestdesiatykh"?', Neprikosnovennyi zapas, 4/36, 34–39 [in Russian].

Paulu, Burton. 1974. Radio and Television Broadcasting in Eastern Europe. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Roth-Ey, Kristin. 2007. 'Finding A Place for Soviet Television', Slavic Review 66/2, 278-306.

Roth-Ey, Kristin. 2010. Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire That Lost the Cultural Cold War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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