'I Was Liberated'

For a few days last week, Karolina Yemelyanova and her high-school friends discovered a whole new life--a life without TV. After a devastating fire in Moscow's Ostankino television tower that blacked out television screens across the capital, Yemelyanova's crowd found themselves engaged in bizarre activities: reading books, going out for strolls, talking with everyone around them. "Usually you just sit there and stare at the screen," Yemelyanova, 16, said in wonderment. "You don't see anything, you don't hear anything." Her friend Zhenya Semina, who is preparing to enter Moscow State University in the fall, marveled: "You can even talk with your own family for a change. I had some real serious talks with my parents." About what? The teenager blushed. "I'd rather not say. It's much too intimate."

The TV-tower fire, which claimed three lives and took 26 hours to extinguish, was the latest incident in a summer of humiliation for President Vladimir Putin's government. It was preceded by last month's terrorist bombing in a pedestrian passageway in Moscow's Pushkin Square that took 12 lives and the explosion on the nuclear submarine Kursk that sent 118 sailors to the bottom of the Barents Sea. But the blaze produced less somber results. It transformed nearly 20 million Russians in the Moscow region into participants in a grand social experiment. Some Muscovites used the opportunity for more than just intimate talk. "I'll read lots of books and make love to women," vowed one young man quoted in the Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets. The rave reviews came from young and old alike. "I was liberated," said retiree Raisa Simonova, 67. "Suddenly I had all this free time. I did all these things I'd been trying to do."

The experiment was short-lived, however. Many Muscovites stormed the offices of NTV+, the subsidiary of the country's largest independent TV channel, to buy satellite dishes and decoders at $184 a set. Others snapped up newspapers that provided plot summaries of popular Brazilian, Mexican and American soap operas, clogged the Internet hunting for news, rented record numbers of videocassettes and rediscovered the joys of listening to the radio. Within a few days technicians had mounted a special transmitter on the outside of the crippled TV tower, enabling the two state-dominated channels to resume limited broadcasts on a combined frequency.

In a country where people routinely leave televisions on almost all the time, the urgency to fill the gap underscored the ambivalence many Russians have about the medium. In the Soviet era television was first and foremost a propaganda tool for the communist leadership--but also much more than that. "They financed elaborate documentaries and great entertainment programs," notes Anna Kachkayeva, a media analyst at Moscow State University. "For people in isolated villages, TV wasn't just TV. It was a library, a friend, an adviser." The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the airing of newscasts that at least sometimes challenged the government line. It also opened the doors to Western commercial fare that fascinated and repelled many viewers. When their sets blacked out, some Muscovites felt almost a cathartic sense of relief. "For me, it was balm for the soul," said schoolteacher Tatyana Pankretyeva. "Television has become like a bordello."

In a country hit by so many snafus, a few days without television shouldn't have been all that big a deal. "We've been through so much in Russia that this problem with the TV tower is trivial by comparison," says carpenter Nikolai Mityunov. But Putin's government understood that each day without programming served as a reminder in Muscovites' apartments that it couldn't deliver what the whole world now takes for granted. If some Russians tried to look on the bright side of their experience, they had no desire to do so for very long. "TV steals time from me, and I'm trying to kick the habit," says retiree Simonova. "But I do have to say: thank God, we have news again." Even if most of the news is anything but uplifting.