Interviewer: Svetlana Konnegen, Evgeny Rudashevsky
Vassily Grigoriev: ‘Dolls materialized because it was a must’
I think that many people could perceive as dissembling our hero’s opinion of the relationship between himself and his success. Such posturing is completely pardonable in a successful producer, a young man from an extremely unusual family, whom, it would seem, fate pampered and showered with gifts. But is that true? How would any of us use those generous dividends which fell to us in childhood? How many wouldn’t reinvent themselves and put the forms of their behaviour and attitudes in a new light? Finally, how many of us would have enough courage to consider with equal proportions of love and criticism at the same time their own life, personal history and family? Russian Mind welcomes the Dolls producer, Vassily Grigoriev, who was one of the most significant personalities of post-perestroika Russian broadcasting, someone who, at that time, was full of power and hope.
– Vassily Yurievich, let us start with your family. You have outstanding and diverse family roots.
– During World War II my grandmother, Nina Popova, was a chairwoman of the Krasnopresnensky district executive committee. In 1941 a secret group of the so-called ‘Moscow underground’ was established. So, if Germans won Moscow, there would be an opposition in the city, and agents with invented identities and ordinary histories. For instance, my grandmother’s was a house maid. Do you understand? The head of the executive body in the central district of Moscow was an undercover operative – a seamstress! They say, that the life of a tank is counted in minutes, I can imagine that the life of such an agent might be even shorter.
If our family is unique, as you said, then it due to this reversal in circumstances and our destinies, and that is why I am recollecting the war. My grandmother was granted two Orders of the Red Banner, one of which is military. She lived as if on the front line, but in 1945 this front was not in Berlin but in Paris, where, together with Eugenie Cotton and Dolores Ibarruri, she became a co-chairman of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (Fédération démocratique internationale des femmes, FIDF. – Editorial comment.). It took her ten years to move from sandbags in dugouts to front doors of parliaments and monarchy palaces.
In fact, since those days – I mean the late 1940s – the reality of Soviet life meant that our family separated, and this later involved me too. In the year of my birth Khrushchev established the Union of Soviet Friendship Societies which was a kind of informal diplomatic organization headed by my grandmother for the next thirty years. The official politics of that time was divided between the iron curtain and the Berlin Wall. And the social and cultural initiatives of the Union of Soviet Friendship Societies seemed humanitarian notwithstanding official government support.
In brief, my childhood was integrated into an environment where foreign countries and foreign languages were the standard mode of life. This was unusual for the mid-1960s.
– Do you remember anything from that period?
– The specificities of the Soviet system resulted in paradoxical scenarios, as if they had been written not on Staraya Square, but in Hollywood. Just imagine the following: a sixty-year old athlete who is roughly two meters tall, who is a millionaire from the island of Manhattan and the president of ANTA(American National Theatre and Academy. – Editorial comment), Robert W. Dowling met with Khrushchev. They discussed a cultural exchange between the USA and the USSR under the conditions of the cold war. Khrushchev addressed this task to the Union of Soviet Friendship Societies, i.e. to my grandmother.
The first friendly action upon their meeting was the airmail delivery of graded lilac from Dowlings’ country house; it was planted along the fence surrounding the Morozov mansion in Vozdvizhenka street (where my grandmother had an office and a reception office). The remainder which did not fit in this area was bedded out in our summer residence. A year and a half later my grandmother and my mother flew to New York. It was an informal visit in response to Dowling’s private invitation. The American mass media published images of the women standing together with American politicians and members of Congress near limousines. They had a democratic dinner where Mamie Eisenhower personally took the role of hostess and welcomed the guests from Moscow.
It should be noted that Robert W. Dowling was a producer of famous Broadway shows, but his play of 1960 demonstrated his talent as a stage director too.
– However, you had very special childhood and youth – partially related to bureaucracy, partially related to Bohemia. Which one prevailed?
– I am aware of bureaucratic privileges, but no one treated me this way. The main thing that I received from my family was love. That is why I do not understand the point of any action made under pressure. Bureaucracy cannot separate itself from pressure due to the fact that this is a very simple power structure, a hierarchy. This is not my business. I graduated from VGIK (the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography), it was a quite freethinking institute.
– By the way, your production of Dolls was specifically focused on the theme of bureaucracy. We will return to this later. But now, tell us about your career upon graduation from VGIK. Why did you come to France in 1986? What had you been doing there for almost ten years?
– I never made a career. What you mentioned was just a mode of life which continued in France. I had an interesting job offer, so I left. After that, for many years, I filmed several documentaries for television. We established a company which produced our work and sold it to many different countries.
In the early 1990s Yegor Yakovlev (a former chairman of the All-Soviet Union State Broadcasting Company) invited me to Channel One and screened two of my movies which I commented on in the studio. It was strange: behind the lighting apparatus lay the impenetrable cubic meters of a huge dark pavilion, – as if it was seperated from time and space. An allusion to a country locked in a crisis and inflation arose naturally. It gave me the impression that it was the first time for many years that the geographical direction of my life had changed and I would never come back again. I never thought this way before.
– All the same, several years later you came back to start Dolls; probably the most brilliant show, not only of your personal life but also of the history of post-Soviet broadcasting of the 1990s. How did you start it? You bought a license in France in 1994 to broadcast Dolls, didn’t you?
– Dolls was an independent project. Our show was a far cry from the French one. We bought, not the rights attached to a format but a license to produce the dolls according to proprietary technology. Then we sent the Russian artist Andrey Drozdov to Paris to do the course at the atelier where they make dolls for the famous CANAL+ show Guignols de linfo. The idea itself was accessible for everyone, but for its realization in Russia we needed a media storm, like that which arose with its appearance on NTV channel. Who else would broadcast such a show in 1995 on the federal channel?
– Tell me about the preparation of the first episode. How did you define the stylistics of the show?
– At the very beginning of Dolls there were a lot of absolutely spontaneous situations which could not be predicted in advance. The first episode of the series was planned to be aired on 1 January 1995. Two weeks prior to the date I said that we had to postpone the broadcast. Five dolls had been stolen from the Mosfilm studio, and it was too late to produce new ones. We lost the characters and, consequently, the script prepared specially for them. But it was impossible to shift the announced broadcast. We managed to film the show ‘A Hero of Our Time’ , which consisted of dialogues which were taken from Lermontov’s poems, within a week. The Yeltsin doll had not been stolen, and so it became the Hero. The few remaining dolls formed the background. Yeltsin was sad, playing a grave melody on the violin and saying: “There is no one to lend a willing hand!” The expressivity of Sergey Bezrukov (who always voiced Yeltsin) was full of sorrow and disappointment. It was nice but short of jokes, and they were mostly unclear. Such a premiere did not point to success. However, in the morning 31 December the Russian troops attacked the Chechen capital. On the following day the whole country became aware of the consequences of this military assault on Grozny. And in the evening there was the first episode of Dolls which amplified many times over the historical applicability of Lermontov’s text. Now everyone could understand the context. By the way, if we filmed the show according to the initial script, we would have had to cancel it. It was impossible to show the program after the Grozny tragedy due to ethical reasons.
– Which character was the most proactive antagonist of Dolls? Zhirinovsky? Or, maybe Zyuganov? Let’s say, due to the fact that in 1995 a criminal case had been initiated against Dolls based on the communists’ statement in the newspaper Zavtra, or was there anyone else?
– The origins of this criminal case are unclear. There were various versions. One of them is: after several months of broadcasting the wife of Boris Nikolaevich called to Chernomyrdin (the former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation) and asked him to do something about the show, as their maintenance staff had been complaining: ‘How long they will discredit Boris Nikolaevich?’” So, kitchen maids, housekeepers, guards and drivers were angry, and the cup of patience was overflowed. A week later Chernomyrdin invited the creative team, together with the dolls, to his summer residence, and a group photo appeared on the “Ogonyok” cover. A short time before that an article in the newspaper Zavtra, which you mentioned, had been published, and a criminal case was announced by the Office of the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation. The claim of the President’s family’s domestic staff was presented to the acting Prosecutor General who had to react to it. Chernomyrdin also liked to joke. Maybe this interpretation has nothing to do with reality. But, anyway, it is no matter to Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky. They understood clearly the advantages of their content in the show.
– Which Section of the Criminal Code formed a base for the criminal case?
– Offence against the honour and dignity of the top officers. The thing was, the acting Prosecutor General happened to be a person, and a spectator, who had a notable ability to empathise with the dolls as humans. And, probably, he was truly distressed for Boris Nikolaevich, who appeared in the form of a Hamlet or a yard-keeper from Turgenev’s ‘Mumu’, when Boris Nikolaevich drowned Chubays.
Officials from the prosecutor’s office visited the studio, watched, and collected materials. As far as I remember, they had no difficulties with either the authors or with the directors. But the dolls themselves disturbed them as they recited Shakespeare’s words: ‘Men should be what they appear to be’. These are Iago’s words, and Otello replies: ‘Indeed!’. From the law enforcement bodies’ point of view, there is something in this. As investigators say; it was a lead. But nothing came of it. A year later the file was closed.
– Tell me about the Putin doll. I heard that several times NTV received an order to throw away and forget about the President doll.
– In respect of NTV’s order to throw it away and forget about it – it was unthinkable in reality. Putin was the intended target of a shoot to kill. You know the result of this – we lost control over the channel. It was ruined.
– They say, Putin suppressed his personal offence after the NTV broadcast where he was compared to a Little Zaches, the unsightly gnome, who is turned into a real prince by the beautiful fairy, Berezovsky. Is that true?
– Not really. He did not say this. The popularity of this topic worked well for his opponents, the show had a great effect. Today the words ‘suppressed a personal offence’ refers to a sentiment which no longer exists in the Kremlin. If you had said these words fifteen years ago, there might have been a chance that someone would believe them.
– Is there any possibility of a similar show on some non-state channel – I mean a real, unadulterated satire which discusses actual political issues?
– Maybe, due to the many links between them, Serebryany dozhd′ [Silver Rain] and Grazhdanin Khoroshii [The Good Citizen] might integrate Dolls.
– Are there episodes which you are most proud of? Maybe: ‘20 Years Later’ which showed Russia of 2019, when Putin was still in the President’s office and the Russian ruble was ‘maintained at a rate lower than 40 million per dollar, contrary to the doubters’ forecasts’? Or, maybe: ‘Little Zaches’?
– No. As for me, it is a single thing which cannot be divided into separate programs. Of course, I did what I could so that Dolls was shown on TV and became a recognizable part of Russian broadcasting. But this happened thanks to the team. To be sure, something fatal sometimes interrupted our regular activities. From that point of view, I would say, Dolls materialized because it had to. It was a duty rather than a pride.
– What do you think about success?
– I think of it occasionally. I pretended for a long time that I avoided such thinking. But then I learned that a lot of successful people think that too.