It was a huge mistake to agree to be on Russian TV.
I had many invitations extended to me when I worked as an editor of the opinion page at The Moscow Times, and most of them I accepted out of curiosity. But I should have politely declined when a producer for a certain talk show insisted that I was the perfect person to join them on an upcoming broadcast.
I took a cab to Ostankino, the looming tower that also houses much of Russian TV’s studio space and infrastructure. The producer stood on the stairs with a sign and dueling cell phones, fidgeting with everything. She was one of those frantically pretty Russian women, slim and attractive and well heeled, yet much more tightly wound than her American counterpart would have been. In a distracted frenzy, she whisked us up into the maze of Ostankino.
I was dressed like the oddball American type that I am: quirky skirt, knee-high Doc Martin-esque boots, lots of black. But I had no makeup on—or at least not enough to be considered makeup by Russian standards—so I was hurried off to a duo of older women, polite but dismayed by my appearance. I wound up powdered within an inch of my life, my eyes ringed with a thick circle of eyeliner.
I looked, in a word, insane by Russian standards.
My seeming insanity was only underlined as the afternoon wore on. The show’s guests sat in their predetermined seats waiting for show time. Though the vibe of Ostankino feels like a Soviet version of the interiors on Mad Men, the studio itself was strangely chintzy, all Christmas lights and flimsy slight of hand that looked far better on the screen than in person. I grew increasingly nervous, increasingly regretful .Soon the host bustled out and boom! His persona switched on, the cameras rolled, the studio audience cheered. The host fired off rapid intros to the random assemblage of souls at his back.
The show’s topic that day was family relations, or something to that effect. I heard a string of phonemes vaguely resembling my name, then a statement of my purposed position on matters familial: “This American journalist believes that freedom matters before all in family affairs.”
I hadn’t realized that about myself. I had been brought in to play the role of liberated American feminist idiot, I discovered.
It was an afternoon of exhausting discovery, and I played my idiot role remarkably well. First and foremost, I learned that I can’t speak Russian when there is a television camera in the same room. I also learned that a certain Russian rapper had no qualms about showing up to TV appearances so stoned he could hardly sit straight in his chair, forget put a sentence together (though he still beat me in coherence). I learned, when the show was broadcast later, that you will be edited out of a Russian TV show if you say something critical about the church (I did that, reminding a really blowhard actress that even devout people do stuff like murder their children. I know, diplomatic of me). Especially if you look like a mad, paramilitary raccoon.
I also learned a great deal, when we all left that place of media torment and smoked in the lobby (which was smoke free, according to the signs). Another guest, a guy from a local prosecutor’s office, in his trim uniform, bought me a cup of coffee in a little white plastic cup. We chuckled nervously about our experience, and he told me about some of his methods for getting confessions out of suspects. He mentioned photos staged with ketchup, just to get someone in the right mood to recognize his guilt. You know, the usual. We laughed nervously, smoked, and parted.
I went home and felt horribly unnerved, terribly ashamed. Shame has been a faithful teacher during my many years in Russia, a cruel but ultimately helpful taskmistress. It showed me, on no uncertain terms, my limits.