calin dan on Sat, 10 Jun 2000 15:49:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Bill Gates joins Stalin

    Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2000
    Ukrainian Thespian Saminin Becomes The Toast of Shenyang in Pavel Show
    Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
    SHENYANG, China-Backstage at the taping of a television variety show in
    this northern steel town, Andrei Saminin sneaks out for a cigarette.
    Someone shouts "It's Pavel!" and suddenly teenagers, old couples, even
    the studio's security guards are clamoring for autographs of the
    Ukrainian actor who plays Pavel Korchagin, the fictional hero of a TV
    series running here (and dubbed into Chinese) called "How Steel Is Forged."
    "People told me I was popular in China, but I never imagined it would be
    like this," says a bemused Mr. Saminin, whose wavy locks and soulful
    eyes make him a sort of East bloc Shaun Cassidy.
    Meet China's latest media phenom: Pavel Korchagin, a mythical Soviet
    railway worker who has been brought back by propagandists to preach
    struggle and sacrifice to a new generation. In an age of media overload,
    Pavel enjoys enviable recognition: 97% of young people are aware of him,
    according to a recent poll, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin is said to
    be a fan. The 26-year-old Mr. Saminin-who back home in Kiev is an
    obscure theater actor-has been mobbed at every stop of a two-week
    national tour to promote his series.  He once had to be evacuated from a
    sidewalk crush by security guards fearful for his safety.
    A propaganda victory? Not exactly. China's state-run media have indeed
    worked overtime to promote the railway worker who labored so devotedly
    in service of the Russian Revolution. Working through the Ukrainian
    winter, the story goes, he contracted typhus, was shot in the head, went
    blind and became paralyzed. But for a young audience fixated on
    consumerism and celebrity, Pavel has morphed into the newest star on
    China's variety-show circuit, where the man who portrays him does
    interviews, plays the guitar, sings and dances.
    "We should all learn from the Pavel spirit," says Yi Mi, a 17-year-old
    in suede platform shoes who has come to the TV studio to add the star's
    autograph to her collection. Asked to elaborate, she ponders for a while
    and says, "We learned it in the seventh grade, but we've already
    forgotten it. But Pavel is so handsome, don't you think?"
    How did Pavel get so far off-message? For China's older generation, many
    of them Soviet-educated, veneration of the heroic Pavel is real enough
    and steeped in nostalgia for what they recall as a simpler time.
    Generations of schoolchildren who grew up under Mao devoured the
    purportedly true Pavel tale in textbooks and comic-book versions. The
    author of the novel "How Steel Is Forged," Nikolai Ostrovsky, was feted
    by Josef Stalin and the book took off in China during the 1950s, when
    the two nations shared aspirations of spreading Communism around the
    Now after a two-decade hiatus, Pavel is enjoying a second coming in
    China- never mind that worker unity is dead and poverty distinctly
    unfashionable. The 20-part "How Steel Is Forged" has aired twice on
    national TV and is now being unrolled on provincial stations across the
    country. A Beijing middle school plans to revive "Pavel classes" for
    elite students who exemplify the "Pavel Spirit." "To learn from Pavel
    and Bill Gates is no contradiction," intones a recent newspaper editorial.
    "From Pavel we can understand the value of human life, and from Gates
    a spirit of emphasizing science and technology," the editors concluded.
    "In today's materialistic society, we need spiritual heroes," says Han
    Gang, the show's director, sitting in a Beijing teahouse with his mobile
    phone and his Mild Seven Japanese cigarettes on the table before him.
    Then he sighs and admits,
    "A lot of young people say to me, 'Pavel is so silly, he just thinks
    about struggle and doesn't worry about money.' "
    That has forced Pavel to navigate a surreal region that is part Marxist
    propaganda and part tacky game show. On the set of the variety show,
    Mr.  Saminin sings Pavel's trademark paean to a dying Red Army soldier
    ("The heart of the Communist Youth League is beating, Tell my lover this
    sacrifice was for the workers") against a backdrop of flashing lights,
    eruptions of dry-ice fog, and a massive billboard urging viewers to
    drink Huishan Milk, a sponsor of the show. He joins a dance medley with
    young women in purple tutus, fends off questions from the show's hostess
    about a possible romance with his co-star, and spins a makeshift wheel
    of fortune to win "a platinum diamond ring worth 2,000 yuan!" The ring,
    in less exciting words, is worth about $240.
    Little lip service is paid to the Pavel myth. After Mr. Saminin delivers
    the hero's deathbed monologue about his great struggle to liberate
    mankind, host Wang Ping asks whether the show has aired in Ukraine yet.
    "It still needs Chinese approval," says Mr. Saminin. "Oh, then it's a
    question of money," jokes Mr.  Wang. The series is entirely a Chinese
    production, with Chinese financing, though it was filmed in Ukraine with
    Ukrainian actors.
    Small wonder, then, that young people today are confused about what
    Pavel stands for. Stripped of his central goal of liberating the masses,
    the modern-day Pavel is a perfect stand-in for today's Chinese Communist
    Party, which continues to preach class struggle even as it promotes
    Money has a lot to do with Pavel's latest reincarnation. The idea to
    remake "How Steel Is Forged"-which was made into three film versions in
    the former Soviet Union, most recently in the 1970s-came last year from
    an unlikely quarter: China Vanke Co., a property developer in the
    country's richest city, Shenzhen, which has a film-production unit. "The
    major Chinese emperors have all been done, but no one has done Pavel,"
    explains Sun Jing, a Vanke executive.
    The Shenzhen propaganda bureau loved the idea, and in league with China
    Central Television lined up $1.3 million in investment. Profiting off
    Pavel has since run rampant. Organizers of the National Games for the
    Disabled got Mr.  Saminin to appear at a Shanghai event earlier this
    month-after all, Pavel is paralyzed by the end of the novel. Publishing
    houses have issued competing editions of "How Steel Is Forged,"
    including a version for children illustrated with scenes from the TV
    Yet if Pavel has gone Hollywood, that is largely by design. In the
    original book, Pavel's romance with Tonia, the beautiful daughter of a
    wealthy official, founders on the shoals of class conflict. As a child
    of capitalists, Tonia scorns Pavel's lowly worker status. He joins the
    Bolsheviks and defeats enemies of the revolution in stirring battle
    In the current TV version, the lovers are separated by war but meet up
    again at the end, where Tonia has named her young son Pavel.
    Translation: She has never stopped loving him, class-consciousness be
    damned. Pavel also rejects the violent tactics of his Red Army cohorts
    in putting down an uprising in Kiev, dealt with in passing in the novel
    but expanded to fill two TV episodes. And Pavel has taken up other
    modern issues, including the evils of smoking and sexual harassment.
    "We've watered down the class-consciousness and made him more of a
    human-rights figure that everyone can relate to," says director Mr. Han,
    who rewrote about two-thirds of the original book for the TV version.
    "We are at the end of the 20th century. You can't look at things in the
    old narrow way."

    Write to Leslie Chang at leslie.chang@wsj.com1

Calin Dan
Rozengracht 105/D4
NL-1016 LV Amsterdam
T: + 31 (0)20 770 1432
F: + 31 (0)20 623 7760

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