‘House of Guards’? Moscow Gets Ready for the Russian Frank Underwood

Taly Krupkin
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Taly Krupkin

Many Russians seem to be hooked by the small-screen antics of Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey), the corrupt U.S. politician in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” Now, a group of young producers hope that local audiences also will get the chance to see a Russian TV series that portrays fictitious events inside the walls of the Kremlin.

The independent, Moscow-based television station Dozhd (also known as TV Rain) is planning to produce the subversive show “Tomorrow” (“Zavtra”). The station provides a very rare platform for the opposition to Russian President Valdimir Putin, and maintains its own editorial line in a country where there is almost no independent press left.

The polished series pilot starts on the day when the incumbent Russian president (Putin’s name is not mentioned explicitly) loses the election. The show follows the new president and his team who emerge from the opposition and try to run the state, which unexpectedly fell into their hands. The main protagonists are the campaign manager and media adviser of the newly elected president, who, given the shock nature of their win, do not know what to do. The new president’s spokesman is an apathetic hipster in sneakers – a completely different type to Putin’s present spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who made the headlines recently when he tried to dampen speculation when Putin disappeared from view for 10 days.

As opposed to their fictitious Russian president, the creators of the series cannot claim victory yet: They uploaded the first episode of “Zavtra” to YouTube in February, as part of a crowdfunding effort to raise more money to complete the series. The creators hope the Russian audience is hungry enough for critical and biting television and will fund their ambitious project.

So far, they have raised more than 1.35 million rubles (which is about $26,000 at current exchange rates) since February. But they need some 18 million rubles to complete production. “In Russia today, no television station will take the risk of producing a political television series, and no investor will want to invest in it,” said the creators of the series, on the show’s Russian website. “Don’t wait for someone to make an excellent series for you – do it yourselves together with us!” they added.

While the fundraising continues, the show’s backers have presented the pilot at local festivals and sometimes launched new initiatives to boost sales. For example, a month ago the producers launched a competition in which people were asked to devise their own plotline. The winning idea will become part of the show, while the runner-up will be given a small role.

More like sci-fi

Dozhd has already held a special broadcast in honor of the show’s launch, in which opposition and cultural figures gathered to view the opening episode and participate in a panel discussion. The show’s cowriter, Lena Vanina, explained that, despite the comparisons to “House of Cards,” the Russian reality dictates a series that is completely different from Western shows. “Why compare it to Britain or the United States?” she asked. “There is a long tradition of democracy there. In the United States, the government has changed for hundreds of years between the Democrats and the Republicans.”

Well-known representatives of the Russian opposition who were invited to view the show struggled to believe its basic concept – that the government in Russia could be changed through democratic elections – and lined up to criticize the show. Some of the guests even claimed that any presentation of regime-change in modern-day Russia via elections placed the series in the sci-fi genre.

The show’s director and other cowriter, Roman Volobuev, admitted that the central idea of the series requires viewers to suspend their disbelief to an extent that reminds one of “American movies in which aliens land on Earth.”

Even though there are no original political dramas produced in Russia, Russians watch similar-themed Western programs with great interest, including “House of Cards,” which is broadcast on Channel One Russia (a state channel).

In an interview with Haaretz, Prof. Elena Prokhorova, the director of Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the William & Mary college in Virginia, and who studies post-Soviet Russian television, said the broadcasting of “House of Cards” on the state channel seemed paradoxical. “Of course, one could argue that the representation of ruthless and cynical politicians fits the anti-Western rhetoric, the same way that in the U.S.S.R. they used to publish ‘progressive’ American and British writers [those whose works could be construed as critical of capitalism],” she said.

The third season of the U.S. hit series, in which Russian President Viktor Petrov (played by Lars Mikkelsen) – whose character seems very much like Putin – is a major figure in the show, has already aroused great curiosity in Russia. When asked about the series, a spokesman for the Kremlin made it clear that Putin does not watch it.

“I don’t know whether Channel One will broadcast the third season of ‘House of Cards’ – that would be something,” said Prokhorova. But there is definitely an audience for political thrillers in Russia – those same devotees of “House of Cards,” “The West Wing,” etc. – she said. “‘Zavtra’ is, of course, different, and its premise allows it to skip the present and go into a modeling of the future/alternative mode,” she added.

“The Russian opposition would definitely appreciate it. The Russian public would no doubt be divided,” says Prof. David Gillespie, from the University of Bath, England, a specialist in the field of modern Russian culture, film and literature. He notes that political satire no longer has any place in today’s Russian media, even though large numbers of viewers want it.

“Russia is very diverse and split into those who are highly patriotic and support the government, and those who are against it,” says Gillespie. “The former might take a drama and comedy series as an offense, or as an attempt to mock current policies – which they wouldn’t appreciate. As we all know, Russians can be very loyal and attached to people or politicians whom they either like or fear. However, the latter would be very interested in watching a drama or comedy series as something that would show a different attitude to Russian politics and maybe help to get rid of the biased perception of it that is dominant nowadays,” he adds.  

In response to critics who were unhappy that the show hints that the removal of Putin would lead to anarchy in Russia, the show’s producer, Natalya Sindeyeva – who is also the founder of Dozhd – promised that in coming episodes the characters would learn to lead the country successfully. “They are honest people, who want to change our lives so it will be possible to live in Russia and be proud of it. I wanted the series to show that if you are an idealist and you have a good goal, you can overcome the obstacles,” she said.