St. Babs and St. Peter. A Match Made in Berlin

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

On 9 November, 1989, East Berlin’s longtime Communist party boss Günter Schabowski is giving a press conference and stammers out a note he’s been suddenly handed. He is himself a bit confused by the note, but he reads it aloud to the gathered press anyway. The room goes as silent as a crypt. Finally, a reporter asks Schabowski for clarification. “Are you saying what we think you’re saying?” A mildly bewildered Schabowski looks worriedly at the note again, and answers in the affirmative.

This amiably botched public announcement by East Berlin’s Communist Party boss results in history turning a monstrous corner, Schabowski’s mild verbal stumble fomenting a massive misunderstanding whose effect is to bring tens of thousands of stunned East Berliners to the long-locked gates of the Berlin Wall. They’ve been told they may leave East Berlin, effective immediately.

Where Are Your Orders?

As the bellowing throngs materialize that evening, the bewildered and hugely outnumbered East German guards pluck at their feeble little telephones in panic, pleading for orders. Soon enough, orders became moot as the former prisoner-citizens of communist East Germany break like a wave on the suddenly pathetic little wall, inertial freedom moving the immovable like a physical law.

Over the next couple of weeks the once-terrifying and impenetrable Berlin Wall is giddily taken apart with heavy machinery, hammers, bare hands and teaspoons. Less than a year after that, Germany officially reunites, and the misery-sowing and tragically mislabeled German Democratic Republic simply vanishes. Three years later a defiant and slightly booze-swollen Boris Yeltsin stands heroically atop a tank in defense of Russian Democracy, and the U.S.S.R. dissolves back into its constituent states. Decades-old Soviet institutions totter and fall, the shocked economy stumbles to a stop, shop shelves empty and the New Russians find themselves destitute.  

Who should sashay into this troubled scene but a bling-festooned St. Barbara. No, not the imprisoned 4th century firebrand and martyr. The other one.

St. Babs on the Baltic

 As the newly singular Russia painfully recalibrates, food lines grow in length and the days grow shorter with the onset of winter. Never mind. The Russian people turn to Santa Barbara for succor and comfort. Are they boarding flights for the California tourist vortex? Huh uh. We’re taking about the soap opera. Santa Barbara is the first American soap opera to be broadcast on Russian T.V., and the timing couldn’t be more exquisite. What better way for the downtrodden Russian people to muddle through this painful rebirth—caught in the mad denouement of a crushing historical disaster— than by avidly hanging around the beaches and airless interior sets of Santa Barbara?

Beginning on Jan. 2, 1992, Santa Barbara is on Russian T.V. three evenings a week, and EVERYONE is watching, beaten former soviets running home in the evenings to escape into a telly-town where the wealthy, beautiful and scheming Capwell and Lockridge dynasties do shag-carpeted battle while staring longingly across over-appointed rooms cluttered with the handiwork of union set-decorators. Irony? More than enough to go around.

In dour, post-collapse Russia the “Santa Barbara” craze is immediate and therapeutic.  Whatever your time zone in the gargantuan sprawl that is Russia, when “Santa Barbara” comes on the air, from onion-domed metropolis to gray pebbled village whose 50s-era sets are festooned with tin-foiled rabbit ears for better reception, the streets empty. People actually begin naming their pets after the glamorous characters on the soap – two generations of dogs and cats named Mason, Eden, Cruz, Lionel, Augusta.

Suddenly Solzhenitsyn, with his bicep-buffing tomes, furrowed forehead and ill-advised “beard” is out of step. I mean waaaay out of step. Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky? Take a seat over there. Make room for Eden Capwell and Cruz Castillo. 

The program becomes so beloved in Russia and (ironically) in its former satellites, otherwise innocuous programming decisions spur riots and protests in the streets, the center of gravity having suddenly shifted from the Workers Controlling the Means of Production to whether or not Joe Perkins really killed Channing Capwell, Jr.

Yeah, this is that nutty planet. Suddenly Solzhenitsyn, with his bicep-buffing tomes, furrowed forehead and ill-advised “beard” is out of step. I mean waaaay out of step. Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky? Take a seat over there. Make room for Eden Capwell and Cruz Castillo. Make room, I say! Their smoldering glances and ham-handed emoting have just overwritten centuries of Russian artistic majesty. Chekhov, your dumb Cherry Orchard has just been replaced with the Selfie-by-the-Sea. Santa Barbara, baby!

When the “Santa Barbara” broadcast in The Ukraine suddenly switches from dubbed Russian to dubbed Ukrainian, the Russian expats there are incensed. In light of recent events, the Ukrainians and Russians see the dubbing issue as intrinsically political, and the Ukrainian streets fill with fist-pounding anger. There is a march to the Crimean Parliament building. Yes, this all really happened. Vladimir Podkopayev, the Crimean Parliament’s deputy chairman, describes the dubbing controversy as “a state of emergency”, and then goes on to glibly remark, “My wife told me not to come home until ‘Santa Barbara’ is in Russian again.”

Saints Peter and Barbara Briefly Hold Hands

At the height of the craze, discos and restaurants spring up with the Santa Barbara moniker, particularly in St. Petersburg (until recently Leningrad), the once and future nexus of Russia’s Royal double helix. Posh clothing retailers, bars, hotels, even gated communities in St. Petersburg—everything is suddenly Santa Barbara this and Santa Barbara that. The popularity of the show has turned the name “Santa Barbara” into a badge that signifies comfort, freedom of movement, a sense of fashion, and the ability to speak openly and declaratively about things that matter to you. That’s right—simple Freedom, but hesitantly expressed by a cast of (reported) over-actors on a show not known for its sterling production values. Still, it all looks pretty darned good to the people of the former Soviet Union, whose long experiment with state-mandated egalitarianism resulted in decades of horror and sorrow and suspicion and venality.

The Santa Barbara Club in St. Petersrburg remains a huge hipster draw today. Click for a tour, former comrade.

However small and petty the concerns of “Santa Barbara” seem in the context of Russian history’s enormity and drama and tragedy—the Russian revolution included the Royal Family, the Romanovs, being machine-gunned in a palace basement, after all—the glitzy and lightweight T.V. soap opera has turned something loose in post-Soviet Russian society, and they are embracing it till their arms bruise. Call it a Transitional Capitalist Daydream. In time, shady developers with possible criminal ties will travel to Santa Barbara– the real Santa Barbara—from Kaliningrad, to take a look around and see what they can borrow, architecturally and aesthetically, from the soap’s namesake town on California’s central coast. Post-totalitarian Russia is in a hurry to move on with whatever trappings of normalcy and prosperity they can muster. 

Finally, on 17 April, 2002, Russia somewhat disinterestedly watches its final episode of Santa Barbara — episode # 2040. By then the country’s ragged, violent, oligarch-defined 90s have taken the wind out of the people’s sails somewhat. They are ready to make a real world from the screwed-up ruins of a mistake that took nearly 70 years to correct.

Soap

Some folks live their lives under the shadow of what becomes a commonplace oppression, and some walk blandly around in the full, free light of the sun. As author Mikhail Iossel put it in his beautiful and very personal essay:

“Freedom was the dizzyingly exciting new thing for the people of Russia, that giant isolated and largely un-self-aware world unto itself, while for the Santa Barbara characters, it was the most natural, taken-for-granted thing in the world: the unthinking freedom to be just who you are, to feel being free, bold and self-assertive, independent, unashamed of yourself, uninterested in politics, passionately happy and unhappy, successful and unsuccessful; the freedom to come and go at will, appear and disappear, travel anywhere and at any time without asking anyone’s permission; the freedom to live without having once to stand in a long line in front of a food or clothing store and to be not just a citizen of Santa Barbara or America, but also one of the entire world writ large.”

All that from a soap opera. Can you believe it?