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The Global and the National: Media and Communications in Post-Communist Russia

Rantanen, Terhi. The Global and the National: Media and Communications in Post-Communist Russia. New York: Rowman & Littlefield. 2002. ISBN 0-7425-1568-0 [paperback]. 158 pages.

Reviewed by Dr Amos Owen Thomas, Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy, Griffith University, Gold Coast-Brisbane, Australia.

In the very first sentence of the book, the author states her unambiguous thesis that 'there is no globalization without media and communications' and thus this book is about globalization in as much as it is about Russian media and communications. In Rantanen's view, the global does not supersede the national, but media & communications (mediacom) helps mediate globalization at the national or local level. Yet in the Russian context, mediacom serves to create a new post-Soviet nationhood, primarily through broadcast media rather than print.

Even within the first chapter, Rantanen surveys literature on globalization and the media, or at least the seminal writers like Tomlinson, Giddens, Robertson, and Featherstone. Hearteningly to this reviewer, she even makes reference to Australian scholars like Waters and Sinclair. Rantanen takes issue with media imperialism theorists who have identified the US as the culprit that has compelled the world into watching its productions, while ignoring the prodigious production of the Soviet Union circulating within the world communist economy. Ironically, the audiences in that world were and are still hankering for the US programs that they were once denied. She appears also ill at ease with the polarization of approaches to globalization as a personal experience and as structures/systems. Quite rightly, Rantanen points out that globalization takes place differently in different contexts and she argues that post-communist Russia illustrates a context of globalization that has not been analyzed. But she differentiates between media as software and communications as hardware and argues that the former remains quite national, while the latter is increasingly global - in terms of ownership, structures, even audiences. All these demarcations seem somewhat arbitrary in an age of technology convergence and global business alliances.

A historical survey in Chapter 2 helpfully divides television development in Russia for less well-informed readers into five eras, from the Soviet (1920-85), through glasnost (1986-90), independent media (1991-95), and spectacle society (1996-2000), to the present 'Great Russia'. Rantanen reveals that privatization of the media has not necessarily left the state out of ownership because it currently coexists with corporate interests-in a similar fashion to 'crony capitalism' in authoritarian right-wing regimes in the developing world past and present. In the post-Soviet era, television has grown in importance but unlike other ex-communist countries, it remains in the hands of domestic politicized capital and the relatively Internet is left as the only hope for counter-cultural dissent. After this overview of mediacom systems in Russia, in the following chapters the author provides four detailed case studies of constituent parts: communications technology, news agencies, television, and advertising.

In Chapter 3, Rantanen argues that it was not communications technologies per se that precipitated the downfall of communism but globalization aided by socially new uses of such technologies that did so, as exemplified by the fact that so-called 'new communications technologies' in Russia lag behind those in the West. While the state maintained centralized control of 'big' communications technologies such as television broadcasts and fixed-line telephony, it found control over 'small' technologies such as videocassettes, faxes, and audiocassettes increasingly difficult especially with the advent of glasostn. While it is understandable that the costs involved inhibited the use of newer mediacom by individuals as opposed to organizations, the author's point that there is considerable interdependence between old and new mediacom is not altogether clearly made. Chapter 4 deals with the issue of former Soviet news agencies such as Tass and the difficulties they faced in adapting to political and economic change since they were so identified with the communist regime. While they continued to serve the state in a more competitive and globalized environment, Rantanen points out that the distinction between state and private news agencies in Russia was not clear-cut.

Rantanen addresses television as the culturally globalizing medium par excellence in Chapter 5, all the while arguing that the Russian experience was rather unique. For most of the Soviet era, the solely state-owned channels had virtually no imported programs and were a significant exporter of programs to other communist countries. Then virtually overnight it went to 60 percent imported programming and ceased exchanging programs with other members of the former Soviet bloc. One characteristic outcome of globalization of television in Russia (as elsewhere in the post-Cold War capitalist era) is the growth of entertainment content, much of it imported and dubbed, even if the highest rating programs tend to remain domestic serials. Advertising is often neglected in analysis of cultural globalization via the media, but given its non-existence in the Soviet era, Rantanen appropriately devotes the entire Chapter 6 of the book to its introduction in Russia. She accurately documents the peaking of interest in advertising in the mid-1990s when consumer goods advertised drifted beyond affordability by many Russians in the traumatic shift to a market economy.

This book does fill a void in analysis of the globalization of television, which has tended thus far to concentrate on the developed West and/or on developing countries, but not on the transitional economies. The focus on Russian television is pertinent since it was the lynchpin of the media in the former Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc, and even the worldwide communist economic system. What is not adequately developed in this book, though, is the continued dominance of Russian television in the fledgling nation-states of the former Soviet Union, particularly those in Central Asia where the governments are seeking to promote the renaissance of local cultures long suppressed or Russified. Just when the theoretical discourse on globalization is beginning to show signs of fatigue, it is refreshing to have an author like Rantanen postulate a third stage of 'declining globalization' characterized by a resurgence of content nationalization, the merger of old and new media, and emerging criticism of global media products. 

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