Consulting in the Former Soviet Union

Craig Johnston with (now) rare statue of Lenin in Bishkek

During the past year, I have made several trips to countries from the former Soviet Union, teaching them to produce television commercials. Sponsored by Internews, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising the quality of journalism in emerging nations, the trips have been 15-18 days in duration and have each included five day seminars in two different countries.

The following is an article I wrote for TV Technology magazine about the most recent trip to Kyrghystan and Uzbekistan, with a road trip through Kazakhstan. It is written from a series of e-mails I sent back to the USA during the trip.

World War II memorial in Almaty, Kazakhstan
World War II Memorial in Almaty
Day 1: I am marooned in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. My plane made it in alright, but my companion Persephone from my sponsoring organization, Internews, is diverted to Tashkent because of fog. Good, I get to sightsee.

The highlight of the day is a free guided tour through a museum of Kazak musical instruments from the 6th century. Oops, it’s free except I have to buy an audio cassette featuring my guide playing 6th century Kazak instruments.

Mountains surrounding Bishkek, Kyrghystan
Bishkek--nestled in the Mountains of Kyrghystan.
Three instructors at nightly meeting
Galym Craig Alexandre
Day 2: Persephone arrived yesterday evening, and we ride in the dark to Bishkek, capital of Kyrghyzstan. Driver so slow the only chance I took was dying of old age.

(Note: I’m think I’m becoming a fan of 6th Century Kazak music.)

Saw Bishkek TV this morning. News set at the independent station I’m watching has an anchor desk in front of edit bay (behind glass). It’s the most sophisticated news set I’ve seen over here in the former Soviet Union, except in Moscow. Apparently only one camera in the studio.

Hot dogs a major part of the breakfast here.

Bishkek is nestled in a box canyon, surrounded on three sides by an impressive mountain range.

Will be teaching again this trip with Alexandre Murahovsky of southern Siberia. We’re joined by Galymzhan Sagyndykov of Kazakhstan. Galym speaks some English, so my limited Russian is less of a problem.

A handy device for cleaning the coffee maker
A handy device for cleaning the coffee maker.
Hotdogs and Jamaica Hellfire Sauce...not just for breakfast any more.
Jamaica Hellfire Sauce introduced to Central Asia
Day 5: I have tried for three days before success getting in the Internet again.

Persephone is very impressed I can deliver Starbucks coffee as room service in the mornings. Hot dogs continue for breakfast, but I’ve introduced Jamaica Hellfire Sauce to Alexandre, Galym and the students. They’re impressed. (I shouldn’t complain about the food, as the rest of the meals are varied and good.)

Galym doesn’t think I know any Russian. We count up my Russian vocabulary: 45 words. My words are along the line of "please, thank you, excuse me and beer."

I watched the news again this morning. First story has the President of Kyrghyzstan and the Chancellor of Germany. They wrap up their talks toasting with beer. Next story is the opening of a new restaurant affiliated with a brewery. More people drinking beer. I like these newscasts.

Internews Commercial Production Students in Kyrghystan
Class from Kyrghystan includes students from Tajikistan.

Producing a PSA in Kyrghystan
Students producing a domestic violence Public Service Announcement

Our students are from both Kyrghyzstan and Tajikistan, south of the west end of Kyrghyzstan. The examples of their commercials are in four languages: Russian, Kyrghyz, Tajik and Uzbek. (My interpreter only speaks Russian and English, so I’m a bit in the dark as to what the audio says on most of the student’s spots. I shouldn’t complain; I only speak 45 words of Russian.)

Their commercials are long on creativity, short on selling the product. We’re here to fix that.

Alexandre composes music with his computer back at his station in Siberia. I brought him three CDs from the U.S. with samplings of instruments on them. Alexandre sits right down and knocks out a tune. Wish I could do that.

Cities in western Kyrghyzstan have a large Uzbek population. The stations in the principal city of the western part of the country, Osh, broadcast in Uzbek. I find from one of the students that the government of Kyrghyzstan has suspended his station’s license, apparently until they start broadcasting in the Kyrghyz language.

Producing a beer store commercial in Bishkek
Shooting commercial for Holsten Brewery bar.
Day 8: Internet access continues to be spotty.

I’ve added at least 10 new word to my Russian, but Galym’s official count still has me at 45.

We’ve wrapped up the seminar here. At the student banquet last night I met officials of two Bishkek TV stations. One General Manager claims to have solved the anti-gravity problem.

A stop during the road trip
Alexandre, Persephone and Galym shop for refreshments.
One of 7 police stops on the road trip.
Stopped on the Steppe.
Day 9: Have arrived in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. Just finished a 12 hour ride in a van with Persephone, Alexandre and Galym, plus a driver. Our trip had a lot in common with the road trip in the movie "Animal House." They have many roadside tables where we can buy more beer. We stop often. But no one else wants to listen to 6th century Kazak music.

There are many horse drawn wagons along this road. We cross the Steppe in southern Kazakhstan, which is flat as a pool table. I’ve never seen anything like this. Suddenly to the south, the mountains jut up thousands of meters out of the Steppe. No foothills.

Oh, and we get stopped seven times by the police. No cars, no radar. The police stand by the side of the road, and if one of them points his flashlight at the side of the road, we pull over. Biggest bribe paid: less than $1 U.S. (Boy did one policeman get excited when I took his picture. Alexandre and Galym have informed me I’m dangerous to travel with.)

Mosque being repaired in Tashkent
Mosque in Tashkent
Internews Commercial Production students in Uzbekistan
Uzbek students

Day 12: Sorry for the gap of several days; Internet access is spotty here in Tashkent, too.

Uzbekistan seems the most like the old Soviet Union of all the republics in Central Asia. We’re staying in a dacha where second level government officials come for meetings and relaxation. Tashkent is sister city to my home town Seattle, Washington. It’s not surprising, since it’s rained since we got here.

Dammit Galym, I’ve learned another dozen Russian words and you still have me officially at 45.

TV stations in Uzbekistan broadcast commercials in only two languages: Russian and Uzbek. Two of our students come from a station in Samarkand, a city which was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road. They have a first class commercial for Tashkent Water, featuring a young man seeking to marry the Shah’s daughter. The set where the spot was shot is richly decorated with terrific costuming. The Shah tells the young man to bring him the best tasting water in the world. Of course he returns with Tashkent Water. The spot is very well done. I’d love to have it on my resume reel.

Food here is terrific, including a lot of horse sausage. Galym tells me that years ago in a Soviet city near a leaky nuclear plant, those whose diet included a large percentage of horse best survived the radiation.

Commercial features Uzbek housewife shopping....
Shooting the MIR (Russian for "World") Juice spot
Day 14: We have six inches of snow. Now Alexandre (from Siberia) feels at home.

The last three days of the seminar we break the participants into small groups to actually produce commercials. My group is doing a spot for a new juice company. Went to the client today to present the script. He says it’s way off base. We re-write. He finally accepts it, but now we scramble for actors and locations. My interpreter lines all of this up in the blink of an eye and we shoot.

Uzbek Historical Museum
Uzbek Museum
Blue domes are popular.
Money is interesting. Uzbek currency is called the som. The largest denomination of a som is the 100 som note. That’s worth $.60 U.S. I exchange $30 U.S. and have a wad of 100 som notes 3/4 of an inch thick. However, money goes a long way here.

The local independent station in Tashkent does no newscasts. An employee tells me it’s just too hard to stay on the good side of the government if you do news. They leave covering the news to the government owned stations.

The Siberian television professional teaches.........
Alexandre teaches as my interpreter, Bagila, writes.
Day 15: I know I’ve added another six words of Russian, plus a couple in Uzbek. My "official" count is still at 45. To make matters worse, today someone interpreting for me translated Russian into Russian. "Now I’ve forgotten English!" I thought.

The participants’ edited spots are due at 4pm. The banquet is supposed to start at 7pm. They finish editing at 8:45pm. (This is sounding a lot like the U.S.) However, the spots are terrific! I tell everyone that just proves what good teachers we are.

At the banquet, one of the students, who is also an actor, does impersonations of all of the instructors. Nails me. Alexandre and Galym’s are pretty funny too.

I think we've found the problem.........
Kazak version of Les Schwab Tire store.
Day 17: Just finished a 15 hour road trip through the snow back to Almaty for my flight back to the U.S. This time there were only three stops by the police, but two flat tires kept things interesting. Lamb kebobs at roadside restaurants are excellent.

When I think of the state of the Commercial Production I’ve seen here in Central Asia (and the former Soviet Union as a whole), I’m reminded that this area has had a long history of film making, but a short history of capitalism. Spots we’ve seen have been long on art, if somewhat short on marketing the product. That’s what we’ve been brought here to address.

When I think of the state of my Russian language skills, I’m apparently still officially at 45 words.

But I can’t wait to return!

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Copyright 1998 by Craig Johnston Communications, LLC