Between 2012 and 2014, faculty and students of the Laboratory for Media Studies, HSE Centre for Basic Research, travelled to a number of Russian villages to observe changes in media consumption practices in the context of the transition to digital television. In addition to revealing media consumption patterns, interviews with villagers gave the researchers a glimpse into their world, thoughts, fears and hopes. Based on the findings from this project, a new book entitled The Enchanted Place: Media Consumption, Media Literacy and Historical Memory of Rural Residents has been published. In this interview with IQ.HSE, Professor Anna Novikova, the book's co-author and editor, explains what aspects of the study informed the book and what was particularly challenging in putting it together.
Professor, HSE Faculty of Communications,
Media and Design; Academic Supervisor,
Transmedia Production in Digital Industries
— In the villages your team visited, you observed certain 'preserved features of a rural culture which is no longer a "peasant culture" but not yet an urban culture'. What are these features, and how does rural Russia differ from urban Russia?
— We did not specifically study the 'features of a rural culture' other than making a few background observations. Instead, our study focused on rural residents' media consumption and related practices: what people read (newspapers, magazines, websites and books), watch (television shows, films) and listen to (radio, audio recordings). And more importantly, how they integrate media consumption into their everyday lives, how they organise the space in their homes where they keep the television or computer, and how they choose and interpret media content.
We made four field trips for the study between 2012 and 2014 and collected data from 194 interviews:
43 in the Kostroma region (the rural settlement of Ugory, Manturovsky district);
71 in the Rostov region (the village of Koksovy, Belokalitvinsky district);
31 in the Irkutsk region (the village of Seredkino, Bokhan district);
49 in the Republic of Tatarstan (the village of Danaurovka, Chistopol district).
Along the way, we also observed various manifestations of a broader rural culture — in particular, how media consumption practices are influenced by the farming seasons when people work on their household farm. Farming is still a priority there, and even elderly women who love TV series only watch them in their spare time, when they are free from working on the farm and doing household chores. Also, seasonal agricultural cycles are an important factor in villagers' media consumption practices: they watch far more TV in winter than in summer.
Other aspects of people’s lives and cultural preferences which we found particularly interesting were not influenced so much by their living in the countryside. Instead, we observed the strong role of the extended family which includes, alongside grandparents and grandchildren, also cousins and second cousins who sometimes live elsewhere.
When making all sorts of decisions — from installing a satellite dish to refurbishing their house to taking out a loan — rural residents tend to rely mainly on the opinion of their relatives whom they respect and consider successful.
They use mobile phones not just to call their extended family but also to send messages and photos and to set up family groups in WhatsApp (property of Meta, which has been recognised as an extremist organisation in Russia); they also connect with family via Odnoklassniki or VKontakte social networks.
We used formal characteristics to distinguish between 'rural' and 'urban' Russia — in particular, the term 'rural settlement' in the name of the residential community. But each of the four rural settlements where we conducted our interviews was very different from the others! In the Rostov region, it was more of an urban-type settlement with many residents having jobs in the neighbouring city. In Tatarstan, the village adjoined a neighbourhood of cottage-type 'dachas' owned by urbanites. The villages we visited in the Kostroma and Irkutsk regions are very remote from any city, with poor access roads, therefore life there is almost exclusively family focused.
We made the effort to interview only those people for whom the rural settlement was their primary home, but even this formal characteristic did not fully correlate with the respondents' preference of either an urban or a rural lifestyle.
— But what did?
— More than anything, one's lifestyle and rhythm of life, media and culture consumption are personal choices in rural communities. It is relatively easy for a villager to travel to the nearest city to visit a theatre or a museum or to practice amateur sports if they so choose. Alternatively, one can choose to live an old-fashioned life and burn wood in the stove, keep a cow and some chickens and retain the home decor and lifestyle habits of the mid-twentieth century.
While personal finances do play a role — indeed, most of our respondents make only a modest living — the choice of what I would describe as a 'passive' lifestyle is primarily value-based. In fact, many respondents stated openly that they found life in big cities inferior to a rural life far from human brutality and dependence on the authorities, and were prepared to sacrifice domestic conveniences for this advantage.
— You set out to conduct sociological data but you also gathered important insights into personal values and lifestyle choices from people who described in detail the various aspects of their lives, sometimes turning interviews into monologues. Why?
— A good question! But it would be inaccurate to describe our research objective as only gathering sociological data — this was not the case! We organised this field trip for undergraduates and faculty members, several of whom were sociologists gathering sociological data and teaching newer students how to do this. But some others were culturologists interested primarily in the history and anthropology of culture and yet others were journalists working to create a travel essay and a video documentary. While the overarching focus was on media consumption practices and media literacy, nothing stopped us from following the respondent’s lead and discussing whatever they wanted to talk about. Both the faculty and the undergraduates were free to choose their preferred methods of observation and documentation of findings.
— Was this approach effective?
— Perhaps not so much from a strictly scientific point of view, but we believe that for a pilot study, this was the right way to go. It allowed us to view the topic from a variety of different perspectives, to formulate many research questions, to test a few hypotheses, to detect issues we had not even known existed before we went into the field, and to explore interdisciplinary approaches. I believe this to be an important objective for university science and an excellent opportunity for project-based learning.
We embarked on this project almost a decade ago, and now undergraduate field trips to different parts of Russia are an integral component of the university-wide teaching and learning strategy. This result confirms that we chose the right approach.
— Given the diversity of experience, was it challenging to make it into a book?
— Yes, and the greatest challenge was the variety of research approaches and the multitude of hypotheses. Therefore, the book should not be regarded as a strictly scientific paper, even less so as a sociological paper. Some of its chapters contain elements of documentary prose aimed to give our respondents a voice. While the book does not provide clear-cut scientific conclusions, we consider this a strength rather than a drawback.
Following collaborations with our team and discussion of our findings at conferences, this project gave rise to a number of regional studies building on various aspects of our research. Hopefully the book will also inspire someone to continue this line of work.
— You wrote that some of the stories and personal memories which people shared with you 'reflect the traumatic experience of living in the countryside'. What is that trauma about and where does it come from?
— The trauma stems from the tragic events of Russian history in the twentieth century. Exiled prisoners in the pre-Communist times, echoes of the civil war and forced collectivisation, political repression, the Second World War and post-war resettlement, and the collapse of the USSR — villagers do not see them as events of a long-gone past but rather as relevant events which inform their decision-making here and now.
This collective experience — which is a mix of family memories and stories, social myths and cultural clichés from Soviet films — forms a fairly sustainable view of the world as dangerous and cruel. Personal wellbeing is thus seen as fleeting and easily lost unless one is careful and avoids 'sticking out' and making things worse.
We saw people who are extremely wary of any novelty, including media technology. Even though they have a multitude of TV channels to choose from, they are content with the standard set of two national ones and perhaps one thematic (often children's) channel. While they distrust the information they receive from the television, they also use it to confirm their own fears.
— What are they fearful of?
— In the book, we made an attempt to categorise their fears, devoting a large chapter to this topic. To put it very briefly, many rural residents find it difficult to specify their fears which often stem from unprocessed historical traumas and feelings of social disintegration, an inability to protect themselves and their loved ones, and fear of any change and uncertainty about the future.
— Is there anything they reject as not being part of their worldview?
— Any form of social and political activity. They tend to see such activity as dangerous and useless and those who engage in it as either liars or freeloaders whose lives are way too comfortable.
— Dissatisfaction with life and an unwillingness to change anything about it: is this a paradox or an understandable phenomenon?
— Psychologists and political scientists may attempt to explain it, but it was not our objective. Instead, we wanted to find out whether the mass media could contribute to the process of modernisation in today's Russia. Our answer is ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’.
While TV advertising and consumption-promoting programmes gradually habituate people to use certain novel household items and entertainment products, the number of household appliances or books on the shelves in their homes has little effect on people's overall outlook on life, their values and fears. Purchasing a new washing machine or an expensive TV does not make people feel safer in today’s society nor does it inspire them to get together with others to make life better for their rural community.
— Home interiors are a separate and remarkable feature in the book. What do they tell us about rural residents' everyday habits?
— We witnessed a curious hybrid between home decor items dating back to the 1950s and 1970s and sophisticated new technology, e.g. a plasma TV peacefully coexisting with well-worn cast iron skillets and chipped-enamel wash bowls, antique pillows, lace napkins and kitsch pictures in 'gilded' plastic frames, and recently refurbished, expensive-looking rooms with dilapidated closets filled with all sorts of rubbish.
First, this may indicate that many people cannot afford to refurbish their entire homes in one go. But there is another aspect to this eclectic mix of ancient and new items which brings up associations with the hoarder Plyushkin, a fictional character in Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls : rural residents tend to hold on to inanimate objects and memories related to their family and culture for much longer than people in big cities. Indeed, some respondents regard it as their special mission within the family to preserve such objects.
— The internet and multichannel television can broaden horizons by allowing people to access diverse sources of information. But rural residents seem in no hurry to embrace this diversity. Also out of fear? Or is it a media literacy problem caused by other factors?
— I see this primarily as a manifestation of their overall conservatism and tendency towards a time-honoured way of life. But media literacy is indeed an issue. People refuse to trust anyone except their close family and do not know how to verify information. They are not sure how to make sense of this broader cultural content — or if they need it at all, for that matter — and have an aversion to changing their minds in general.
As for practical information such as cooking recipes, buying and selling cars and construction materials, rural residents make great use of the internet and social media to access such content.
— What do you consider to be the main reason why rural residents prefer Soviet-era content? Do they believe it was of higher quality compared to more recent media productions?
— I suppose the reason is the same as I said before: overall conservatism and habit. And maybe also the fact that many more films were produced in Soviet times about rural life which people can identify with. It does not even matter that their stories and details had little to do with reality. Those idealised images from the past are more appealing to people than more recent films and series, many of which feature crime stories.
Not only the elderly but the middle-aged people like to identify with the heroes of Soviet films: although both can still remember the Soviet-era poverty and fears, this memory seems to fade before vivid cinematic images showing the triumph of good and justice over evil.
— Modern-day television shows little interest in the lives of rural residents. How do they respond? Could it be one of the reasons why they are annoyed at the urban culture and find it hard to accept it?
— Yes, they respond with annoyance and rejection. Nonetheless, they encourage their children to move to the city where they may have an easier life. Most villagers do not see a future for their rural way of life.
— Let me quote from the book: 'We questioned the assumption — widespread in the media industry in the early 2000s — that with a radical increase in the number of television channels, the audience will drastically change its viewing habits and preferences, followed by a change in everyday practices'. What does your study show?
— That our doubts were true. TV viewing habits and preferences take time to change, although we cannot say that they do not change at all. And of course, those of the younger generation differ from the older age groups. As for practices of everyday life, they change in an uneven pattern and we found no correlation with television viewing.
— An enchanted place is one where 'time has stopped'. At the time of your field studies almost a decade ago, new technology had been unable to 'lift the charm'. Today, in 2021, the title of your new book is still The Enchanted Place. Is there any certainty that the spell could ever be lifted?
— Now in 2021, there is even less certainty than in 2012–2014. The recent pandemic and society's reaction to the health threat, vaccines and the lockdown regime have confirmed most of our observations.
Although we interviewed people about other things, their responses are applicable to this situation as well. To reiterate, people do not trust anyone except their close circle. They are particularly suspicious of science and technology which they believe to serve the interests of those in power. Hence their fear of vaccination.
They prefer to lie low in the hope of waiting out global cataclysms. They avoid taking responsibility not only for the life of their community but for their own lives, preferring to hand both over to the will of fate, nature and chance. They retell with relish any rumours and myths that seem to confirm their perspective but cannot and would not search for reliable information that could force them to change their minds.
The book's title, The Enchanted Place, is certainly not scientific. But when we thought of this title, all our diverse findings just fell into place. Of course, 'enchantment' cannot explain all of our observations made over several years of field trips, followed by several more years of reflection on the results. But we did not start with the aim of explaining everything. We documented many significant details characterising the transitional stage of this technological revolution. We asked ourselves and our readers a lot of questions. I believe this to be a good objective for scientific research.