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Byline: Paul Mitchell & Norma Percy
Aweek ago last Saturday in her dacha outside Moscow, our Russian producer, Masha Slonim, disentangled herself from one of her 13 dogs, lit another cigarette and settled in front of her television set. Our BBC series Putin, Russia & The West was about to begin on Russian TV.
The contract of sale said that all four episodes had to be broadcast as we made them -- and the Russian translations must be approved by us. The translated script for the first arrived only two days beforehand and Masha had found more than a dozen errors and omissions. They could have been genuine mistakes, but they could also have been attempts to make it more Putin-friendly. Masha corrected the scripts and sent them back.
It was only now that she would discover whether the Russian channel had honoured the agreement. About ten minutes in came a crucial passage. A line describing Putin's brutal policy in Chechnya had been omitted in NTV's first draft. Had they reinstated the line?
Broadcasting the series was something of a barometer of whether anything was changing in Putin's Russia. It was not easy when we began making this documentary, which tried to get inside his Kremlin, in 2009. Early on we got in touch with an old friend at a state-owned TV network -- let's call him "Sasha" -- who had always been sensitive to Moscow's political climate.
We wanted to buy his network's old news footage. Sasha asked: "Is there going to be anything dangerous in it?" In Putin's Russia, that's an easily understood question. Dozens of topics and people have been erased from television. We told him that we had interviews with former Putin ministers who were now in opposition, and with the Presidents of Georgia and Ukraine, whom Putin had tried to topple. We would cover the murders of journalists and "Putin enemies". Sasha said sorry, his channel couldn't help us. Others were just as reluctant.
But once the series was finished NTV, Russia's biggest commercial channel, owned by the state oil company Gazprom, asked if it could buy it. What had happened? Had media freedom suddenly returned? Not exactly. What had arrived in Russia, altogether unexpectedly, was dissent. When we started two years earlier, television was off limits to Putin's critics. The oligarchs who had owned the free media had been driven abroad or forced to toe the party line.
Putin's most serious opponent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was in prison.
Of course, some stalwarts did keep fighting for human rights. Grey hair poked out from the fur hats of the few demonstrators who braved the cold and the police to listen to Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the venerated dissident. But average, middle-class Russians were more interested in making -- and spending -- the money that was flooding into the country.
Then last December the demonstrations erupted. The State, caught on the back foot for the first time, had to do something. What it did was try to make the Presidential election at least seem democratic. State TV began televising the demos, and even allowed some of the opposition on air. It was at this moment that NTV approached the BBC, saying that they wanted to broadcast our series.
So what happened when it went out? The line on Putin's brutal Chechnya policy was back in. The Russian people saw the programmes just as we made them. Masha poured herself a whisky and the dogs got a sausage.
Viewing figures were extraordinary: the sort of numbers NTV would expect for a popular soap And the critics? The liberal Kommersant newspaper said that the film "tells many sharp stories that have long been censored -- details that Russians could only find on the internet, not on mainstream TV". And from Twitter: "The series is several hours of incrimination of Putin. Has the world turned upside down? Am I dreaming?" Another tweet read: "The head of NTV is a hero for allowing this broadcast. I can't see why NTV did it."
We think we can. Putin likes the series. An NTV chap told us: "He thinks it shows him as a strong leader." What liberals saw as a revelation of Putin's brutal suppression of dissent, his supporters saw as the strongman standing up to Western enemies or greedy oligarchs.
Across newspapers, blogs and Twitter, genuine debate was unfolding. The first trickle of a Russian Spring? Perhaps. But NTV, at least, was betting that the window will close again. It insisted on broadcasting before yesterday's election. Vladimir Putin still calls the shots. And if all goes to his plan, by today he will no longer have to worry about public opinion.
Norma Percy is series producer and Paul Mitchell is series director of Brook Lapping's Putin, Russia & The West. The BBC version is available to download in the UK at www.blinkbox.com
Viewing figures were extraordinary: the sort expected for a soap