Aside from their obvious political consequences, the events of October 3 and 4 in Moscow also contained important meaning for students of pop culture. The primary target of the neo-Bolsheviks’ assault was the Ostankino complex, a television tower and revolving restaurant, from which they intended to broadcast rebel leader Ruslan Khasbulatov’s appeal to arms. But with the Kremlin desperately seeking to restore calm on the airwaves, the Russian people were treated instead to tantalizing glimpses of the Western cultural smorgasbord towards which their leaders were hoping to advance the country: hour after hour of American television from the 1970s.
Not just any television, mind you; this was a special occurrence, and demanded special programming. Nothing could suffice short of the highest achievements of Television City’s golden years: the one-two punch of Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island keeping Saturday night sacred for ABC, followed by an ABC Sunday Night at the Movies showing of Airport ‘77 from years gone by, complete with station breaks and commercials. Jimmy Walker, Candace Bergen, and Bert Convy were the power troika that reassured the nervous Russian folk in the bloody hours of October 3-4. Steering a supersonic jetliner gashed by explosions to a successful crash landing may be a task too great for Boris Yeltsin or even Charlton Heston, but not for Captain Steubing’s love child, later Cruise Director, Julie. Nor for her co-pilot, a half-blind general practitioner from Phoenix played by none other than John Denver.
But had Operation Donna Summer—the pacification strategy devised by the military unit charged with containing the rebels in the White House—worked as planned, the Kremlin might never have been forced to fall back on the comforting images of Airport ‘77. All through October 3 they had deafened the area from Smolensk Square to the White House with music loud enough to drown out the voices of Khasbulatov, Rutskoi and the various other neo-Bolshevik speakers. And, as with the TV specials to which they ultimately escalated, this was no ordinary music. Some polka, some Russian folk songs, but mostly Europop that had been shamelessly pilfered from the newly privatized airwaves of Radio Maximum. Babuschkas who had assembled below the Comecon building occasionally broke into jigs, thinking the music was intended to keep them and the other rebels in high spirits. And at one point a witty soldier played the new bubblegum hit by Ace of Bass: “Happy nation/Living in a happy nation/What salvation!” The irony was lost on the angry crowds.