You really owe it to yourself to read Mikhail Iossel’s essay in Foreign Policy on the role of the American soap opera Santa Barbara in the Russian popular imagination. Here’s a snippet:
Santa Barbara was the first American soap opera to be broadcast on Russian television. It started airing on Jan. 2, 1992, with episode 217, and came to a close on April 17, 2002, with episode 2,040. For the first several years, the new episodes ran three evenings per week. Later on, the show’s broadcasts became fewer and further between.
For 10 long years — all through the crime-ridden, chaotic 1990s, the early post-Soviet years of timelessness and hardship — life in large cities, small towns, industrial settlements, and snowbound villages across Russia’s 11 time zones would come to a standstill as the remarkably cheery sounds of Santa Barbara’s intro issued from millions of TV sets. “Run on home — you don’t want to miss Santa Barbara,” the kindly pharmacist from a TV commercial would say to the old woman at the counter. It was that big a deal. Missing an episode was considered to be a personal mini-tragedy.
Santa Barbara’s imprint was everywhere. It entered the Russian vernacular, as a denotation for any hopelessly tortuous, excessively dramatic kind of relationship. (“Oh, I can’t stand those two, with their endless Santa Barbara!”) A well-known pop band, Mona Lisa, released a super-hit, “Santa Barbara,” in which young women proclaim their undying love for the character Mason Capwell (played by Lane Davies). Countless Russian dogs and cats bore the exotic names Mason, Eden, Cruz, and C.C. Capwell. A trickle of former Santa Barbara stars — Jed Allan, Lane Davies, Nicolas Coster, and others — visited Russia at different times in the 1990s and 2000s, appearing on numerous TV channels, giving a plethora of print interviews, gushing about the beauty of Russia and its men and women — and generally, one would imagine, feeling like the Beatles during their first tour of the United States.
It was a national obsession of borderline-insane magnitude.
The contrast between the fictitious Santa Barbara and the realities of life in late 20th century post-Soviet Russia could hardly have been starker. When the last episode of the soap was aired in Russia a decade later (and a decade later than here), it left behind a country studded with homes and neighborhoods influenced by it along with a lingering nostalgia.