The 1980s American Soap Opera That Explains How Russia Feels About Everything

A look at the peculiar obsession with “Santa Barbara” in the post-Soviet experience.

Photographs by Misha Friedman

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Санта Барбара Форева! — Santa Barbara Forevah! — was stenciled boldly in tall purple-chalk lettering on the side of my parents’ apartment building in the southwestern part of St. Petersburg, Russia, when I returned to the re-renamed city of my childhood and youth — Leningrad, USSR — in 1993. It was the first time I’d been back since immigrating to the United States seven years earlier. There were other signs of Santa Barbara’s presence in the city — improvised tributes to the American soap opera in the historic downtown area: a hole-in-the-wall café called Santa Barbara here, a Santa Barbara strip joint there. On several occasions I was asked, typically by women, whether I’d been to Santa Barbara myself and, if so, what it was like. I hadn’t, unfortunately. “You should go. That’d be the first place I would go if I could ever make it to America,” a middle-aged salesclerk at the grocery store said to me with mild reproach.

Santa Barbara certainly sounded nice.

In Santa Barbara, people had manners. They had their self-respect about them. The men didn’t urinate in hallways or write obscene words on the walls of elevator cabins. They didn’t smash lightbulbs in entryways or drink cheap eau de Cologne first thing in the morning. They didn’t occupy the only toilet in the communal apartment for a good half-hour or keep their dirty combat boots and homemade barrels of pickled mushrooms in the communal bathroom. And they certainly did not, out of pure malice, slip slivers of tar soap in other people’s pans with soup boiling on communal kitchen stoves. Nor did they come home dead drunk past midnight and plop down on the couch face first with their shoes on and immediately start snoring. In Santa Barbara, men were men, real men, handsome and gallant, even if they were not necessarily very good people in all other respects. They didn’t go through their entire lives without saying “I love you” once to their women, especially to their wives — on whom, admittedly, they cheated mercilessly nonstop, but … well, men would be men, wouldn’t they? In Santa Barbara, men didn’t die of cirrhosis of the liver barely past their mid-50s, and there did not appear to be millions more women than men there, in Santa Barbara, or in America on the whole.

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Early 1990s in Russia. It’s a tough slog out there. The world has gone topsy-turvy, completely. The eternally indestructible, matchlessly mighty Soviet Union is no more. It’s Russia once again, unimaginably enough, for the first time in more than seven decades, and to say that it is falling apart would be the understatement of the century. If you are an ordinary citizen whose time on Earth is closer to its end than to its beginning, strong chances are your lifetime savings have been wiped out completely overnight as a result of the so-called “shock therapy” implemented by Boris Yeltsin’s government on the advice of several renowned American economists, and the stealthy, lightning-quick monetary reform was one of its main components. You are, to put it bluntly, destitute, and you are thoroughly disoriented. What happened here? What’s happening with you and your country? What’s going to happen tomorrow?

The food store shelves are emptier now than they have ever been before, even at the lowest points of Leonid Brezhnev’s stagnation. “Goodbye, America, oh / where I’ve never been,” Vyacheslav Butusov, the charismatic lead singer of the popular rock band Nautilus Pompilius, croons periodically on the radio. America, my foot. What’s it really like? No one has much of an idea. Hopefully, those brilliant, internationally renowned American economists will show us right here, in Russia, what life in America is like. Because everyone knows that life in America is unimaginably good. It’s drafty and cold in your room — central heating defunct again. Outside, in the streets and squares of your city, glum-looking people with a dangerous glint to their slitted eyes are sitting on their haunches around makeshift bonfires in the dark.

You feel as if you are suspended in midair above a roiling ocean of dark entropy. (Do you know the word entropy? That’s not the point.) There are precious few certainties in your life anymore. Santa Barbara is one of them, and it is the prettiest and most optimistic of all.

An unfinished luxury home sits idle in a gated community in the Santa Barbara neighborhood of Kaliningrad, Russia. Arches similar to this one are a favorite architectural flourish from the show recreated in neighborhoods like this. The original Santa Barbara site in Kaliningrad expanded beyond the early plans for the development. Now there are three side-by-side neighborhoods — all called Santa Barbara.

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.

Left: An ad featuring a woman in a fur coat in Santa Barbara, Crimea. Right: An unfinished McMansion-style house in Santa Barbara, Kaliningrad.

In Santa Barbara, it never snows. No one even thinks about snow there, ever. It never gets to be minus 30 degrees in Santa Barbara, regardless of whether the temperature is measured in Celsius or Fahrenheit. Santa Barbarians know no privations. For instance, they have no idea what it feels like when the heat radiators in your room go ice-cold in the middle of January. In Santa Barbara, people don’t ever go hungry, either. Tiny black-clad babushkas, bent at the waist like dwarf trees on the Arctic Ocean shore, don’t go to newly restocked and expanded post-shock, true capitalist food stores just to feast their purblind eyes on all those unimaginable food products they couldn’t in their wildest dreams afford on their miserable pensions: foreign cheeses and sausage, fresh meat, smoked fish. In Santa Barbara, old babushkas are not bent at the waist — they’re not even babushkas at all, and they certainly don’t live from month to month feeding themselves on nothing but black bread, rough, gray military-caliber macaroni and potatoes, and perhaps a few hard lumps of sugar to suck on while drinking their weak Krasnodar tea from chipped faience cups. When old people in Santa Barbara get sick, they are not told by bored-looking paramedics that they’ve already lived quite long enough for an ordinary human being, so there really would be no moral rationale for wasting the extremely limited hospital space on the likes of them.

In Santa Barbara, people never once, even in passing, mention Russia. That makes sense: Why would they ever give Russia a second thought? Tens of millions of Russian people, however, think about Santa Barbara quite an awful lot. If you don’t watch Santa Barbara, where do you get your fashion sense or crucial lifestyle tips? How would you know how to decorate your palatial mansion and generally what kind of life to wish for on the very remote outside chance you ever manage to get to America?

It’s true — not everyone is a fan of Santa Barbara. As some of the show’s mostly male detractors like to grumble, no one ever sees a single book or even a single bookshelf in Santa Barbara’s stately mansions or large noncommunal apartments. In Russia, that would be inconceivable — and that might, indeed, to some extent, denote a certain measure of Santa Barbarians’ inner emptiness. Fair enough. But, then again, everyone already knows that Americans are kind of a little empty inside. So what? Not everyone can be as innately superspiritual as the Russian people, you know. That’s the one thing that Russians have other people elsewhere in the world don’t: their extreme spirituality. Well, OK, fine — so they don’t read books in Santa Barbara and probably don’t even know the names of Tolstoy or Pushkin or Chekhov. So what? Who cares, really, if truth to be told. Dostoyevsky and Lermontov never told you anything about places like Santa Barbara! And what good did having every Soviet child and grown-up read these great geniuses ever do for your country? Compare your ordinary Russian life with the way the nonbookish people of Santa Barbara live. Thank God for Santa Barbara! At least it doesn’t make you morbidly depressed; instead, it makes your life a little easier, more bearable and less depressing, by filling your head with beautiful, if ipso facto impossible, dreams.

Santa Barbara, in the full entirety of its irreality, is your lifeline to the reality of your life in the Russia of the timeless void of the 1990s. You may never have been anywhere outside your small town somewhere in central Russia or Siberia, or outside the streetless concrete block-box microdistricts surrounding the downtown of every large Russian city, but you still have a feeling you know the people of Santa Barbara better than your own friends and relatives. You have a clear sense that if perchance you ever were to find yourself in Santa Barbara — which could happen, sure, why not, if only in another lifetime — you would feel right at home.

But since the stubborn fact of your life happens to be that, at this particular juncture, you are still on your Russian lifetime, the next best thing is to create your own Santa Barbara right where you are. Saturate the space around you with those little archways that pop up on the TV screen to usher the viewer into the imaginary realm of Santa Barbara in the serial’s intro: Let every space of your life — be it your apartment or your dolorous microdistrict — be a symbolic passageway to a desperate, impossible dream. And those antique columns supporting nothing but air in Santa Barbara? You want those, too, be it on your windowsill or just outside your apartment building, towering amid piles of post-industrial rubbish. And let the primary colors of your life, instead of the fearsome Soviet crimson red, be Santa Barbara’s purple and gold.

Left: A horse statue outside one of the homes in Santa Barbara, Crimea. Right: A Virgin Mary statue looks out toward the street in the Santa Barbara neighborhood of Lviv, Ukraine. According to one resident, the statue dates back to a citywide cleanup campaign in preparation for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2001.

In the mid-1990s, there sprang to life a series of mini-Santa Barbaras — gated communities, microdistricts, bars, restaurants, hotels, clothing stores — all across the vast country. The name communicated exclusivity (one of the favorite Russian concepts and neologisms to emerge in the 1990s), mysterious foreignness, classiness, and extreme and timeless fashionability. What’s in a name? Everything, if, like everyone else, you would like to live the life of a Santa Barbara character but happen to have been born and are still residing in a depressingly unlovely place as far removed on every possible count from the actual (if thoroughly unreal) Santa Barbara as the distance between you and the moon. Nothing bad can happen to or in a place called Santa Barbara: In your imagination, it is the genius loci of your immediate world.

And so mobsters from Kaliningrad, in the country’s extreme west — German Königsberg, occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945, birthplace of Immanuel Kant and Vladimir Putin’s ex-wife — travel to the United States to take a good firsthand look at the architecture of Santa Barbara-like gated communities, or at least that’s the rumor. They return to Russia — and bring a bit of Santa Barbara with them. (They like the arches in one place, the pillars and the soap’s signature gold coloristic spectrum in another.)

These architectural accents could be found in very different parts of the former Soviet Union, but Santa Barbara was one of the precious few elements of a common denominator shared among them. In that regard, Santa Barbara — in both the narrow TV-specific sense and the broader cultural aspect — has served as a unifying factor. In post-totalitarian places, spiritual kitsch — that untranslatable Russian poshlost (what Vladimir Nabokov attempted to explain, with his characteristic genius imprecision, as “posh lust”) — generally is what brings newly separate spaces together, visually and conceptually.

Just as you can wander around a microdistrict, or bedroom community, in Moscow or St. Petersburg without having any idea which city you’re in (the tremendously popular Soviet TV film The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, which aired every New Year’s Eve for several decades, had that circumstance as its premise), you can travel through disparate post-Soviet geographic areas — from Kaliningrad to the Moscow region, from Moscow to Ukrainian Lviv and annexed Crimea — and see the sameness of architectural decisions based on identical taste-forming experiences and cultural influences, such as Santa Barbara’s name attached to a variety of establishments or locations and its unique attributes — a prevalence of gilded gates, the signature archways, and intensely blue oceanic vistas painted on walls of concrete-block buildings and children’s playground equipment.

Tourists write their names and where they are from onto the rocks along a cliff overlooking Santa Barbara, Crimea.

On April 17, 2002, Russia watched its final episode of Santa Barbara — number 2,040. By that time, viewers’ interest had faded. There were no block parties to catch the last episode, no great heartbreak. Everything is taken in stride in Russia.

It was a beautiful thing while it lasted. Over the years, for tens of millions of Russians, Santa Barbara was their parallel life, their One Thousand and One Nights in nearly 2,000 episodes — week after week, month after month, year after year of daily grind, through thick and thin, all through the troubled post-Soviet 1990s and up until the dull onset of the Putin-era stability, with its serendipitously high oil prices.

What followed is well-known: Russians rapidly rising and entirely uninured to prosperity, the growing degree of their contentment with life, and, as a result, their silent consent to Putin’s methodical dismantling of one democratic gain of the 1990s after another and the continuous injections of ever larger doses of anti-Western, and anti-American, poison into the country’s bloodstream. Santa Barbara had done its duty; Santa Barbara had to go. Russia’s quiet farewell to Santa Barbara was, in some small but tangible way, a farewell to post-Soviet innocence, to the naivety and beautifully impossible dreams of the 1990s. “Goodbye, America, oh / where I will never be,” Vyacheslav Butusov still crooned from time to time on TV.

What was it about the soap opera Santa Barbara that for an entire decade — during which people were born and died, got older, got married and divorced — drove tens of millions of Russians to utter distraction? It is indeed an interesting question, and the short answer to it would be: freedom.
Not America, per se, and not primarily the intricate interconnections of infinitely multiplying storylines or the sheer otherworldly visuals of paradisiacal palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze, and the incomprehensibly luxurious sprawling mansions with their impossibly, almost ludicrously, beautiful and handsome inhabitants — but rather, one might argue, the sense of absolute, unfettered freedom that filled the very air of Santa Barbara. Freedom was the dizzyingly exciting new thing for the people of Russia, that giant isolated and largely un-self-aware world unto itself, while for the Santa Barbara characters, it was the most natural, taken-for-granted thing in the world: the unthinking freedom to be just who you are, to feel being free, bold and self-assertive, independent, unashamed of yourself, uninterested in politics, passionately happy and unhappy, successful and unsuccessful; the freedom to come and go at will, appear and disappear, travel anywhere and at any time without asking anyone’s permission; the freedom to live without having once to stand in a long line in front of a food or clothing store and to be not just a citizen of Santa Barbara or America but also one of the entire world writ large.

Which is why, perhaps, the collective Russian nostalgia for Santa Barbara is still alive. News outlets run lengthy articles reflecting on the show’s legacy and influence, and it continues to be mentioned fondly on television and online. It is, in some certain sense, a self-directed nostalgia, people missing their own younger, less world-weary selves; they miss the way they used to be back when Santa Barbara gathered tens of millions of them all across Russia in front of their TV sets. People used to like themselves more back when they weren’t told and didn’t have to dislike America.

It could be suggested that Russia is newly fascinated with the United States; we are at an interesting moment between these two countries. It could also be suggested that, gleaned through the lens of Santa Barbara, Russia’s fascination with Donald Trump may be explained. He is the first American president that Russian audiences of the show can identify with as one of the serial’s characters — and thus, one of the very few categories of Americans with which they are familiar. Bill Clinton was too folksy and excessively good-natured for a leading man or a man with the requisite aura of sinister mystery, and his relationships with women were sordid and low-class. George W. Bush just didn’t seem sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a major Santa Barbara character. Besides, the newspapers said he wasn’t really bright at all, and he appeared generally uninterested in gorgeous women, so he was not mysterious in any way. Barack Obama, admittedly, looked very good in a tux and also was elegant and handsome, but again, as in Bush’s case, he was constantly talking about his love for his wife, which of course was a highly commendable character trait, but it also rendered him more than a little boring, someone hard to organize an adequately convoluted plotline around. Trump, on the other hand, fits in nicely with the image of a typical fat-cat American capitalist as etched forever into the collective Soviet mind by countless newspaper cartoons: big, crude-featured, wears a tux all the time, has gold everywhere in his giant New York apartment, has lots of luxurious estates, had all kinds of glamorous romances in the past, is cruel and unthinkingly decisive. Yes, if you are someone who used to live in the Soviet Union, that was the American you knew, willy-nilly. But also, counterintuitively, paradoxically, he likes Putin, which means he has to like Russia on some level.

In general, Russians seem to be tiring of being told constantly it is their patriotic duty to dislike and loathe the Western world and the United States in particular. Russia has no alternative model of societal development to offer the democratic world, except vague references to traditional conservative values steeped in a deep resentment of modernity.

Putin remains highly popular with the majority of older Russians, although their dissatisfaction with the stagnating (and that means steadily worsening) economic situation in the country is more palpable now than it has been in many years, almost dating as far back as the early 2000s. But those of the younger generation, whose entire lives have been spent under Putin’s ossified regime, are now actively and ever more vociferously protesting against him. They are tired of being held back — and being pushed back forcibly into Russia’s retrograde past. They want to live at the same time in Russia and in the world writ large.

Santa Barbara lives on.

But the “Santa Barbara Forevah” graffiti on the side of the apartment building where my parents used to live back in 1993 in St. Petersburg — it no longer is there.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.

Mikhail Iossel is the Leningrad-born author of the story collection Every Hunter Wants to Know. (@Mikhail_Iossel)