MOSCOW - The other night, the sexually provocative movie "Last Tango in Paris," starring Marlon Brando, turned up unannounced on NTV television. A few nights later, the politically provocative and beloved satirist named Viktor Shenderovich disappeared from his 10 p.m. time slot.
Before confused and frustrated NTV viewers could sort that out, they were confronted with yet another disorienting image. NTV news, known for its unflinching coverage of the misery accompanying the fighting in Chechnya, was suddenly presenting a picture of life as normal in the war-torn republic.
Reality underwent a drastic change here during the early hours of April 14, when Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly, seized NTV television, which until then had been the only major network not controlled by the state.
Most of the reporters, editors and programmers who had made NTV popular and professionally polished fled to the smaller and less-ambitious TV6, engaging in a sort of guerrilla news operation there. Gazprom installed a Russian-American financier as head of NTV and for several days the same tired anchor presented one news program after another. Old chestnuts of movies filled any gaps.
"The network is ruined," says Oleg Panfilov, deputy chairman of the Russian Union of Journalists.
Last week, the news on the once-vigorous and probing NTV began to look pretty much the same at it did on ORT, the big, state-controlled and Kremlin-pleasing network.
One evening, both showed the Kremlin-appointed Chechen government moving into the capital of Grozny, a scene including a happy couple dancing in celebration on the ruins of the city. Both stations also reported on the restoration of train service, with cameras filming joyful passengers getting off the first train from Chechnya to arrive in Moscow in two years.
Most viewers would assume that what they had been hearing from President Vladimir V. Putin and his aides was true: Rebellious Chechnya was under control and life-as-normal was taking hold.
The renegade reporters at TV6, however, took the trouble to talk to the passengers getting off the train. TV6 viewers heard them describe a different reality in Chechnya - bombings, the elderly living in fear, little hope of peace. This view of Chechnya was borne out by events. On Wednesday, a police station in the republic was blown up, killing six policemen.
"Switching from one channel to another," says Alla Bossart, a commentator for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, "you cannot rid yourself of the idea that they are all reporting from a small psychiatric clinic."
By losing NTV, she says, Russian television had lost a needed dose of reality.
NTV, an abbreviation for Independent Television, was set up by Vladimir A. Gusinsky in 1994, broadcasting from 6 p.m. to midnight. Gusinsky's business empire was called Media-Most and included a bank, the newspaper Segodnya and newsmagazine Itogi, published in conjunction with Newsweek.
Gusinsky, one of Russia's financial oligarchs, won full-time broadcasting rights for NTV in 1996, after he and his news executives helped promote the presidential campaign of Boris N. Yeltsin.
Businesses here often depend on such favors. And Gusinsky received even more state-connected help when he decided to expand with a satellite network. He raised cash by selling a 30 percent stake to Gazprom in 1996. In 1998, Gazprom guaranteed two loans, one for $211 million and another for $261 million.
Then, political winds shifted. Gusinsky refused to support Putin the way he had supported Yeltsin. Russia's financial collapse of 1998 had eroded advertising, and Media-Most was unable to pay off its debts. State-controlled Gazprom decided to collect.
With the help of some odd court decisions - one judge who had ruled in favor of Gusinsky in the morning changed his mind in favor of Gazprom in the afternoon - the gas monopoly moved in with its security guards.
Gusinsky, said one media critic, had forgotten how business works in Russia.
"You understand there's no such thing as an honest business in Russia," says Pyotr Silantyev, a former broadcaster who now writes about the medium. "So you need to be especially careful. They sold their souls to the devil, and they should have been prepared for the consequences."
Though Gusinsky certainly owed Gazprom money, most observers don't believe the takeover of NTV was a financial matter. Other Gazprom debts go uncollected.
In the week after NTV's fall, the Itogi staff was locked out and replaced by other journalists. The newspaper Segodnya was closed.
"It's purely a political thing," says Boris Fyodorov, a former deputy prime minister who now is a dissident board member of Gazprom.
"If it was about money, if you care about the value of your company, you don't allow the best journalists to leave. This is stupid. This is not a business decision."
Fyodorov spoke about the NTV situation at length April 18 at a forum sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He was asked if it was possible to compete honestly in Russia in "an environment of cheating and silent tricks."
His reply suggested that there is a slow but growing awareness here that the climate must change - though it certainly has not yet done so.
"In the last year, the attention to this question in Russia increased," Fyodorov said. "It doesn't mean there will be a lot of action, but I like the way there is at least some progress, even if it is mental, not really actual."
Many television watchers have simply grown weary of the controversy, which has been brewing for a year, ever since Gusinsky was arrested and thrown in jail on embezzlement charges.
"I'm a little tired of the hysterics," says Silantyev, the former broadcaster. "And all of this certainly has affected the quality. If you ask who's side am I on, I would say neither. They [the Gusinsky group] made it worse for themselves and their audience by being so impulsive. You can fight for freedom of speech in a more professional way."
The demise of NTV certainly doesn't mean a return to Soviet times, when the news consisted of reports on factory production and wheat harvests, interspersed with the comings and goings of the Communist leadership.
But NTV had reached a higher level. Bossart remembers a brilliant, probing interview of Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist leader, on NTV. The other day, she saw another NTV interview of him.
"The interviewer looked like a bad pupil failing an exam," she says, "where Zyuganov was the professor."
NTV also brought humor to political commentary. One vestige of that is the company that produces "Kukly." The political satire show using puppets to depict Russia's leaders had a contract with NTV that it could not break. The Gazprom-controlled NTV has promised to keep the show. It was broadcast at the beginning of last week, showing Putin and his aides dressed in drab Chairman Mao uniforms. The background was China's Cultural Revolution.
A Putin henchmen has been splattered with a bird dropping, and he convinces the president that sparrows are dangerous to the state and must be eliminated.
From time to time, they turn toward the television, where a puppet journalist from the old NTV crew is reporting. "The government was slightly criticized by a small bird," he says, "and now the government is going to take repressive measures against sparrows."
The sparrows, of course, stand in for NTV and freedom of speech. And the crowds of common folk are caught up in a campaign against them, like the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution.
They don't heed the warning from television: "All who love sparrows, unite, or you'll be next." And soon joyous citizens in dull uniforms are proclaiming to Putin, "Hail to the Great Leader, the sparrows have all been killed."
And then, a huge swarm of locusts appears. They eat voraciously. No sparrows are left to combat them. They ravage the landscape.
And everything is destroyed.