BAKHCHISARAI, Ukraine — Nina Kuzmichna used to tune out the travails of her real life--an existence on a $20-a-month pension--by tuning into the fantasy troubles of the young, rich and restless in the Russian-dubbed American soap opera "Santa Barbara."
But anticipation turned to dismay for the 58-year-old Russian recently when she switched on her television set to find that the Capwell clan and the show's other characters suddenly had Ukrainian voices.
"My heart fell," she said. "I didn't understand what was going on."
What is happening, to an outcry of protest from ethnic Russians in Ukraine, is that authorities in this former Soviet republic are "de-Russifying" television. Russian Television, which broadcasts Russian-dubbed "Santa Barbara" three nights a week from Moscow, was taken off the air in Ukraine in August; the Ukrainian state network, shedding its Soviet-style provincialism to fill the entertainment vacuum, inaugurated the popular show last month in Ukrainian.
But here on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, once part of Russia and still dominated by ethnic Russians, local Crimean Television fought back by stealing Russian Television's "Santa Barbara" signal.
The result is a language war with high ratings. As Kuzmichna and other viewers struggle to follow the saga of Eden, Cain's beautiful hostage, political analysts are viewing it as a new episode in Crimea's troubles with the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
"What language the show is in will tell you who is making political concessions," said Dominique Saudan, chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission to Crimea.
Russian and Ukrainian are kindred Slavic tongues, but many words for the stuff of soap operas--\o7 love\f7 ,\o7 pregnant\f7 ,\o7 father\f7 ,\o7 child\f7 ,\o7 betrayal\f7 --are completely different.
The word for \o7 divorce \f7 is the same. And that's exactly what many Russians in Crimea favor. Popular sentiment for leaving Ukraine and rejoining Russia is so high that it led to the election last year of a separatist Crimean government. But after the new Crimean president and Parliament began fighting each other, Kiev this year took away Crimea's autonomy and eliminated its presidency, and it seemed that Crimeans had reconciled themselves to remaining part of Ukraine.
But when "Santa Barbara"--a soap opera that NBC broadcast in the United States from 1984 until early 1993--switched to Ukrainian, Crimeans drew the line. Demonstrators marched to Crimea's Parliament building, denouncing what they called linguistic imperialism. "Our phone rang off the hook with complaints when it happened," said Galina Shcherbak, a Crimean Television official.
The Parliament's deputy chairman, Vladimir Podkopayev, said Crimea was facing "a state of emergency."
"My wife told me not to come home until 'Santa Barbara' is in Russian again," he joked.
Saudan, a Swiss diplomat, said Kiev may have gone too far. "For many people, this [program] is one of the few pleasures in life."
He said Ukrainian officials are uncertain whether to keep the Ukrainian-dubbed show on the air. "They are testing to see if people stay upset or get used to it," he said.
Most Crimeans understand enough Ukrainian for the limited demands of soap opera dialogue. Their opposition to the Ukrainian "Santa Barbara" isn't necessarily an issue of comprehension.
"Russian is holy for them," Saudan said. "Some even regard Ukrainian as a dialect of Russian. It's unpopular."
Under Soviet rule, Ukrainian was dismissed as a "peasant" language, and non-peasants who insisted on speaking it were branded as dissidents. Prejudices against the language persist.
Lena Glushkova was asked about the beloved California soap's new dubbing as she sipped peach-flavored vodka at the train station in Simferopol, Crimea's capital. "I hate that nationalist language!" she exclaimed. "I hate it!"
Responding to such sentiment, Crimea's Parliament ordered Crimean Television last month to reinstate the Russian-dubbed soap. While they negotiate a commercial deal with Russian Television, Crimean Television executives have begun pirating the signal.
But the Ukrainian-dubbed soap is holding its own. The Ukrainian state network is showing five episodes of "Santa Barbara" a week, two more a week than the Russian version.
"We're six episodes ahead of Russia now and that lead will increase with time," said Andrew Kinsell, commercial director of Perehid Media, the U.S.-English-Ukrainian venture that purchased the serial's Ukrainian rights.
Svetlana Sumova, an ethnic Russian who sells local wines and postcards outside the opulent 16th-Century Khan's Palace here, said she doesn't like the Ukranian sound but believes Crimeans eventually will accept it if that's what it takes to follow the program.
"It's more important that it's interesting than what language it's in," she said.