Russians rebel at threat to scrap TV soap

COULD THIS be the straw that breaks the camel's back? Russia's 147 million population weathers extreme cold, queues, shortages, mass unemployment and contract killings with astounding patience. But you mess about with Santa Barbara at your peril.

Forced by plunging revenues to take the soap opera off the air after eight years, state-run RTR television has appealed for help from the government, warning that the loss of the serial is an issue of "national security".

Its alarm appears to be shared by the fans, 10 million of whom tuned in nightly until the plug was pulled a month ago. RTR says it has received hundreds of calls and letters of protest. Viewers have formed a "Committee to save Santa Barbara"; this week there was a small demonstration outside the television station in Moscow, featuring middle-aged women waving placards.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, soaps have become hugely popular in Russia. Members of Santa Barbara supporters' clubs meet to study the geography of California and share fantasies about life on the rich west coast of America. When Veronica Castro, the Mexican star of the equally popular soap The Rich Also Cry, visited Moscow in 1992, she was mobbed by fans, including several ministers, and President Boris Yeltsin held a dinner for her in the Kremlin. In 1994, there was a national outcry when the communication workers threatened to black out the programme in an industrial protest - they won their case.

On the day of the last presidential election, the pro-government television channels ran extra episodes of soaps to try to deter the Communist-voting grandmothers from going to the polls.

The Santa Barbara fans may yet be appeased. Yesterday, RTR told The Independent that it had scraped together funds to bring back the serial next week.

"I have received a huge number of complaints, most from middle-aged women," said Yelena Tikhomirova, RTR spokeswoman. "They say that life is hard because they don't get paid, and that the programme is their only distraction ... they insist on having their programme back."

Relief may not last long. Russia's economic crisis has cut television advertising revenue by 80 per cent; there are grave doubts over whether RTR can afford to buy the soap after March, setting the stage for a spring of discontent.