We think of the chat show as a peculiarly American phenomenon; in fact, it could have been invented for the Russians, for whom soul-bearing has long been a national pastime. But, in today's lawless post-Soviet society, too much openness can be dangerous
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The Independent Culture
Not many television chat shows get raided by the police. But then not many television chat shows feature murderers, junkies, pimps and army deserters. The Man in the Mask, broadcast at prime-time on Sundays on Russia's NTV channel, is talk television with a twist. Instead of celebrity guests primed for self-promotion, the programme features unknowns who intend to remain unknown. All appear clad in the programme's trademark mask (in fact, they have a choice of three) and black hood, their voices distorted to prevent identification. The reason becomes clear as soon as they begin to speak.

"Yes, I am a murderer," confessed one recent guest, a former KGB officer who now runs a private hit squad against drug dealers. "I find runaway boys in the streets and railway stations," explained another, a pimp. And so it goes on: I deserted from the army; I was a drug addict; I'm waiting for a sex change; I was confined in a mental asylum against my will...

The programme's format is that of the classic TV talk show, with host Vladimir Posner and his guest seated in front of a studio audience. But it operates in a space where daytime TV meets Dostoevsky. Posner, a renowned Russian journalist and veteran of US network television, plays father confessor to individuals on the fringes, people who feel excluded from society by crimes real or imagined. The result is a series of compelling snapshots of contemporary Russia, not to mention compulsive television viewing.

Peering over spectacles at his "hero" - as he invariably calls the masked guest - Posner manages to avoid both the smug bonhomie of many Western counterparts, and the sensationalism inherent in many of his subjects. His appearance is more that of a professor or philosopher than that of a talk-show host; his demeanour is deceptively gentle. He is unfailingly polite, even when he plainly disapproves of his guest. In fact, it's a brilliant confidence trick, a mixture of psychiatrist's couch and confessional; before realising it, the guest has often revealed far more than he or she intended, and Posner has thrown the show open to questions from the audience.

Russians famously love to talk, especially when it comes to baring their souls; but their history has also bred an understandable inclination to secrecy. This is not a society inclined to Oprah-style exposure. By bestowing anonymity on their guests the programme's producers have resolved the unresolvable: they have enabled a society accustomed to subterfuge to reveal itself in public. They have also devised a framework in which society's taboos can be aired, a sure-fire audience-grabber, as programme-makers the world over know.

Here, for example, is the recent testimony of Vladimir, the pimp who recruits child prostitutes on the streets and in stations. "I wash them, feed them and give them shelter. I happen to know men who like young boys, and sometimes they ask me to find lads for them. I don't think there's anything wrong in providing some kind of family for hungry and homeless kids. When small boys sell themselves for a plate of soup and are forced to have perverted sex with a maniac as payment, that's something else, that's not good.

"I can tell you plenty of stories where rich queers have adopted kids and given them a good life, a proper education, and prepared them to be their future partners when they are mature. You may call me a pimp, but I'm not. I don't take money for this service, in fact I think of it as a kind of charity..." What? But as he continues the audience becomes less comfortable within its moral certainties. "I grew up in a children's home myself... I was hungry, I was morally and sexually abused. So I like the idea that I have helped 20 boys. I'm glad they are not hungry, they have nice clothes, they are under the supervision of their father and lover; at least they've been saved from lives of thieving and crime."

The guests' motives for appearing on the programme vary. Some are interested in the reactions their confessions provoke. Sergei, for example, an army deserter who donned the mask, saw his appearance as an opportunity to test his decision to desert with the studio audience. He had made a new life for himself as the director of a commercial firm in Moscow, and he had been unable to talk to anyone else about what he had done. "I am interested in people's opinions: have I made the right decision or not?" Others, such as Yana, a drug addict since she was 15, hope that if they share their experiences, others may learn from them. "My mother found the money to bring me to Moscow for treatment," Yana told viewers. "I finished the course in March last year, and now I feel so happy it's all over. I enjoy a real life without drug illusions, and I use the opportunity to warn others tempted by drugs: beware of your so-called friends, sisters and brothers, learn from my sad experience. Never touch what is offered to you. Whether it's a smoke, a pill or an injection; whether it's to feel better, to escape problems or just to enjoy music deeper. The narcotics business will only disappear if people just refuse to try drugs."

The same motive prompted Stas, diagnosed as HIV-positive. "The reason I decided to appear on this programme is to warn people not to be careless and foolish. OK, I was ignorant. At that time the specialists and the press told us that Aids is a disease caught only by homosexuals and drug addicts, but I have a friend who was infected by an ordinary woman, not a prostitute, a year and a half after my case. He knew what had happened to me, but he didn't bother to use condoms."

Like the Aids patient, Marina, who was recovering from a mastectomy, was seeking acceptance in what she considered a cruel, rejecting world. "In Russia if you tell people that you have cancer they react as if you have Aids. When I told my friends I was suffering from breast cancer they all abandoned me. People are ignorant: they assume that anyone suffering from cancer is not long for this world, and many even believe that cancer is infectious. My whole life, it was important to me to be successful with men, and after the operation I thought that I would never be a real woman again. But I have been lucky enough to find an understanding boyfriend. Now I realise that there are men who want more in a woman than simply a pair of breasts."

Given the subject matter of many of the programmes, security is a prime concern at the studios, both to protect the interviewees and to shield the programme staff from the legal consequences of what is revealed. The evening's guest is whisked into the television centre under cover of the incoming studio audience, avoiding the normal registration procedures. Members of the public applying for tickets are never informed of the night's topic in advance; it is only revealed after they are seated and the studio doors are sealed. The guest is prepared in the immediate backstage area rather than in the usual make-up rooms.

The show is pre-recorded, avoiding the risk of the authorities raiding a live broadcast to seize the guest, and, if the interviewee requests it, his or her voice is digitally altered and the original recording destroyed. Posner himself never meets his guest before the programme, a fact he stresses to the studio audience during his introduction.

The precautions paid off when police raided the production studios after the recent broadcast in which a former KGB officer told the studio audience about his vendetta against drug dealers. "To date our group has destroyed about four tons of opium and exterminated around 70 people," he said proudly. "I absolutely have no regrets about killing them, they were all drug-dealing scum. Yes, I am a murderer, but by doing this we have saved hundreds of innocent lives. I am sure that society has benefited from our actions, and God will grant me absolution."

The police were less forgiving. They quizzed the production team and went through all the studio logs. But the guest had not been registered in the usual way. None of the production staff had seen him without the mask. No one had even a real name or a contact telephone, since "Yakov" had originally contacted the programme on the telephone number broadcast at the end of each episode. The police were left holding a videotape of a masked man with an electronically disguised voice.

"These precautions are necessary," stresses one of the team. "It's not a question of whether we approve or disapprove of our guests. If we cannot absolutely guarantee their security there will be no programme. It's that simple." !