Junkies, murderers, prostitutes, KGB hit men - all sorts of criminals readily appear on a celebrated Russian chat show. As long as they can wear a mask. By Lola Toptchieva. Photographs by Jeremy Nicholl
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In Soviet times, state television - and there wasn't any other kind - served up a drab diet of classical music and party propaganda. Now the menu is altogether racier. To the foreign thrillers and soap operas can be added the talk show. But, unlike its Western counterpart, which is often no more than an opportunity for celebrity puffs, the Russian chat show leaves no stone unturned in its search for subjects.

None is more sensationalist than The Man in the Mask, hosted by veteran Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner. In its first series, guests have included drug addicts, Aids sufferers, an army deserter, a pimp for child prostitutes, a former KGB officer with a private hit squad, and a self-confessed murderer. All appeared clad in the programme's trademark mask and hood, their voices distorted to prevent identification.

Peering over his spectacles at the guest, whom he invariably refers to as a "hero", Pozner looks more like a university professor than a talk- show host. He is unfailingly polite, even when obviously disapproving. But it's a brilliant confidence trick, a mixture of psychologist's couch and priest's confessional. Before the guests realise it, they have been led into revealing everything about themselves. It's not unusual then for the police to arrive, although the show is always pre-recorded and the interviewee may have the original recording destroyed.

"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."

Russians famously love to talk and to bare their souls, but their brutal history has also inclined them to secrecy. Television documentary director Larissa Lenskaya describes The Man in the Mask as performing a useful social function: "In Soviet times, people with problems would go to Soviet institutions, like the local party committee or trade union. Now such people don't know how to use their new freedoms to solve their problems. Often a guest appears on this programme because he doesn't know how to make decisions about his life. So he is using the audience as a kind of confessor."

Mary Nazari, one of the show's writers and a former psychiatrist, agrees: "It's not part of the Russian culture to see a psychologist when you have a problem. We share our problems more readily with someone we meet in a train carriage than with close friends and family."

Programmes like The Man in the Mask, along with the NTV channel's front- line reporting from Chechnya, are the most dramatic examples of the changes which have swept through post-Soviet broadcasting. "Perestroika broke this Berlin Wall in the ether, this obstacle between creators and audience," claims Sergei Muratov, professor of TV and mass media at Moscow State University. "A lot of new genres have appeared, styles of broadcasting which people didn't even know existed."

Georgi Leskes, a political commentator at ATV, which produces The Man in the Mask, says that the changes are so radical that no one knows whether it's for the better or worse. "First there was a revolution in the country, and now there has been a revolution in the country's television."

Some people, however, regret what has been lost. "Our new TV is journalistically far superior to what we had before," points out Prof Muratov. "Now we have information, not propaganda. But we have lost culture and good taste. The propaganda of Soviet TV was not just political; it included the propagation of culture of a certain quality, but, with the loss of state funding, that quality has disappeared along with the political controls."

Lola Toptchieva 1997