Weird tales from behind the iron mask

Faces hidden, they tell their stories of sex, racism and alcoholism. But, Phil Reeves reports from Moscow, Oprah it isn't - yet
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The young woman is sitting on a stage, her slight frame illuminated by a spotlight, before an audienceso engrossed by her words that it almost seems paralysed. She is, she explains, a transsexual, a 19-year-old woman in body, but a man in mind and deed.

She calls herself Misha.

"Sometimes it is impossible to walk in the street," she tells the looming camera. "I feel like Jesus Christ. People throw stones and sticks and insults. If only you could hear what they say. You can't tell I am a girl if you look at me, but people who live near my home already know me from childhood. They shout abuse when I walk by."

Slowly, quietly, she unveils her story - an intimate tale of personal anguish, deepened by the fear that she may never be able to afford the sex-change operation she desperately needs. "I want understanding now more than anything else. I am neither man nor woman. But I am scared about the future."

In front of her, sitting on a high stool, glasses perched inquisitorially on the tip of his nose, is the waistcoated figure of Vladimir Posner, a celebrity television journalist. Her account complete, he roves off into the auditorium to seek the views of the audience. A prim-looking middle-aged woman stands up. There are many people with far worse problems, she says. Why is Misha bothering the world with her lesser worries?

It is a scene you could find on any channel, at any time of day or night on American television. But because Misha is on Russian television, she is wearing a metal mask.

The audience is watching the recording of a new programme, called Chelovek V'Maske - Man in the Mask - which was launched eight weeks ago as the latest addition to Russia's growing collection of talk shows, and is fast climbing up the ratings. The opening programmes featured a homosexual, a black Russian talking about racism, an army deserter and an alcoholic - all masked. Future attractions include a KGB man who claims to have assassinated 40 people, exercising a licence to kill given to him by the Soviet government.

Confessional talk shows are still in their infancy in Russia, where for years the Soviet authorities force-fed the population with a grindingly solemn diet of concerts, war films, sport, folk dancing and heavily censored news. Although their usual themes - sex, human relationships, fetishes, outlandish medical conditions - are now discussed openly on the air, the level of debate generally remains comparatively highbrow.

They are certainly light years away from the American talk shows, with their menagerie of mud wrestlers, cross-dressing priests, child murderers, strippers, wife poisoners and sundry other sordid, handsomely paid, self- infatuated fibbers. While Russia's politicians hurl abuse at one another in public - even brawl - its talk shows offer a source of relative normality. They are a reverse image of the US, with its soporific political debate and lunatic multi-channel tabloid TV.

Mr Posner believes that Man in the Mask serves an important social purpose, despite its populist approach. He does not argue that many of the subjects he is tackling could not be discussed by guests without using a mask, in a country that has deep wells of conservatism and outright prejudice. These are subjects that can be dealt with openly in modern Russia.

The mask does attract people who either would not appear on television without it or who speak far more candidly once in disguise. "The fact that my guests wear a mask gives them more freedom... behind the mask I know people are opening up completely," says Mr Posner. "People are not thinking about their face, because they can't see it."

Comparisons with US talk shows alarm him. "If you look at the kind of people that go on US talk shows and talk about intimate things - mainly sexual - they are not very high-class people.

"I don't want to sound negative, but more often than not they are white trash. Very often they are paid. They are also coached. And those people are also wearing masks, in a different sense. This is their five minutes in the sun."

But Mr Posner concedes that Russian TV is fast heading in a westerly direction. A no-holds-barred talk show for women called Ya Sama (Me, Personally) is proving popular. More of the same is certain to follow, not least because the Russian television market is on the verge of an explosion which is certain to drive it downmarket. After supporting Boris Yeltsin's re-election, the commercial channel NTV has been rewarded with a five-channel satellite network. The state-run TV company, RTR, is producing two new satellite/cable channels. And next year will see a new free national channel, REN-TV.

"In this country, the bottom line has already become as important as it is in America. People are already looking for what sells, what gets you the ratings and the advertising," said Mr Posner. "But I would hope that someone here will see the light and set up something like the BBC. That needs an enlightened government that understands that this kind of thing is good for the nation."

In a country where millions of workers are unpaid and billions of roubles in taxes go uncollected, that last thought is the stuff of real fantasy - more incredible, indeed, than anything that comes out on Mr Posner's show.