Russian TV Viewers Cry, 'Go, Thief'

Top The Cops BY Judith Matloff, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor:

It has all the ingredients of a hit police drama anywhere - chase scenes, wailing sirens, and heroes vs. the bad guys. Except that on Russia's latest television hit, the lines between good and evil are not always clear-cut.

Every Saturday night, Muskovites tune in to "Perehvat" (translated loosely, "to nab"), a bizarre cross between the O.J. Simpson car chase and American police shows such as "Cops," with a dash of game-show glitz thrown in for good measure.

The breakneck 35-minute program involves genuine traffic police pursuing cars "stolen" by contestants - generally actors, stuntmen, race car or taxi drivers - across Moscow's icy streets.

The catch here is that if the "thieves" get away, they win a new car and the applause of most viewers.

The baton-wielding state automobile inspectors, known by their Russian acronym GAI, are widely hated, known for demanding bribes thinly disguised as fines for such offenses as driving unwashed cars.

Regardless of the intentions of its creators, Perehvat gives vent to the cynicism of many Russians, who have lost respect for authority since the collapse of tight Soviet control.

"It is impossible to compromise the GAI's reputation by this show. Their reputation is so low it can only be improved," says Valentina Zefirova, a fan since Perehvat first aired in November.

If the car 'thieves' get away from police, they win a new car and the applause of most TV viewers.

Perehvat offers scenes worthy of any Hollywood production - frenetic cellular telephone interchanges and daring stunts - with cuts to a studio audience gasping with suspense as the minutes tick by.

Ms. Zefirova loves the ingenious heists, with stolen cars hidden inside trucks having their license plates changed on the fly. And she loves the revenge on the GAI, as in a recent episode, which ended with the robbers helping to dig out a police car stuck in a snowdrift.

Humiliating the police was not the objective, says the show's producer, Latvian-born David Gamburg, who lived in Hollywood for many years.

Mr. Gamburg explains he was inspired by the positive examples in shows such as "American Detective" and "Cops." He has coproduced a Russian-shot episode of each program.

Good intentions are also allegedly harbored by the sponsors, which include oil firm Lukoil, a cell-phone company, and Russia's biggest weekly newspaper, Argumenti i Facti. Korea's Daewoo car company provides the getaway and prize vehicles.

Gamburg says his aim is to elevate the status of police, noting that in 24 episodes so far, only three "robbers" got away.

"Most Muskovites think of the GAI as drunken, corrupt pigs," he says. "In reality their life is very hard, trying to survive on $150 a month. This show shows decent, smiling GAI who can catch the bad guys."

A better image of the police is needed for this city, where millions of dollars' worth of cars are stolen each year. Police say 1 out of every 4 stolen cars is recovered, but critics say that figure is greatly exaggerated.

Gamburg argues that rather than distracting officers from doing their job - catching real criminals - Perehvat provides police participants with prime training opportunities.

But don't the scenes of evading the police encourage reckless driving?

According to Gamburg, contestants are chosen in part for their driving skills, and can be busted mid-filming if they break the law. Every "thief's" car is accompanied not only by a cameraman hanging out the window, but also by a plainclothes traffic cop who can arrest the driver if he or she goes too fast or runs a red light. In addition, getaway routes are set in advance by producers, though police are not let in on the plans.

The producer admits that Perehvat feeds the fantasies of Muskovites, who dream of outwitting the GAI.

"I receive thousands of calls," he says, "from politicians, movie stars, gangsters, and bankers begging to appear on the show. They say: 'Give me a chance, let me beat the cops just once in my life.' "

Whatever the appeal, Perehvat's popularity has exceeded expectations. A recent Gallup poll shows its popularity transcends the target audience of young to middle-aged men. Women, children, and older people counted equally among its core fans.

Perehvat is the NTV network's top-rated show, and there are plans to move it to the prime Sunday evening time slot.

It seems that about the only detractor is the GAI, which has objected to producers over what it felt was undignified treatment and threatened not to cooperate further.

"We are not going to make clowns of ourselves for the sponsors' sake," says GAI information chief Andrei Schavelev.

"The public attitude toward us is negative partly because some of our officers abuse their rights. But the mass media have decayed our image further."

Despite the gripes, Mr. Schavelev is not incapable of making jokes at the GAI's expense, proving Gamburg's point that the police can smile like other human beings.

Handing a visitor a souvenir calender, Schavelev slips in a mock GAI badge. "It may come in handy if your salary is late," he says wryly. "Just wear it and carry a stick."

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