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That Time I Was A Soviet TV Game-Show Contestant

Bruce Pannier on Soviet game show What? Where? When?
Bruce Pannier on Soviet game show What? Where? When?

I know. Some of you are probably thinking, "What the heck is this Burhan Beg?"

Bear with me for a minute.

There's an anniversary coming up -- four anniversaries, actually -- of something that happened 30 years ago.

But perhaps this is a good time to tell this story anyway, considering the current state of relations between the United States and Russia.

In 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms were well under way in the Soviet Union. Perestroika and glasnost were watchwords and there was a thaw in ties with Cold War foes, including the United States. It still was not easy for citizens of the U.S.S.R. to visit the United States or for Americans to visit the U.S.S.R., but exchange programs thrived at this time, providing new opportunities for mutual visits.

Unusual visitors showed up. I remember being at a Christmas party at Columbia University's Harriman Institute (then) for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union. Boris Grebenshikov, who was already a well-known musician/rocker in the U.S.S.R., showed up. For a while, he and Nathaniel Knight were playing guitar on the floor of the Harriman Institute.

Soviet authorities knew about the Harriman Institute, so it was a natural point of contact between and Soviet and U.S. academics.

One student from the Harriman Institute, Stephan (I'm generally only going to use people's first names in this), was writing a paper on Soviet television -- specifically, game shows. He wrote to Gosteleradio, the Soviet Union's state broadcaster, to learn more about Soviet television game shows.

Stephan's request made it to Vladimir Voroshilov, who was the host -- the voice, really -- of Что? Где? Когда? (What? Where? When?), the most popular television game show in the Soviet Union and to this day a popular show on Russian television.

Voroshilov had an idea. He had already expanded his show beyond teams from the U.S.S.R. There was a team from Bulgaria and from Poland. It had become an "international" game show. Why not invite the Americans?

So he sent word to Stephan in New York that Columbia University could send a team to play his game show.

Stephan's initiative was responsible for this opportunity, so Stephan picked who would go. To his credit, he considered many factors when choosing. Which is why I didn't go the first two times the Columbia University team went to Moscow to play What? Where? When?

When one of the male team members (our team was always three women, three men) could not go to the third game, Stephan asked me to fill in.

Why me? I've no idea.

Most likely because I watched a lot of Soviet television. The Harriman Institute received live Soviet TV's First Channel. Russian-language students were encouraged to go watch, and that was where I got my first images of Soviet Central Asia. I'd finished the most advanced language courses, so this was a gift for me: the living language, what the people of the U.S.S.R. were seeing and hearing. I volunteered to come in and watch and record the main programs on the VCR.

Vremya, the nightly news show, was what we most wanted to watch. The "failures" of the West were routinely reported on and chalked up to uncontrolled avarice and a general lack of morality. We laughed a lot, sitting there in New York watching these reports.

There were some interesting documentary films and movies, but the bulk of programming was, at least for me, not so entertaining. I remember one documentary film, Откуда Черный хлеб? (Where Does Black Bread Come From?), and another program, Русская Речь (Russian Speech), which answered the question "Откуда Творительный Падеж?" (Where does the instrumental case come from?).

Voroshilov and many of the players from the Soviet teams told me What? Where? When? was the most popular show on Soviet TV, with some 100 million viewers across the Soviet Union tuning in to watch. But, as noted, the competition was not fierce.

Show Time

What? Where? When? is a complicated game. Basically, it goes like this.

There is a spinner at the main table. The team that successfully answered the last question spins. The spinner's numbers correspond to letters with a question, most often sent in from someone in the U.S.S.R. but there were occasionally questions sent from outside the Soviet Union. It seemed to me that the questions could be about anything. There were questions about Russian literature but also about the rules of Japanese rock gardening, Wall Street, European history, or something else.

If a team could answer the question, they received a point, won some small prize (I took away some swag -- a small crystal owl and a shiny new hardhat from the Azov steel factory), and sat at the spinner table. If no one could answer a question, the person who sent the question to the show won the prize and the "televiewers" received a point. At the same time, the 15 teams playing the game were competing against each other.

Just a few of the fabulous prizes won by Bruce
Just a few of the fabulous prizes won by Bruce

Once the question was asked the teams had "одна минута обсуждения (one minute for discussion)." As mentioned, many of these were complicated questions, and at times the question was a play on words, Russian words. The first 30 seconds of my team's "minute for discussion" were usually spent making sure we knew what the question was, then the last 30 trying to think if we had an answer, in Russian, obviously.

There were other rules. All four times I went on the show, we all met a day or two ahead at Sovinstentr, where the show took place, and Voroshilov explained adjustments that were being made.

Enemy Territory

The TV show was my least favorite part of going to the U.S.S.R. I was much happier meeting people and going places.

When I went for the first show in late July 1988, it was the first time I had ever been across the Atlantic Ocean. When I walked off the plane in Moscow, those were the first steps I ever took on European soil.

Since childhood, I had heard about the Soviet Union: the enemy of the United States. When there were drills at elementary school and I had ducked under my desk, it was practice in case the U.S.S.R. attacked us. Many of my Russian-language teachers, and some of the students at the Harriman Institute were people who had escaped the U.S.S.R. The stories they told about the country were not happy ones.

So I had mixed feelings when I first arrived in Moscow. I was bursting with curiosity but mindful that I was no longer "in Kansas, Toto."

Moscow was very, very different in 1988 than it is now, or even than it would be by the mid-1990s. For one thing, there were almost no vehicles on the roads. Gosteleradio sent someone to meet us at Sheremetevo-2 Airport. They had a "marshrutka" waiting. It was after 9 a.m. local time and we made it to the city in about 30 minutes.

For the July program, we ended up in the Rossia Hotel, on the banks of the Moscow River, which I looked down on from my room, and right at the bottom of Red Square.

Let The Good Times Roll

Gosteleradio, or someone, sent us guides to show us around, people our age. I don't remember the name of the guy who took me on my first tour of Red Square, but I'll never forget parts of our conversation that day.

We entered Red Square, walking by St. Basil's Cathedral, and he gestured to the square in front of us and asked me, "Do you know this place?"

It seemed an odd question. Everyone knew this place.

"Red Square," I answered.

"No," he replied, "Sheremetevo-3 Airport."

It hadn't even been two months since an 18-year-old German Mathias Rust had landed on Red Square, and I couldn't help but laugh.

We walked on and drew near Lenin's Mausoleum.

"You know what's in there?" he asked me.

I did, but it was already clear that he had a different answer in mind.

"No, what's in there?"

"Freshest meat in Moscow," he answered.

I started laughing so hard, and in those days people on the streets of Moscow did not laugh loudly.

I could tell right then that being in Moscow was not so bad at all.

He was only partly kidding.

Lines And More Lines

I went on tours of stores in Moscow, just to see, and our team decided on one trip we would try to live like people in Moscow lived. We didn't even make it 24 hours.

In those days, shopping in Moscow, and I imagine any city in the U.S.S.R., was a grueling experience. We went to a shop that sold a limited -- very limited -- supply of meat and dairy products. You had to wait in line and there were always lines. When you finally got the front, you told the person behind the counter how much of something you wanted. The salesperson gave you a ticket and you went to the "kassa" line and waited to pay for it. The person taking the money always added up the totals on an abacus. Then you got a receipt and went to the person who first gave you the bill and they would give you the product.

There were different lines for meat, for cheese, for milk, for fish, and the process had to be repeated every time. Working as a team you could cut the time in half, and we could see the locals had already established a system of holding each other's places in line while they went to different sections of the store for other products.

Muscovites line up to buy shoes in 1988.
Muscovites line up to buy shoes in 1988.

We got what we wanted, but I couldn't eat practically any of it. It just was not tasty. So I bailed to an establishment that no longer exists: the "Beriyozka."

The Beriyozka was a hard-currency store, and only foreigners were allowed inside (more on that later). They had Western goods -- booze, candy, canned ham, etc. I went in to buy the ham and some candy. I handed over some dollars and received as change a fistful of coins, Japanese yen. I asked if that was the correct change and was assured it was.

Finding food could be a challenge. Many times we walked into nearly empty restaurants, and asked for a table for dinner, only to be told "Нет свободного места" ("There's no place available"). Once, we pointed out there was almost no one at all in the restaurant and were told, "Yes, but if a group comes we will need the space."

The same was true for alcohol. Gorbachev's temperance campaign was in full swing. Some people from the Russian teams came to our hotel one night, and we all agreed some liquor would be a good idea -- except, almost everything, including the Beriyozkas, closed down in Moscow after 5 or 6 p.m. We spent 90 minutes in a taxi going from restaurant to restaurant trying to convince someone to sell us alcohol and finally procured two bottles of Sovietskoye Shampanskoye (Soviet Champagne). Hardly worth the effort.

The Beriyozkas are gone now, and so is something else that was common in Moscow back then: фарцовщики (black marketeers), or locals who watched for foreigners and tried to persuade them to sell their blue jeans or tennis shoes, items such as that.

I had Reebok Pumps on one of the trips, the coolest shoes at the time, and a guy came up and said he wanted to buy them and named a price (the official rate at the time was 62 kopeks to $1). I asked what I would wear if I sold my shoes.

"I'll give you my shoes," he said, which didn't sweeten his offer by any means.

I politely passed on that one.

The Proletariat

The people on the other teams were extremely nice to us. I have great memories of them -- Nikita Shangin, Kolya Kuranty, Boris Borodin, and most of all, Aleksandr (Sasha) Druz, who is still on the show, I think. Sasha was from Leningrad, and when we went there on a side trip one time he gave me the "Raskolnikov" tour of the city. I'd just read Crime And Punishment, so it was perfect timing. As compensation, I brought him into the Beriyozka at the Rossia Hotel when we were back in Moscow.

"Let's go in and get something good," I told him.

"I've always wanted to go into one of those places, but I can't. I'm not a foreigner," he said.

"Can you speak some English?" I asked.

"I can say 'yes,'" he said.

"Perfect. We'll go up to the guard and I'll talk and talk and every time I stop talking and look at you, you say, 'Yes,'" I replied.

Worked like a charm.

Voroshilov, of course, was an influential figure, and he was good to us. He always asked if there was something we wanted to do or see. We had only to ask for him to arrange it.

These were the "золотые дети" ("golden children"). They or their parents were "someone" in Soviet society.

But I did get chances to wander, unaccompanied, and that's when it was really fun.

At first, people were wary of being seen speaking with me. I was clearly a foreigner, and it was actually much worse than that. Usually I wore the same clothes around Moscow that I wore riding the subway in New York -- ripped blue jeans, ripped sweatshirts, T-shirts, Ray Ban sunglasses, and my Walkman. Some people from other teams asked my teammates if I was from a poor family. I was an oddball foreigner in Moscow, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Because I was on the show four times in six months, some people started to recognize me, particularly in the two or three days after the show aired.

I wore my Christian cross on the outside of my shirt in those days, and many times people came up to me and whispered, "I'm a believer also."

Once I was on the Moscow Metro, in my New York subway attire. As usual, most people didn't want to make eye contact with me or let anyone else on the train know they were looking at me.

But an older guy, in his 40s maybe, came up to me. I took off my Walkman.

"You're on the American team on What? Where? When?," he said.

"Yes," I replied.

"It's great you are here in Moscow," he said. Then he paused and said, "Your team plays very badly."

When you're right, you're right. I just smiled and nodded my head. He shook my hand and wished me a good time in Moscow.

The season finale for the game show was on December 29. On December 31, we were still in Moscow. We went to an evening performance of La Traviata, in Russian, at the Kremlin; then, armed with champagne we'd bought in advance, we spilled out on to Red Square and we were dancing in a big circle when the clock struck midnight and 1989 began.

It had been an amazing time and I had learned a lot. I would never have wished to live in Moscow as it was then, but I did want to come back to visit and see friends I'd made there. I thought at the time that might never happen.

My 15 minutes of fame brought me a lifetime of memories; but more importantly, it taught me I could find friends in places where I'd heard I would find only enemies. The realization would prove invaluable to me just a few years later when I went to live in Central Asia.

The End Note

I have to thank my teammates on that game show -- Stephan, Ilona, Allison, Stephanie, Linda, Gil, Greg L., and Greg S. (RIP).

Anyone curious about the show can see it here, here, here, and here.

I make only cameo appearances in these shows (the 1:21:00-1:22:11 mark on show No. 4 and 1:08:30 mark on show No. 6, for example,) and have no speaking parts. I do not recommend that anyone watch, they are long shows. But if you're nostalgic or curious to see how people looked in Moscow back then, or how a group of Americans looked on a Soviet TV program, or what the biggest show in the U.S.S.R. in 1988 looked like, it's all there. My team is team No. 1, and I can always be seen for a few seconds when we walk out at the start of the show.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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