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Russian Hot Pursuit

A Moscow TV show backfires on the traffic cops as viewers enthusiastically ride with the thieves


ires screech as a police Ford Celebrity in hot pursuit of a stolen car dives from the steep highway curb into a snowy field. The Ford gets stuck in deep drifts while the reckless thief breaks away, his lighter Daewoo Nexia almost flipping onto its roof. Two more patrol cars, sirens wailing and lights flashing, enter from the other side of the field and try to corner the culprit. The cops have an advantage in this high-speed chase: they are following a powerful radio beacon built into the stolen car. But the thief has an even more powerful incentive to escape: if he eludes the police for 35 minutes, he gets a brand-new car of the same type, courtesy of Daewoo.

Why? Because it's all a game. In fact, it's a game show: The Intercept. An estimated 85 million Russian viewers are riveted to their TV screens every Sunday night as contestants try to outwit police to win the coveted prize. But now Russia's second highest rated television show may fall victim to a different kind of cops and robbers conflict. The State Traffic Police (GAI), which supplies the police cars and the law enforcement, feels the show glamorizes criminals while depicting the police in a less than flattering light. Said Minister of the Interior Anatoli Kulikov in a letter published last week in a Moscow daily, "The Intercept was expected to make propaganda for the GAI, but the show gives a one-sided interpretation of the GAI's work." David Gamburg, the show's American producer and a Soviet emigre, dismisses the charge, saying the Ministry of the Interior just wants "to put its jackboot into the program to convert it into a militarized propaganda show." But unless changes are made, the GAI threatens to pull the plug on the show just when British, French and American networks are clamoring for it--and there are no more episodes in the can.

The Intercept--and the political struggle surrounding it--is quintessentially Russian. Where else would breakneck racing through busy city streets be allowed? Where else would cops mount roadblocks and impede highway traffic for the sake of a TV show?

The show has struck a chord with the Russian public. "You wouldn't believe the number or variety of people who have applied to play the thieves," says Gamburg. Federal Security Service officers want to prove their supremacy over traffic cops; military officers want to demonstrate that the army retains its fighting spirit; bankers want to show that they can take risks with something besides other people's money. But Gamburg believes that the overriding emotion is that "all of them are tempted by a chance to play a criminal with perfect impunity once in their life."

And they do it with zest, humor and inventive tricks. In one episode, a thief hid his car on a train platform--and then drove it onto a passing train. Another thief tried to hide from the police on a raft in the middle of the Moscow River, while yet another had a busload of "blind" people follow the chase and suddenly cross the street in front of pursuing police every time they got too close.

But there is no escaping the long arm of the law. The would-be car thieves are almost always caught. Only once, when the beacon system totally failed, did a lucky thief manage to drive through Moscow for several hours, thus earning his vehicle. When the cops do apprehend their targets though, they arrest them with a vengeance: face down on the hood, Kalashnikovs jammed into ribs.

Gamburg plays down the show's dangers. The chase, for example, is not filmed live in its entirety. Some segments are rehearsed and staged. The people who risk the most are the intrepid cameramen, he says, hanging out of car windows to get the perfect shot. Nevertheless, says Captain Alexander Mantsevich of the Moscow department of the GAI, "Anyone who is close by is in real danger."

But that threat is not the only thing that worries GAI bosses. An equally real concern is money. For the past eight months, the GAI says, six cars and 14 officers have been playing The Intercept game basically at the expense of the Russian taxpayer. Not that the GAI commanders really care about that--it has never been the taxpayers' business how their money is spent anyway. But they insist that the GAI has not been properly reimbursed for its officers' time and the damage done to its vehicles.

And the fact that the public instinctively sides with the thieves only sours the GAI's mood even further. Traditional Russian dislike of authority runs deep. "We want the public to root for law and order, not for the thieves," insists Moscow GAI's information officer Lieut. Colonel Andrei Shchavelev. But in Russia, that is a proposition that no amount of money in the world can buy.