Russian quiz show– American-style — unites emigres

Playing in Walnut Creek, before a "live studio audience" of several hundred, this is not "Jeopardy!"

The host, Boris Vladimirsky, does not resemble Alex Trebek. And Johnny Gilbert isn't there to "tell 'em what they won" — though if he were, he'd be telling 'em in Russian.

Modeled on a popular TV game show in the former Soviet Union known as "What? Where? When?" the Russian-language quiz show is the brainchild of Irina Dugina, a case manager and vocational counselor at the Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay.

Dugina, who emigrated from Moscow 10 years ago, knows firsthand how difficult it can be to make friends and feel comfortable in a new environment where nobody speaks your language and may not even be able to pronounce your name.

Also a Russian-language instructor at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Dugina was shocked at the results of a 1999 essay assignment.

"I gave the students a composition and the title was 'Your Town.' You could describe your Russian or American town, I said it was their choice. I was really amazed — all the students described their Russian town," she recalled. "Some of them have been here for 10 years and look so well-adjusted. They speak only English between themselves and look so American. It was a discovery for me that they still have so strong a connection."

When Dugina pondered a common thread that could unite the Bay Area's disparate Russian-speaking population, "What? Where? When?" popped immediately to mind. A longstanding Soviet TV program with its roots in university competitions among students in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, the game was something every ex-Soviet emigre — especially young adults — would know and identify with.

While Dugina had some difficulty filling out team rosters for the first game –she had to tap not just young people but also middle-aged and older emigres — the task has since become much easier.

With six games played over the past 18 months, "What? Where? When?" has become more than just an enjoyable and brain-racking night — it's an incredible network for the area's Russian-speaking population. The games are held at Civic Park Community Center in Walnut Creek.

"All of my friends who I know here, I know because of this show," said Mikhail Mayzles, a 35-year-old Jewish mechanical engineer who emigrated from St. Petersburg last year. "It's a good thing for the brain and the memory. Also, it's simply fun."

Mayzles isn't the only player to come away with a whole new set of friends.

"I've met a lot of friends there, it's a good place to meet new friends," said 29-year-old Natasha Khodorovskaya, who describes her heritage as "Jewish and Polish and Ukrainian."

"It's hard to find someone here in the new country."

In a nod to the large numbers of ex-Soviet Jews participating in the game show, quite a few questions focus on Jewish culture. Members of the eight, six-person teams may be asked to define a Hebrew word or complete an old Jewish proverb. Among them:

Don't worry about tomorrow, because…

The correct answer is, "You don't know what's going to happen today," but contestants who don't know a Jewish proverb from a pot of borscht can win extra points by coming up with the funniest answer.

Other questions merge Russian and American culture. For example:

The main character from this famous book was born in St. Petersburg, but he has never seen a "Bronze Horseman." Who is he?

The Russian crowd — many of whom also hail from St. Petersburg and have seen the famous "Bronze Horseman" statue — would have to know their American literature to guess Tom Sawyer was born in the "poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg." But even if they don't, the experience of squeezing the diverse elements of the Bay Area's Russian community into one room is usually worth it.

"People in the Bay Area live so far apart and the Russian community is so spread out, in age as well," said 22-year-old Katya Iakoubova, a Diablo Valley College student who has been in the United States for 10 years. "That makes it difficult to socialize. This is something everyone knows from TV, so it's easy to connect. It gives us the opportunity to get together, meet some people and perhaps establish some friendships."

The success of "What? Where? When?" has led Dugina to launch a second Russian-language game show. Called "KVN" (an abbreviation for words that translate as "club of those who are witty and have a good sense of humor"), the show resembles a slightly less impromptu version of "Whose Line is it Anyway?"

The second show — and the continuation of the first, for that matter — is made possible courtesy of a grant from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Barbara Nelson, the JFCS' director of refugee and immigrant services, fired off the grant request to HIAS after she saw how popular "What? Where? When?" had grown.

"I saw a lot of great friendships from the first game," said Dugina. "It was one of my goals to give them a place to meet each other."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.