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In the Spotlight

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This week, Ren-TV unveiled the Russian version of the British show about cars, "Top Gear." In its homeland, the show features middle-aged men in bad clothes who squeeze themselves into luscious sports cars and zoom around at top speed with no regard for the environment. Taking a great imaginative leap, Ren-TV decided that such a show might strike a chord in Russia. Its own version featured a few local elements: a samovar, a Lada Kalina, and, of course, Stigushka.

The Russian show, which started on Sunday, cast Nikolai Fomenko in the Jeremy Clarkson role of host. Usually described as a "showman," Fomenko has fronted numerous television shows, and currently stars in a very annoying Beeline ad. His receding hairline and slightly too-tight clothes recall the British original, although I can't imagine Clarkson wearing wooden beads. He has a couple of younger co-hosts, actors Mikhail Petrovsky and Oskar Kuchera. At the beginning of the show they test-drove each others' cars. Needless to say, Fomenko drives a Porsche 911 and described Petrovsky's Mazda as a "loser's car."

The cars were also tested out by Stigushka, the local version of the mysterious Stig who appears in the British show. He races against celebrities at maximum speed while wearing a helmet with a blacked-out visor, and his identity is never revealed. It may be hard to believe, especially if you don't have a Y chromosome, but this enigma is quite hotly debated in Britain. Affectionately nicknamed "Stigushka" by the hosts, the Russian Stig was appropriately mute and had a way with hairpin bends.

Once they had decided whose car was biggest, fastest and had the loudest vroom, the hosts moved on to the show's main event: a test drive of a Lada Kalina on an abandoned air field. To sex it up a bit, they invited some celebrities and prepared a picnic with kebabs and a smoking samovar. If you're thinking that sounds a bit chilly in February, this section was clearly filmed in high summer, which suggests a few delays in getting the show on the air.

The Kalina looked surprisingly attractive in red, but I wasn't very impressed by the "celebrities": singer Karina Koks of pop group Slivki, ponytailed television director Yury Grymov, It Girl fashion designer Masha Tsigal and former State Duma deputy Alexei Mitrofanov. Well-known for turning up to anything involving canapes, Mitrofanov excelled himself here by turning up for a test drive -- despite not knowing how to drive.

I was hoping they would just pop Mitrofanov into the Lada and let him learn for himself on the vast airfield, but instead he got a bone-cracking ride with Stigushka. In a nice touch, the hosts fixed an official's blue light on the car. Mitrofanov almost fell at the first hurdle, which was squeezing his rather round figure through the door. After the ride was over, he looked dazed, and appeared to be crying out for a kebab, but the hosts meanly didn't let him tuck in.

To round things off, Fomenko organized a race in St. Petersburg with his co-host Petrovsky. The pointless task was to see whether Fomenko, in a yellow Porsche Boxer, could get to Vasilevsky Ostrov quicker than Petrovsky in a high-speed motorboat. The tricky bit was that both had to obey the rules of the road and the waterway, which, it turns out, also has its traffic police. In fact, both exceeded the speed limits by far and shamelessly used the old "filming for Top Gear" excuse when stopped by the men in gray. Should it ever come in handy, it turns out that you'll get there quicker in a yellow Porsche.

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