"We came across people long given up as dead"

Wait for Me is a television agony programme, the last ray of hope for the friends and relations of missing people. "We had the luck of tracking down people considered earthquake victims, or dead in World War II. We brought back to parents kids they thought dead. We helped out guest workers their employees had enslaved," says anchor Igor Kvasha, one of Moscow's foremost actors.

"Wait for Me not merely restores hope in despairing hearts-it teaches compassion for people in pain. It arouses mercy and a desire to help perfect strangers," the Russian press said on the fifth establishment anniversary of this programme, an endeavour of national Channel One.

Russia came through no end of trials and tribulations in the 20th century-the Revolution, Stalinist political repressions, World War II, a collapse of the USSR, and interethnic clashes. There is hardly a household that would not lose near and dear, and endeavour on a long and vain search. The innate desire to regain the missing loved ones was what a television crew proceeded from to launch an agony programme. It owes its name to the opening line of Konstantin Simonov's poem, which WWII soldiers were whispering as they would a prayer, and which we Russians cherish to this day.

The programme recovers missing friends and relations not for Russians alone but all about the post-Soviet area, in the USA, China, Germany, Israel, Latin America, and Australia. Close on a third of search applications are coming from abroad.

It is a rare occasion when a television programme moves a community to start massive public movements. Wait for Me did it. It offered a spontaneous idea for the National Search Service, a public league with a vast database. There is also a newspaper, Wait for Me, which carries advertisements free. A kiosk of the same name in Moscow's Kazan railway terminus accepts search applications.

"We presently have something like half a million applications. We have found more than ten thousand people for today. Persons whose search started even in our initial issues are still coming up. For instance, we have found a little Chechen girl her parents had lost. What matters most is that we have thousands of volunteer helpers all over this country-newsmen, police officers, teachers, doctors and psychologists," says Sergei Kushnerev, programme producer.

Economic expert Tatiana Guseva from the Murmansk Region in European Russia's extreme north alone found more than six hundred missing people by postal and online correspondence.

"Wait for Me is Russia's only television programme whose license the United States has bought-that despite many of its analogues on the American TV. There are similar programmes in Europe and China, too. The situation offers no room for comparison-things are quite different in other countries, yet we have found more than ten thousand people. That proves our journalists' proficiency and the excellent quality of a programme that evokes active compassion in its audiences, and moves them to help us," Kushnerev goes on.

Many fates of the crew's concern will make into-the-night reading if novels are ever based on them. Take a Russian girl and a German POW, whose romance started during World War II, and who had their reunion sixty years after. A Frenchman lost his Russian wife, and rejoined her decades later. A Georgian girl married a Chinese railway construction expert, who was employed in Russia and settled for good in the Caucasus. Now, their son has met the Chinese kin he had never heard of. Owing their reunion to Wait for Me are many siblings separated for years after their parents fell victim to Stalinist reprisals. A disconsolate granny fell on the track of a grandson her ascetic sectarian daughter had taken off to a little backwoods town, where she forced the child into austere fasting and kept him off secular school.

Some searches offer tremendous problems. Here is only one instance. A boy of four went off for a walk one fine day twenty years ago, lost his way, got into a train-and there he was, miles away from his town whose name he did not know, let alone his home address. That was how the child landed in an orphanage. He recently appealed to Wait for Me to regain his parents. "We snatched at every tiny detail he would recollect-now it was a small river next to his home, now a bakery, now a tram line, now a gypsy camp on a hilltop. It was hard to find the town proceeding from those titbits of information, but we managed!" says Sergei Kushnerev.

The programme has the greatest appeal to seniors. They account for 80 per cent of its permanent audience. The younger are mostly sceptical. That is what they say on the world web: "People who watch it break into floods of tears at the slightest provocation-very stupid of them!" Or another remark: "The crew is doing a useful job-but a pensioner out to retrace a little girl he was infatuated with at playschool is a nuisance, to say the least." As for the anchors, sobs from the audience never put them out. This is the opinion of one of them, Masha Shukshina: "I don't think we would have ever coped with so many hard tasks if we on the crew and people on the audience did not take it all so much to heart." The programme gives everyone his chance to speak up. Some people make announcements nationwide about their runaway cats, dogs, tortoises, jackdaws and other pets, exotic or not. One was imploring to find his lost concertina. The people are not kidding-emotions are overflowing them as they talk.

"Everyone has his right for a share of compassion, and we never deny anyone his bit of help," is the heartfelt conviction of Igor Kvasha, chief anchor. The programme owes its public rating, Russia's highest, to that stance.

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