Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tetris Titans Battle for World Championship

The 16 competitors furrowed their young brows with concentration as they followed the moving shapes on their screens, their thumbs a whir of motion accompanied by the chattering blips and beeps of their tiny machines.

One eight-year-old cried out in anguish, unable to take the pressure; another crowed in triumph as he made the score needed to advance to the next round. Sixteen mothers looked on anxiously -- some of them will compete in the adult division competition in the days to come.

It has been called a profession, a waste of time, and the computer game that nearly destroyed the world economy. But for the 100 or so participants in the 10-and-under division at the opening round of Moscow's Hand-Held Tetris Championship on Thursday, this was serious competition.

"I want to win," said Vasya Sestunov, 8. "I want the prize."

The prize is the Tetris warrior's weapon, one of the hand-held, liquid-glass display game-computers that are all the rage in Moscow. Rare is the public venue in the capital where one does not see people -- mostly young, but not always -- staring at the tiny, falling brick-like shapes that characterize this most addictive of computer games.

To celebrate the popularity of Russia's most famous computer program, the curators of the Polytechnical Museum in central Moscow have made the championship the main event of Space Week, concocted in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the July 1969 landing on the moon from the U.S. Apollo 11 spacecraft.

"We wanted to have a scientific-cultural event that at the same time gives people something to do at a time when the weather is miserable in Moscow," said Mikhail Zakatov, a computer technology expert at the museum, asked to explain the link between Tetris and lunar modules.

The exhibit also features games that simulate landing a space shuttle or a Boeing 747, as well as scaled-down replica-spaceships. But it is clear that here, Tetris is king.

"Children see it as a game, but I see it as something much greater," said Roma, 17, his hands moving with blinding speed as he trained for the Friday adult competition. Roma, a music student, said the game has honed his reaction skills and made him a better trombone player.

Galina Fedotova, 30, a logistics teacher who is entered in the adult competition, taught her 8-year-old son Pavel to play when an eye doctor recommended Tetris as a way to strengthen his weak eye muscles.

Tetris is a simple game, akin to building a skyscraper from the ground floor up. Bricks of simple geometric shapes fall from the top of the screen, and the player maneuvers them to nestle snugly against each other at the bottom. The trick is to not leave holes in the construction. When the player builds an uninterrupted level of bricks, it disappears from the screen adding points to the score. Uncompleted layers stack up on top of each other, and the player loses when uncompleted layers reach the top of the screen.

The original game was programmed in 1985 by Vadim Gerasimov, then a seventh-grader, at the Academy of Sciences Computer Center in Moscow.

Tetris reached the West not long after, taking offices by storm, mesmerizing adults at computer screens and bringing entire workplaces to a halt more effectively than any computer virus. This led some observers to wonder whether Tetris was a Soviet plot to cripple the capitalist economy. If so, the plot has backfired, as one look at equally blighted Russian workplaces reveals.

-- Anya Vakhrusheva contributed to this report"Solzhenitsyn has great moral authority," Yakunin told reporters. "But if he falls into nationalist extremism, if he makes common cause with the extremists, then he could become a Russian Khomeini," referring to the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Moscow marks the end of a 6,500-kilometer journey for the writer and his family. For nearly eight weeks Solzhenitsyn has been traveling across Russia, stopping in 18 cities, meeting with people in all walks of life, gathering information and keeping detailed notes of his findings.Shortly after his arrival in the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok at the end of May, Solzhenitsyn told journalists that "he had come to listen."

He has carried out that promise in countless meetings with farmers, workers, intellectuals. He has appeared in schools and factories, carrying with him a notebook in which he carefully notes the comments and questions addressed to him.

"He has been listening the whole way," said Yermolai Solzhenitsyn, 24, the writer's eldest son. "He has made over 200 pages of notes, and he sits every day and works through them, categorizing, processing the information."

But to hear him speak gives no indication that anything he has heard has changed his view of Russia by one iota.

Now Solzhenitsyn returns to Moscow for the first time since his forced exile 20 years ago, and questions about his future role have once again come to the fore.

He has stated repeatedly and unequivocally that he has no wish for political power. "I will not take a direct role in politics," he said to an admiring crowd in Yaroslavl, his last stop before Moscow. "I remember that I am a writer."

But he is, definitely, a writer with a mission.

"People say, 'A writer should deal with literature, and leave political arguments alone'" said Solzhenitsyn. "But what about my duty to those generations that perished? Who is taking their part? If I lived through those years, if I have accumulated a certain kind of experience, what right do I have to remain silent?"

"He will try to influence events," said Yermolai. "He will speak out, he will continue to say what he feels is right. He hopes that he can play a role in trying to avoid dumb decisions. There have been so many throughout our history."

Solzhenitsyn has never been reticent about speaking his mind.

He heaps scorn on Mikhail Gorbachev, displaying little gratitude for the man whose policy of glasnost ultimately made it possible for Solzhenitsyn's works to be published in Russia.

"In 1985 to '87 we were promised 'glasnost, perestroika, uskoreniye (acceleration)'" he sneered. "And all that happened was we marched in place while those who had damned capitalism threw themselves into commerce."

He has avoided openly criticizing President Boris Yeltsin, but he did say that Yeltsin's failure to seize the initiative in 1991 led to the bloody events of October 1993. "Yeltsin could have dissolved the Supreme Soviet after August 1991, and there would not have been a peep out of them," he said.

Many have been worried by some of Solzhenitsyn's more nationalistic pronouncements, such as his assertion that Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan are essentially one country. The opposition has tried to claim him as one of their own. Yermolai Solzhenitsyn brushes these fears away.

"People are always trying to tack labels onto him," he said. "They called him a theocrat, and everyone repeated it for years. Then they said he was a monarchist. It's just the lazy press -- reporters who don't want to have to read the books themselves.

"My father is not a freak, a messiah, a savior. He has just never shrunk from what he felt was his duty."

Yermolai insists that Solzhenitsyn is not bothered by negative comments, but the writer has occasionally let his temper show. When an audience member in Yaroslavl asked about a negative article written about Solzhenitsyn's return by the writer Eduard Limonov, Solzhenitsyn exploded.

"While I was saying 'Communism is a disease' Limonov was writing pornographic novels. And now that little snot thinks he can tell me how to live?"

Whatever role Solzhenitsyn wants to carve out for himself, he seems eager to begin. His energy is prodigious, despite his age and the rigors of travel."He has held up surprisingly well," said Yermolai.