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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Emigre Returns to Rev Up Russian Television

MTAlissa Tanskaya is planning on introducing some "real sitcoms" to Russian viewers.
Alissa Tanskaya was whisked away from Moscow before she became interested in boys, but she returned home not long ago and got seriously involved in the dating scene.

Formerly the host of CTC television's "Pervoye Svidaniye," Russia's answer to the popular U.S. program "The Dating Game," the 30-year-old is now trying to seduce the young Russian television audience with a host of new entertainment shows.

Tanskaya is head of development in the original productions unit at CTC, the country's fourth-most watched television station, which concentrates on entertainment programs. Her main task is to attract viewers to the station with a combination of Russian and Western programming.

"Any program that inspired me or that I loved growing up in the West, I want to use here," she says, adding that she wants to introduce "real sitcoms" to Russian viewers.

A Russian who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, Tanskaya is well-suited for her job, which involves adapting Western programs to Russian tastes. Furthermore, she has ample experience working both in front of and behind the camera in Australia's film industry.

Tanskaya left Moscow in the winter of 1981, when her father, a computer programmer, took the family out of the Soviet Union to sunny Australia. The trip took the 10-year-old Tanskaya to what seemed like a different world.

"It was incredibly difficult to integrate in the first couple of years. Australia is so unlike anyplace else on the planet, it is radically different," she says. "You go there and you think you have gone to another planet. The bush, scrub and gum trees look very strange and harsh, and the birds really are weird."

The young Tanskaya knew there was no chance of going back to Moscow as long as the Soviet Union existed. But a little piece of the homeland came to the family in the form of a distant great-aunt who also happened to be living in Melbourne and was "found" by Tanskaya's father.

An extra in films, the aunt introduced the 14-year-old Tanskaya to a casting company that was looking for some "ethnic types," including Russians, for a comedy. Like a scene from a movie, an assistant director noticed the striking young Tanskaya among the hundreds of extras and advised her to get an agent.

"So I did the whole thing, went to the agent, did the photos, went to all the go-sees and auditions," she recalls. Soon, Tanskaya began receiving extra roles and spots in movies and television.

Although she was never offered a major role, Tanskaya was never disappointed. "I wasn't thinking, 'Geez, maybe someone will notice me and make me a star,'" she says. "I would go to the set and work out what they were doing, how they were moving the dolly and why."

Captivated with what went on behind the screens, Tanskaya planned to skip college and become a runner on film sets "to learn the craft and technique of film making."

"I remember being on the set for a series about a Russian spy in Australia called 'The Petrov Affair,'" she recalls. "I saw what the crew was doing and I thought 'this is fantastic, this is the best thing.'"

But at a friend's behest, Tanskaya changed her mind. She earned a spot at Melbourne University to study piano, later switching to English.

After graduation, Tanskaya began work on a number of artistic endeavors, writing articles, film scripts and even working on some books. Some of the projects she finished, while others were left undone. To support herself between projects, Tanskaya did what odd jobs she could find, from waitressing to teaching.

The young writer eventually caught a break in 1996 while she was working on some film scripts. Gillian Helfgott -- wife of the famed mentally ill pianist David Helfgott, who was celebrated in the 1996 hit movie "Shine" -- asked the 25-year-old to write her biography. Having never undertaken such a project, Tanskaya refused at first, but Helfgott insisted.

After three months of working around the clock, the biography, "I Love You to Bits and Pieces," rolled into bookstores just as the Oscar-winning "Shine" hit theaters. The book sold more than 200,000 copies in the United States alone, and she got an agent.

Tanskaya was now somewhat of a success. She returned to writing articles and screenplays for the next few years, but the energy and excitement she had earlier found in her work was fading. Sitting at home one day in spring 2000 and "feeling sorry for herself," her mom gave her some advice from an old Russian friend: "Go to Moscow to shake yourself up a bit."

She flew back to Moscow that summer. Visiting the places she knew as a child, Tanskaya recalls feeling "an incredible inner peace." She also realized that the new Moscow could "shake her up" for the better.

"This place is so unpredictable, and you just don't know what is going to happen at the next moment," she says. "Living in that sort of environment is never dull." What happened next was certainly not predictable.

Given a shortlist of Russian contacts from an Australian friend, she made some calls to find out what possibilities Moscow had to offer. Meeting for coffee, Tanskaya told her new acquaintance she was interested in finding a job in Russia, preferably in film, adding that she had heard CTC had Western management and was a "safe place" to work.

The new acquaintance happened to know someone at the television station, and the next day Tanskaya had an interview. Two days later, she had two job offers: assistant producer in the original productions department and host of "Pervoye Svidaniye."

Now head of the development unit within original productions, Tanskaya is having a "wild time" at work. CTC offers the professional environment of a Western company, she says, but also allows the creative freedom she would not have at a big Western television station.

After spending most of her life in Australia, Tanskaya feels like a foreigner in her native land.

"When I started meeting Russian people, such as at work, I kept saying, 'Hey, I am one of you guys,'" she recalls. "After about a year, I began to realize that I am not accepted as a Russian but as some sort of phenomenon that is somewhat Russian but not really."

Tanskaya says there are "hundreds" of everyday things that separate her from Russians, among them sense of humor. "Sometimes I don't get [a joke], and I read it aloud to colleagues to see if they think it is hysterical."

A lack of space is also a problem, she says. "I am not used to people standing so close to me during conversations, and I feel cramped all the time."

These cultural differences have even crept into her work.

"Russians take the show [Pervoye Svidaniye] too seriously, and when having fun they have it in a very proper way," she says. "In Australia, anyone will go and make an idiot out of themselves, show their beer belly or burp at the camera."