MOSCOW–The program has only been on the air for three weeks, but Russian citizens from Voronezh to Srednekolymsk are already swept up in the thrill of the nation's biggest runaway-hit game show, Who Wants To Eat A Meal?

Host Anatoly Ivaskevich (left) asks contestant Sergei Stoyanov to name the author of <I>War And Peace</I> for a once-in-a-lifetime chance at a plate of beans.

Hosted by popular Russian TV personality Anatoly Ivaskevich, Who Wants To Eat A Meal? gives hungry contestants the chance to answer general-knowledge questions to win food items. Since its Oct. 26 premiere, it has quickly become the nation's most popular program, drawing even more viewers than the top-rated Let's Look At Food, in which images of food are displayed on screen.

"I would love to eat a meal," said devoted Who Wants viewer Sergei Kirasov, an unemployed Novgorod machinist who has submitted his name to the producers more than 600 times in hopes of becoming a contestant. "That is truly the Russian Dream."

Russian citizens are already well acquainted with the show's format: Every night at 8, cameras circle a sumptuous banquet table as announcer Leonid Pustovoitenko asks the studio audience, "Who... wants... to eat a meal?" Bayonet-wielding members of the Russian army then move in to protect the table from rioting audience members, who often storm the set with crude handmade weapons in a desperate attempt to seize a beet.

Once order is restored, 10 lucky Russians–who are brought to Moscow, courtesy of the show, by ox-cart--face off in a "fastest finger" round to determine who will sit in the "hot seat" in front of Ivaskevich to compete for the nutrient-containing jackpot. The advancing contestant is asked a series of increasingly difficult questions, each carrying a larger food prize, from a scrap of rotting cabbage to the grand prize of a one-course dinner for one. Stumped contestants can use one of three "lifelines"–polling the audience, writing a letter to a friend for help, or ingesting a packet of glucose syrup if they are losing consciousness due to hunger.

Though no contestant has yet won the top prize of a slice of boiled beef, an uncooked red potato and a scrap of bread, viewers have thrilled to the awarding of lesser prizes to contestants finishing partway up the prize ladder. Last Friday's installment drew blockbuster ratings as Nikolai Puchin, a 33-year-old Novokuznetsk-area peasant, walked away with a chicken bone after correctly identifying Sergei Eisenstein as the director of The Battleship Potemkin.

The grand prize.

"Viewers are absolutely captivated by the show," said executive producer Oleg Medvedev. "To watch people get up there and have a chance at eating, it's a thrilling fantasy."

Still, some viewers complain that the questions are too easy.

"I watched the other day, and they ask the man to name year Trotsky is assassinated," said Svetlana Tretiak, an 83-year-old retired seamstress from Orsk, a tiny village in the Ural Mountains. "This is ridiculous. If food is on the line, I expect questions are more difficult than this."

Grigor Krupskaya of St. Petersburg agreed. "I know not where they get these contestants," he said. "So dumb. Friday, on show, they ask a man what Soviet gymnast win three gold medals in 1972 Olympics. And he needs lifeline to answer!"

"It is not so easy as it looks," said contestant Alexei Popovich, a 40-year-old Kursk farmer who quit the game with a bowl of borscht rather than risking it to win a larger prize. "I am sure it seems easy to people sitting at home, but when you are up there under the lights, and you know food is on the line, it is very different. You get very nervous: Your palms sweat, your stomach quivers, and your teeth fall out due to malnourishment and scurvy."