Amid the wall-to-wall live coverage of Mikhail Gorbachev this summit week can be found a chilling look back at his murderous predecessor, Joseph Stalin, the tyrant whose 25-year reign crippled whatever chance the Revolution had of creating a lawful, law-abiding society under Communist rule.
The series is called "Stalin" (PBS, Channel 26, tonight, June 4 and June 11 at 9), and its three one-hour segments offer a compelling look at the monster and give us chilling glimpses of how he still haunts Gorbachev's U.S.S.R.
Combining the scant archival footage available with interesting and at times remarkable interviews with Soviets and foreigners, the series kickoff takes us back to the beginnings of the century, when Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili first emerged as a ruthless member of the anti-czarist underground.
Called "Revolutionary," the first installment fills in some of the important details as the native Georgian slowly but relentlessly transformed himself from an outsider among the Russian-dominated Bolsheviks, to Joseph Stalin, literally the man of steel, who stood at Lenin's side.
The footage has been slowed down, giving modern-day viewers snatches of the oppression, squalor and violence of the last years of czarist power. We see grimy factories, downtrodden peasants, disheveled cities, police and military everywhere. Because of Stalin, many of the very same Soviet scenes fill the world's TV screens today -- except that now we can see it in full color.
Aided by various professors, including Moshe Lewin of the University of Pennsylvania and Robert Tucker and Stephen F. Cohen of Princeton, the rough outlines of the early life of the dictator-to-be are filled in. Supplementing this quick history-as-soundbite, the producers -- Thames Television and WGBH Boston -- have tracked down and taped a number of Soviet citizens with unwanted ties to Stalin. The principal interviewee, though not the most insightful, is Svetlana Alliluyeva, the dictator's daughter by his second marriage.
The Russians and their descendants inject extraordinary emotion into the cool dialogue of the professors and the disembodied voice of the narration. These include Boris Bezharov, Stalin's personal secretary; Yelizaveta Tyomkina, an Old Bolshevik; and Estaban Volkov, whose grandfather, Leon Trotsky, was forced into exile by Stalin in 1929 and assassinated 11 years later.
How the Soviets could so easily and quickly accept the terrors of Communist rule as the price for 20th century progress remains a disturbing mystery of the tyrant's era. That the terror still haunts the U.S.S.R. becomes poignantly clear in one of the program's most haunting interviews.
Alexandra Ovdiuk, the round-faced collective farm daughter of a peasant father, recollects the innocent vision of the New Order that she grew up with: "We would have electricity, paved roads, hospitals, schools."
What she didn't know was that Stalin's concept of the New Order included total state control of the countryside, subjugating the nation's independent farmers -- the kulaks -- to the party. The little girl who dreamed of paved roads was present when the secret police took her father away.
"I cried then, and I'm still crying," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks.
The series continues with "Despot" and "Generalissimo."