A new Russian series with host Hedrick Smith asking if Gorby's going to survive?
Sign me up, comrades!
I've been down this path before, but I'm still ready to watch the revolution.
The series is "Soviets" (which airs in five parts, one hour nightly from tomorrow to Thursday at 10 on ., Channel 26), and the host indeed is the ubiquitous Mr. Smith, who is to the era of glasnost roughly what Carl Sagan is to the universe -- entertaining explainer, tour guide, enthusiast. In this go-round on his favorite topic, Smith makes an earnest effort to sound fresh and insightful about a series originally produced in the Soviet Union that often touches some of the same themes as his own fine four-part "Inside Gorbachev's U.S.S.R." series for PBS last spring.
And certainly, there are some overlaps: dilapidated factories, polluted paradises, ethnic zealots, antisemites, obdurate party men, hopeful reformers abound in both series. But when something like a revolution is at hand, let's not quibble about repetition.
Every revolution is a mystical human upheaval of such unique dimension and duration that outsiders and historians mostly get left in the dust trying to comprehend and explain what happened. The best possibility we have of understanding the dynamics of the whirlwind engulfingthe world's other superpower is to sample its turbulence frequently and at as close a range as possible.
"Soviets" delivers on that goal. The drama, the spectacle, the raw power zooming out of the set straight into your living room is irresistible. Crowds, riots, rallies, interviews, burials, fights, rescues, songs, poetry, lamentations -- it's as big a piece of grainy, coarse, tumultuous, unhappy Soviet reality as a viewer could reasonably ask of the tiny tube, putting us exactly where we want to be -- in the middle of the action, and then on the sidelines, talking to the participants.
The series was created and directed by a prominent Latvian filmmaker, Juris Podnieks, who took his cameras into all sorts of dark and previously hidden recesses of the huge nation. The scenes flow with logic and power through the five parts, pausing in all the right places to allow us to savor the moment, witness the episode, then pass to the next encounter. With dubbed voice-over, subtitles, and direct soundtrack, Podnieks's exploration of his country's upheaval offers irresistible contact with the bizarre and contradictory combination of cynicism, hope, despair and commitment stirring the Soviet soul in the sixth year of the reign of the extraordinary Mikhail Gorbachev.
We owe a great debt to an unexpected coincidence: Gorbachev's glasnost and the minicam. The two have opened the closed society of the Soviet Union in astonishing ways, seemingly revealing more to outsiders about the true nature of the country than everything written, recorded or reported in the previous seven decades of Communist rule. At the same time, the thirst for truthful reporting from their countrymen about their own nation remains unslaked; reportage such as Podnieks's has had Soviets glued to the tube for hours on end. For Americans, then, watching "Soviets" has a special dimension of engagement because it shows us what kind of reporting is now available to Soviet viewers.
In addition to his own camera crews, Podnieks has found and included lengthy footage from other Soviet sources that takes the viewer on frightening forays into the Afghan war and even into the interior of the devastated Chernobyl atomic power station. That scene alone is breathtaking: As a team of disaster investigators probes deeper into the rubble-strewn, blackened chambers of Reactor No. 4, Geiger counters tick madly at the lethal levels of radiation soaking them and voices begin shouting, "Get out! Get out!" When they retreat, you feel as though some redoubtable, admirable adventurers have just been saved from death. But we learn from the narration -- as did Soviet viewers -- that many of the original investigators have died of radiation.
As Smith explains in the first program, called "Red Hot," Podnieks is interested mostly in exploring what doesn't work and why that is so and what Soviet citizens want of perestroika, or restructuring, and why they aren't getting it. His journalism, like so much of the world's best journalism, is aimed at what the government doesn't want to have known. This is the kind of blunt muckraking that came alive solely because of Gorbachev and glasnost. For a nation where barely five years ago the crash of aircraft and the derailment of trains was never reported, Gorbachev has meant a revolution in matters of truth-telling.
The first show goes to a factory in Yaroslavl deep in the Russian heartland to explain why workers there launched a strike against management. The camera tours a factory from Hell: a place of such sinister grime, clanging noise, vicious unguarded machines and brute labor that it hardly seems real. Yet it is just one more "enterprise" in a land choked by obsolete industrial complexes that make nothing useful to common citizens.
That opening scene sets the stage for the remainder of the series: It is full of revelation, discovery and deeply moving humanity. The other segments are "Awakening," "Do You Hear Us?", "The Wall" and "Face to Face." Each has important revelations of its own to make. Among the most affecting scenes is a lengthy interview with Andrei D. Sakharov, the Nobel Peace laureate who died last year. Lying against a settee, Sakharov ruminates in his quiet, almost metallic voice about his own life and fate. There are pauses, coughs and sighs. It is clear that his vitality is ebbing, and Podnieks shows part of why that was so.
In a nation of more than 100 ethnic groups and languages other than Russian, the variety of lifestyles, experiences and expectations is astonishing. "Soviets" barely scratches the surface of that diversity, but Podnieks's forays into Armenia, Uzbekistan and his native Latvia on the Baltic Sea offer rich portraits of the fears and angers of the minorities as they seek their own destiny in the world.
Throughout the series, and perhaps its single most important persona, are the crowds. Podnieks can't get enough of them -- they are everywhere in every program -- and after a while, neither will you. They are the living tapestry of a nation in turmoil, and they are unforgettable.