Four nights a week for the last month, Alexander and Rimma Lavruk have slipped onto their couch and into the past, Russia's and their own. Like millions of Russians, the couple is mesmerized by an unusual drama on national television: a miniseries called "Moscow Saga," which portrays the country during the Stalin years.
"We sometimes get teary-eyed watching it," said Alexander, a retired Aeroflot employee. "The fate of the people in the series, it was the fate of so many families. Our family, too."
Rimma Lavruk's uncles were kulaks, relatively prosperous peasants, who were deported to Siberia by Joseph Stalin's government in the early 1930s and never returned. When Alexander Lavruk was born in December 1941, his father was dead, one of tens of thousands of foot soldiers killed in the fall of that year as invading German troops swept across the country. His family never recovered his body.
Based on "Moscow Saga," the acclaimed novel by Vasily Aksyonov, the miniseries is the story of one family, the Gradovs, whose lives are interwoven with Stalin's rise and rule from the 1920s until his death in 1953. The 24-part series, No. 1 in the television ratings, is stirring memories and kindling debate in a country that was long silent and remains somewhat ambivalent about the man who ordered millions murdered while also overseeing the Soviet Union's victory in war and its emergence as a superpower.
"This is the first attempt in this medium to show the violence, the lawlessness, the arbitrary nature of the regime," said Dmitri Barshevsky, who directed "Moscow Saga." "People will have no illusions. Maybe in this mass medium, it will be more convincing."
In what amounts to a Stalin-era retrospective, the series will be immediately followed on state television by the 16-part dramatization of another major novel about the period, Anatoly Rybakov's "Children of the Arbat." The Arbat is a Moscow neighborhood with a long history of aristocratic and literary life.
Stalin himself is a character in each production, his complex malevolence seething beneath a sometimes pleasant exterior. He hovers over the storyline, propelling but never overwhelming the stories of family, friendship and love, of bravery and cowardice.
"I think that people are watching, not to find out anything new about Stalin, because they know all that," Aksyonov, the author, said in a telephone interview from France. "In a time of terror, we see how people survived, how they lived, how they loved each other, how they betrayed each other. I think that's what people are watching."
"The pressure of the times transforms these characters," Andrei A. Eshpai, who directed "Children of the Arbat," said in an interview. "Some people are crushed, but also, somehow, individuality survives, humanity survives, love survives. We are showing how the decisions made at the very top of the Soviet pyramid of power were translated into the lives of ordinary people."
The sudden appearance of two major artistic interpretations of the Stalin era on Channel One, a station largely controlled by the Kremlin, has spawned a host of theories about why the miniseries were made.
Arseny Roginsky, chairman of Memorial, a human rights group dedicated to preserving the truth about Russia's totalitarian past, said the two dramas can be viewed as supporting a political strategy by the Kremlin to invoke but control nostalgia. He pointed to the seeming paradox of President Vladimir Putin allowing the restoration of the name Stalingrad (now Volgograd) on a World War II memorial in September and then in October sending a wreath to a service for victims of Stalin's terror.
" 'Moscow Saga' has nothing to do with Stalin and a lot to do with today," said Roginsky. "The only threat to the authorities is that a number of different groups can unite -- liberals with Communists, for instance. The current power doesn't mind reminding people that the Communists killed millions."
The most negative reaction to the films has come from Communist Party supporters, some of whom still carry pictures of Stalin in their pockets. According to opinion polls, about 40 percent of Russians still have a positive image of Stalin, and 25 percent of those polled said they would vote for him if he were alive.
"Television should not show films like . . . 'Moscow Saga,' which show a conflict with a whole era, with the older generation, and set people against each other," Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party, said in an interview on the Echo Moskvy radio station. "It is necessary to treat one's history with respect."
The makers of both miniseries said that the dramas' appearance now had much more to do with the economics of filmmaking in Russia than with politics. "Children of the Arbat" was long suppressed as a book, but when it was finally published in 1987 after President Mikhail Gorbachev initiated reforms designed to encourage openness, it caused a sensation. There were immediate plans to film it, Eshpai said, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 also led to the collapse of the state-supported film industry.
In recent years, the industry has experienced a revival, led by the success of detective series and soap operas made for television. "When we discovered it was economically profitable to make series, it was only a matter of time before the subject matter diversified," Eshpai said.
But neither director is blind to the possible contemporary political lessons of their dramas, particularly when opponents of Putin accuse him of centralizing power and undermining democracy.
"You could argue that at a moment when there is fear about the direction of the country, the authorities are reminding people that they're not so bad compared to what came before," said Barshevsky. "But you could also argue that the fact that the authorities allowed this film to be shown is hope that Russia will develop in a civilized manner."