In the spring of 1989, after decades of being kept out in the cold by Communist secrecy and propaganda, journalists in Moscow were given unprecedented access to a Kremlin building—the boxy, modernistic Palace of Congresses. Inside the palace, the Soviet Union was taking its first cautious steps toward democracy. An unlikely mix of Communist bosses, nationalist firebrands, teachers, and ordinary laborers, among others—all chosen in what were often described as the country’s first “quasi-democratic elections”—had come together to serve in a new legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies.
Their deliberations were open to the Moscow press corps, and, in the frequent breaks during sessions of the new Congress, journalists could roam the palace’s vast lobbies, where it was possible to corner Andrei Sakharov, listen to the pontifications of Boris Yeltsin, and even, on occasion, probe the thoughts of Mikhail Gorbachev or his fellow Politburo members Yegor Ligachev and Alexander Yakovlev, the political yin and yang of the Communist leadership.
What a feast for access-starved journalists, who, in the pre-Gorbachev era, could waste weeks or months seeking meetings with even the most low-level officials. I was National Public Radio’s Moscow bureau chief at the time, and along with my colleagues, I enjoyed the improved access we had largely thanks to Gorbachev and his policy of glasnost, or transparency. Our editors hungered for details on everything—independence movements, agitators for multiparty politics and a market economy, profiles of those Politburo players who still resisted radical change. We filed constantly, working to bring sense to huge, historic events.
In London, a journalist named Brian Lapping watched all this unfold as he looked for his next video project. There was little that tied him to the Gorbachev story beyond the fact that Lapping’s father was Russian (he had left the country as a child after the 1917 revolution). Lapping himself didn’t speak Russian and hadn’t reported on the Soviet Union.
What Lapping could boast on his résumé, though, was an acclaimed Granada Television project called End of Empire—a 14-hour documentary made in 1985 (and broadcast on Britain’s News Channel 4), in one of Lapping’s earliest video partnerships with a young American producer named Norma Percy.
End of Empire chronicled the last days of British rule around the globe, through the remarkably candid reminiscences of both colonizers and the colonized. After Empire, Lapping founded his own video production company, whose proposals got serious attention in part because of Empire’s success.
When Lapping and Percy pitched The Second Russian Revolution to BBC2, they proposed applying the same techniques—long, detailed interviews with the top Soviet decision makers—to tell the story of key moments in the Gorbachev era. The Russian Revolution project would differ from Empire in some important ways. The British story was already history when that project began, but in the Soviet Union, they would be covering history-in-the-making, its final outcome uncertain. And to tell the intimate stories Lapping and Percy wanted would require getting interviews with leaders of what had been one of the most secretive societies of the 20th century. “I think I had no good reason for thinking that we could succeed,” says Lapping. “I pretended to a degree of confidence that I didn’t really have.”
Like the rest of us reporting there at the time, Lapping and Percy benefited from glasnost. But the astonishing access they got and the insightful interviews they recorded for The Second Russian Revolution were more than just good timing. They were the fruits of intrepid journalism, the kind that Lapping and Percy have since applied to other great moments in recent history—the fall of Yugoslavia, the Watergate scandal, the collapse of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Their documentaries, including The Second Russian Revolution, have won bushels of awards and stand as examples of the best of their genre.
The BBC aired The Second Russian Revolution in the summer of 1991, just before hardliners attempted to overthrow Gorbachev that August. The timing was extraordinary, the analysis prescient. Viewed today, it’s a poignant record of an epic struggle over a central question that informed so many of those decisions: Who has the right to control news and information? In 1991, when The Second Russian Revolution ends, that struggle had been won largely by the champions of free speech. But, as we see now, in the speech-constricted era of Vladimir Putin, it was not a permanent victory.
Whole books and journalism courses are devoted to the art of the interview, journalism’s master key to unlocking secrets and revealing personalities. “How not to” examples abound, perhaps most famously Barbara Walters’s much-lampooned query to Katharine Hepburn in 1981, “What kind of a tree are you?” We all remember the question; the response was barely noted.