In the documentaries of Brian Lapping and Norma Percy, the interviewer’s questions are rarely heard, but the responses are often memorable in their candor, their detail—and sometimes their pathos.
Here is a sample, from part three of The Second Russian Revolution, when Mikhail Poltoranin, an adviser to Boris Yeltsin, recalls a closed-door meeting of Moscow party officials in 1987. The party had gathered to formally accept the resignation of Yeltsin as the city’s Communist boss, and many gleefully seized the opportunity to kick the (temporarily) disgraced Yeltsin while he was down.
It was a horrific scene. It lasted over four hours. I was sitting across from Gorbachev. I was in the fourth row. I couldn’t get any closer. I watched his face get redder and redder. His eyes were darting all round the hall.
Finally, says Poltoranin:
Then the lynching was over. The last speeches had been made, and the crowd was leaving. Many of them had the look of victory on their shining faces. Yeltsin was slumped over the table, his head in his hands. They were all walking out. Gorbachev looked back from the doorway and saw Yeltsin. He went back, took his arm, and helped him out of the hall.
I asked Percy how the documentary team elicited these fly-on-the-wall accounts from men who worked in a system that for decades had treated vital public information as its private secrets.
Percy’s formula: Learn all you can in advance about the event you want to discuss. Skip generalities or anything too open-ended (“Who’s the most interesting person you ever met?” is a Percy no-no). Focus on specific moments and the tiniest of details to tell the larger story. (“I was in the fourth row,” Poltoranin begins, perhaps because he’s just been asked exactly where he sat. But he quickly moves from seating arrangements to the Shakespearean tragedy that ends with Gorbachev supporting the battered Yeltsin’s exit.)
Oren Jacoby, at the time a young filmmaker whose Russian studies at Brown University helped him get a gig working on the Revolution series, recalls Percy’s suggestions for how to interview the Soviet officials: get them to provide physical details, like where they were sitting when the phone rang. The goal: to give viewers “the feeling that you were there while history was being made,” says Jacoby.
There’s almost no detail too small for the Lapping-Percy team. In an interview with Nikolai Ryzhkov, whom Gorbachev promoted early on to deal with the stagnant Soviet economy, Ryzhkov describes being in Gorbachev’s office with masses of documents that revealed the country’s true economic state:
We spread them all over the floor. We took our jackets off and picked our way through the papers: “This one’s interesting. . . . This is useful. . . . That one’s no good!” We felt we were really doing things. You couldn’t see the carpet for documents.
It was the early, giddy days of Gorbachev’s tenure, when the documents spread on the floor could become ammunition in a war to reform the decaying socialist system. After the documents session, we see Gorbachev lambasting party officials in Leningrad, revealing the dirty little secret about the centralized Soviet economy: It was collapsing.
“Your technology is hopeless,” Gorbachev tells the stunned audience in Leningrad. “Productivity is low and the quality of goods unacceptable.” There’s a tongue-lashing for Soviet economists, too. “We’ve not been getting our sums right, comrades,” he says. Information, in this case dismal economic figures, was the weapon Gorbachev needed to push for change.
The Soviet journalists
In that early glasnost period, it was possible as a foreign correspondent to file stories from Moscow nearly every day about freshly revealed information: data on past political executions, new reports on economic decline, investigations of political corruption. Among our sources were reform-minded Soviet journalists, some of whom made a remarkable transition from propaganda to accountability journalism.
The shift began in 1986, after the explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. For three days, a radioactive fire burned out of control, but, as The Second Russian Revolution reminds us, “not a single word about the accident appeared in any newspaper, nor on radio, nor on television.”
Gorbachev was in power by then. So was the liberal Alexander Yakovlev, the Politburo member in charge of party propaganda, who explains the party leaders’ silence for the BBC team.
There was no ban [on reporting the accident] as such. But we didn’t know what to say. We were afraid. Would we cause needless panic?
It’s possible to think, fleetingly, that the earnest, sympathetic Yakovlev has a point—until you remember the extremely dire consequences of that official silence. Invisible radiation spread out over the unsuspecting population of Ukraine, and was soon detected in Sweden.