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.
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.