That was three days after the explosion, but in the Soviet Union, media were still only reporting that “An accident has occurred at Chernobyl nuclear-power station. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged.” The usual “measures” had been taken “to eliminate the consequences,” victims were being aided, and a government commission was named to deal with the problem.

Vladimir Gubarev, science editor for Pravda, tells The Second Russian Revolution that newspapers like his were forbidden to publish anything beyond the official statement.

After a train trip to Ukraine to see the panic and death caused by Chernobyl, Gubarev spoke truth to power—not in Pravda’s news columns, but quite literally to two of the country’s most powerful men, who summoned him to a meeting upon his return to Moscow:

It’s twilight. The desk lamp is on. Gorbachev and Yakovlev are sitting there. I’m telling them about Chernobyl. I was furious. I’d seen so much incompetence. I’d seen so much stupidity. It was such a disgrace.

The two leaders send Gubarev off to write a brief for them by the next morning:

I think that report is the best thing I have written.

Gubarev picks up the report and reads from it: “The main reason for the panic in Kiev is the lack of information. Nothing about what had happened, not even on radiation in the city, not one Ukrainian leader has appeared on TV to explain.”

Gorbachev didn’t acknowledge Gubarev’s criticisms publicly, but he began to make moves that repudiated the old policies of secrecy and censorship. Vitaly Korotich, an editor in Ukraine, had publicly labeled the Chernobyl coverup “criminal.” Instead of being punished, he was rewarded with a new job in Moscow editing the national weekly magazine Ogonyok. Under him, it became one of the liveliest Gorbachev-era publications.

Ogonyok, like all Soviet media, was still serving the cause, but now the cause was reform, warmly embraced by Korotich and other liberal editors. Far from relinquishing control, though, the Politburo continued to debate what could, and could not, be said in the media, the arts, and elsewhere.

And here is where glasnost proved particularly helpful to the producers of The Second Russian Revolution. It had emboldened lower-level reformers—including journalists like Korotich, Gubarev, and Ivan Laptev, editor of Izvestia—who were happy to recount what they knew of behind-the-scenes struggles. Those accounts could then be leveraged with higher-ups—we know this version of events, now tell us yours. The technique worked, perhaps because of glasnost (even hardliners could get caught up in the new, freer way of speaking); or because of the bbc’s international reputation; or because of what Brian Lapping describes as Norma Percy’s “absolute, overpowering will” when it comes to getting an interview. As Robert Hanks put it in a 2005 Independent article: “A lot of her [Norma’s] interviewees say no to the first request—because they have a country to run, or because the issues being discussed are too sensitive, or because they don’t know Percy and haven’t yet realized that it’s going to be simpler just to do what she asks.”

Second look

I first watched The Second Russian Revolution on VHS tapes, sent by a friend in London who recorded them as they aired on BBC the summer of 1991. Then they sat untouched until last year, when, in a major media housecleaning, my husband and I culled our vast VHS holdings. The Second Russian Revolution was among the few I kept for conversion to DVD. I was curious to see if my memory had embellished its quality.

Far from it. I was struck immediately by the range of sources who spoke with BBC and the depth and thoughtfulness of each interview. The long sit-downs with Yakovlev, the liberal reformer, and his Politburo nemesis Ligachev, the embodiment of the old guard, provide the framework for many key moments. Ligachev stands proudly for the old ways—it’s one thing to criticize Stalin, quite another to ridicule him, he says. Yakovlev describes deft maneuvers that sometimes, but not always, overcame hardliner opposition.

In the end, the two Politburo powerhouses represent the dueling world views that surrounded Gorbachev. Yakovlev describes the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe as an inevitability, not worth sending soldiers out of their barracks to fight over. For Ligachev, though, “It wasn’t just the Berlin Wall collapsing, but our whole system.”

Ann Cooper teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and National Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.