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.”
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.”
Gorbachev himself did not speak with BBC for the original series; he did grant an interview after August 1991, when BBC returned to produce two more post-coup episodes on Gorbachev’s revolution. The entire package was shown later that year by Discovery in the US, but with at least one crucial change: Instead of translating the hours of Russian into subtitles, as BBC did, Discovery used English voiceovers. What’s lost in the Discovery version is important nuance; Ligachev’s bombast is muted, Yeltsin’s slyness is less obvious.
But it’s impossible to mute another key element of The Second Russian Revolution: the high drama of so many debates at party and government meetings, which in the glasnost era were often televised live. Many of the most sensational moments came in May 1989, during that first session of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the body created by Gorbachev when he got his Communist Party to approve competitive elections to a new legislature—a step designed to make the party more responsive to the people it had ruled by fiat for 70 years.
Though billed as a bold experiment in democracy, the Congress was still in the firm grip of the Communist Party, whose loyalists held most seats. Given the numbers, the new legislature could never be much more than a debating society.
But what debates! For two weeks, the Soviet Union was transfixed by daily dramas in the auditorium of that grand Palace of Congresses. Andrei Sakharov, the dissident conscience of the nation, addressed the entire country on day one—and later was denounced by numerous deputies for allegedly insulting the Soviet military. Newly elected deputies took the podium to decry historic and current human-rights abuses, to criticize Gorbachev and other party leaders, to demand radical changes—or to stop the reform process altogether.