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.

Gorbachev had created the Congress, forcing it on party conservatives who resisted any democratic change. But by the end of its first session, it was clear that Gorbachev was no longer in charge. “He was like a coachman with a runaway cart,” says the writer Ales Adamovich, a liberal member of the Congress, in his interview with The Second Russian Revolution. “It would career to the right, then to the left, then downhill. It could easily have crashed.”

Another liberal, Anatoly Sobchak from Leningrad, says that during the Congress Gorbachev complained that while “radicals” from Moscow and Leningrad could easily promote bold ideas because they represented liberal, urban constituencies, “I must think of the whole of Russia and the other republics.” Says Sobchak of Gorbachev’s lament: “He was right.”

I am struck by the sympathy of Sobchak’s view, shared with BBC at a time when liberals were publicly excoriating Gorbachev, charging he had turned away from reform. By 1990, the liberals had a new patron saint: Boris Yeltsin, who was undergoing an extraordinary rehabilitation that further complicated Gorbachev’s political life.
Just how pressured Gorbachev felt is made clear in an audio recording the bbc producers obtained. “Comrade Yeltsin jumps at every chance to denigrate me,” Gorbachev complains, as he meets with politicians who in the spring of 1990 were about to decide whether to elevate Yeltsin to a new, powerful job as chairman of the Parliament of the Soviet Republic of Russia. A woman asks:

Mikhail Sergeyevich, what will you do if we elect Yeltsin as chairman of the Russian Federation?

Gorbachev responds:

I will give you a straight answer. At this critical time, if I were you, I would never risk it.

Like so much of what Gorbachev had to say by 1990, this advice was ignored.

Reverse glasnost

At the end of Revolution, the narrator asks whether Gorbachev can “finish what he began, or has he become a hostage of his own revolution?” That question aired just a month and a half before Gorbachev was put under house arrest by hardliners hoping to halt the reforms. When the coup attempt against him collapsed that August, the Soviet Union still existed, but it was a vastly different place, more open than Gorbachev’s glasnost had ever intended.

Soviet TV aired The Second Russian Revolution that September. And when Norma Percy returned to Moscow the same month, to work on a post-coup addendum to the project, officials all but lined up to be interviewed—even, eventually, Gorbachev.

A couple of decades later, the Lapping-Percy team returned to take on a new subject: Putin, Russia and the West. Some of the same Russia experts involved with the Gorbachev documentary worked on the Putin one, too. As before, they sought high-level interviews and candid responses. As before, they put together a smart, highly polished production that won acclaim.

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.