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.

But much of the insight in Putin comes from interviews with western officials, and from those Russian officials selected by the Kremlin to speak (Putin did not grant an interview). Percy describes the making of the Putin documentary as far more difficult, with access far more restricted than in the Gorbachev era.

“Russia has become a place where people are scared” to talk, she says. Percy describes the atmosphere in Putin’s Russia as “reverse glasnost.”

Nevertheless, Putin is said to have liked the film, and NTV, owned by Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled natural gas monopoly, aired it last year just before Putin won election to a third presidential term.

“An NTV chap told us: ‘He thinks it shows him as a strong leader,’ ” wrote Percy and Paul Mitchell, series director of Putin, Russia and the West. “What liberals saw as a revelation of Putin’s brutal suppression of dissent, his supporters saw as the strongman standing up to western enemies or greedy oligarchs.”

But Percy notes that NTV was careful to run the broadcast before the election, which Putin won handily despite months of opposition protests and allegations of election fraud.

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.