"The Second Russian Revolution" (for BBC2)

This series by Brian Lapping Associates achieved an exceptional number of superlatives from the press. The BBC judged that the producers had created "a new genre" of documentary.

Television preview – Daily Telegraph, 31 May 1991

Today's Choice

The Second Russian Revolution – Enter Gorbachev (BBC2)

The skin on the back of your neck will prickle as you watch the first in this compulsive new series, which has all the tension and drama of a thriller like Smiley's People except that here you are watching real life.

As the extraordinary chain of events which propelled Gorbachev from being Secretary for Agriculture to the most powerful man in the Soviet Union unfolds, you realise that much of it was sheer fluke. Not because Gorbachev was unfit for the job, but because so many old-style party members opposed this fresh new talent. In particular, to hear from a senior official's own lips how Andropov's dying wish that Gorbachev succeed him was hushed up so that Chernenko could be put forward instead is proof indeed of just how much life has changed since Gorbachev's rise to power.

starred as outstandingOutstanding

Review extracts ...

From Izvestia (Soviet national newspaper), 27 July 1991

Izvestia masthead

The Second Russian Revolution: will our viewers ever see this film?

[Elem Klimov is a hero of the Soviet cinema and former Head of the Cinematographers' Union of the USSR]

There is nothing like it in Soviet documentary film. It is entirely unusual as a piece of television. A kind of testimony, it represents an impressive feat of television journalism. Just getting hold of these people to interview is not easy. With recurring surprise, I observed how the screen can unmask the interviewee, like a mirror. (The purposeful way questions are worded and posed also helps to produce revealing responses.)

The artistic design gives the programme a voice of its own as it chronicles recent Soviet history. The style is economical and dynamic. It reveals an impressive knowledge of Soviet affairs. This documentary series has the depth and scope of a Shakespearean tragedy. For the first time someone is taking a close look at the historic events of recent history and I think their efforts are highly commendable. We are taken back to a period which already seems like history. The interviewees tell stories in their own words and revive moments of perestroika in concentrated doses. These episodes describe a great rush of change in our society and in ourselves over the last six years. Through the programme we can re-live that period from the beginning and in some of its most exciting moments. It jogs the memory. A memory and an overall view of our recent past which we cannot live without today.

The series also tells us things we couldn't possibly have known. The frankness of the interviewees is quite uncharacteristic and disarming as they reveal all sorts of unknown secrets to the camera. I'm not exaggerating, the streets of Moscow would be deserted if this programme was on the television. Everyone would be glued to their sets, forgetting how bored we are with politics.

The material is presented with subtlety and intelligence in a way that is very refreshing. We are so tired of the sensationalism and hysteria which has been poured upon us when our country's affairs are reported. The calm atmosphere, the thoughtful composure and the slightly detached attitude of this series are like rare gifts to us. They give us a refreshingly objective view of how we live here "inside" the subject material of the programmes. They tend not to be explicit as we would be. They don't hand it to you on a plate. They want the viewers to decide for themselves what they think.

Programme One is a fascinating but sombre story. The truth about politics: it's a dirty business. It tells of the "palace intrigues", of who supported whom, who pushed whom aside. All the ins and outs of Gorbachev's coming to power are revealed. What would have happened, I wonder, if he hadn't made it?

I was interviewed for an episode in Programme Two to tell the story of how Abuladze's film "Repentance" came to be released. Politically this was a significant moment, a marker of real change, and I believe it is important to know what Shevardnadze, Yakovlev and Gorbachev (who made the final decision) did in this affair.

The other topics of Programme Two are the silence of the Soviet media over the accident at Chernobyl, the return of Sakharov, and the story of the Nina Andreyeva article which was part of an attempt to reverse the process of perestroika.

At the end of the first programme there is a shot which shows a figure emerging behind Gorbachev at the Presidium. It is Yeltsin. At the time no-one could have predicted the role he would play in the future. The third programme in the series is about him.

Programmes Four and Five are about the "awakening" of the peoples of the republics. They tell us of the rallies, the strikes, the ethnic conflicts. Perestroika has often been called a "revolution from above". But there were stirrings from below too, one way or another it had to happen – our 5th Congress of Cinematographers is a case in point. The programmes show how the whole country exploded. And the changes taking place are unstoppable. There will be no return to the past.

The last programme in the series is called "The End of the Beginning", which seems appropriate today. We hardly ever talk about glasnost or perestroika any more. You hear the phrase "freedom of speech". It has been clear since the events in the Baltic states – a test run for future dictatorship – that we have to change everything. Rebuilding or repairing the system is just a waste of time.

Gorbachev is the only person in the film who doesn't talk straight to the camera. It's hardly surprising – heads of state are not obliged to give television interviews. These days he has to withstand criticism from all directions. Surprising us again, the series brings out the enormous role played by this one man in recent history ...

I'm sure that when you see this series, despite the unprecedented drama of the events portrayed, you won't be left feeling downcast. It's no coincidence that so many people in the West these days think that events here are shaping the course of the entire world. Our shops may be empty, our people exhausted, but the makers of this series didn't make it in pursuit of sensational stories or political opportunism (there isn't even a trace of it in this honest, objective and highly professional programme); they chose our story because they realised the importance of what is happening here today.

Izvestia's article last May about "The Second Russian Revolution" mentioned "a slim chance" of the series being shown to Soviet viewers. So far this situation hasn't changed, but as time goes on (the last bit of filming was in May this year) the programme seems to gain in relevance and topicality. We express our gratitude to the people who made this programme for their acute and accurate understanding of our problems: Brian Lapping Associates (Brian Lapping, executive producer), series producer Norma Percy, directors Mark Anderson and David Ash, also Angus Roxburgh, Paul Mitchell, Angus Macqueen, Masha Slonim and Kate Clark.

To BFI Film + TV database To BBC Online David Ash, producer-director

Television documentaries by British programme maker David Ash

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