THE SOVIET CITIZENS AS ‘COMRADES’
Take that , Wendy’s.
The July 1 coming of “Comrades"--a BBC-created, 12-part documentary view of the Soviet Union through the eyes of citizens ranging from an Army recruit to a rebellious musician--is refreshing, exhilarating sanity.
Aired under the PBS “Frontline” banner, “Comrades” (10 p.m. Tuesdays on KCET Channel 28) joins an existing eclectic mix of media-shaped Soviet images, many of which confuse the Red Menace with Dennis the Menace.
American TV is already splashed with demeaning caricatures of Soviets, from the witless boob on “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” kids’ show on CBS to the dowdy dumpling of a fashion model mincing down the runway in a shapeless housedress in a Wendy’s commercial.
Other comic Commies have sprung from the monologues of Yakov Smirnoff and the recently aired NBC pilot, “Moscow Bureau.” The Keystone Kremlin.
On a grimmer note, Sylvester Stallone has made a bundle from mindless Soviet bashing, and the big poopah of flag-flaunting ABC’s 1986-87 season is a miniseries (“Amerika”) depicting the United States bearing up under Soviet occupation.
Contrasting with these nasty Soviets is the seeming new openness of Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Chernobyl excepted) and the crafty earnestness of former New Yorker Vladimir Posner, the polished Soviet spokesman who has been on a remarkable TV binge in the United States.
Later this month, TV’s detente will encompass another space bridge dialogue (“Citizens’ Summit II” on KNBC Channel 4), this one between American and Soviet women only. And July 5 brings the start of Ted Turner’s “Goodwill Games,” 16 days of mini-Olympics from the Soviet Union to air on WTBS cable and KTLA Channel 5 locally.
Good will and good grief!
Network newscasts, particularly ABC’s “World News Tonight,” have attempted to expand our view of Soviet society, and Turner Broadcasting Co. and the Soviets are co-producing their own seven-hour documentary on the Soviet Union.
The information gap continues, though. When a local TV station recently aired a minidocumentary about the Soviets, for example, it designated stand-up comic Smirnoff as its chief expert. Penetrating.
No wonder Posner says that Soviets generally know more about us than we about them. And no wonder “Comrades” producer Richard Denton, an Englishman wed to a Soviet actress, agrees.
Many TV reporters, for example, still insist on referring to Soviets as Russians, although Russia is only one of 15 Soviet republics, each having a distinct national consciousness. The equivalent would be referring to all U. S. citizens as Texans.
One reason for the ignorance is that Soviet society has been far less open than ours. Another is an ethnocentric American attitude that breeds insularity. It’s no accident that our first extended TV view of the Soviet Union is produced by the BBC, not a U.S. network.
NBC gives us “Peter the Great,” a semi-fantasized account of Russia long past, and the BBC provides “Comrades,” a compelling, illuminating account of the Soviet Union present. With real people, not actors.
The 12 episodes (in addition to a short film about making the series) have already aired in England. PBS has repackaged the series for U.S. audiences, topping each hour with a brief panel discussion by Soviet experts hosted by “Frontline” anchor Judy Woodruff.
“Comrades” doesn’t supply all the answers about the Soviet Union. And you can’t help wondering whether the camera’s presence helped to shape what is happening on the screen. The U.S. version, moreover, unfortunately replaces the original subtitles with English dubbing, erasing the natural rhythms and cadence of local languages.
This is the widest, clearest window yet, however, on a nation of 270 million that is a fog to most Americans.
The star of the opening segment is a young student teacher who is the picture-book Soviet. Another segment captures the fashion industry in Estonia (much nearer to Helsinki, Finland than to Moscow) and preparations for a fashion show offering dresses “for those occasions you never go to.”
We visit a soccer team in the bleak industrial town of Azerbaijan and go to Moldavia for the trial of a 52-year-old petty thief who is the stereotypical Soviet peasant woman in a bulky coat and babushka.
There are also the clashing images of a privileged Moscow Soviet eye surgeon and the nonconforming outcast musician Sergei Kuryokhin, dubbed “unofficial” by authorities because the jazz rock that he and his friends play, although moderate by heavy metal standards, is too unpredictable for Soviet officialdom.
“Comrades” was shot from 1983 to 1985 and was no hit-and-run mission, the BBC spending three weeks to seven months on each subject. That’s extraordinary.
“This kind of exercise has never been done before,” Denton told a group of visiting TV critics in Los Angeles Monday. “As to why the Soviets let us do it is a different question.”
Denton thinks that the Soviets may have thought they could control the production. And they tried, in their fashion.
The BBC producers chose the general topics, but the Soviets selected all but four of the persons to be interviewed. Communist Party officials were off limits. Except in the case of Kuryokhin, whose segment was shot surreptitiously in Leningrad because the government denied permission, each BBC film crew was accompanied by a Soviet TV “guide.”
The Soviets had the contractual right to view the finished programs and suggest changes, Denton said, but the BBC maintained full editorial control. “The film left the Soviet Union unprocessed and unedited,” he said.
What resulted is a strikingly balanced series which, though omitting the more sinister Soviet underside, is no wishy-washy whitewash, thanks to the camera’s X-ray eye and some pointed narration.
After spending 21 months in the Soviet Union, Denton has concluded that that Soviets are “marginally less inclined to believe their propaganda than we are to believe ours.”
And one thing that Soviets and Americans have in common, he added, is their patriotism. “The vast majority love their country.”
One fundamental difference, though, is the weaving of political ideology into everyday routine. As British journalist Michael Franklin notes on one of the programs, the Soviet Union is a perpetual school: “A school for life.”