‘Stalin’: Setting Stage for This Week’s Summit

This week’s Bush-Gorbachev summit will unite two of the best TV smilers in the business.

President Bush has proved that he is better even than Ronald Reagan at finessing the camera and massaging the media on a personal level, inevitably managing to dodge tough questions and dart from danger through an inky cloud of bright little quips. If he continues this way, Bush will go down in history as the laughing-gas President.

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, too, has demonstrated his prowess with the Western press, again and again wearing his telegenic charm on a beaming face that can make you melt.

The show--which also brings together First Ladies Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev--starts Wednesday in Washington after TV coverage of the Soviet entourage’s scheduled late-afternoon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base. A chummy little group.


Behind the smiles, though, is history.

What better way to approach this summit than to dig for some roots. You find them--gnarled and ugly--in the three-part PBS documentary “Stalin,” premiering at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15 (and at 10 p.m. on Channel 24).

Scholars will have to judge whether fresh insights are contained in these fascinating one-hour programs from Britain’s Thames Television. Probably not. Nevertheless, they comprise a simply terrific TV survey, essential for knowing the underpinnings of today’s Soviet Union and the sources of the economic ruin that summoned Gorbachev to center stage.

Through remarkable old footage and chats with Stalin’s daughter and other relatives and associates of past Soviet leaders, executive producer Phillip Whitehead and his co-filmmakers Jonathan Lewis and Tony Cash weave a memorable narrative that vividly shows how some epic figures, through luck and sheer force of personality, become the living exclamation points of their time.

For better or--in the case of the beastly Stalin--for worse.

The opening hour relives the swift rise of Stalin and other revolutionaries from the rubble of the fallen Czarist monarchy. We watch him ruthlessly undermine his political rivals by manipulating the political machine after Lenin’s death in 1924. As a politician, his brilliance was unquestionable, but it was brilliance in the cause of evil.

The concluding hour is essentially the post-World War II Stalin. On the one hand, he is the leader of a nation that suffered horribly while resisting the Nazi onslaught with almost inhuman courage. On the other, he is still the same sociopath, one whose murderous ways will be aborted only through his own death in 1953.

It is next Monday’s middle hour that is most seductive. You’re seeing a disaster, and you’re instinctively attracted to it as you would be to a building collapsing in flames. Here in full force is Stalin’s revolution of terror. We see forced collectivization, the destruction of the peasant class accompanied by lethal famine, the perpetuation of a system that stifles innovation and decays from within.

Suddenly it’s 1936. Narrator: “The truth was, the system wasn’t working.”

Nor, in a rational sense, was its champion. One of his former comrades recalls seeing in Stalin “the angry, inhuman eyes of a predator.”

Given Stalin’s grisly record, it was no wonder that after World War II Nazi war criminals would scoff at having Soviets sit in judgment of them at the Nuremberg trials. The Soviet Union had its own holocaust under Stalin, for no one there, young or old, high or low, was beyond the grip of his terror.

If body counts are the measure of evil, then clearly the pathological Stalin out-Hitlered Hitler: He turned the forests into killing fields, instigated mass purges whose victims were often chosen arbitrarily. He had ordinary citizens locked away in prisons and camps, where they languished for lifetimes without being told their alleged crimes.

They were tortured and left to grow old and wither before their time. One of Stalin’s victims recalls being in a room with other relatively young prisoners where there was also a mirror. She looked into the mirror, but could not find herself. “All of a sudden I saw my mother, her eyes and her gray hair, and I realized it was me.”

The terrible irony of this is that amid the chaos and uncertainty of Gorbachevism there are still some Soviets who yearn for a return to Stalinism. You see them interviewed from time to time on television, and they get their say in this documentary. What does it all mean?

Observes Soviet writer Lev Kopelev: “Stalinism is still alive in all kinds of ways, in our psychology, in our habits and, until such time as Stalinism is annihilated . . . by rational re-education of the people . . . there is no guarantee of the existence of the human race.”

The frown preceding the smiles.