Discord, distress, the threat of dissolution. Such is the prevailing spirit in the Soviet
Union today as vividly captured by "Soviets". Through striking photographs and probing
interviews, Juris Podnieks, a Latvi...展开an director, conveys the misery, resistance and
flickering hopes of people who are demanding much more than the Gorbachev reforms.
The very existence of such a work, which was made in 1988 and '89 and which has
been shown in some Soviet movie theaters, is of course evidence of how much has
changed in recent years. Yet as Hedrick Smith, the author of "The New Russians,"
observes, the reforms have released ambiguous and often hostile feelings.
1 red hot
In the first, impressionistic program, Mr. Podnieks, a noted director of feature films,
heightens the facts with scenes of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the aftermath
of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia and with the angry faces of striking workers at an
engine factory in Yaroslavl in central Russia. He has a case to make and knows how to
use his camera to make it. Do not look to "Soviets" for journalistic balance; even the tone
of the voice-overs separates earnest protestors from stuffy officials.
Unfortunately for the viewer, Mr. Podnieks appears to be much taken with a fellow
Latvian, the musician and poet Alexei Rybnikov, who begins the first program with
brooding banalities -- "We are lost because we have lost our beliefs" and "My weak feet
are made of clay" -- as he records his latest opera, "Holy Communion for Nonbelievers."
The synthesized music and synthetic philosophy, accompanied by newsreels of Lenin
and Stalin, make for an arduously arty opening.
Through Mr. Podnieks's lens, the Yaroslavl engine factory is straight out of Dickens. One
of the women, who seem to make up most of the work force, asks, "With only one free
day a week, when do we see our children? How much housekeeping can I do?"
Mr. Podnieks, doing his interviewing out of camera range, pins down a union
representative. "Why strike?" this man asks. "We're free to talk about anything." To Mr.
Podnieks's observation, "The air is still poisoned; the work is still heavy," the union
official counters, "If there is a little anger, take it as a natural female trait." A crane driver
comments that although the workers might have lost some of their fear, "we aren't
capable of much after these many years of silence." The pictures of the old-fashioned
factory add a smoky atmosphere to the words, leaving an image of frail hope choked by
decades of resignation.
Mr. Podnieks demonstrates his directorial touch as he moves evocatively from a
comment by the crane driver that she likes science fiction to eerie scenes of the
clean-up after the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl. The director has an eye for symbol and
a liking for morality tales. An art historian tells him that people have been stealing old
icons from the region, even though they are radioactive. The holy items, taken for gain,
may bring death. Mr. Podnieks can be obvious (a picture of Christ on the cross is
juxtaposed against a soldier hammering nails into a door) but in his hands even the
obvious has strength.
The first program ends with interviews with women who, despite warnings, have
returned to their homes near Chernobyl. Mr. Podnieks catches their mix of defiance
("We're not scared of death; it won't take us so easily") and desperation ("The fields
here have been ploughed with our hands, the houses built with our bare hands -- oh,
dear, I think that already I have said too much. They'll come and arrest me"). It is a mixture
that "Soviets" finds everywhere.
The second program brings interviews with a Russian Orthodox priest, in the shell of his
destroyed church, who longs to return to an earlier Russia, and with Andrei Sakharov,
who died in December 1989, looking ahead realistically and not very optimistically: "I don't
know whether we will be able to run the whole course, because we have failed so
Mr. Podnieks pays particular attention to the rising nationalism in his own Latvia, focusing
especially on Valdis Turins, a schoolteacher whom we see being carted away by police
during a demonstration. Mr. Turins is no more optimistic than Mr. Sakharov, but he clings
to the faith that now there is a chance for his people.
The program finds a similar spirit among the Armenians in the district of Nagorny
Karabakh who are demanding independence from the republic of Azerbaijan. A
newsreel shows a crowd listening to a member of the Communist Party Central
Committee offering this comfort: "Dear Comrades! The Central Committee of the party
loves you! Honestly!" The ensuing hoots and the pictures of Armenians who have been
beaten by Azerbaijani nationalists, perhaps abetted by the police, portend more violence
and possibly an end to what is now known as the Soviet Union.
3 do you hear us?
The series also contains interviews with disenchanted veterans of the war in
Afghanistan, with appealing young members of the Democratic Front and with
4 the wall
Another program contains a chilling account of the desperate fight by a woman in the
republic of Uzbekistan in Central Asia against the accusation that she was not a virgin at
marriage, an offense that among the Uzbeks requires self-immolation. Mr. Podnieks's
camera, never objective, catches the insularity and suspiciousness in a region where
2,500 women a year try to burn themselves to death.
This episode contains interviews with residents of a town near Leningrad who are
protesting against a factory that emits noxious fumes (which was closed down after the
There is also a candid conversation with Boris N. Yeltsin, the head of the Russian
Republic, who sees the increasing powers of Mikhail S. Gorbachev as "the beginning of
a new cult of personality." The accompanying pictures of Mr. Gorbachev looking
authoritarian leaves little doubt as to where Mr. Podnieks's sympathies lie.
5 face to face
In the final program, he returns to the Baltic States to meet the leaders of the Latvian
People's Front and also returns to Armenia, and its fight against the Muslim expansion.
"Soviets" gives immediacy to the economic, political, religious and ethnic demands now
roiling the country. It offers inspiration in the form of people standing up to state power,
but leaves little prospect for a quiet resolution to the clashing passions that have been
unloosed by the first breaths of freedom.