Communism: The Promise and the Reality (1995) PBS

Episode 6: People Power (1980-1993)

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Video Description

People Power (1980-1993)

Communist rule crumbles in the Soviet Union

On November 9, 1989, East Germans mobbed the frontier posts that divided Communist East Berlin from the West. Although less than thirty years old, the Berlin Wall already seemed an ageless and enduring symbol of the old regime. Now, it stood breached -- demolished by the people who challenged the Party that claimed to rule in their name. For hospital worker Mike Fröhnel, it was a dream come true: "I wanted to really savor the moment. I looked down and took one step, and then another and I was over it. I was about that much over the white line, and suddenly it was too much. The wall, I had overcome this monster, this snake of a wall."

People Power tells the story of how the Communist system that dominated post-war Eastern Europe collapsed. Eyewitnesses remember the extraordinary weeks that preceded and followed the fall of the Wall; Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement in Poland; Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution," and more.

By the 1970s, the Soviet Union was at the height of its power, and the Communist world stretched from Asia to the heart of Europe. Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, and East Germans -- all were seen as part of the same family. The Soviet regime seemed impregnable -- and all-powerful: free health care, free schooling, no unemployment. But it was also a world of mass illusion. When Romania's President Ceaucescu was shown visiting markets, student Mihai Radu knew the displays of food had little to do with real life: "The truth is that the shops didn't even have one hundredth of what we used to see on TV. There was little food; no meat, butter, milk; no cheese."

And waiting -- whether fifteen years for an apartment or five hours to buy food at a grocer -- became a harsh reality. Radu remembers: "My good fortune was that my grandparents were still alive. I remember my grandfather would take the little stool down to the shop where he would sit all night until the shop opened the next morning. That was when the Romanian proverb was coined, 'If you don't have a Granny, you better buy one.'"

Soviet citizens were told that the iron curtain was meant to protect socialism from the evil influence of the West. By the late 1970s, however, the curtain could no longer shield them from the anarchic allure of Western culture. Moscow-native Natasha Kutznetsova remembers: "I got to know the West through music. Though I didn't understand a word. I imagined these people dancing and smiling -- you couldn't hide the freedom in that music."

The penalties were high for those who challenged the system. When Mike Fröhnel distributed dissident leaflets, he wound up in a Berlin Secret Police prison. "They knew quite a lot about me," says Fröhnel, "they knew more than I thought. They showed me photographs; they had photographed me in secret. It was unbelievable. For the first seven months I was in solitary. They dredged up your deepest secrets. There was nothing left of you. Nothing."

In Poland, the opposition to Soviet domination and the socialist ideal was more widespread and deeply rooted than anywhere else. The election of a Polish Pope, and his triumphant journey back to Poland in 1979, gave the Poles a new confidence. Gdansk streetcar operator Henryka Kryzwonos remembers: "I just fell to my knees: this would change everything. Now life would improve. This Pole would bring us salvation. Our life was going to be different."

Discontent ran deepest in Kryzwonos's own Gdansk. In 1980, the shipyards went on strike. "We knew something was up in the shipyards," recalls Kryzwonos, whose route took her past the gate of the yards. "So I stopped [my streetcar] by number fifteen in front of the opera. I blocked [routes] fifteen, thirteen, and two. I brought all the traffic in central Gdansk to a halt." With the city at a standstill, the strikers gathered at the yards and issued their demands. Led by shipyard electrician Lech Walesa, the workers had taken on the full might of the Communist state and won: they were allowed to form the first independent non-Communist trade union in the whole of the Soviet empire: Solidarity. "People were born anew," says Kryzwonos.

But just sixteen months after the Gdansk agreement, Polish Party leader General Jaruzelski banned "Solidarity" and declared martial law. Thousands of Solidarity leaders were arrested. The Soviet leadership still held ultimate control in their hands -- but their grasp was faltering.

In Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader from a new generation, becomes General Secretary in 1985. A new policy of openness, or glasnost, allows Soviet citizens greater freedoms. Evgeny Mahayev, who for twenty-odd years had worked in a large State-run grocery, embraced the opportunities Gorbachev presented: "Gorbachev said, `Come on! Wake up! Make some money. Organize your own cooperatives.' It was good. I even set up my own little business. I liked it because I was responsible. I was feeding my family myself. I was free of the State. I was independent."

All across the Soviet bloc, long-suppressed nationalism percolated to the surface. In Hungary, new leaders began to dismantle sections of the iron curtain. In Poland, the Solidarity movement forced the government to hold free elections -- and won. Dissident playwright Václav Havel swept away forty years of communist rule in two weeks with Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution." And in Romania, on the heels of a bloody rebellion in Bucharest, Nikolai Ceaucescu's government came tumbling down.

But back in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's reforms had shaken old certainties. Loyal party members were bewildered by the changes at home and abroad. Moscow factory worker Nina Motova remembers: "I felt the ground slipping from under my feet. I cried tears of despair. How could this be happening? Maybe we communists did make mistakes, I'll even agree to that. But did they need to ruin everything?"

With Gorbachev threatening everything they believed in, communist hardliners and the KGB staged a coup, holding him prisoner as they sought to reimpose the old order. But the leaders of the coup miscalculated: Boris Yeltsin, one of a new breed of radical politicians, urged the Soviet people to fight back. Major Sergei Evdikimov led the tank brigade sent to the Russian Parliament and remembers the call he received from Yeltsin's deputy: "He said the people who sent [us] are criminals. Then he asked, `Will you help us?' That was his key phrase. I knew what he meant: Would we defend Yeltsin's Whitehouse. I said, yes, I will."

Unwilling to turn their guns on their own people, the young soldiers were the first to disobey their commanders. The coup crumbled. Russia had a new hero. And the people were asked to put their faith in two decidedly Western values: Democracy and Capitalism.

People Power is produced and directed by Angus McQueen; the narrator is Alfre Woodard. People's Century is a co-production of WGBH and the BBC -- filmed around the world and shaped in Boston and London. Executive producer for WGBH is Zvi Dor-Ner; senior producer is David Espar. Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC. National corporate sponsorship for the series is provided by Conseco, Inc. Major funding is provided by public television viewers and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation and The Lowell Institute.


Documentary Description

Communism: The Promise and the Reality Set

Communism--the extraordinary social experiment promising equality and freedom which swept from Russia around the world. In the early days, hopes were high, but in the end the story of Communism is on of grim realities. Listen as people from behind the Iron Curtain tell how their lives were affected by this new world order--from the storming of the Winter Palace in Tzarist Russia in 1917 to the swift implosion of communist regimes around the world in the 1980's.

* Red Flag (1917-1936) Communism brings hope--and horrors--to Russia's millions. WG474

* Brave New World (1945-1962) A "cold" war embroils the U.S. and the Soviet Union in a contest of ideologies. WG475

* Fallout (1942-1987) Nuclear energy unleashes unprecedented destruction--and the hope for cheap power. WG476

* Great Leap (1949-1977) Chinese citizens zealously follow Chairman Mao's revolutionary dictums. WG477

* Guerrilla Wars (1954-1981) Revolutionaries use the power of guerrilla warfare in Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. WG478

* People Power (1980-1993) Communist rule crumbles in the Soviet Union as people find the courage to speak out. WG479

Editorial Reviews, by

The six videos in this boxed set provide a solid history of Communism in the 20th century, from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the eventual collapse of the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. Extensive use is made of archival footage as well as interviews with participants in the major events, from the storming of the Winter Palace to the opening of the Berlin Wall. The major figures, including Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and Gorbachev, are all seen and heard, as are many ordinary people who lived through great events. The presentation is balanced, with interview subjects recalling how the standard of living was raised as well as the terrors of Stalin's purges and Mao's Cultural Revolution. The interviews can be alternately inspiring and chilling, as the people who speak before the cameras remind us that the great events in history had profound effects in the lives of everyday people. Separate tapes cover the main themes of Communism's rise in Russia, the roots of the cold war, the victory of the Communists in China, and the eventual collapse of European Communism. In addition, one video concentrates on the role of guerrilla warfare during the cold war, while another focuses on the role nuclear power played in creating a fearful standoff between the superpowers. Produced by WGBH Boston, these videos are artfully produced and their entertainment value in no way detracts from the scrupulous history being presented. --Robert J. McNamara

Product Description

Communism - the extraordinary social experiment promising equality and freedom swept from Russia around the world. In the early days hopes were high, but in the end the story of Communism is one of grim realities. Listen as people from behind the Iron Curtain tell how their lives were affected by this new world order, from the storming of the Winter Palace in Tzarist Russia in 1917 to the swift implosion of communist regimes around the world in the 1980s. Includes: Red Flag, Brave New World, Fallout, Great Leap, Guerrilla Wars, and People Power.

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

By Matthew Brown (New York, NY)

This is more a documentary on the evils of Communism throughout history. I was impressed by the entertainment factor; as the concentration on characters (Lenin, Stalin, i feel asleep... Mao Zedong) was compelling. I was expecting more policy discussion, as denoted by the containing of the phrase "The Promise," in the title, but there was none. I thought it would've been more interesting to go over how Communism changed by each of these characters and, in each carnation, how it failed. But this wasn't the case.

Each episode covers each era; mostly covers the evils of that era and PBS has delivered the information in a slanted and, of course, entertaining way. This series' failures out-weigh its gains... Anything seperate from the history of failures without any look at at the positives or goals of the carnations about what Communism is, was, or was supposed to be is a great failure. Although, this may be a good partner to another documentary, or just research on the goals of Communism and what each carnation of Communism was aimed to achieve, with the simple invest of time expect to be put in by, say the guy everyone hates (above) aka... average Joe, it simply is not a good source of information.

Overall, it was entertaining; but lacked true content. I wouldn't watch it again, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who actually wanted to learn anything about Communism as an ideology. I would even be hesitant to risk recommending it to people to watch that wouldn't do research on the ideology and the goals of each carnation, as that risk of lack of information, causing misinformation, would be too high.

Searching for more info before I downloaded and invested the time to watch this series, I came across a PBS Affiliate selling it under the guise of educational, recommending it for "Grade 7+."* I truly believe that if a teacher were to present this within the constrict of public school education (non-higher level, college {aka university level for all you europeans}) would be a terrible thing; especially since the teacher would have to present this as a core of a unit on Communism simply because of it's length if not the guise of good information. I hope that any teacher would view any information that is a candidate for injection into the brains of our youth with a better set of eyes than my doomsday scenario detailed.


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