Television was a state within a state, just as totalitarian as the big state. The atmosphere and mind-set was probably even harsher than within the political system as a whole. The TV screen was the system's bastion—the main mechanism for influencing the masses, a powerful brainwashing tool. The executives in charge in the i96os-i98os had been brought up by the ideological school of the I920s-i940s.
This included the ministers of the State Committee for Television and Radio, Nikolai Mesyatsev (1959-1967) and Sergei Lapin (1968-1985); their deputies; and the heads of all the departments and associations. They were all quietly hated, despised for their servility and readiness to serve the incurably ill, rotting system, to be its ''watchdogs'' (Lapin's term), but you had to give them credit for their brains and management skills.
The television bosses were buttoned-up; they tried not to smile or show that they were still human. The only exception was Yuri Letunov, a vivid, talented, handsome, and unusual man. He was the head of the Department of Television Information, which was considered the most politically important. He had created Vremya, the most popular nationwide news magazine televised every evening at nine. He knew he was in a strong position.
He was very kind to me. He liked my Raissa Nemchinskaya. It was only thanks to him that, in 1975, I could make my film about Arkady Raikin, the great Soviet comedian. Letunov gave me unlimited film stock, the precious, hard-to-get Kodak, and told me, ''Go and film!''—even though there was no screenplay nor a convincing proposal. Raikin was performing in Moscow and making a big television series at Ostankino. It would have been a shame to let the opportunity slip, and Letunov realized it. Alas, Letunov died young, at around fifty.
The television bosses were real professionals and smart. We knew what to expect from them, what was allowed, and what wasn't. I say this without nostalgia: Our relations were clear-cut and rigid. It was practically impossible to circumnavigate the system. The structure of the system had been built brick by brick over the years—solid and blocking any other path. As a rule, the bosses could sense an unwanted breeze a mile away.
In the early 1980s, I was making the film Before the Harvest about the life of Nina Pereverzeva, Party member, role model, famous combine operator, and member of a kolkhoz (collective farm). But I wanted to make a human picture, without fanfare and drum rolls. My heroine was a smiling, kind, and pleasant woman. Her fellow villagers liked her for her friendly personality and for her hard life.
And I liked her a lot but realized that she was not a happy woman. Her husband drank hard, her son had problems with his wife, and there was something wrong with their daughter as well, while Nina herself worked at full steam from morning till night. I felt that the facade was colored nicely, but behind it was a hard and somewhat depressing reality. I wanted to retain just a small inkling of the heartrending sadness—let the viewer see that this seemingly successful heroine was not quite that happy.
No one would have allowed me to say anything openly about her complicated and rather dual life, but to give the viewers at least a hint of it, I created a sequence in which I shot her exhausted after a full day of work, walking under an umbrella in the rain, down a puddle-filled wet road leading who knows where. It was a sad shot and very emotional.
The picture was accepted, and no one made a single remark. But when I saw it aired, I was speechless. The entire sequence, so important for me, had been deleted. I hurried to find out what had happened.
''Mamedov ordered it cut.''
The bosses could catch a whiff instantly of the slightest deviation from the official ideological line. My first independent picture, about the circus performer Raissa Nemchinskaya, had scenes that I was forced to cut. In some of them, the heroine was agitated, upset, almost hysterically expressing her opinion to the circus director; in others, her hairdo askew, she sat curled up in the corner of a couch, dog on her lap. These scenes added up to a sense of moral discomfort. I left them in, although our editor in chief, Leonid Dmitriev, and the picture's editor, Ludmila Lopato, told me that the scenes would definitely be noticed. ''You don't need them,'' they said. ''Why don't you take them out before you're forced to do it?''
Others had a different advice: ''Leave them in to be 'white dogs.' You can always cut them later.''
''White dogs'' was a professional term, meaning something like a red herring. These were things we left in that weren't essential for the meaning (that perhaps created confusion or ambivalence) and that would upset the authorities, so that they would demand the cuts, which we would do gladly, hoping that it kept them from noticing other, more important things that we would therefore get to keep.
I really wanted those scenes in this film—they weren't ''white dogs'' at all— but I had to cut them. They sensed an alien spirit.
One of my films, This Is Our Profession (1973), was as clear as a glass of water. Its point was that being an artist was not a profession but a human quality. The film shows Slava Zaprudnov, a glassblower, not only as a productive worker making lamps at the factory but also as an artist creating amusing and curious figures out of glass in his spare time. I had thought that the very idea of creative work as a part of any activity would interest the viewer. But to my surprise, no one in the leadership of our studio wanted this film.
Stella Zhdanova saw the picture and said, ''Brilliant, but it'll never get through.''
''He's an individualist. Where's the collective? He's not a worker. He's a craftsman.''
What the bosses wanted to see in a movie was the pulse of a big factory, the collective's daily life as it struggled to meet and exceed the plan, and the Party's leading role. There was nothing of that in my film. Moreover, I hadn't bothered to bring in as a consultant someone whose authority would be enough to cover up my ideological immaturity and to prove that there were no errors in the film. That required not only great demagogic skills but also a good résumé, with a long list of honors and high positions in the Communist Party hierarchy.
They couldn't stand independence, no matter whose, but especially of artists and filmmakers. We were all their vassals and slaves. They in turn were, of course, the slaves of their masters, and all of us were the slaves of the system.
There is an ancient curse, perhaps the most horrible one for Jews: ''May you be the slave of slaves!'' We all suffered that fate. We were slaves of slaves: our bosses, however democratic or autocratic they chose to be with us, were the slaves of their superiors, who were the slaves of the system. That system knew no other form of relationship.
I never wanted to make films about politics. I wanted to make films about interesting people—preferably the ordinary ones. A circus performer, a three-year-old boy from a family of workers, a seven-year-old future composer, a glassblower, a textile worker. I loved making films in the countryside. Simple people open up in a very interesting way when you spend a lot of time observing them. Getting these topics approved was hard. Films like these were not the ones that created a good reputation for our studio in the eyes of the authorities; they were not the ones that got reviewed in the official press. Our bosses couldn't make political capital from them. But I kept trying to get authorization for things that I believed in. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not.
The director of Ekran was Boris Khessin, a well-educated and intelligent man with a wide network. He would hire as screenwriters moderately liberal and sometimes even very liberal writers who couldn't get a job elsewhere. Leonid Likhodeyev wrote for us, and Khessin allowed me to bring in Anatoly Strelyany and Gennady Lisichkin, whose reputations were almost scandalous in official circles. Khessin hired the brilliant Boris Galanter to make films that were subtle, far from politics and blatant propaganda. But these were exceptions rather than the rule. Most of the films were made, as the popular term put it, by tested masters of the ideological front, like the international journalists Seiful-Mulyukov, Zorin, Dunaev, and Kaverznev. Khessin also brought in Brezhnev's aides, leading lights of the Party's Central Committee—Blatov, Alexandrov, Shishlin, and Ignatenko. An experienced and cautious man, he intentionally and wisely balanced ''right'' and ''left,'' if those designations could be used during those stagnant Soviet years.
My colleagues—and I too—would get very upset over Khessin's critical remarks and would scream, ''Khessin is a coward!'' Now, of course, when the passions have calmed and are half-forgotten, I realize that he was no coward. He was experienced, having learned a lot at the State Committee for Television and Radio, and he knew how the system worked and how to work the system. He knew that if he got fired, it wouldn't make things any easier for us.
Naturally, he was concerned about his own career. But he also cared about the work. In the years he headed Ekran, it became the best television studio in the country, with a powerful collective of workers, professionals with good cultural background and decency too. Khessin knew how to pick people and deal with them. He was never rude to his subordinates; he always behaved impeccably and diplomatically. He built up the studio carefully and achieved the best results that could be expected. My almost twenty years of work in advantageous surroundings was due mostly to him (he was in charge of Ekran from 1968 to 1988).
In that period, television cinema became very significant and started to play a much more important role than before. TV documentary grew to a level unmatched in the country. Technically we were the best equipped of all studios in the whole Soviet Union. Only Ekran worked with modern and foreign (mostly German and French) 16 mm technology. Khessin's attention to the technical side came not only from his understanding of its importance but also from his being on friendly terms with Genrikh Yushkyavichus, the very wise deputy minister responsible for technology. Yushkyavichus had worked abroad as a ussr media representative for many years, had a European education, was a good organizer, and knew the field well—everything new being done in the world. He knew how to select people, real professionals. All of us who worked in television in those years owe him a debt of gratitude.
Let me tell you a typical story, which I witnessed myself. It explained a lot to me then. In 1976, Khessin had to approve my film Deniska-Denis, about a three-year-old named Denis Galkin who showed that even at that tender age a person is already a personality. The film turned out well, and everybody in Ekran was pleased. I had spent two months living with the Galkin family and made a touching living portrait of the boy and his parents. Naturally, it had nothing to do with politics. Everything was fine, except that instead of the budgeted twenty minutes, it ran thirty; the top television executives had to approve this change. Khessin, who was delighted with the picture, said, ''You know, I'm tired of fighting the battles for all of you. Let's go see Mamedov together. You're a woman—maybe he'll go easier on you.''
I went with him, and I'll never forget that screening. I wore a pants suit that Mother had bought for me in Switzerland. It was very becoming, making me look slim and even elegant. But we weren't supposed to wear pants suits at the studio. This wasn't written down somewhere, but many unwritten rules were strictly enforced. It may seem silly now, but women were expected to wear only skirts at work. We could wear slacks out on a shoot—if it was cold. Women weren't allowed inside the Kremlin in slacks. Naturally, I had considered whether or not to wear my pants suit to see Mamedov. But I looked so good in it, I decided it would help my feminine charm. And then I thought, ''What am I afraid of anyway? What nonsense!''
Khessin and I were waiting outside the screening room when Mamedov appeared. He shook hands with Khessin but merely nodded at me, appraising me with the eye of a traditional Central Asian man (he was from Azerbaijan) and clearly not liking what he saw. He sat down and asked us to sit too. We watched the film. The narration was written by the famous actor Zinovy Gerdt, who did the voice-over. The text was wonderful, and he read it beautifully. He was Jewish, born in Odessa, and his accent revealed his background.
Then came the discussion. Mamedov crossed his legs. So did I (it was a low armchair, it was more comfortable, and I felt less at a disadvantage that way).
Without looking in my direction, as if I wasn't there at all, Mamedov berated the film to Khessin in the coarsest terms. It was a public flogging.
''What kind of film is that! Who needs the scene where the child bites his mother? A child should love his mother! And how can anything like this film be shown on television? What are you teaching the children? And that voice of Gerdt's—everyone's sick of it. It's disgusting, with that provincial talk . . .'' His tone was lethal, and every word was filled with venom. Khessin's face turned blotchy, and he mopped his brow. Mamedov did not deign to speak a single word to me or look at me, but at the end, just before leaving, he said, ''Well, what do you have there? Thirty minutes instead of twenty? Fine, I approve it.''
And he left. Without a ''thank you'' or a ''good-bye.'' That was his style, and not only his; as far as I know, most people in the Communist elite were like that. Often, they were much cruder.
Khessin sat in stunned silence for a few seconds—they seemed like minutes to me. I was completely destroyed. And then he looked up at me and said, ''See, I told you so.''
I felt desperately sorry for him. I realized that this wasn't the first time he had to put up with such treatment, nor would it be the last. He had to meet with Mamedov every day, and any meeting could be like this. I never forgot that. How could those people squelch everything human and decent in them to be able to treat others that way! However, Mamedov was not stupid at all. On the contrary, he was a very bright man, and the television machine rolled very smoothly under his management.
''Why did you wear a pants suit?'' Khessin asked me.
Khessin was a kind man. He never hurt others for his own amusement. I rarely saw Mamedov after that, fortunately. The directors with whom he dealt were either the ones who made political films and got direct instructions from him or those who got into trouble—they got the full menu of abuse from him. God spared me from being in either position. But I did have two more memorable meetings with him.
One was in 1980, before the Moscow Olympics. Twenty cinematographers, considered the best in the studio, were entrusted with filming the historic event. I was among them and extremely happy, especially since we were given brand-new Arriflex cameras, with a very good zoom, and the most modern sys tem of synchronization. I knew I would never return that camera. It would be wonderful for making my films, and of course I was fascinated by the Olympic games.
I was assigned to equestrian sports; I was responsible for all the filming in that section. You'd think it was only sports, but we were given training for a whole month—called in, instructed, advised on what to wear, and warned to watch the activities to the very end, to help with the editing. One hundred 16 mm copies of a twenty-minute summary of everyday sport events had to be distributed every day around the world. The main thrust of the instructions concerned our behavior, especially around foreigners. We were to shun long conversations with them, speak only about work issues, discuss nothing, and avoid politics at all costs. Mamedov came to almost every such meeting and gave us instructions for two hours. He told us to be vigilant and avoid any incidents, to be businesslike always, to keep everything at the highest level, to put our country's best foot forward, and to keep our foreign colleagues from filming any drunkards or other dubious subjects.
The day before the Olympics started, Mamedov gave us another warning about the danger of enemy provocation—he had filled us with anxiety already. The United States was skipping the games, boycotting us because of the help we were giving to the people of Afghanistan, so Western journalists would try to present the Olympics in the darkest colors. At the end, he said, ''And I wish you good work. This is the first and probably last Olympics in your life. I doubt this will be repeated in Moscow in our lifetime. So be sure to enjoy your work.''
We were stunned. Despite our reporting experience and ability to work in any situation, we were so constrained by the system that normal human words seemed like a breath of fresh air.
My other meeting with Mamedov came in 1982, before my trip to the Antarctic. My friend, the journalist Ella Vlasova, wanted to make a film in the Antarctic. We were going to be the first Soviet women to go to this part of the world. Ella had pushed for this trip for two years. Yevgenij Tolstikov, the deputy chairman of the Hydro-Meteorological Committee, blocked it: ''Over my dead body. The South Pole is no place for women.'' He meant he didn't want women bringing passions and temptations into the calm equilibrium of the men's collective there. If you want to send journalists, send men—there are plenty who want to go there.
For a long time, Ella had known Yuri Izrael, Tolstikov's direct superior, and had made films for him. So she managed to persuade him.
''All right, go,'' he said. ''This is an interesting project, in fact.''
We prepared for a long time, so long that it seemed we would never actually go, but just continue preparing. And then, suddenly, we were told we would take off the next morning. Although the news was unexpected, we were practically ready: cameras, lights, film—all were packed.
''Mamedov wants to see us,'' Ella announced.
And we both rushed over to the State Committee of Television and Radio. We entered his office, and Mamedov was sitting there, looking grim as usual, without a welcoming smile. At least he stood up, shook hands, and invited us to sit down. It was a brief conversation. He didn't ramble. He formulated our goals and instructed us on our behavior.
''You must be disciplined,'' he said. ''You must bring back good material. Do you realize the responsibility, how much money we're spending on this? This isn't a jaunt to Odessa. Go. Make your film. And one more thing: by New Year's we must have material on how the people celebrate New Year's Eve on our station at the pole.''
''How can we film New Year's when we will be back here a month before the celebration?''
''Organize the party. Take everything with you. We want to show it here on December 31.''
We didn't argue—that would be like spitting into the wind. In parting, he added, ''And of course, film on a high level. If you do a bad job, you'll never again go any further than the suburbs of Moscow.''
Those were his final words. But they didn't upset us—we had so much to get done that day.
To say that my trip to Antarctica was an incredibly vivid part of my life is to say nothing. I still dream about it: the landscapes, icebergs, ice caves, bare cliffs, flocks of penguins, and huge gulls. A description of our filming there and our adventures, some quite dramatic, would take too much time—that's another book. But I do want to reminisce about a few things.
When we boarded the plane, I took the camera equipment with me into the cabin as usual (I never trusted anyone else with it), but the cans of film had to go as luggage. When we got to Mozambique, from where we would fly to the South Pole three days later, we found that the plane had been overloaded and the film had been left in Moscow.
I confess that Ella was stronger than me in this situation. She said, ''Don't worry. We'll figure something out.'' Salvation was quick in coming. We were met at the airport by Gena Kurinnoy, a cameraman who worked as the correspondent for Soviet television in southern Africa. I barely knew him; he had recently moved to Moscow from Belorussia with his young actress wife, who had just graduated from theater school. Gena simply asked how much film we needed. We were expecting 5,000 meters. He said he could give us 4,500 meters, which was his annual limit. When our film finally arrived from Moscow, he would take it. And in the meantime, he would borrow from other foreign correspondents. He made the offer before we could even ask for his help. He was astonishingly kind and generous. We became close friends when he returned to the ussr in the late 1980s. But he didn't stay long in Moscow. He was sent on another long assignment—this time to Yugoslavia, where the war was starting in Bosnia and Serbia. He was the first Soviet journalist to go on that assignment, but he never returned. His wife and their two children waited for him in Belgrade for six months, and then they were sent home. No one ever learned how and where he died.
When our plane landed on the ice fields of the Soviet Antarctic station Mo-lodezhnaya, all 158 people came out to meet it. They had been on the South Pole for nine months without a single guest from the mainland. All they had was the radio and the radiotelephone. Of course, the new arrivals, including us, were bombarded with questions. What was new at home? It was the fall of 1982, and we all sensed that change had to come. Suslov, the chief ideologist of the Communist Party, had just died. Brezhnev was hopelessly old and impotent, he could barely walk, and he slurred the few words he said (giving rise to innumerable jokes). But it wasn't funny. The situation was ripening, and we all knew that there was a major power struggle behind the scenes.
Even in the Antarctic, at the very end of the earth, people tried to follow events. Anxious rumors traveled through the station on November 10. Radio communications were interrupted by a magnetic storm, but through the hiss came strange sounds that resembled funeral music. This continued for twenty-four hours. The tension increased. Late that evening, Nikolai Rybkin, the station chief, managed to call the closest station on the pole, the American one. The Americans said, ''We think your head of state died,'' but they couldn't catch the name. To be on the safe side, Rybkin announced a day of mourning.
The next day, the radio was working, and we learned that Brezhnev had passed away. A meeting was organized hastily, and everything was official and proper: speeches, a minute of silence, a gun salute. Just like on the mainland. Even though everyone had expected it, people were still both saddened and anxious. Being so far away from home and not knowing what was going on was very strange. We felt totally helpless, even though we realized that we wouldn't have been able to do anything at home either.
Despite the strict orders from the directors not to drink, everyone got pretty stoned that day. The totalitarian regime was undermined even at the South Pole.
By the time we got back to Moscow, Yuri Andropov was the country's new leader. Vilen Egorov, the editor in chief of the Educational Department, said to Ella and me: ''Drop in on Lapin—report to him. He wants to see you.''
We brought Lapin a little piece of Antarctica—a stone. Lapin, a strange-looking man and very short, almost a dwarf, was unusually gentle. We shook hands, and I had the impression that he had no bones in his hands. They were tiny and very soft. I remember thinking, ''How can somebody with such soft hands be so ruthless?''
The last time I saw Mamedov was in 1991. My mother was in the Kuntsevo Hospital, and I visited her frequently. Once as I came down the hallway, I saw Mamedov in a patient seating area, watching television. Uncombed, wearing slippers, and seemingly hung over, he certainly didn't look like the big boss he had been. He was no longer working for television. I don't know why he was hospitalized. He paid no attention to me. He hadn't recognized me; his eyes were clouded over.
Today, as I look back on those days, aware of what we lost and what we gained, I can conclude that despite all the difficulty of working under police control, totally dependent on the whims of the bosses, I recall those men without rancor. After all, they were confined by the system too. They were obeying instructions honestly in their own way. They didn't have much choice—none of us did. They were risking their jobs, and we were risking our reputations and professional conscience.
Television then was just what television in totalitarian times had to be. It could not have been otherwise.
Was this article helpful?