Televison: From Burkina Faso with rockets to Upper Volta without

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The Independent Culture
The Cold War BBC2 Correspondent BBC2

The Soviet Union was famously described as "Upper Volta with rockets", a catchphrase that was updated by the geographically precise to become "Burkina Faso with rockets". It was a powerfully succinct description. The United States was rich and space-age powerful; the Soviet Union was poor and space-age powerful. The contradictions and paradoxes that stemmed from that could never fully be resolved - least of all by the citizens of the Soviet Union themselves.

During the 1930s, Stalin turned Russia into an industrially powerful nation, and made his Soviet compatriots feel proud of what they had achieved. The defeat of Hitler's might, at the cost of millions of lives, was also seen as proof of Soviet greatness.

The idea that Soviet was best took deep root. It convinced some Western visitors, and millions of Russians. Even now, many Russians find it hard to believe that there was anything wrong with the model itself. In last night's episode of the Cold War series, interviewees visibly hankered after a time when Khrushchev was in his Kremlin, and all was right with the Soviet world.

"Sputnik", the title of last night's episode, is the Russian word for a fellow-traveller: the spaceship was seen as a travelling companion for the planet earth. Here it was that we found true Soviet heroes, including Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. As a Moscow baker declared - still misty-eyed, after all these years: "Gagarin, he was everybody's love. He and his smile. I still keep his photograph."

Television news may sometimes seem deeply superficial - never mind the reality, listen to that fabulous soundbite. But television history, with the participation of those who were in the front row of the stalls or even centre-stage at the events described, can, at its best, be more enlightening than anything that you could have read in the newspapers at the time. Series like the Cold War put things neatly into perspective, with descriptions of historic events coming directly from witnesses and participants - last night included a Soviet rocket designer, an aide to Khrushchev, and Gagarin's running-mate. The heroism and the lies are equally visible.

The Cold War series gives a small example of why it must sometimes be quite fun to be a media billionaire. You flick your fingers, and unbelievable projects just happen. A few years ago, Ted Turner, creator of CNN, mused that he would like to do a definitive history of the Cold War. And thus it came to pass, without all the doggedly begging memos to potential backers which are usually par for the course. Turner was put in touch with Jeremy Isaacs, who had produced the landmark World at War series. Isaacs, in turn, gathered a team of experienced producers and writers, including highly respected figures like the journalist Neal Ascherson and (for last night's programme on the space race) defence specialist Lawrence Freedman. Unsurprisingly, the result is much more than just televisual flam.

Last night's programme included some dramatic eyewitness accounts of events - like a Soviet space disaster, where one woman remembered how "people fell like burning torches from the top of the rocket". Her words were accompanied by dramatic pictures from the heart of the conflagration - pictures that you can be sure never appeared on the Soviet Nine O'Clock News. At that time, Soviet disasters were strictly not for public consumption.

At the same time, Sputnik exposed the absurdity that accompanied the whole notion of the space race. Shamed by the early Soviet lead, America had to prove that anything Russia could do, America could do better; Russia responded in kind. America became so fixated with the idea of the "missile gap" - that is, let's spend more billions of dollars on defence - that they found one even when it did not exist. Almost forty years on, President Kennedy's defence secretary, Robert McNamara, cheerfully acknowledged: "A major charge was that there was a missile gap. It took us about three weeks to determine: yes, there is a gap - but the gap is in our favour." Was that what Time or Newsweek were writing at the time? Unlikely.

While Cold War stripped some of the humbug from old-fashioned propaganda, Tim Whewell's Correspondent special, "Two Weddings and the Rouble", was a bleak illustration of life in Russia today, seven years after the final collapse of the superpower and the propaganda machine. The Cold War has vanished; and with it, the heart of Russia's pride. Whewell's film focused on two newly-marrieds. On the one hand, there was Yuri, the self-confident young entrepreneur who was about to take his new wife Yulia on a honeymoon to Thailand (they had already been to Cyprus; but there were too many Russians, so they wanted something more exotic). On the other, there was Katya, the 18-year-old accounts clerk who trudged round looking for jobs that might, if she was lucky, pay her one or two dollars a day.

Hauntingly photographed by Ian Perry (lots of wistfully Russian townscapes at dawn), "Two Weddings", a depiction of life in the provincial town of Yaroslavl, painted a simple portrait of Russia's sadness. We saw the queues of blood donors, who come back day after day in the hope that they can thus earn a few more kopecks. We met the father who boasted of a good day in the potato fields by telling us of what he had managed to steal: "Today I took three buckets out." And, above all, we are confronted with the despair. Vodka was described as the only way of blotting everything else out, if only for a short while. As one character said: "A swamp doesn't go anywhere. It silts up - that's what's happening to our state."

The film resolutely avoided politics, though the story of the collapsing rouble - six to the dollar one day, 20 to the dollar a few days later - always lurked in the background. But the underlying theme was best expressed by the father who angrily complained that "this once-great country has been robbed and humiliated". Humiliated: certainly. Russia these days is now Upper Volta without the rockets (all its best scientists have gone abroad; those who remain are usually unpaid). But robbed? Who did the robbing, and why? The comment reflected the still-deep Russian fatalism which enables millions to believe that somebody else is always responsible, and that Russians can change nothing themselves. It is not true - but many Russians believe it to be true, which comes to almost the same thing.

As Whewell noted, this is a country which has worshipped "one false prophet too many". Gagarin and the sputnik era are still glowingly remembered as the time when the Soviet Union truly seemed great. As for the future: it sometimes seems difficult to find a Russian who has room for any optimism at all. Katya's parents, it seems fair to guess, will never believe in anything again. As for Katya herself - maybe. If not, Russia is truly lost.