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CBS reaps an engrossing documentary from Soviet glasnost. Dan Rather, in an interview, puts the project in perspective

By Arthur Unger / June 22, 1987

New York

Glasnost is the star of a startling CBS News documentary. Recently the network was granted unprecedented access inside the Soviet Union, and during the period May 20-26 ``Evening News'' anchor Dan Rather and eight other correspondents interviewed Soviet citizens from many walks of life in an opportunity to test Gorbachev's new official policy of encouraging a more open society.

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The disquieting portrait of Soviet life that resulted is ``The Soviet Union - Seven Days in May,'' airing Wednesday from 9 to 11 p.m.

Though CBS News is planning to tinker with the two-hour documentary right up to air time, executive producer Lane Venardos agreed to show me some very rough pieces of the program last week. I found his office deep in the heart of the network's West 57th Street studios, several blocks from the chic CBS headquarters known as ``Black Rock'' on Avenue of the Americas.

We chatted about the special, as Mr. Venardos, a 20-year veteran of CBS News, inserted cassettes into the player one by one. He said he was very proud that his unit got to interview soldiers, artists, doctors, journalists, farmers, steelworkers, and even a member of the Politburo. The most amazing segments, perhaps, are the interviews with a black marketeer and a refusenik, and footage of a drug bust in Georgia, a criminal trial in Moscow, a rock concert in Vilnius, and life aboard a Soviet warship in Leningrad.

In a final commentary still subject to revision, Dan Rather said: ``It is still too soon to know whether glasnost [openness] and perestroika [Gorbachev's reform program] are merely tremors in Soviet society or something closer to an earthquake. ... We do not yet know whether this exciting time represents a danger or an opportunity for the West. ... For `Seven Days in May,' it was an important opportunity to observe this nation. When a superpower stirs, the world holds its breath.''

Based on the segments I saw, the documentary will offer a series of amazing once-over-lightly looks at Soviet citizens on just about every level of society. Many of the individual segments left me wanting more. I wished it had been possible to delve deeper, to dig in more detail. Many parts are startling in their apparent openness. Yet the sum of these parts has far greater impact than any one of them. The documentary's major strength is that it records a sweeping, breathtaking survey of a nation in flux, perhaps even in major transition.

As I finished viewing the clips with Venardos, a message arrived from Dan Rather: ``Please drop by and say hello.''

Tucked away beyond the vast CBS newsroom, Rather's office is comfortably furnished in a combination of French Provincial and Early American styles. In one corner, tropical fish inhabit a huge aquarium. In another, a humidifier spews a steady stream of mist. On a table lies a huge, antique, leather-bound Bible. On one of the straight-back chairs sits a needlepoint pillow, on which are embroidered the words ``Always is not Forever.''

Mr. Rather, in shirt-sleeves and new aviator-style glasses, had just returned from a fishing trip with his son. In all, he'd been absent almost a month from the ``Evening News,'' which had fallen to third place in the ratings for the past three weeks. In between putting his final touches on the documentary, he was thinking about ways to improve the newscasts - using more of the network's well-known correspondents like Mike Wallace and Diane Sawyer and finding a commentator to replace Bill Moyers. He has also been working on specials on Afghanistan and Vietnam veterans, which will air in late summer and early fall on ``CBS Reports.''

Why did the USSR allow CBS to film some of the most revealing segments?

``I don't know,'' said Rather. ``I never believed we would get anywhere near the kind of access we've had. I never believed they would allow us to film aboard a Soviet warship. Or a drug bust, when only recently they wouldn't even acknowledge there was any drug problem there. Were we being used? Yes. They obviously believe this access will work to their advantage. But whatever their motives, I learned more about the Soviet Union than I've ever known before, and I've been there about a dozen times over the years.''