Viewers in US offered close look at Soviets

``Every woman is a born actress,'' says 21-year-old Rita Tikhonova of Moscow, a prospective teacher. ``She is an actress who can play any role.'' The statement is made in a rewarding and highly untypical documentary by a delightful young woman who, significantly, is fairly typical.

``You're seeing someone who would be in the mainstream of American society,'' notes Gregory Guroff -- American government official and Soviet historian who acted as consultant for the series -- in a discussion after the documentary footage. ``She is slightly upper-middle-class, but not much.''

She's unusual because she lives in Moscow, he observes, and in an above-average apartment at that. But she is definitely not upper-crust.

Rita is the central figure in The Education of Rita (PBS, 9-10 p.m., Tuesday, check local listings), the first in a 12-part ``Frontline'' series called ``Comrades,'' which profiles Soviet citizens of varied backgrounds. The ``roles'' in Soviet life which Rita fills are ideal ones from the government's standpoint: model citizen, member of the Young Communist League, outstanding student, dutiful daughter, and eventually teacher.

Yet Rita also turns out to be a personally appealing subject for Western viewers -- vivacious, good-humored, and occasionally contemplative.

The BBC crew that filmed this program had ``access rarely granted a Western film crew,'' according to ``Frontline'' host Judy Woodruff. ``When we do hear about their society, it's usually in news reports that deal with exceptional events,'' she says.

By contrast, it is the commonplace (at one point we see Rita waking up in the morning) that makes these scenes compelling. Many scenes are absorbing precisely because they aren't unique to the Soviet Union but relate her to all of us. Hints of the universal break through at several places as the BBC cameras watch her closely: at home with her parents in a Moscow apartment, during the last stages of her teacher education, and finally through her initial days as a teacher in an elementary school, where Rita is seen starting her class (in which she plays guitar and leads the class in singing).

We also follow her and her boyfriend, Andr'e, a designer for Moscow's Children's Theatre, as they attend a Young Communist League meeting -- not exactly a dream date to young Westerners. But then Rita and Andr'e move on to a disco and dance to ``I'm a Naughty Moscow Playboy.''

The film starts with bubbly talk by Rita about her relationship to Andr'e. He's not her first boyfriend but her first ``meaningful'' one -- and, she adds, her last. If this sounds familiar to Western ears, it's only one of the broad human themes that make this program much more than an intimate look at a Moscow girl.

In quiet moments Rita speaks introspectively about her apprehension on facing her first day as a teacher in class. She gives candid views on youthful morality and the role of a housewife. She talks, touchingly, of an earlier teaching experience with 11-year-olds:

``You and nobody else taught them to know and understand beauty.'' And in a moment that links Rita to good teachers around the world, she says ``Our educational system is really lacking, really crippling. You have to capture the students' interest.''

It's fascinating, in fact, which national flaws are shown and which not. Rita's offered crib sheets at exam time. But she doesn't have to worry. Her image in the film comes through with flying colors.

Later, experts point out that hers is not among the exalted profgessions, and you get the feeling that the elaborate official encouragement of teachers is at least partly designed to make her richly satisfied with her lot.

Rita's formal and elaborate introduction to other school teachers when she joins the faculty turns out to be rather heartwarming. And the first day of school is strikingly ceremonial, with flowers for the teachers, banners waving, and exhortations.

The unseen translator's tone nicely reflects the feeling of the speaker: gushy for Rita's boyfriend talk, flat for a lecture. And the talk with experts at the end lends valuable credibility to the film and helps viewers interpret the absorbing impressions they've just seen. In addition to Guroff they include Dr. Beatrice Beach Szekely, editor of the monthly journal Soviet Education. Among the insights they offer is that some of Rita's comments spring from Soviet cultural history. Her own school undoubtedly led to her feeling about teaching, they point out, and her views of youthful morality reflect a change in Soviet society today. ``They are not rebels,'' Guroff states, ``but they do have questions.'' And the film's producer, Richard Denton, says the aim of the project is to let viewers learn a little bit about the educational system and a little bit about being a young woman. It is the mix of the two that makes this program rewarding.

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