`Inside Gorbachev's USSR' Reveals Perestroika As an Idea That Gestating for Decades

LOS ANGELES INSIDE GORBACHEV'S USSR PBS, Mondays (through May 21), 9-10 p.m. With Hedrick Smith as host. THIS four-hour series exploring changes in the Soviet Union takes viewers beyond Moscow - to Uzbekistan, Armenia, Georgia, Lithuania, and the far reaches of the Russian republic - to ask: What has the impact been of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) on the people?

Besides casting a wide geographic and political net, its immediate strength is presenting the recent changes through the eyes of peasants, students, factory workers, farmers, regional functionaries, families, even the homeless.

Host Hedrick Smith then discusses many of their concerns and frustrations directly with decisionmakers in the Kremlin, occasionally returning to certain locales with the leaders' answers.

The result is a far more nuanced picture of a massive and varied populace than the view Westerners tend to get from Moscow-centered news reports. As presented here, the picture is never less than fascinating.

This approach reveals the perestroika/glasnost process to be something fundamental and far-reaching, a ferment which gestated for decades before being implemented, as opposed to a reluctant parade behind a charismatic drummer.

Smith is a Pulitzer-winning correspondent and author of the '70s bestseller ``The Russians,'' based on his three-year stint as Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. Returning to the Soviet Union after a 15-year absence, he spent nearly three years making this documentary, and his research led him to profoundly different conclusions, which he will discuss in a forthcoming book, ``The New Russians,'' due in November. ``I said [in the earlier book] that these were people incapable of change,'' he told me in a phone interview. ``In my new book, I say that conclusion was wrong.''

DISTILLED from 400 hours of footage are four separate segments:

``The Taste of Democracy,'' airing Monday, reveals the seeds of change planted in the mind of Gorbachev and other reformers, the so-called ``children of the 20th Party Congress.'' These were the people aged 18 to 25 in 1961, when former General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev shocked the country by exposing the murderous purges of Stalin. With both historical footage and recent film of the 1989 Congress of People's Deputies, this program shows how leaders and ordinary citizens are struggling to overcome decades of stagnation.

``Comfortable Lies, Bitter Truths,'' the May 7 segment, goes behind the scenes of Soviet television, newspapers, documentary cinema, and high school classes to look at the effects of a relaxing of government controls on the flow of information.

``Looking for Perestroika'' (airing May 14) visits collective farms and industries to ask state managers and employees about the problems of carrying out government programs - and the resistance to change. Though fed up with the straitjacket of bureaucracy, many are nonetheless reluctant to embrace entrepreneurial reforms.

``Coming Apart'' (May 21) visits five different Soviet republics, all at varying stages of cultural reawakening.

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