MOST Americans think of an update on the Soviet Union as ``first and foremost, a story of Gorbachev: Is he up? Is he down? Is he gaining or losing? Will he be knocked off before he makes it?'' says Hedrick Smith. Mr. Smith ought to know. He is host of ``Inside Gorbachev's USSR,'' a four-part PBS series, three years in the making, which premi`eres Monday evening (see preview in box below).
``I hope what [viewers] get from this series is that this is an extraordinary process of social upheaval ... touching all elements of Soviet society in ways that will live way beyond Gorbachev. If we can get this across, [the series] will be extremely valuable.''
Reached by phone, Smith, who was Moscow correspondent for the New York Times from 1971 to '73, tells the Monitor the most striking difference between then Moscow and the making of this documentary is ``a loss of fear on behalf of ordinary people. When Khrushchev died in 1971, I tried to do a man-in-the-street reaction story, and people literally ran from me,'' he recalls.
When he stepped out on the street in May 1988, with producers and cameras, however, he says, ``I couldn't believe citizens' willingness to talk openly about economic problems, bribery, corruption. ... I'd heard about those things in the '70s, but they were in quiet conversations in their kitchens with people I already knew.''
Not that fear doesn't remain, he says. ``And I don't mean to say people are 100 percent honest ..., but the difference from 15 years ago is extraordinary. They are light years apart.''
Smith and crew logged 10,000 miles crisscrossing the Soviet Union, taking advantage of the new access to people, collectives, industry, businesses, and media since Gorbachev's policy of glasnost.
In Siberia, he looks at a community of single-room houses where a family of four has been on a waiting list for 20 years for a second room.
In Armenia, Smith and crew followed a school teacher who was a political activist, helping to promote Armenian culture in dance, folk art, and singing.
In one segment he follows a local documentary filmmaker concerned about a growing national self-consciousness, as well as the economic exploitation by central planners in Moscow of the region's bumper cotton crop. In another, he visits a large manufacturing plant in a city closed to foreigners for 70 years.
The only place he was denied access, Smith says, was Nagorno-Karabakhskaya, where all foreign journalists were expelled because of violence.
Rather than have ranks of experts comment on the economy, the rise in nationalism, and pushes for democracy, Smith says he wanted to let ordinary people talk.
``The idea was to come away with a feel for the place in human terms rather than barrage [the viewer] with statistics about economic and political structures he doesn't understand to begin with.
Using the ordinary-people approach, he adds, ``you are going to come away with a fairly negative story. There is an enormous amount of frustration there right now.''
Negative perhaps, but fair, he maintains. ``I think that those intellectuals who are thoughtful about their society will be very pleased that it is balanced,'' says Smith. ``Even those in the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow will think it was fair - tough, but not mean.''
After examining various scenarios of growing nationalism and governmental backlash against minorities in Georgia, the Baltic republics, and Armenia, the series looks at how even Russians feel they have sacrificed their national identity for the larger union. They are restoring churches and art and reasserting their own national culture.
Smith's personal conclusion - not included in his series but conveyed in our interview - is that Gorbachev will survive longer in office than some American experts believe, among them Zbigniew Brzezinski, Marshall Goldman, and Richard Pipes. He sees an imminent period of turbulence, in which the Communist Party will split into factions.
In the short term, he feels, Gorbachev will bow to conservative pressure and try to rein in separatists, such as those in Lithuania. Long term, reformists may topple Gorbachev because of these early compromises.
``The whole story really restores your faith in humanity and the individual,'' he says, ``in ways that are as dramatic as seeing the Berlin Wall come down....''