Cold war secrets are hot all over again. Witness the hoopla over recent revelations that a British great-grandmother was a career spy for the Soviet Union.
Most students of the cold-war era know the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the New York couple who were put to death in 1953 for passing secrets to the Soviets. But most Americans still don't know about the other United States citizens who were guilty of far more overt and egregious espionage for the Russians and were never punished.
Lona Cohen carried American A-bomb secrets in a Kleenex box in 1945, which she displayed openly as she journeyed across the country from the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory.
Of potentially greater meaning to contemporary audiences is the ease with which Mrs. Cohen and her husband, Morris, penetrated the most secret scientific laboratories of the time. As recent scandals involving the same facility suggest, little appears to have changed.
In a compelling four-part series, Red Files (airing Mondays in one-hour segments, Sept. 27-Oct. 18), PBS explores the Russian view of recent history through interviews with key Soviet participants, newly released archival film, and declassified dossiers.
The first night examines the group of Americans who helped the Soviet Union obtain US atomic secrets. In the second evening, former gymnast Olga Korbut tells of the toll the Soviet sports machine took on young athletes. The space race is the theme of the third episode, and the final segment looks at Soviet propaganda.
"It's soon that you're not going to find people with any real kind of political ideals in Russia" because of the effects of years of propaganda, says Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner, who narrates in the final show. "They've been lied to so terribly that they no longer have the desire to believe in anything."
Beyond that is a "very strong anti-American feeling" in Russia today, says the son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Sergei Khrushchev.
"The last polls show that 78 percent of Russians all over the country, not only in Moscow, have more or less anti-American feelings," the younger Khrushchev says.
That hard truth may be the most compelling reason to tune in to this deconstruction of recent history. In order to understand just how far events have come since the fall of communism in Russia, it is enormously revealing to grasp how they progressed to that point in the mid-1980s.
In the sports segment, the now middle-aged gymnast Ms. Korbut, who wowed the world as a petite 17-year-old wonder in 1972, says she paid the price for her uniqueness.
"I destroyed everything by trying to think, trying to do new," she says. "And of course, the government didn't like that." She was banned from travel after the 1976 Olympics, where she was overshadowed by the even younger 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci.
Many of her colleagues also share a sense of the political price they paid for their prowess. But they also demonstrate a sense of pride about how far Russia has come since the fall of communism.
Perhaps the most curious presence in the series is the younger Khrushchev. He says that he was extremely close to his father in later life and is able to share many anecdotes about life behind the scenes during momentous historic events.
He explains why his father banged his shoe on the table during his address to the United Nations in 1961. Look at the American fly-over of Soviet territory the previous year, he says.
"It was part of the cold war behavior, when both sides tried to show that they're equal," the younger Khrushchev says. "America was much stronger, so it was much more difficult [for] my father to show that he's equal."
He also includes a warning note about what he calls the deterioration of his native country.
"The situation there structurally and maybe psychologically is very close to what happened in Russia in 1907 to 1917" prior to the Communist Revolution, he says, "just the selfish rule of one group of people to control the state through ... the Mafia....I'm very pessimistic about the future."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society