Cold War: Stories from the Big Freeze

In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries.  Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists.  I wonder what she got paid!

This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening.  Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part.  It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland.  There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.



The Cold War

BlogColdWarI loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past.  ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard.  The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’.  Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format.  People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.

Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.

The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history.  So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment.  Here, at least, we have the real people talking.  Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.

Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’.  People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War.  This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.

‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

Nicholas and Alexandra

Seeing this film from 1971 in the cinema remains a vivid memory from my past.  I saw it when I was ten years old and remember the shock of the ending staying with me for days. I suppose, because I knew little of Russian history, I was not expecting the final scene. Now, whenever I watch it, I know what is coming and wait for the inevitable.

This film was directed by Franklin J Schaffner and starred Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman as the Tsar and his wife.  Some of the historical figures I was aware of, Stalin, Rasputin and Trotsky, for instance, but this was mixed in my mind with a parade of the great and the good of British acting, many of whom I had seen on television.  It made for quite a spectacle at the cinema.

The film relates the last few years of the reign of Tsar Nicholas 11, a Tsar who was generally regarded as weak but who was high in my estimation mostly because he was played with such regal authority by Michael Jayston.  The events of a volatile country as it slipped towards a disastrous war were well told but alongside it ran the story of a family trying to cope with the illness of their son, the youngest in the family, who had hemophilia.  The care with which they treat him and the lengths they go to to keep him from danger act as a contrast to the way they treat their country.  Chaos mounts as reasonable arguments for reform are refused and the conditions of ordinary people ignored.  The communists make the most of the volatile situation and we see the Tsar fall into further trouble when he decides to go to participate in the First World War.

Rasputin makes an appearance. Tom Baker clearly enjoyed the role and his influence over the Tsarina showed that royalty’s grip on the country was weak.

Roderic Noble played Alexei, the Tsarevitch, with the blood condition.  As the film moved to the terrible conclusion, it is his scenes with his father that address the questions of how a weak Tsar could have caused such a fate for the country and the family.

This film was an epic.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


Call Mr Robeson

This one man theatre piece was a superb review of the life of Paul Robeson. The sub-title, ‘A Life with Songs’ is apt as Tayo Aluka is an excellent singer as well.

Paul Robeson rose to fame because of his singing voice but his increasingly vocal criticism of the US government brought him difficulties in later life. His socialism along with his views on racial discrimination ensured he rubbed up against the authorities.  It was his views on the Soviet Union that did the most damage.  By saying what he thought was impressive about the communist system he was branded unpatriotic and constraints were put on his travel and movements.  From 1949 onwards his career suffered.

Interestingly, Robeson forged a bond with Welsh miners when in the UK in the 40s.  He made a film here called ‘The Proud Valley’ which I saw on television as a boy without realising the significance of the actor playing the lead role.

Tayo Aluka is a commanding presence on the stage in a play that he also wrote.  He makes the most of the props which furnish the stage around him; photo frames, flags and artefacts of a life are called upon as he relates the rise and fall of his career.  Robeson’s personal life is dealt with briefly; it seems he had multiple relationships, some of them overlapping.

‘Call Mr Robseon’ sent me off to learn more about this remarkable man.  This is why Tayo Aluka’s play is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Letter to Brezhnev

It is actually hard to remember how Russia (or the Soviet Union) was regarded back in the 80s.  The sense that there were two competing philosophies and every nation had to choose which side they were on was real, as was the idea that the ‘other side’ meant us harm.

That is why the 1985 film ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ was such a hit.   Written by Liverpool writer Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard it showed the city of Liverpool as a place suffering from the worst aspects of the Thatcherite policies of the time.  A key theme of the film was how the hopes of working class people, and women in particular, can be stolen.

Frank Clarke cleverly showed how the freedom of the west was not so free for everybody, especially those trying to make a living in difficult times.  But this is not a heavy or gloomy film but rather a romantic comedy.  Teresa and Elaine are two friends who enjoy nights out, especially as Elaine is out of work and Teresa has a bleak job in the chicken factory. They meet two Russian sailors, Sergei and Peter, when out on the town and they spend a night together.  While Teresa is looking for a good time, Elaine wants love and romance. So Teresa hooks up with Sergei for the night of sex that is on both their agendas.  Elaine and Peter, though, use their hotel room to talk… all night long.  Something happens during this night: Elaine and Peter fall in love.

When the sailors have to return to their ship the future for Elaine looks bleak once more and she seems doomed to spend the rest of her life in Liverpool.  Yet, they made a pledge to each other during their night together: they would love each other for ever and get married one day.  In the days that follow, Elaine decides to take action and the title of the film is important at this point.

The charm of the film comes down to the two central characters whose love for each other seems genuine.  Elaine’s actions may seem fanciful but they are actions we hope will succeed.  The ending is particularly charming.

Love is where it falls and this film reminds us of that.  The two individuals care little about systems and politics but a lot about each other… and that is worth making a film about.


Dance to Freedom

The BBC drama- documentary ‘Dance to Freedom’ was an excellent portrayal of the events leading up to Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from the Soviet Union in 1961.  A professional dancer was obviously needed to recreate the skill and talent of someone as famous as Nureyev and Bolshoi Ballet star Artem Ovcharenko took this role.

For many years, when growing up, Rudolf Nureyev was the only male ballet dancer I had heard of, and what I knew about him had more to do with the fact that he had defected to the West rather than anything to do with his dancing prowess.

The facts of the case are shown in this film by film- maker Richard Curson Smith broadcast by BBC television in December 2015.  On 16 June 1961, Nureyev escaped  from his KGB bodyguards at Le Bourget airport.  He pushed his way across an airport concourse to the arms of the French police.  In interviews, archive footage and the reconstructed drama we see that, rather than being a spontaneous act, political intrigue may have had a part to play and Nureyev, himself, may have been a bit player in a larger cold war game.

What is clear, though, is that there were costs to this action for the dancer as an individual cut off from his homeland as well as for his colleagues and family he left behind.  As is often the case with Cold War stories, individuals are less important than the forces at work.  The Soviet Union was keen to show off its ballet company, considered the best in the world; a cultural coup would add to the prestige the regime felt after putting a cosmonaut in space.  Nureyev was the best young dancer the company had, yet he was volatile and felt constrained by company rules and expectations.  He did not always behave well.  In some ways, the talented dancer comes across as selfish; his talent brings a certain sense of entitlement. In the dramatised scenes in Paris he acts as the young star making the most of nights on the town.  Why wouldn’t he enjoy this level of freedom?  Yet, his colleagues were not able to enjoy this freedom in the same way.  As a punishment for enjoying the Paris nightlife, he was recalled to Russia instead of heading to London and this news may have led to his decision to defect.

‘Dance to Freedom’ is an excellent survey of one Cold War’s cultural skirmish.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


Red Army

I know nothing about Ice Hockey and am not that interested in sport but this film by American director Gabe Polsky is absolutely riveting and, as it tells the story of a group of young hockey players in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, I was keen to see it.

The central figure is Slava Fetisov, something of a legend in Russia for a career that covers 70s Soviet unity, capitalism in 90s America and Putin era politics as Minister for Sport.  Much of the film is based on interviews held with Gabe Polsky with ‘talking heads’ from experts of ice hockey and other members of the team included.  I was interested to see Vladimir Posner interviewed as he was an eloquent spokesman for the Soviet Union on British television current affairs programmes during the 80s.  He was always worth listening to.

Yet, a major question asked by film is why does any sportsperson compete?  Is it for personal glory or for national pride?  Slava Fetislov may have been an amazing player but he formed one part of a five player group that seemed to act as one person when playing.  Their success came from a belief that the team was more important and, as it happened, more effective when individual glory played second place to team victory.  This belief flourished in the Soviet system which saw victory in the sports arena as another way of winning an ideological war.


The USA was also using sport as a way of demonstrating that the West’s way of life was superior and it was fascinating to see how these opposing views were strengthened through victory and defeat.  It was also interesting to see how Canada and USA used money as the only language they knew to encourage the Russians to join them.

Also examined is the difference in philosophies of the two Soviet coaches.  Anatoli Tarasov was loved by his players who saw in him a mentor and father figure as well as a coach.  His nurturing of his ‘boys’ was touching to see in the archive footage and his belief was that ice hockey should be as beautiful as the Bolshoi ballet with a fluidity of style from the players. When he upset Brezhnev, he was replaced by Viktor Tikhonov, a man who had no interest in his players as people but who served the system loyally. His oppressive regime caused some, including Fetisov himself, to refuse to play anymore.

The story was dramatic and the accompanying music was stirring.  With archive footage effectively deployed this is a film worth seeing and it is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?