Soviet-Era Tale Enthralls Russian TV Viewers A prime-time documentary gripped Russian television viewers recently. In it, an elderly Jewish woman tells the story of her life under authoritarian Soviet rule. She and her friends settled into a life of quiet dissent, anonymously helping the families of political prisoners and doing work that didn't compromise their principles.
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Soviet-Era Tale Enthralls Russian TV Viewers

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Soviet-Era Tale Enthralls Russian TV Viewers

Soviet-Era Tale Enthralls Russian TV Viewers

Soviet-Era Tale Enthralls Russian TV Viewers

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113724511/113724528" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A prime-time documentary gripped Russian television viewers recently. In it, an elderly Jewish woman tells the story of her life under authoritarian Soviet rule. She and her friends settled into a life of quiet dissent, anonymously helping the families of political prisoners and doing work that didn't compromise their principles.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A descendant of one of history's deadliest dictators is trying to clear the dictator's name. Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for three decades, from the 1920s through World War II and into the '50s. Now a grandson of Stalin and others have filed a lawsuit against a Russian historian. They accused the historian of liable, for writing that Stalin signed orders to kill Soviet citizens.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The lawsuit is just one example of the effort to rehabilitate the Soviet Union's image. Our next story reminds us of reality. State-run Russian television recently aired an eight hour interview. "Word for Word," is the story of one elderly woman and through her, the story of her nation. She describes the terror of living under a tyrant and efforts by some to live honest, decent lives. NPR'S Anne Garrels has this story.

ANNE GARRELS: Lilianna Lungina was a Russian Jew who spent her childhood in Germany, France and Palestine. In 1934 her mother decided to rejoin her husband, a committed communist, in the Soviet Union. The country was wracked by famine. Stalin's purges which would sweep up millions of Soviet Citizen's were just beginning. Fourteen-year-old Lungina was shocked by the faces of desperate, hungry people she passed as their train moved to Moscow. At school she was shocked by pressure to conform.

Ms. LILIANNA LUNGINA: (Through Translator) The freedom of speech and thought I had absorbed during my foreign childhood inoculated me against this Soviet way of behaving. You read a story and everyone had to give the same analysis. There was one answer for everything. I saw things others didn't see. From the start, I could not but protest.

GARRELS: Soon, anyone with foreign ties was being arrested. Her family lived in fear as others in their building were picked up - they waited for the knock in the night. Somehow they eluded arrest.

The parents of classmates disappeared. Lilianna's best friend, a mere teenager was sent to the camps. She was taken away as the two were walking together. Lilianna protested. It was absurd to arrest children for not informing on their parents. For this, she was thrown out of the communist youth league, her future placed in further jeopardy.

Lungina's story is more than just a litany of horrors. It's the story of those who dared to have integrity. She eventually ended up in a school where her classmates and teachers were just such people. She says, were it not of those around her, she would have been a very different person.

Outside school, there remained another world. One day Lilianna was ordered to appear at the Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters. She was interrogated about her school's professors, students, as well as her neighbors.

Ms. LUNGINA: (Through Translator) Rows of doors, without numbers, with signs, 25 to 26-year-old agents all with the same, white emotionless faces. I carefully chose every word that came out of my mouth so as not to give away the fact that we weren't following the Soviet Doctrine during our studies.

GARRELS: Despite threats, she refused to become a KGB informant.

Ms. LUNGINA: (Through Translator) When they let me out of the interrogation room and I took the elevator to the exit, I saw that the building had eight to ten floors underground, which nobody knew about. It was terrifying. I understood Kafka's reality, though I had not yet read him.

Mr. OLEG DORMAN (Director): (Foreign Language Spoken)

GARRELS: Director Oleg Dorman says it was this since of morality that made Lungina and the film so important.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: Her narrative covers the war, the terrible deprivations, the sordid behavior of some - even her own selfishness - and the generosity of others. She describes the death of Stalin and the hopes she and her friends had when his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, at last announced some of Stalin's crimes. They were to be disappointed.

She and her circle settled into a life of quiet dissent. They anonymously helped the families of political prisoners. They found work which would not compromise their principles. They weren't heroic, like those who publicly challenged the authorities and ended up in the camps, they were merely decent.

She became a translator, most famous for bringing the Swedish author of Pippi Longstalking to Russians. But it was another one of her characters, Carlson, that entranced their Russian children. He was a figure of freedom, true friendship, and fun.

This documentary about Lilianna Lungina is also a love story. As terrible as many of the events appear, Lilianna says the biggest disasters often led to remarkable happiness. If she had not been taken back to the Soviet Union, she says she would not have met her husband, Semyon.

Ms. LUNGNIA: (Through Translator) He surrounded me with a cloud of love, despite moments of penniless desperation, our life together was an eternal feeling of joy.

GARRELS: It took 12 years to get this interview on Russian TV.

Mr. DORMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Director Oleg Dorman says, initially, the heads of TV station said the public doesn't need this - not that the public doesn't want this, but doesn't need this.

Mr. DORMAN: (Through Translator) Perhaps the existence of someone like Lilianna puts into question the lives of others. Perhaps these officials were ashamed.

GARRELS: Someone eventually agreed to broadcast the documentary. Dorman says Lilianna, more than anything, wanted to tell Russia's young people that they have a choice about how they live.

Mr. DORMAN: (Through Translator) She says it was impossible despite everything to make everyone to praise. She left the hope behind that we can indeed be honorable and humane.

GARRELS: Lilianna Lungina did not live to see this aired. The ratings were excellent beyond all expectations and a book is now to be published at the end of the month.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Moscow.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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