Episode 1 Revolutionaries – Begins in the last years of Nicholas II’s reign, bypassing the pivotal 1905 Revolution. It begins with Lena Goldfields strike in 1912, then moves to World War I. The suffering of Russian soldiers at the front is made brutally clear, and the growth of radicalism back home and among the troops is covered. The second half of this episode chronicles the events of 1917, starting with the February Revolution and finishing with the Bolsheviks’ disbandment of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. Given the complexity of Russia’s revolutionary process, Red Empire provides an admirable, and quite ambitious, level of detail in its overview of the party politics and personality clashes that led to the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917.
Episode 2 Winners and Losers – Opens with the Russian Civil War and concludes with Lenin’s death in 1924. This episode is particularly strong in its illustration of the confused and shifting loyalties that prevailed during the Civil War. This episode shows how, during Lenin’s years in power, the regime’s revolutionary ideals became inverted by short-term crises. It details the Volga Famine of the early 1920s, the Kronstadt rebellion, and Lenin’s funeral.
Episode 3 Class Warriors – Covers Stalin’s great modernizing projects of the 1928-1933 period, the “First Five-Year Plan” and the collectivization of the Soviet peasantry. This means that the succession struggle that brought Stalin to power is largely neglected but the editorial choice here allows an in depth focus on some of the most compelling social phenomena in Soviet history. Using interviews with factory workers, newsreels from Britain and the U.S., and conversations with American engineers who spent time in the U.S.S.R. during these years this episode does an excellent job of conveying the sense of pride and hope that many Soviet citizens felt as they attempted to build a modern industrial base in their country almost overnight. This documentary also reveals the awful price that the Soviet Union paid for the advances it made under Stalin, a mushrooming system of prison camp labor, the emergence of a production ethic that would stress quantity and speed over quality for decades, and, most of all, the economic devastation that struck Ukrainian, Kazakh, and Russian peasants during the Great Famine of 1933.
Episode 4 Enemies Of The People – Describes how Stalin consolidated his political power, and furthered his economic agenda, by means of terror. This episode covers the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Great Purges of 1936-1938, the Moscow Show Trials, and the steady expansion of the infamous Gulag system. An array of personal recollections are presented, the memories of prison camp survivors, the reminiscences of victims’ relatives, the musings and justifications of Party faithful.
Episode 5 Patriots – Makes the point that all Soviet citizens, Russians and especially non-Russians, were caught up in a war between Europe’s worst dictators, and thus in a horrible personal and political dilemma that most popular histories of WWII tend to deemphasize or neglect altogether. As the episode notes, the “Great Patriotic War” involved many different types of “patriots” fighting for many different causes.
Episode 6 Survivors – Covers 1945 to 1961 with half of that time devoted to postwar Stalinism. Khrushchev gets short shrift, and the profound effects of his Secret Speech and de-Stalinization campaign, surely the most important features of his time in power, are rapidly glossed over in favor of more material on the Space Race.
Episode 7 Prisoners Of The Past – Quickly covers the fall of Khrushchev, without giving a sense of why he was removed from power and brings Brezhnev to center stage. Segments on Komsomol volunteers helping to construct the Baikal-Amur Railway and the shady practices surrounding the production of cotton in Uzbekistan. Brezhnev dies in 1982, Andropov and Chernenko come and go, and Gorbachev is brought to the top in 1985.