Wheelock – Witness to the Fall of the Soviet Union Part 1 1973 – 1990
One of the signature events of our time was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, an event to which I contributed by awakening 180 million Russians to the prospects of freedoms and a better lifestyle beyond the Iron Curtain in the West. We harnessed the power of mass media — broadcasting on Russian state television a variety of American tv programs, and as the old song goes, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree (Paris)?” But let’s go back to the beginning of the adventure.
OCTOBER WAR, 1973
As a young Army captain in November 1973, I was deployed to the UN Truce Supervisory Organization (UNTSO) to help oversee a cease-fire between Israel, Egypt and Syria. After initially losing ground, Israel had counterattacked to capture large parts of the Golan Heights and had trapped the Egyptian Third Army in Suez City prompting the Soviet Union to begin mobilizing airborne divisions to intervene. When the United States responded by elevating its nuclear alert level, a compromise was reached to bring Soviet and American officers together to oversee the so-called cease fire.
While Israel refused to accept Soviet officers (all either GRU or KGB), both Egypt and Syria accepted American officers to serve on their sides of the cease-fire lines, and this was the first crack in the door away from the Soviet Union and toward the West. I was one of four Americans deployed to Egypt, and for the first time, US officers were paired with Soviet military officers in a UN operation.
We patrolled between the two armies and got caught in the middle of tank and artillery battles. At night, we’d share my bourbon and their vodka, and have great philosophical discussions.
The Russians – not owning automobiles at home – always wanted to drive our jeeps on patrol in the Sinai desert. Remembering from Vietnam the danger of mines, I gladly allowed them the privilege of being the lead vehicle and then closely followed in their tracks across the desert sand. One day we travelled to the site of the Battle of the Chinese Farm, the largest tank battle since Kursk in WW II, where Israeli Defense Forces counterattacked across the Suez Canal. The fighting had been so intense that destroyed Israeli and Egyptian tanks were closely intermingled with each other across the battlefield.
When I left in early 1974, one of the Soviet officers (let’s call him Nikita) gave me his contact address in Moscow (his mother’s apartment) which I tucked away unused for 14 years because I didn’t want the FBI knocking on my door (as they did to one of my Army colleagues). But then in 1989, I had been out of the Army for 5 years, was in the private sector living in Los Angeles, no longer had any security clearances, and saw President Gorbachev pursuing glasnost (openness) policy in the Soviet Union. So, I sent a letter to his address in Moscow and a month later received a 12-page letter that basically said: ‘great to hear from you, things are changing, come see for yourself.’ So, in September, Victoria, then my fiancée and now my wife, and I flew to Moscow and the start of our Russia entrepreneurial venture.
ENTERING THE SOVIET UNION, 1988-90
After resigning from the Army, Nikita had become a program host and director at GOSTELERADIO, the Soviet television and radio network. So, he had a lot in common with Victoria and her experience as a film and television actor in LA. He explained that as part of Glasnost, opportunities in media were emerging as state-owned production studios were being broken up and equipment sold off. Slava introduced us to Russkoye Video, one of these new entrepreneurial entities based in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. And they were very interested in accessing Western programming for broadcast in the Soviet Union.
We returned to Los Angeles and put together a company “Comspan” to pursue media business in the Soviet Union. My partner was Larry Namer, who had founded and sold to Warner Bro. what is now called E! Entertainment network. Larry had the media business expertise, and he put together a package of ‘public domain’ movies, for which copyrights had expired and hence there was no acquisition costs. The most famous of these movies was “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart. We brought the tapes to Russkoye Video who did the technical and voice-over work, and then distributed them to LenTV, the main station in Leningrad.
Our business model was to have in place US television programming that Western companies entering the Soviet Union knew and understood the demographics that their products would appeal to. So, how did we make money? Revenues had to come from advertising because GOSTELERADIO could not purchase programming but would permit 6 minutes/hour of commercials to be sold by Comspan. So, we sold advertising time, at first to Russian companies, then to the likes of Marlboro, Lucky Strike, Jim Beam, etc.as they entered the Soviet Union and began to market their products. Then we split the revenues according to a formula with the television network, Russkoye Video, owner of the programming, and Comspan.
Over the next 2 years, Comspan acquired the rights to distribute high-quality US television programs like “Crime Story” and “Wall Street Journal Business Report”. And we established a business relation with a growing Russian media company in Moscow named Video International that had strong ties with the two national television channels as well as Moscow television. In summer, 1991, we signed a deal to distribute “Santa Barbara”, the long-running American daytime drama, in the Soviet Union and hosted the creators/producers of “Santa Barbara” in St. Petersburg to celebrate.
Little did we know that the Soviet Union was about to fall apart and give us both opportunity and problems.
FALL OF THE SOVIET UNION, 1991
Sunday August 18, 1991, Victoria and I had spent a quiet summer day with Nikita in the Moscow countryside and were driving back to Moscow when we passed the country estate of President of the Soviet Union Gorbachev and saw armored vehicles at the entrance. Something was afoot, and upon arriving in Moscow, we learned that the old guard Communists had put Gorbachev under house arrest at his summer residence in Crimea. The Putsch of 1991 was underway.
The next morning August 19, Victoria woke me up saying, “You hear that ‘squeak’, squeak’ sound. This place has mice.” I quickly said, “ F— no! That’s not mice, it’s tanks”. We hurried to the window and saw a long column of tanks and armored vehicles driving down Lenin Prospect as the Soviet Army was coming to seize important political and communications locations. We taxied to the White House where the Russian Federation was housed. We got there as Russian President Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank and gave his famous speech that rallied thousands in Moscow and across Russia to resist the putsch.
I had to keep reminding Victoria, who was taking photos, to only stand at the edge of the crowds so we could get away if a rumored attack by the KGB took place.
That Monday evening in Moscow was depressing. We watched Soviet television as the putsch leaders justified their arrest of Gorbachev. But they made two mistakes. First, Soviet Vice President Yanayev was drunk and slurred his words on live television. Second, they rebroadcast Yeltsin’s speech on top of the tank in order to portray him as a traitor, but instead, thousands of Russians heard Yeltsin’s call to come out to the White House to protest against the putsch. The next day, we witnessed the huge crowd gathered at the White House to hear Yeltsin, and many protesters with flowers and peace signs peacefully talked with the soldiers in their tanks.
That night, vehicular barricades manned by protestors blocked access, and the rumored KGB attack did not take place, maybe because the unit commander allegedly refused the order. On Wednesday August 21, the coup plotters yielded, and Soviet Army units started to withdraw. President Gorbachev was released that night and flew back to Moscow.
Yeltsin was now the major power broker in Moscow, and Gorbachev rewarded him in many ways including giving the Russian Federation control over Channel Two that covered all of Russia. But Channel Two needed programming, so our Russian partners and we seized on the opportunity to broadcast “Santa Barbara” three nights/week in prime time across Russia. The show was an instant hit so that when the Director of Russian Television peremptorily took the show off the air because he didn’t like the Western content, viewers’ protests — including phone calls to his home — brought the program back on air three days later. The soap opera was seen on Russia television for many years, and even today, middle-aged Russian adults fondly recall watching “Santa Barbara” and recounting the impact that it had on their country.
On December 26, 1991, Soviet President Gorbachev resigned after failing to hold the various republics of the Soviet Union together. The Soviet Union existed no more, and the Russia Federation became the principal center of military and economic power in Eurasia.