IN THE SUMMER OF 2000 filmmaker Ken Gumbert and writer Dave O’Rourke went to Eastern Europe shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union – Ken to Czechoslovakia, Dave to Lithuania and the Baltics. We were there to observe and record what we saw. Ken was already at work on Saving Grace about the Soviet seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 when Dave, by accident, wandered into the unlocked KGB prison in Vilnius. What we saw led to our production of Red Terror on the Amber Coast, and setting up the Tatra Project to support our work.
How we got there is worth recalling.
Ken and I began with almost tourist-like first exposures to what had been a closed book to Westerners. But then, as we moved into their worlds, the reality of what it was like to live and work with people who, every day for fifty years, had lived under Soviet terror, became a real assault on who and what we were and brought with us. We know what we want to know. And we had to figure out why we wanted to know so little since the knowledge was there.
Americans are accustomed to having their worlds explained to them almost relentlessly by every kind of media describing all aspects of our histories, cultures, peoples, over and over again, almost with no stop. In the Soviet world there were no media—only the state views and voices. There were no billboards. No TV advertisements. The State told them what was going on. Curiosity is a danger, not an asset. It is not necessary to figure out what is going on—in fact it is dangerous to even try. It takes a long time learn what “every family lost someone” means. And learning it comes only after you have earned trust, and that in a world where you don’t know it can be earned.
An hour-long documentary uses only about twenty five minutes of excerpts from many hours of filmed interviews. We filmed about twenty hours of interviews for Red Terror. We have known from the start that the entire collection of interviews is such an extraordinary, visual archive of the terrible roles of state-sponsored terror in our own history. Fortunately in the past few years real advances in film editing programs and equipment have lowered the costs, shortened the time, and raised the quality of edited films. So we have chosen to go ahead, edit the interviews, and place access to all of them on the internet.
I mention my accidental wandering into the terrible cells in the KGB prison, as I note below. So I contacted Ken right away and told him that I, a writer, wanted to do a photo essay on what I saw. Ken, the film-maker, said no, it is much too big a story for that. It demands a documentary film, and we have to make it.
Almost by accident the team of filmmaker Ken Gumbert and writer David O’Rourke had the doors to this terrible history opened up to them. They decided to tell the story of these fifty years and set up the Tatra Project to sponsor their work.
WE HAD ALSO WANDERED right into the incredible events that led to World War II and the deaths of over fifty million people. Right before the start of World War II Hitler and Stalin signed a mutual non-aggression pact. It startled the world. That Nazi Germany and Communist Russia would make friends after years of swearing to annihilate each other was hard to grasp. What would have startled them even more it it had been made public was that Hitler and Stalin also agreed to divide Eastern Europe between them, but that part was kept Secret. Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop flew secretly to Moscow on August 22nd to sign the pact the next day, the 23rd.
Stalin got the Baltics—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—and Hitler got Poland. And for the next fifty years Stalin and his successors imposed that same terror on the Baltics that Lenin imposed on Russia immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution.
A couple of times I have mentioned the role of an accident in our work. Very early one morning I was passing the former headquarters and prison of the KGB—a place the people held in dread… and curiosity along with a good dose of chutzpah, I imagine, led me to pull open the heavy doors, surprisingly unlocked. I made my way down a dark stairs into the cellar. For the next two hours, completely alone and in absolute silence, I walked the cellar corridor slowly from cell to cell. By the time I reached the last cell the intimidation built right into the design had taken hold of me. I knew that that chance walk down the dark cellar stairs had taken me in well over my head. But I was there, and over my head. And I couldn’t go back.
We had access, both sought and by chance, to a wide variety of victims of the KGB, both men, women, and even children. Former slave laborers from the mines and forests deep into Russia; exiles from years in Siberia; partizans who fought the Soviet take over and were sent to prisons and labor camps as punishment; deportees forced to work in fish camps on the frozen Arctic coast. We ended up being steeped in their terrible and startling stories, ones so hidden from outsiders that we ourselves and people in the West relly knew next to noting about what it was like.
Red Terror is a picture made by Americans for Americans. We worked on the picture believing that most Americans know very little about the daily life of ordinary people in the republics of the Soviet Union. We made Red Terror to describe what it was like for ordinary people to live under that planned, daily, unrelenting terror and fear of the KGB and it’s predecessors that dated all the way back to Lenin. Following their state policy the KGB went about making sure that every family, every household, everyone, everywhere knew from their own awful experiences that that KGB—the Committee for State Security—was everywhere, all the time. For people used to life as citizens in a democratic republic it became a terrible, numbing way to live. And we realized that having being given access to this history, however it happened, it was now our responsibility to tell our own people about it.
The story of that open door and the effect of two hours wandering all alone and in complete silence through the cells and torture rooms of the old building the KGB had taken over is recounted in the six-minute ‘trailer’ on the Red Terror disk. And it can be seen anytime on Youtube under the same name. Here we want to give just some background to the picture. And then open the door to the historic, visual, human archive we unintentionally created in the course of making the documentary.
Our hour long documentary has about 25 minutes of excerpts from interviews with fifteen people who lived under the Soviets. This was a remarkable mix of views – from dissidents imprisoned for 25 years, slave laborers in the forests and gulags, exiles to Siberia as mentioned above, and all the way up to the President of Lithuania, and the gentle, music teacher who happened to be the new head of the Parliament when he led a group to take whatever power they had into their own hands, not think about the fear—but knowing that Gorbachev could sed in his tanks—and vote Lithuania out of the Soviet Union. And Gorbachev did sent in the tanks, killing people. But within weeks the generals removed Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union fell. Perhaps the greatest and most moving surprise for us surprise were the stories from the women left behind to be humiliated as wives of traitors when their men went to prison and the gulag.
Their interviews of course are the heart of the film. But we have come to understand that all twenty-some hours are both the face of state terror and a human and historic record of courage, resilience, and survival. Some were open resisters. Some were farm-folk, rounded up only because the police had quotas to fill.
The recent production of rapid, very high quality film editing programs has made it possible to turn those dozen interviews into polished, visually enhanced, and English-subtitled, stand-alone documents. Americans are culturally arrogant.
Fortunately we were there long enough that the varied and distressing realities of the lives we were in contact with cracked through at least some of our cultural hard shell. So here we have the people we interviewed now telling their stories their way.
David O’Rourke, OP