News

Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Talks Justice, Civic Engagement at Radcliffe Day

News

Church Says It Did Not Authorize ‘People’s Commencement’ Protest After Harvard Graduation Walkout

News

‘Welcome to the Battlefield’: Maria Ressa Talks Tech, Fascism in Harvard Commencement Address

Multimedia

In Photos: Harvard’s 373rd Commencement Exercises

News

Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

Back in the U.S.S.A.

By Martha A. Bridegam

Forty million dollars and a slew of protests later, the ABC television miniseries, "Amerika," finally reached its conclusion this weekend.

So far, only an ABC spokesman has admitted to liking the portrayal of life in a United States controlled by the Soviet Union. In Cambridge, it drew criticism from both those on the political right and left as well as those in between.

Few at Harvard say they watched the show. Some, like international relations expert Associate Professor of History Bradford E. Lee, "made a point of not watching it," while Russian historian Gurney Professor of History and Political Science Adam Ulam stuck it out for two minutes before pronouncing the series "unbearably dull."

Marshall Goldman, associate director of the Russian Research Center, said he watched only the first episode.

Only Baird Professor of History Richard Pipes, who as an expert on Russia advises the Reagan administration, said he watched and liked the whole film. "I expected something much cruder." Even he termed the plot "a little slow."

But even if these intellectuals did not take the time to examine current pop culture, grass-roots activists vehemently protested the 14-hour series even before it aired.

"Mass. Propaganda Alert," a coalition of activist groups, urged a boycott of the series, criticizing its ideology as Cold War-mongering. Spokesman Tony Palomba said the group consists of seven anti-war organizations and has received numerous endorsements from local political figures and anti-war spokesmen.

ABC spokesman James Butler said the protests were nothing unusual. "We're used to being picketed," he said, citing objections to past programs on abortion, gun control and racism. "Oh yes, and we were blustering liberal fools when we showed `The Day After'," Butler said, referring to a show on life after nuclear war.

There were those who both criticized the series and the protests, saying that it was wrong to encourage censorship and it was futile anyway since the show was so bad.

Goldman criticized left-wing attempts to suppress the film as both anti-democratic and pointless. "By Thursday night nobody will watch it," he said Tuesday. The film ended last night.

According to Nielsen surveys, 38 percent of television viewers turned to the 14-1/2-hour miniseries on Sunday night, but only 31 percent were still tuned on Monday night. The ratings fell to 26 percent on Tuesday, and 28 percent on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, spokesman Butler said Tuesday that the network was pleased with "Amerika's" ratings, which topped its average viewer share of 22 percent.

"I can only guess that Americans are bored with it," said Jeffrey Cohen, executive director of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a liberal watchdog group. "They're bored with the idea of a Soviet invasion. They've seen it over and over [in other films]--and they've outgrown it." He cited other recent movies on the subject, such as "Red Dawn," commenting, "It's a whole genre now."

Several professors at the Russian Research Center agreed that, beyond immediate rhetorical posturing, the film will not change superpower relations. Ulam said it was unlikely to influence public opinion because "the American people won't keep watching this thing."

Nothing Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's indignation over the show, expressed at a recent press conference, Pipes said the Soviets should be the last to complain. He said anti-U.S. films released in the Soviet Union have depicted American officials as villains and Nazi collaborators for years.

Professors and activists said the controversy surrounding the series might actually create a healthier attitude towards the Soviet Union, despite fears that "Amerika" presented a two-dimensional caricature of the nation.

"One of my largest concerns was that it would worsen the climate in this country for teaching about the Soviet Union to future generations," said Susan Alexander, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility, a member of the coalition. "However, I think what's happening instead is that it's generating a very healthy, needed discussion in the country about our national attitude towards the Soviet Union in a nuclear world," she said.

Goldman, who criticized both the film and its political stance, said "people are talking about something more than the Bruins and the Celtics and the weather--for an educator, that's good." He added that "the Soviets complain that we don't know about them--well, this is doing it."

He also praised ABC's decision to broadcast excerpts from a similar Soviet film, called "TASS is Authorized to State"

The director of the Russian Research Center said Amerika's negative publicity might hurt future efforts to educate Americans about the Soviet Union. "I suspect very few networks will do [such a film] again. The problem is that they'll avoid the issue."

Mass Propaganda Alert charges that the network prepared this series in order to satisfy persistent right-wing critics of ABC's highly successful drama, "The Day After," a speculative depiction of nuclear holocaust in Kansas. Pipes said he also believed ABC created the series as compensation for earlier productions seen as left-leaning.

Butler termed the allegation "rubbish." According to him, "Initially the right wing wanted to take credit for it--until they saw it." They have since disowned the series "because it's too soft on the Russkies and too hard on the U.S. in suggesting that the occupation was our own fault," said the ABC spokesman.

"I would hope that it's not [politically] slanted at all," added Butler, noting that writer-producer Donald Wrye is a self-described "Kennedy Democrat."

Palomba and Pipes both said ABC had probably intended the series as non-political entertainment. "It's a money-maker--you don't spend $40 million just to appease the Right," said Palomba.

ABC claims that the show is about America, not about the Soviet Union. "As a writer [Wrye] set out to write a fiction. It could just as well have been about lizards, except CBS did it already--it was called "V," said Butler.

Pipes concurred--"The film is about the United States, not the Russians," he said. "The Russians force the Americans to reexamine themselves." He said the series' chief message "is not awareness of the Soviet threat--it's awareness of America's threat to itself. It says to Americans, `If you don't appreciate what you have, this is what will happen.'"

Few called the series realistic, and others said they worried that it might be seen as such.

"The whole notion of the United States being occupied by the Soviet Union is absurd--there are many dismal possibilities, but that's not one of them," said Ulam. He said the Soviet government would never choose to launch such a major invasion because "they have enough trouble with their own people."

Pipes defended the film, saying it was not meant to predict the future. However, he said such an invasion was possible and compared it to that of Czechoslovakia.

Russian Research Center fellow Philip Clendenning saw as "preposterous," the notion that America, with its widespread "pick-up truck mentality" and "Moral Majority types," could possibly succumb to the bloodless victory depicted.

Criticizing the sympathetic depiction of KGB Colonel Andrei Denisov, and the frequently "civilized" nature of the occupation, Clendenning said, "There's no sense of [Russian] nationalism. There's no sense of the antagonism that has developed over the past 60 years."

Instead, Clendenning said the Americans who created "Amerika" made the enemy in their own image. He claimed that rather than presenting typically Soviet characters, the film "indicates to Americans that the Russians are just like us, only a little poorer and a little more paranoid."

Preceptor in Russian Liubov Mandel, a Soviet emigree, called the series' premise a "useful idea," adding that she believes many Americans forget the danger of Soviet invasion. She said she found the depiction of the Soviet occupation deceptively appealing. "Under totalitarianism, it is not only terrible--it is also deadly boring," she said.

The network has drawn especially heavy criticism for "Amerika's" depiction of dark-skinned United Nations troops as Soviet hatchet men. "God knows it was never our intention to say, `the U.N. is like that,'" said Butler.

Pipes, who generally praised the series, reserved his strongest criticism for the portrayal of the U.N., which he said was "in bad taste" and "not very smart." He said it was probably a device to blame the movie's dirty work on the forces of an organization changed beyond recognition--rather than the existing Soviet government. He said, "I think they chickened out at the last moment and decided not to be so nasty to the Russians."

According to Butler, the series may be going to Moscow. He said the network is negotiating with the Soviet government over rights to air the film. He also said ABC has already sold "The Day After" and "Roots" to the Soviets.

Goldman said Vremya, the Moscow evening news report, had aired pictures of picketers outside the ABC building, but had not shown excerpts from the series. He said the Soviets would certainly not show the entire film. Pipes agreed, and said selections for public viewing would probably be those most easily interpreted as propaganda.

Goldman agreed, "[The Russians probably] wouldn't show the whole 14 hours; the surprising thing is that ABC is showing it."

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags