By Linc Leifeste | April 18, 2011
Director: Robin Hessman
Perestroika, Glasnost, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and a ’91 hard-line Soviet coup…words and events both familiar and foreign at the same time, a story once well known but one that now only foggily lingers around the edges of memory for many Americans of my generation. But in presenting the stories of five Russian classmates, remnants of the last generation to be raised in the old communist state and one of the first to enter adulthood in the new post-communist Russia, My Perestroika (literal translation “My Restructuring”) masterfully weaves together vintage Soviet propaganda footage, recent personal interview recollections and childhood home videos to make the events break through the fog. And in the process, director Robin Hessman manages to juxtapose the official Soviet story against five diverse individual experiences, showing that in reality there is no true official history but only the shared experiences of countless individuals.
And the individuals that make up the cast of My Perestroika are a surprisingly diverse bunch: Andrei, a successful businessman who has embraced Western capitalism; Olga, a single mother struggling to come to grips with her lowly economic status; Borya and Lyuba, a husband and wife pair of history teachers whose idealism has given way to domestic demands; and Ruslan, a still idealistic former punk-rocker who now lives outside the system busking on the subway with his banjo. It’s clear that director Robin Hessman, who herself lived in Russia throughout the 1990’s working for the Children’s Television Workshop, earned the trust of the documentary’s subjects and was given complete access, which she uses to present five unique stories that taken together help weave a tapestry image of Russia’s turbulent shift away from communism.
Despite the diversity of opinions and viewpoints held by the five subjects there are several areas of overwhelming agreement, one of which being a disdain of the communist system that came before. As Borya eloquently states, “What we had before – that was beyond the pale, beyond good and evil. It needed to be destroyed, and thank God it was. Of course what Putin says is disgusting, but I understand why he is saying it. It does make me sick, but it’s not like it used to be. Back then, you not only felt sick, you wanted to die. So when you compare it to that, everything now is just fine.”
Of course, everything is not truly fine. A second point of agreement between the five subjects is a cynical despair over the direction that Vladimir Putin has taken the country; or maybe more of a resigned acceptance. It seems that most, if not all, of the subjects even bothered to vote in the 2008 election, feeling that the election of Dmitry Medvedev was a foregone conclusion. Borya again: “The ideals that burned in a person’s heart in the early 90’s…they were profaned. There was nothing left to fight for.”
That Hessman chooses to immediately follow those words of Borya’s with lingering shots of a Pepsi-Cola sign, a Pizza Hut and other symbols of western capitalist culture and the related homogenization that have taken such strong hold in Russia is telling. Interestingly, the one character that presents the strongest front of satisfaction with modern Russian life is Andrei, who has embraced capitalism and achieved economic success by opening a chain of Café Coton stores (expensive French dress shirts). While one of the strongest critics of Russia’s growing autocracy (“Four hundred years of serfdom – it’s just the mentality here.”), there’s an ironic scene showing his demanding of an assistant that a dress code be established and enforced among his employees.
The very thing that has made Andrei happy, the upscale western-style townhome and opulent lifestyle that has been made possible by selling expensive western clothing, seems to be one of the greatest sources of discontent for the other four subjects. Throughout My Perestroika there is a keen sense of loss…the loss of their culture, the loss of their traditions, in many ways a loss of their Russian-ness. As Andrei states, “I can’t understand people who are 40 years old today, my peers, who are successful businessmen. What’s in their heads? I mean, how did it work in their brains that they were able to shift like that? Just change gears? They were going along and then…BOOM! Now they’re going down a completely different road somehow. For me, that’s a mystery. I feel closer to people like Borya, Olga…who maybe aren’t that successful, but still live by the values of the past.”
In a number of ways My Perestroika is a particularly timely film. Seeing the excitement that still animates the speakers’ faces when they discuss Gorbachev and the radical changes he played a significant role in bringing about put me in mind of the recent political optimism that swept large parts of our own country during the last presidential campaign and election with lofty words like “hope” and “change” finding such frequent usage and how quickly unbridled optimism can turn to cynicism when confronted with politics as usual.
And as our country continues to deal with its own economic recession (or depression or meltdown) and the recent shortcomings of our own capitalist system it’s hard not to see the parallels with what Russians have been dealing with for some time. Larger numbers of Americans now than ever before may be able to better sympathize with Olga as she momentarily admits that she can understand the appeal in the old Soviet system, of having a secure job for life with a pension at 65 and a little plot of land to grow potatoes on. Trading off some personal freedom for a sense of security doesn’t sound as bad when you come to the painful realization that your future isn’t secure and you yourself qualify as living below the poverty line with no realistic means of escape.
Additionally, recent upheavals in Egypt and throughout the Middle East in some ways seem to resemble those that took place throughout the old Soviet Union. This film can serve as a cautionary tale to those who feel that the overthrow of the old order will necessarily be followed by entirely positive changes.
That said, ultimately My Perestroika is a story of hope and change. The assembled Soviet propaganda footage on display in the film paints a picture of a government trying to erase all elements of individualism, to create a society of obedient “Real People” unified in service to the greater good, a society of people without personal freedoms and most importantly a society of people contented to be without personal freedoms. As Lyuba states, “One of the hardest problems is explaining Soviet history to Russian children because all normally functioning minds and especially those of children are simply incapable of comprehending it. What we had is simply indescribable.” This film serves as one useful tool in explaining a part of that history. And the fact that this film is able to tell of Soviet communism’s failure through five individual and unique stories is in itself telling.