Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika comes to us in the 20th anniversary year of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, at the time, a great sigh of relief to a world on the brink of nuclear war. The momentous time brought significant change to the 15 states that once composed the union–a shaky, if not yet stable, transition from communism to capitalism, and a complete mental makeover for a generation of Soviet citizens.
Hessman’s well-wrought documentary takes as it subject a small sample of those formerly Soviet citizens who witnessed the fall of Communism on the cusp of adulthood. Rather than look merely at the big picture, Hessman starts at the seed–the Soviet children whose isolated and moulded perspectives grew as they grew to understand where their “Happy Childhood” fit into it.
My Perestroika unfolds as an assemblage of archival images, home videos, and photo albums of life in the Soviet capital, and with it, a glimpse of life in every corner of the homogenized union. You are thus acquainted with five present-day Muscovites who spent their childhood living every one of those moments in sincere ignorance of their programming and future political upheaval. As one of the principle subjects, Borya, points out, ignorance is the stuff of childhood. Myself, I was a child when the Berlin Wall fell and many Soviet regimes after it. I know little of the fear felt in both the United States and the USSR, as well as the rest of the world, but I was just as ignorant about everything going on at the time. Hessman, without being obvious, builds a thesis first out of this universal trait among children. The treatment is light but never shallow; Lubya, Borya’s wife, remembers with a laugh the blindness with which she conformed to the youth program, making “Real People” since instituted by Lenin in 1919.
Hessman makes her feature-film debut with My Perestroika. Educated in both the US and Russia, Hessman has directed documentaries for PBS, and won an Academy Award for her short Portrait of Boy with Dog (co-director James Longley). Hessman remains behind the camera, and only speaks through composition; while the subjects may be responding to her questions, Hessman’s fluent Russian cannot be heard on film. The story largely belongs to Borya, Lubya, Olga, Andrei, and Ruslan, while their children represent the universal ignorance anew, facing both a dynamic and predictable future, depending on the hold of Soviet-style thinking in government.
The subjects lives are as varied as any random sampling of a population, yet they all belonged to the same class at #57, the school where Lubya and Borya now teach history with a new mission of correctness and non-partisanship. Their varied experiences since–the possibility of being an entrepreneur (Andrei) or a punk (Ruslan)–are new developments since the late 80s when independence movements within the union and the Cold War took its toll. By the time the five Russians reach late adolescence, the ideological stronghold that sheltered them as children is beginning to crumble.
As the film shows, the paradoxical reform policies of restructuring (perestroika) and openness (glasnost) that Gorbachev instated proved both destructive and beneficial to Soviet people, depending on which side of a growing divide you were on: the side who wished to maintain Communist rule and control, or the side who began to demand democracy. Gorbachev tried to satisfy everyone by bringing in more voting power for the people within the Soviet framework; this subtle democratization, plus a recently established dialogue with the West vis-a-vis Reagan, was enough to inspire a pro-Communist coup (August 1991), successfully ousting Gorbachev, but not the people’s desire for change. As young adults, Borya and Lubya stood with the public demonstrations that resisted violence and refused to submit to the government– “a very important and dangerous moment”–embracing the mobilized movements for democracy spreading throughout the Soviet states, bringing it to an end by December 1991.
In a film rife with nostalgic imagery, a certain sweetness always accompanies the bitter realities of what the Soviet regime represented. As children, singing songs for peace and participating in Komonsol (the “Lenin youth,” so to speak), everything was secure. Olga, perhaps the most pathos-inspiring subject, sums up the difference between past and present by describing the man whose job was secure and life was comfortably predictable “and yet he has no sausage and hasn’t traveled abroad.” No longer rationed or banned, “sausage, [American] jeans, and chewing gum” are represented as the material gains of the fall of Communism; for the anti-conformist Ruslan, a moral trade-off quickly catching in the new republic. With economic and political instability continuing through to the end of the 20th century, some Russians still question which is truly the better lifestyle.
My Perestroika is a people’s story rather than a political story, an important difference for American audiences. Although the film takes us behind the “Iron Curtain,” such terms are rarely referred to. Hessman’s greatest achievement is the sense of tangibility created within the small Moscow apartments where many of the subjects live. You are invited inside, to eaves drop on candid conversations between children and parents, and take part in their daily lives. Instead of being on the outside looking in, as North Americans always have, Hessman gives us the inside-out perspective: first-hand accounts of what Communism, the fall of the Soviet Union, and subsequent instabilities meant for the Russian family and home.
Overall Score: 8.10 – Great. (Movies that score between 8.00 and 8.50 are great representations of their genre that everyone should see in theaters on opening night.)