During the Cold War years, most Westerners knew a few handy Russian words – Sputnik and cosmonaut for the space race; KGB and Gulag for the instruments of repression. Then the changes under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late eighties introduced a supplemental vocabulary: glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring), terms that spelled the end of the Soviet empire.
What did restructuring feel like from the inside? The documentary My Perestroika offers sympathetic interviews with five people who grew up together in the seventies and eighties, and reached adulthood just as the old regime fell. Essentially agenda-free, My Perestroika has the quality of a candid conversation with long-lost cousins from another country.
Undoubtedly it helps that American filmmaker Robin Hessman is not a complete outsider. She went to graduate school in Moscow and lived there in the 1990s as a producer on the Russian version of Sesame Street. She supplements her interviews with home movies and state propaganda films from the seventies and eighties that dramatically illustrate the difference between Russia now and then. The era of military parades and official television ( Swan Lake was shown on TV whenever there was a state crisis) have been replaced by pervasive advertising signs atop buildings, the familiar colours and logos of fast-food chains, and the Internet.
One mild surprise is that nearly all of these Russians view their childhoods – singing patriotic songs, participating in the children’s quasi-military associations and writing class letters to Ronald Reagan – as idyllic. Schoolteacher Lyuba Meyerson recalls with a wry laugh that she was “completely satisfied with my beautiful Soviet reality.”
Meyerson and her husband, Borya, a history teacher, talk about the challenge of explaining the old ways of doing things to kids who might as well be hearing science-fiction stories. The Meyersons, who share an inherited apartment with their son, represent a kind of middle-class norm in the film, while their circle of friends demonstrate some of the more extreme possibilities in the contemporary Russia.
Andrei Yevgrafov, for example, took to capitalism like a dog to meat. He owns a chain of stores specializing in imported French men’s wear. Others were not quite as lucky. Olga Durikova, whom Borya remembers as the prettiest girl in her elementary school class, is a single mother who shares an apartment with her sister and makes a living as a representative for a billiards table company. She thought her life would be a bit easier, until her fiancé was killed in an apparent gang-related slaying. Another classmate, Ruslan Stupin, is the group’s rebel, who lives without a credit card or taxable income, making a living by playing music in a Moscow subway station. Years ago, he founded a 1990s punk band, which is now a success; Ruslan quit because he felt they were sell-outs.
Collectively, they tell a story of modern Russia and its changes that parallels their own sadder-but-wiser maturation. Childhood was blissful ignorance – where news typically consisted of articles celebrating some milk maid’s latest production yield and familiar stories of American war-mongering. The arrival of adulthood – and the civil resistance that thwarted a military coup in August, 1991 – created both a glimpse of freedom and an ideological vacuum. After a brief vogue of church-going and faith healers amid the economic chaos of the nineties, the first post-perestroika generation has seen a disillusioning return to a new kind of political authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. Of the five people portrayed here, four declined to vote in the last election, with Olga offering a protest vote for an ultranationalist candidate.
Near the end of the film, we see Borya watching television, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announces the creation of new patriotic history books restoring Russian pride. As disgusted as Borya is, he’s also convinced a return to the old order is no longer possible:
“With the Internet, it’s very difficult to maintain a monopoly on information,” he says. “And information is important. Our young people are smart. They are all potential hackers. They know how to bypass any firewall.”
- Directed by Robin Hessman
- Classification: 14A