Drawing obvious inspiration (at least to me) from Michael Apted’s “Up” series that documented the hopes and disappointments of a group of British men and women as they grow older (“28 Up, etc.), Robin Hessman’s “My Perestroika” does about the same thing for Russians who came of age at the very time the Soviet Union was collapsing—hence the title of the film.
The documentary, which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York, focuses on five classmates who represent a fairly representative cross-section of the Soviet Union, excepting a genuine working-class person in whose name the revolution was made. All of the subjects now regard this revolution as a total nightmare, although they are by no means in the kind of celebratory mood on display in the early 1990s when the Berlin Wall fell and liberation assumed the form of bananas and pornographic movies.
Borya and Lyuba Meyerson both teach at Moscow’s School #57. He was, like many Jews, alienated from the system at an early age. As an act of rebellion, he and many others would wear t-shirts with “USA” in big letters. Lyuba, whose mother warned her about hooking up with a Jew, describes herself as a total conformist when young.
Borya is seen teaching a high school civics class, explaining to his students how horrible communism was. The peasants were forced to share everything, he says. Can you imagine what it would be like–he asks them–if they were forced to live in a room all together? That was communism, he says ruefully. Looking at the way he is spoon feeding ideology to his students, I could not help but feel that his pedagogical methods were influenced by what he heard growing up in the 1970s.
Ruslan Stupin was a member of a punk rock band called Naiv in the early 90s that sang songs about the dirty imperialists, sort of a consciousness in transition so to speak. The words might be Red but the style was in defiance of Soviet normalcy from the pierced noses to the tattoos. One of the performers had a day job in a bank and wore a necktie. The band’s black leather and torn t-shirts became a faded memory. Like the punk movement in the West, this current soon learned the ways of the world and how to fit in. Just look at Johnny Rotten’s career for some insights into this process. Once he was an “anarchist”, or at least sounded like one, and now he performs in Israel.
Olga Durikova is a single mom who maintains billiard tables for a large company. She tells us repeatedly that she is apolitical but has sense enough to state that the old system had its saving graces. You didn’t have to worry about unemployment and when you reached 60, you could count on a pension. One might say that many people in Detroit would now look at this as a worker’s paradise.
Least interesting is Andrei Yevgrafov, who runs a men’s boutique that looks a bit like Paul Stuart in New York. His biggest disappointment when young was not being accepted into the Communist Party. He now takes solace in selling shirts that cost $195 each.
Every single one of these people would be violently opposed to a return to the old ways but are clearly disenchanted with the way things are now. They are also repulsed by Vladimir Putin who remains something of an idol of those sectors of the American left who think in terms of counter-hegemonic blocs. Apparently Putin’s willingness to utilize authoritarian methods in the course of strengthening the Russian economy was all that some required for their endorsement. Some Russians, especially those that don’t like late night visits from the cops, feel differently.
The film mixes footage of the five subjects from their youth, adorned in red kerchiefs and marching on May Day parades, with their current life. There is a keen sense of irony in all this that begins to wear thin after an hour or so.
The film was directed by an American named Robin Hessman who developed a fascination for the USSR as a child. While the war in Vietnam and ghetto rebellions inspired some of us to read Karl Marx, Ms. Hessman appeared to prefer the very propaganda that her subjects would reject. The press notes state:
I have been curious about Russia and the Soviet Union for as long as I can remember.
Growing up in the US in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was impossible to miss the fact that the USSR was considered our enemy and, according to movies and television, plotting to destroy the planet with their nuclear weapons.
Interest in the “Evil Empire” was everywhere. When I was seven, my 2nd grade class made up a game: USA vs. USSR. The girls were the USA, with headquarters at the jungle gym. The boys were the USSR, and were hunkered down at the sand box. And for some reason, the boys allowed me to be the only girl in the USSR. And thus, my dilemma. My best friends were among the girls, but I was a curious kid, and I wanted to know what was going on in the USSR. Unable to choose between them, I became a double agent.
So I suppose it was my insatiable curiosity about this purportedly diabolical country that led me to beg my parents to allow me to subscribe to Soviet Life magazine at age ten. (I have no idea how I even knew it existed.) As children of the McCarthy era, they were concerned about the repercussions on my future, but I pleaded and they gave in. It came each month, wrapped in a brown paper wrapper – my political pornography.
Political pornography indeed.
Ms. Hessman turned her obsession with the USSR into something of a career, going off to study in Leningrad in January 1991 at the tender age of 18. She eventually got a job at the Leningrad Film studios and the rest is history.
Although the film is filled with references to the stormy events of the early 90s, including a failed coup d’état by the Communists, there is very little attempt to provide any kind of context except for how her subjects related to these events personally. My guess is that she chose her subjects since their anomie and general feelings of disillusionment resonate with her own.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is its ability to hone in on the stifling Red culture that turned so many people against the system. The boring television shows, the inspirational speeches about a farmer who broke a wheat-growing contest, the pressures to conform—all of it would drive a normal person to rebel against the system.
Come to think of it. That’s more or less the reason I became an unrepentant Marxist. A steady diet of the Reader’s Digest, John Wayne movies, morning recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, ducking and covering in nuclear air raid drills, and a thousand other things made me the malcontent I am today. Long live communism!