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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Apr. 15, 2011 | 5:05 PM
Pick of the Week

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It’s been over two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  At the time, it was hard to imagine any news that was bigger, as it seemed to mark both the end of the Cold War and the possibility of a new, more Democratic Russia.  Now that Vladimir Putin appears to be clinging to power in with an ever tightening grasp, it’s easy forget that much of what went on in the post-Gorbachev era bordered on the surreal.  In her fascinating documentary My Perestroika, director Robin Hessman presents a lot of those moments, as told through the eyes of five subjects who lived through them. 

My Perestroika, while far from being a-political, is much more interested in the realities of every day life for it subjects, and Hessman has chosen an interesting cross section of Muscovites.  All members of the same school class while growing up in the 80’s under Brezhnev, the film catches up with them as adults pursuing very different paths.  Olga, once the class beauty, seemed bound for marriage to a bank vice-president until waking up one day to find her husband and his driver brutally murdered.  Forced to get a job to take care of herself and her young son, she works as a customer service rep for a billiard company.  Andrei, who at one point during his tenure in the Soviet army was fully prepared to join the Communist Party, now is a successful small business owner, with a chain of stores selling expensive French made shirts.  Rusya is a musician who claims to live completely outside of society with only under the table jobs, “no debts, and no credit”.  Finally, there are the Meyersons, a couple who both teach history at the school where they all met, who maintain a constant struggle as to how to explain a Soviet history that’s completely incomprehensible to adults, let alone children.

As her subjects tell their stories, a surprising portrait of the Soviet era emerges.  While everyone in the movie appears to have turned their back on Communism as adults, they all seem to have very fond memories of their childhoods.  Lyuba Meyerson complains that being a member of the communist youth meant extra work, but overall it seems that the kids all enjoyed going along with the Party program.  From the perspective of a middle class child, what was not to like?  There were plenty of school sponsored activities, and constant messages of assurance as to the superiority of the Soviet state.  Part of this can be chalked up to the enthusiasm of youth and the innocence of childhood.  Borya remembers fondly: “I was smaller….the grass was greener…the sky was bluer…” 

Then it all crumbled.  With the election of Gorbachev, Andrei marvels that there was a state leader on television who wasn’t reading from notes, who “sounded like a human being.”  Announcing his new policies of “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness), Gorbachev ushered in changes that could never be completely undone.  Forced aside by party hard liners,  the damage was done, and the next ten years brought the era of Boris Yeltsin and largely Democratic control of the Russian parliament. 

Many documentarians would make these events the focus, but Hessman virtually relegates them to the background.  The film makes judicious use of archival footage, but not in way that the viewer expects.  One of the most striking clips is from a production of Swan Lake, because apparently when the Soviet state is in turmoil, they broadcast ballet.  On every channel.  You can’t make this stuff up, and My Perestroika demonstrates that Russians have a high tolerance for the absurd.  Hessman’s subjects seem to accept that no matter who’s in control, life will go on, largely as before.  Olga expresses repeatedly that she’s basically “apolitical”, and the middle class lives that Hessman presents here are remarkably similar to their western counterparts. 

In the end, the portraits of Russian life in My Perestroika underline the importance of living witnesses to history.  Difficult though the task may be, Borya and Lyuba are committed to teaching their students about the past so they aren’t doomed to repeat it.  “It’s better now than it was before,” Borya finally concludes, as he watches his son playing badminton by the lake.  “But they don’t know that.”

In Russian with English subtitles.

My Perestroika opens on Friday, April 15th at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.  (This review originally appeared in August 2010 when the film was screening as part of the DocuWeeks Festival.)  Filmmaker Robin Hessman will participate in Q&A’s after the 5:15 and 7:30 screenings on Friday and Saturday, April 15th and 16th and after the 3 p.m. screening on Sunday, April 17th.


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