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"As a child, I was completely uninterested in life in the West. I thought, I am so lucky that I live in the Soviet Union!" "We felt like we didn't have a care in the world."
So observe two of the chief characters in Robin Hessman's documentary My Perestroika, a must-see for anyone seeking to understand the transformation of the Soviet Union into Russia, from Leonid Brezhnev through Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. It is hard for westerners brought up in the Cold War era to understand the Soviet Union as a lost paradise, but to Hessman's credit she sensitively explores the nuances of the fall of the first Communist state through a focus on the personal experiences of five individuals. Surveying the paths taken by these former [End Page 222] classmates at Moscow Public School 57, Hessman provides important insights into the impact of the changes wrought by the collapse of the Soviet Union on the kinds of people who make up the Russian middle class, some of whom have been visible in the anti-Putin protests.
The classmates are Lyuba and Boris, now teachers at the school, married with a son Mark; Olga, a single mother working for a pool table vendor; Andrei, owner of several Café Coton men's shirt shops, and Ruslan, an ex-punk rocker, divorced, with one son.
Hessman skillfully weaves into her documentary snippets of Soviet propaganda films, patriotic songs, and home movies. The film begins with a 1977 youth march in Red Square, as well as home movies from Boris's family. A boy thanks Brezhnev for defending all the children of the planet. "Communists-fighters for the People's Happiness," declares one film. Another shows nuclear attack drills, with students putting on gas masks. In between there is young Boris, in children's short shorts, playing happily with his friends.
With all the changes, some things have not changed. Boris has lived in the same apartment all his life. He now shares it with Lyuba and Mark. Olga lives around the corner in the same apartment in which she grew up. Like most urban Russians, their living space amounts to a few rooms, filled with a lifetime of books, records, and assorted memorabilia.
The film soon reveals the reality behind the blissful Soviet images of happiness. In reminiscing about the past, Olga talks about the "information drought" that she remembers growing up, nothing in the newspapers, nothing on television. She and her friends read the books that were available and hung out. Ruslan, too, recalls the same faces, the same messages on television, for peace, against American imperialism.
The Soviet myth of community masks old hatreds. Boris's father is Jewish; his mother is not. When they married, perhaps they believed such differences no longer mattered, that internationalism would trump nationalism. But Boris's mother understands Soviet reality. She counsels her son that with an obviously Jewish last name like Meyerson, he has to be extra-patriotic, join the Komsomol, wear his membership pin very visibly. When Boris and Lyuba get together, her mother exclaims, "I knew some Jew would latch onto you!"
Andrei would seem to be the perfect candidate for upward mobility in the Soviet system. He is ethnically Russian, not a smoker or drinker, and served in the border guard. He tells how in 1985 he was encouraged to apply for Communist Party membership but was rejected. The head of the party committee explains his reasoning: "What if you commit a crime after we accept you for membership?" Andrei bitterly observes that at that time they accepted all sorts of alcoholics.
Gorbachev represented change. Ruslan observes: "We were surprised that they didn't shoot him." When he finished his army service in 1986, he "came into a different country." The atmosphere was freer, the police were not arresting punks. Ruslan has a son, Nikita, who is like his father: "I live outside society." But he takes Nikita out to the trendy local Pizza Hut.
Of the five, Olga and Ruslan...