My Evening with Perestroika

Unless the Occupy Wall Street movement turns very sour very fast, it seems unlikely that we will ever witness a socio-political upheaval in America comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Imagine tanks rolling down the streets of Washington D.C. Imagine tens of thousands of Americans all dropping their lives, marching on the White House, building barricades and turning those tanks back. Imagine the thrill at watching the people of this country so resoundingly express their dissatisfaction. Imagine the hope and optimism at the opportunity to rebuild an entire nation, and do it right this time.

The five subjects of Robin Hessman’s superb documentary “My Perestroika” were members of the last generation to grow up behind the Iron Curtain; they were roughly our age when an attempted military coup was foiled by popular agitation, theoretically ending the reign of authoritarian rule in Russia. As young schoolchildren, they obediently donned their Young Pioneer scarves and sang songs of peace and glory to the Motherland (as one woman insists, “I can’t say that I WANTED to be like everyone else…I simply WAS like everyone else”). As teenagers, they discovered the joys of subversive literature and punk rock, gradually awakening to the absurd hypocrisies of the system around them. And, together, they moved into the uncertain post-Soviet future.

Hessman’s film bears a strong resemblance to Michael Apted’s series of “Up” documentaries (Apted has followed a group of schoolchildren for nearly fifty years, producing a new film every seven years), in both its seamless integration of decades-old home video footage (a rare commodity in Russia) and extremely intimate, poignant interviews. Having lived in Petersburg for a semester myself and witnessed the initial reservation and caution of many Russians around strangers (especially foreigners), I can’t imagine the time and personal effort it took Hessman (a former Copeland Fellow at Amherst College) to ingratiate herself with this group in order to gather the candid commentary we witness in her film.

Watching “My Perestroika,” one gets the sense that for Russians who can still clearly remember Soviet times, everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. Gone are the Marxist jingles and duck-and-cover drills, the anti-American propaganda and giant statues of Lenin.

Actually, those are still there.

Now there are giant billboards for Nikon and Honda, high-end clothing retailers, DVDs of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “South Park.” But have the day-to-day concerns of the average Russian citizen really changed? Some of Hessman’s subjects are more politically conscious than others (one couple who are both history teachers, for instance, are understandably quite concerned with the reforms of the Putin regime), but you could describe all of them as ‘content.’ They all have children, all have respectable jobs and homes (except perhaps the punk rocker Ruslan, whose circumstances are unclear but whose passion for music seems to curb any other possible issues).

A nation’s history is personal. The narrative changes whether you ask your grumpy old great aunt who lived through the Great Depression, your Confederate redneck cousins, Tony Marx, or that crazy Amherst homeless man outside Subway. The subjects of “My Perestroika” were ordinary people who lived through an extraordinary moment in history, and are still trying to make sense of it all. One can sympathize.