“My Perestroika”: Russians cope with capitalism in fascinating documentary

Movie Review
My Perestroika
Directed by Robin Hessman
2010, 87 mins, Unrated

In 1949, essays by six ex-Communists about why they quit their pro-Moscow parties appeared in the book The God That Failed. Contributors included American and French men of letters such as Richard Wright and André Gide – but none from the Soviet Union. Now documentarian Robin Hessman, an Academy Award-winning Yank who spent years in Moscow, has directed/produced My Perestroika, an 87-minute film about five Muscovite classmates who grew up together back in the USSR and now live in the Russian Federation ruled by Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin and company.

Few films released in the West have shown how the transition from socialism has affected Russians and other Eastern Europeans. Hessman’s doc, released as the world commemorates the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, does not paint a pretty picture of socialism’s lost generation; My Perestroika is no my blue heaven.

American audiences, who grew up believing the “Russkies” were our rivals, if not outright enemies, will be intrigued by revealing glimpses of life in the USSR. The award-winning film deftly weaves archival footage, news clips and home movies of the Soviet yesteryear’s then children with original material shot by Hessman of the now adults. Early on we see black and white 8 mm shots of Olga, remembered as the prettiest girl in the class. My Perestroika then jump cuts to today’s 40-ish Olga: Time has not been kind to the former beauty, now a solo mom earning a living by overseeing billiard tables. This startling juxtaposition seems to sum up My Perestroika’s viewpoint about what has happened to that generation ravaged by the collapse of socialism, and now plunged into the dog-eat-dog world of a not-so-free market system.

The quintet look back with irony at how they grew up with Young Pioneers and propaganda. Each, however, tellingly recounts how they nevertheless enjoyed happy childhoods – in contrast to some of their children. Sure, there was indoctrination at schools, in the media, etc., but none of them suffered material hardships, they felt nurtured and had a sense of purpose living in a country that claimed to be advancing toward an egalitarian classless society. As grown-ups, the former Komsomol members may now mock the party line, but there is something to be said for opposing imperialism and nuclear war with Reagan’s America, and working for peace. Perhaps when party lines are ridiculed we should apply a sort of line-item veto: While some should be discarded, others (like supporting the Spanish Republic, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, etc.) are worth remembering and keeping.

How this lost generation has coped from Brezhnev-style rule to Gorbachev’s Perestroika (reconstruction) to Yeltsin/Putin/Medvedev capitalism is a fascinating odyssey. The Muscovites age and grow and adapt – or don’t – in different ways. The musician Ruslan, a former punk rock star, strikes a Brechtian dissonant chord, rejecting the consumerism and money madness that has befallen his troubled nation. No orthodox party liner, he yet seems to retain some Marxist ideals. At the opposite end of the continuum, Andrei has prospered as a successful businessman in the new Russia. In between the two poles, Borya and Lyuba, married history teachers, express alienation, as does the faded Olga. Perhaps they’ve seen better days.

It’s fascinating what happens to human beings when their “god” fails them. My Perestroika explains that after the collapse of Gorbachev’s socialist reform effort, masses of people turned to mysticism. The god today’s free-enterprise Russia worships is the Almighty Ruble. Hessman also shows that the worst excesses of bourgeois society, scorned by conservatives – drugs, punk rock and the like – were, amusingly, hailed as “freedoms” during and after Gorbachev. One man’s freedom is another man’s poison.

My Perestroika doesn’t show, unfortunately, that there was probably more media freedom under Gorby than in today’s Putinized, scrutinized Russia. Nor that for all its drawbacks and flaws, the collapse of the Soviet bloc has meant that U.S. imperialism is no longer opposed by a potent countervailing force. Washington’s post-Soviet war mongering plus NATO expansionism now go largely unchecked by a comparable superpower.

It’s often said that Marx and Engels were mistaken when they wrote that socialism could only be achieved by international revolution in the industrially advanced countries. Instead, we have seen that largely rural, peasant nations have attempted to bring about socialism. My Perestroika made me reconsider that Marx and Engels said exactly what they meant and were correct.

In any case, it would be fascinating if Hessman returned to her quintet and periodically filmed sequels of their life journeys as Russia continues to evolve. Watch for My Perestroika in your area.

Photo: In a scene from the film, Borya and son Mark watching home movies of Borya’s childhood during the 1970s in the USSR. Courtesy Red Square Productions.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.