My Perestroika: A Film Review

by Kenneth Rayman on March 8, 2018

I watched the Behind The Scenes interview with the Director, Robin Hessman, who shared the same point of view when it comes to why I got so interested in Russia. She grew up in the 70s and 80s and mentioned several things in the interview that I’ve echoed in my talks to senior living communities. The most identical thing was of being a child and skeptical that we (her and I) were getting the full story. She wondered “how can an entire country be evil?” and used the childhood narrative of “what if I was born somewhere else” pointing out that society taught that the Soviet Union was a whole different world but her project showed that, no, there was really nothing different about the way children grew up there compared to the US.

She set out to show what life was like in the Soviet Union beyond what the West was always showing it’s populous, “a seemingly endless parade of tanks and bread lines.” I, myself, after watching the film was amazed at seeing the images of Boris Yeltsin that contradicted everything of the little I knew of him. Seeing him arm and arm with Russian citizens, standing on top of a tank yelling in a megaphone that the citizens must resist the attempts of the hardliners showed me a man who wasn’t the blank staring, drunkard looking man of the late 90s and early 2000s, near his death. Of him, here in the US. I was only told that he was not a good man. How was I to know??? Of Russia, since it was during the economic turbulent 90s, I remember most vividly a CBS or ABC News report on vodka consumption in Russia being at all high.

I found it prophetic that she followed two history teachers within the 5 people interwoven in the story, but it was part of her ideal subject to show the difference between what they lived, what they were taught, and then had to teach to the coming generations. Boris talked about being in high school and realizing that what he saw going on in society and the lessons being taught didn’t match but no one really seemed to care, (as if they were just going through the motions) and him taking a liking to teenage rebellion, which was frowned upon for his religious affiliation and potential trouble with the law/government. Lyuba’s description that “what we had cannot be understood, it was like a fairy tale,” echoed the Director’s aim to show the disconnect between the history lived and the history taught. Lyuba’s description of the immense feeling of emotion at the first notes of the Soviet Anthem where she had no idea why she was so moved by it as a child echoed my own when hearing my national anthem as a child. What moved us so? I don’t know. But it moves to say, how does one “love” their country?

To hear them talk about life in the Soviet Union of the 70s/80s astonished me with their descriptions showing that life experience had very little distinction between the US and themselves. The other 3 echoed Boris and Lyuba, with Andrei saying, “Sure there might have been things that they (the US) had that we didn’t but we didn’t really care,” or Olga describing the Youth Groups, “We were kept busy, as kids, with community service projects,” (similar to after school programming like I did in elementary) the only difference of it being under the youth arm of the political structure, but to Olga the political aspect never entered the mind when working with her friends to clean up the neighborhood. Or as Ruslan said, “The only thing that was bad for me was I couldn’t buy the music I wanted.” To see how at least 5 people echoed how the larger picture didn’t concern them behind their own little world shows, to me, how the argument of Macro vs. Micro plays in the bigger picture. The at-large narrative focuses on the easy to see and the fear of what it doesn’t understand without taking into account the individual story. And I suppose that cognitive dissonance plays in to it since it contradicts everything we’ve been taught in our lifetime’s about the Soviet Union or Russia.

The coup was introduced in a way that, if you never studied Russian history in depth, you wouldn’t understand. A clip from the performance on Swan Lake was shown, which studying Russian history in the West I knew was how the government stalled for time when figuring out how to announce Stalin’s death and the leadership question (Swan Lake was Stalin’s favorite ballet performance). Studied further, you’d know that it was used anytime something major happened. Each person had their own response to the coup, Ruslan was skeptical that it was real; Lyuba and Boris were at the White House intoxicated by the feeling of freedom that the movement to save the democracy was fostering and doubly thrilled at the excitement that they could be in danger personally; Olga and her sister choose no to stay at the White House but brought the protesters food; and Andrei, who was out of town, sort of echoed Ruslan by saying that people weren’t there supporting “freedom,” they were there because the grocery stores were empty and the hardliners represented more bread lines, in other words “democratic freedom” was second to survival which the old ways of Communism would threaten.

The story ends with a Boris giving a long response to the question of Russia today. He talks of the old ways being long gone but the Soviet way of communicating the message being brought back, one he described as Neo-Nationalistic. He was cautious to say that Soviet Style politics would resume but wondered if the Nationalistic tone would lessen or continue after Putin.

This movie represented a fresh look on a society different from our own, here in America, yet parallel or identical in ways not expected and highlights the need for critical thinking. The personal movie reels weren’t staged or different from what you might find of that era here, documenting milestones of their lives and living their own life in a world that cared more about the perception than the human experience that is so shared by many.

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