Red Square Productions
Filmmaker Robin Hessman (right), who spent eight years living in Russia in the 1990s, returned in 2004 to film her documentary about the country's turbulent shift toward democracy.
Filmmaker Robin Hessman (right), who spent eight years living in Russia in the 1990s, returned in 2004 to film her documentary about the country's turbulent shift toward democracy. Red Square Productions
If you're under the impression that post-Soviet Russia is a Wild West peopled at one extreme by gold-chained Mafiosi and at the other by starving babushkas hawking single daffodils in the Moscow subway, you may want to treat yourself to a riveting new documentary by New York-based filmmaker Robin Hessman.
My Perestroika is an intimate portrait of five middle-class Moscow schoolmates. All of them were raised as upstanding communist youth. All of them came of age with glasnost, and all of them — closing in on middle age today — piece together more or less viable lives under Vladimir Putin's queasy democracy, 20 years after the failed coup that led to the collapse of Soviet rule.
"In Russia, you're with the same 25 people from first grade through high school, your entire formative years," says Hessman, 38, in a phone interview. "I know people in their 70s in Moscow who still get together with their classmates every year. So it's a good way to put a framework on something as wide and amorphous as a generation. "
In its small but richly satisfying way, My Perestroika, which Hessman began shooting in 2004 with a digital camera and no crew, tracks the varied responses of a generation to the societal earthquake that began with Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the late 1980s. One of its five subjects — Andrei Yevgrafov, a businessman who owns a chain of stores selling high-end Parisian shirts — now lives with his wife and daughter in an upscale town house. The other four live in close proximity in the same cramped Moscow apartments they grew up in.
Red Square Productions
Borya Meyerson (left) and his son, Mark, see glimpses of Russia's communist past in home movies made decades earlier by Borya's father.
Borya Meyerson (left) and his son, Mark, see glimpses of Russia's communist past in home movies made decades earlier by Borya's father. Red Square Productions
Ruslan Stupin, a former punk rocker and perhaps the one most disillusioned by a Russia hopped up on consumer capitalism, cobbles together a living teaching banjo and playing bluegrass in the subway; he shares custody of his young son with his estranged second wife. Olga Durikova, a blond beauty with a degree in French, suffered a terrible personal loss in the early 2000s, and now lives with her sister and their children while working for a billiard-table rental company.
But the loquacious stars of the group are Borya and Lyuba Meyerson — articulate, acerbic, chain-smoking high-school history teachers with a bright young son, Mark.
"They have a thoughtful view of their country's history," says Hessman with evident affection. "But they also have this lovely way of tying broader stories and memories with personal anecdotes."
While Lyuba looks back with beguiling self-amusement on her happy childhood as an obedient young communist and the innocence that was shattered by the attempted coup, Borya — who grew up in an intellectual Jewish family and was accustomed to marginality — became an early rebel who rattled his teachers by refusing to wear his red Pioneer kerchief. (On sartorial grounds, no less.)
Red Square Productions
Ruslan Stupin and former members of NAIV, the punk band he founded as a disillusioned youngster, reunited for a concert that Hessman included in the documentary.
Ruslan Stupin and former members of NAIV, the punk band he founded as a disillusioned youngster, reunited for a concert that Hessman included in the documentary. Red Square Productions
Sardonically witty yet idealistic in his sense of pedagogic mission, Borya gave Hessman access to a treasure trove of home movies his father made when Borya was a child. Sprinkled in with propaganda and newsreel footage that Hessman unearthed from the orthodox 1970s, they provide a collage of private and collective memory of a sheltered Soviet past — one that includes duck-and-cover training in language eerily similar to American Cold War propaganda
Hessman, who's been obsessed with Russia ever since she was a child at the tail end of the Cold War — at age 10, she startled her Massachusetts parents by asking for a subscription to the Russian magazine Soviet Life — arrived in Leningrad as an 18-year-old film student from Brown University in 1991, just as the hardliners clamped down.
"I was out in crowds of thousands when the coup happened, and I ran around the city with ration coupons trying to find food, and I was full of the same hope and expectations," she says.
Hessman stayed for eight years, learned her craft at the Russian State Institute for Cinematography, and produced a local version of Sesame Street. Back at WGBH public television in Boston, she began to develop the project that would become My Perestroika, then returned to Moscow in 2004 and began hunting for locals of her own generation who were willing to open up.
"It helped enormously that I speak Russian fluently, and that I had lived in Russia for all the years of significant transformation," she says. "I wasn't an outsider sticking my foot in their faces, saying, 'So tell me about this crazy perestroika; that must have been wild.' "
My Perestroika is a straight-ahead documentary, but none of its talking heads are experts wheeled in to put a professional gloss on Russia's turbulent recent history. Only one of the five has been exposed (and then only at second hand) to the dangers that face the dissident famous, like murdered journalist and human-rights activist Anna Politkovskaya or Alexander Litvinenko, the whistle-blowing secret agent who was poisoned in London, allegedly by his former colleagues.
In what may signal a sobering new reality, the film suggests that many ordinary Russian citizens today, disappointed by signs of fresh state coercion, retreat from politics into private life much as they did under Soviet rule. Only one of the five former classmates admits to having voted recently — and it may surprise you to know who, for whom, and why this person chooses to vote.
Watching My Perestroika, one wonders what the lives of the protesting citizens of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen will look like in 20 years' time. "I think of that quite a lot right now," says Hessman. "Not that I want to be a pessimist, but I [recommend] a healthy dose of realism about what happens after the cheering in the square, [after] the placards are put away and the dust is swept up. It's not always as easy a transition as in our hearts we wish and dream and hope it will be."
Yet in the end Hessman sides with Borya, who, watching his son play outside with friends, predicts that the Internet savvy of Mark's generation will allow them to get around any form of censorship or information restriction.
"When you compare life in the Soviet Union with that of today," Hessman says, "the two most significant differences are freedom of information — there's no Iron Curtain, you can access The New York Times, there are blogs, more and more young people speak English, there's a completely free exchange of ideas and opinions — and freedom to travel abroad anywhere you want."
Which is how it came to pass that in January 2010, Borya and Lyuba's introduction to the West took place in, of all places, Park City, Utah. At the Sundance Film Festival, the family appeared beaming, onstage, to audience applause after My Perestroika screened.
From there, it was off to Western Europe, to see the sights they could only have dreamed of 20 years earlier.