Russian life is still a bear
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, May 13, 2011
Could it be that the more things are restructured, the more they stay the same?
That’s the question for the principal characters in “My Perestroika,” a revealing documentary about contemporary Russia. The five Moscow residents remember being happy children during the Brezhnev era. Now, some 25 years after perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), they’re alienated adults.
Of course, things have changed, especially for Andrei. The wealthiest of the five, he runs the Russian operations of a French chain of shirt-and-tie shops. “All the jobs I’ve ever had were impossible in the U.S.S.R.,” he says.
His polar opposite is Ruslan, a goateed former punk-rocker who quit his too-commercial-for-comfort band to busk in the subway. “How can you play music just for money?’’ he asks. Still, his bohemian lifestyle is tolerated in the Putin era. Under Brezhnev, he’d probably be in jail.
Perhaps the least content of the group is Olga, the school beauty when most of these Muscovites were classmates back in the ’70s. A single mother who lives with her son, her sister and her sister’s son, Olga misses Soviet Communism’s economic safety net.
At the center of the group are Lyuba and Borya Meyerson, a married couple who teach history to kids who grew up on Pizza Hut, Pepsi-Cola and the ability to listen to any music they like. Their son doesn’t seem all that impressed with dad’s collection of once-forbidden Western rock.
Disgusted by their country’s growing autocracy, Lyuba and Borya sit out the 2008 election, in which Vladimir Putin’s presidency goes to Dmitry Medvedev, his longtime aide. They face working with new history textbooks that, Putin announces on TV, will promote Russian pride rather than guilt. But they no longer worry, as Borya did when he was a child, that they’ll be targeted for having a Jewish surname.
Director Robin Hessman is an American who lived in Moscow during the wide-open ’90s, a decade that most of her subjects miss. (She was there producing the Russian “Sesame Street.”) In addition to following her five subjects, Hessman has assembled much archival footage, with an emphasis on public ceremonies involving the red-kerchiefed Soviet youths called Young Pioneers.
“My Perestroika” is specific to Russia, of course, but the juvenile certainty and conformity it chronicles seem universal. “I can’t say I wanted to be like everyone else,” Lyuba recalls. “I simply was like everyone else.”
In spirit, Hessman’s movie is close to the “Up” documentary series, which every seven years revisits a group of British schoolchildren who were selected in 1963. The difference is that, in “My Perestroika,” it’s not just the kids who face the perplexities of growing up. It’s an entire nation.
Contains drinking and smoking.