Old Russia hands like to argue over the precise moment that Soviet ideology began to look ridiculous to its citizens — the point at which reality hit people in the face. It’s a fair question because even in the 1980s, just before Gorbachev, the country still had its defenders. At the other extreme, dissidents date their awakening from December 1965 when a tiny protest in Moscow resulted in several jail terms.
An impressive new documentary film, My Perestroika, examines the range of emotions and fears that ordinary Russians felt as the system began to crumble, then morph into something else — nobody knew what. Most of them saw it coming, some sooner than others. Many seem bemused by what has happened to their country.
As one of the main interviewees says, “Somewhere during the eighth or ninth grade in school (mid-1980s) it became clear that people all around you were saying things that did not correspond to reality.” His belief in the system went downhill from there.
A woman comments: “Everything was not what you thought.” She told people, “Open your eyes!’
Speaking as a former Moscow correspondent from the 1960s and 1970s (Associated Press), I can say confidently this film gets inside the Russian mind better than any other documentary has managed — and certainly better than any of us were able to do during our posting there. In fact, Western journalists rarely spoke to ordinary Russians.
We were forbidden fruit to them. A Russian friend once asked me never to call him on his communal telephone at his shared flat. My American accent would cause him problems with his Party supervisor, he said, and could easily cost him his job. Unfortunately, this meant the journalists spoke mainly to each other.
My Perestroika is a film that was crying out to be done, as director Robin Hessman fortunately realized. She distilled these 90 minutes from 190 hours of footage that she shot or viewed over a three-year period, finally focusing on five schoolmates, members of the last generation of Russians raised behind the Iron Curtain.
A good bit of the value of her documentary is the selection of private home movie footage from the 1970s and 1980s interspersed with commentary from her interviewees. “Part of the beauty is [the movies’] purity of intention,” she says, providing glimpses of Soviet life devoid of propaganda or any agenda.
Some 40 years of Soviet and Russian history are touched upon without cosmic intervention by academics or other experts. In fact the director consciously protected her final product from talking heads, preferring to let the story tell itself.
The cheerful memories of some of these people may surprise people over 60. In the West, Cold War rhetoric and almost daily rocket-rattling on both sides had polarized the two worlds into arch-enemies, yet scenes of happy families romping in the countryside are obviously genuine. It was a complicated time.
The documentary opens with joy beaming from the eyes of the young during the stagnant Brezhnev period. In a surreal shot of a Red Square parade, a boy of about 10 shouts over the public address system, “From the depth of our hearts, we are greatly honored to say thank you for the fact that we live in the country of the happy childhood.” A thousand youngsters, aligned in perfect rows alongside the military, squeak their agreement while Brezhnev and his henchmen look on paternalistically. In today’s context, it all appears very North Korean.
But the story shifts seamlessly into the cramped apartments of the five subjects, all of whom were friends in school together as children. Today most of them live in flats so crowded and steamy you can almost smell the cabbage soup. Everyone is smoking. They speak without guile, trying to express on camera the doubts and confusion they experienced as Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and finally Putin wrenched the predictability from their lives.
There is little discussion of freedom for its own sake, although one of the group proudly invited Ms. Hessman and her camera to his swank “Café Coton” boutique that sells expensive French shirts. He now has 17 outlets around the country and he lives comfortably in a large condo. (In my day, the nearest shop with a decent shirt was in Helsinki.) Another member of the group seems to have found happiness playing his banjo in the subway for small change.
The film is showing coast to coast in U.S. art and specialty houses, attracting Russian émigré families but also the curious from all walks of life. “It has really caught fire in a way we did not anticipate,” distributor Wendy Lidell, president of International Film Circuit, tells me. It opens in Washington, D.C. May 13 and was the subject of a colloquium at the National Gallery of Art May 1 (Sunday). The main couple featured in the documentary were flown over for the event.
As a study of people adapting to relative freedom after a lifetime under tyranny, it would be hard to imagine a better night out for the ordinary people of Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. Their adaptation to a freer life will have much in common with the experiences of the characters in this film.
Director Hessman, a Boston-area native, told a recent seminar in Brookline that she was intrigued by Russia from a young age and decided to study it first-hand. She has done graduate work and held jobs in television in Moscow and now has completed her first major work on the country. She says she has no Russian ancestry or personal ties other than those she has developed in realizing her dream.
More from her as Russia continues to morph would be most welcome.