My Perestroika [Full Frame 2010]

Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika (IMDB), which won the Center for Documentary Studies Award at this year’s Full Frame, offers an engaging, subtle meditation on the profound changes that many Russian citizens felt during the last stages of Communism and the jarring transition into a capitalist economy.  Hessman, who lived for many years in Russia, tells this story through the lens of five Muscovites, including two teachers, a clothing retailer, a former punk rocker, and a billiards table repairwoman, who attended the same school during the late 1980s and early ’90s when Gorbachev introduced many of the principles of perestroika, and their stories offer a complex lens through we can view these broader historical changes.

As the film illustrates, the euphoric celebrations of the 1990s often obscured far more complicated realities.  Many of the film’s subject express nostalgia for the “simpler times” of the old USSR and acknowledge that they were rarely preoccupied with what happened in the West and had little desire to live there.  Of course, that lack of interest may have been fueled by anti-capitalist propaganda, which showed only the worst excesses of American life–crimes, protests, and poverty.  Hessman makes liberal use of this propaganda, often to humorous effect, but most of them recall that they rarely felt deprived, an attitude that may be changing in an era of iPods and other cultural commodities.  Others note the (unnecessary) competitiveness of capitalism, with Olga joking that her job title is manager, but “that’s what everyone is called,” while Ruslan, a former anti-bourgeois punk rocker, now busks for money on the subway rather than conforming to the new value system.

At the same time, the disillusionment with the electoral process runs through the film as an important theme.  Vladimir Putin casts a heavy shadow on all Russian elections, and many of the people who grew up under the old Soviet system no longer feel the need to vote or participate in the electoral process.  More than anything, I found myself thinking about how much their lives had become similar to my own: (American) chain stores dominate the urban landscape.  Parents worry about their children’s education and about paying the bills.  The biggest difference, perhaps, is the amount of vodka that is consumed on a daily basis.  But, overall, My Perestroika offers a quiet, subtle meditation on historical change and how that change is felt in individual lives.  Although it would be easy to see the subjects of the film as types, Hessman managed to draw each of them out as multi-faceted subjects with unique experiences. In all cases, the film helps to show that the political changes that took place in the old USSR under perestroika, which translates to restructuring, also served as a personal restructuring (“my perestroika”).

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