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Watching My Perestroika in London

My Perestroika (Hessman, 2010)

My Perestroika (Hessman, 2010)

This week a British friend and I went to see My Perestroika, a lovely documentary by an American film-maker about how four classmates were affected by the changes in Russia from Brezhnev to Putin.

The film weaves together contemporary interviews, archival footage and one family’s archive of home videos – all these elements come together to tell a gentle and instructive story of how the relationship between personal life and public events. While all the heroes started at the same class, the life has thrown them in different directions. Borya and Luyba are history teachers at Moscow’s most liberal and high profile public school. Andrey became a successful businessman. Ruslan initiated the Soviet heavy metal scene, but grew disenchanted and now leads life on the fringes of the society. Olga fends for herself and her son by working for a gaming-service company. One of the greatest achievements of Robin Hessman, who filmed and directed, is in managing to establish a feeling of intimacy between the protagonists and the viewers. When the lights turn back on you feel that you know them, and like them.

The film was absolutely fascinating, although the story it tells is a slightly one-sided. Despite the different walks of life all the protagonists experienced the Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union as a positive thing. What the film doesn’t tell is, the story of those, for whom the transformation from “developed socialism” to Perestroika and then to capitalism, resulted in personal tragedy or loss of faith and direction in life.

Equally interesting was the Q&A after the film. Most of the audience seemed your perfect, middle aged and middle class English men and women. And yet, each of the people to ask a question, talked with great passion, as if having a very personal stake in this country so far from their own. An elderly lady got up, saying she volunteered in Russia for several years and accused the director for not exploring what she called the “rising Russian conservatism and the rise in patriotism under Putin”. (As if Russians are not entitled to some patriotism and as if everyone else around is doing such a great job questioning their own disturbing legacies. Are there any monuments for the victims of British colonial empire that I failed to notice ?) A lady with a slight Russian accent asked whether the people of Russia have really changed, or do they simply just happy to have sausage in the stores? In response to that, an angry French woman who said she used to work as an advisor to the Russian government in the 1990s argued “with our [read European advisors] help and council they have changed a great deal and are making a significant progress.” To which another man, born in Riga, replied even angrier that “the Russian people haven’t changed a bit and they are beyond redemption!”

Borya and Nikita Meyerson watch old family footage

Apparently, I thought, these are not your regular posh English people on a “cultured” night out in a “cool” venue. The personal history of each of those, who asked questions, was connected to Russia. One could also see how each speaker’s position was actually firmly rooted in their own “Russian experience”.

As I watched these heated debates I wondered, why are they getting so hyped and angry? Is it just because of that personal connection? Or is it because this is Russia, which defies all rules, an ultimate hybrid of familiar and foreign, East and West? Or are they so agitated about Russia because it’s a foreign place, not their own, and foreigners are always easier to criticize? Would they be so angry watching a film about Thatcher’s England or exploring the hereditary nature of the House of Lords? Or maybe is it because the Soviet Union was such a significant presence in the world during their lifetime, that they cannot help but connect their personal and the sweeping world events, just like the protagonists of the film?

Regardless of which is it, it seemed to me they every speaker felt that watching this film was a bit gratifying: all these crazy things in the film were, and are, happening “there”, to “them” and not “here” to “us”. You can get all passionate during a screening, but at the end of the day you go home congratulating yourself that you never had to participate in organization you didn’t like; that you never woke up one day to discover that everything you were told before was a lie; that tanks never rolled in the streets of your capital; that all your life savings never disappeared; that your Prime Minister is a posh guy from a small town near Oxford and not a former KGB officer.

My friend Mark, who is an artist, was disappointed that the Q&A didn’t address the artistic style of the film and its aesthetics. I was fascinated to see Russia and its history so touching and dividing.

Here is a trailer of the film. A must watch!!

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