“I was never one of those creative types who imagines themselves writers or artists,” says Andrei Yevgrafov, his bluetooth earphone glowing. “And I remember when I was a little kid, my aunt had a dog and I would march around with the dog and pretend I was the Border Patrol.” Andrei sounds more perplexed than nostalgic. Over an old snapshot of his boy self with a toy gun, he sighs, “My relatives love telling that story.” It is a great story, considering that he’s now something of a raging capitalist, the wealthy owner of a Russian clothing store chain, Café Coton, specializing in French men’s shirts. “There isn’t any real competition here,” Andrei notes.
Andrei’s story is one of five told in Robin Hessman’s terrific documentary, My Perestroika, which considers the experiences of classmates born into Soviet-era Communism, now contemplating middle age in Russia’s new market economy. Opening 6 August in Los Angeles as part of DocuWeeks, the film’s structure allows a view of changing options and beliefs that is both intimate and sweeping. Like most children, these kids of the Cold War confronted change, as they spotted contradictions between what they were told and what was in front of them. And as they saw a world outside, they came to see themselves differently.
Driving along the highway in his luxury car, Andrei recalls, “Even if we were cut off, most people didn’t notice it.” Still, “There were some things we noticed we didn’t have.” The slowly building resistance to the status quo was not ideological per se, he remembers, but a function of deprivation. “Do you think people marched to support reforms? That’s all bull. The main thing was that in the stores, there was nothing to eat.”
As the gap between expectation and experience widened, conventional means of cultural control—mainly, old-school media—were tested. As Andrei and his classmates see it, they eased into what became an abiding distrust of social and political authorities. They describe very different experiences, their stories illustrated by archival footage and home movies, the variety of images revealing intersections as well as gaps between perception and representation.
“I can’t say that I wanted to be like everyone else,” says Lyubov Meyerson, drawing on her cigarette. “That’s not quite how it was. I simply was like everyone else.” As a child, she goes on, she “was completely satisfied with my beautiful Soviet reality,” one that was created in large part by media images and rituals: as she speaks, you see her reality, shots of little girls skating in knit caps as snow falls. Seeing reports of U.S. crime and turmoil, she recalls, she only felt grateful to be living in more orderly Moscow. “I remember one time the TV was on,” she says, on hearing the national anthem, “I stood up and saluted… my best Pioneer salute while the Soviet anthem played. It was a nightmare. It’s just awful. But I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. What was there to feel so emotional about? I have no idea.”
Now, Lyubov and her husband Boris are teachers at School #57, helping to shape perceptions of another generation of students. Boris’ instructional methods appear less pedantic than those he and Lyubov remember: in class, he presses his students to wonder how the Soviets convinced citizens to give up all their material goods and go work on farm collectives in the middle of nowhere; and at home, he suggests that preteen son Mark embark on another stage in his development, namely, “self-upbringing.” By contrast, My Perestroika includes old promotional films extolling Party membership. “Yes,” asserts the narrator over black and white shots of children working hard on essays about their favorite Communists, “Becoming a Real Person is not simple, but you will have great examples to follow. Our Party has brought up millions of Real People, communists, fighters for the people’s happiness.”
The contradictions in this professed ideology are at least as plain as those in capitalism, namely, that collective and individual interests come into as much conflict as harmony. Olga Durikova is a single mother working as a manager at a company that rents and services billiards tables (“I’m called a manager,” she says, “But that’s what everyone is called these days”). As a girl, she absorbed her lessons like everyone else. “What fun was it being a Komsomol [Communist Youth Leader] at school?” she wonders now “I don’t understand who could have enjoyed it.” Remembering her own experience as such, Olga now reflects on the extra work involved, as well as the sense of camaraderie. More recently, the film shows Olga in a beauty shop having her hair colored. As she endeavors here to fit into yet another set of expectations, gendered and globalized, another form or repetition grinds into gear, as Medvedev’s election as president is “totally predetermined.”
The illusion of choice (or perhaps the choice of illusions) comes up repeatedly in My Perestoika. Ruslan Stupin, founder of the Russian punk band Naiv, still considers himself an outsider, and sees some of that impulse in his young son Nikita, currently fretting that he has no friends. Ruslan says, “I already explained this to you: you’re just different from the other boys.” “I know,” worries Nikita, “but I forgot.” The fact that they have this conversation at a Pizza Hut makes another point, that outside and inside, once so apparently defined as opposites, are increasingly blurry. Ruslan remembers how “mass cultural” experience shaped his childhood. On occasions of import, say, Brezhnev’s death, he remembers, “Swan Lake was on every single channel on TV.” Vintage TV ballet images give way to black and white footage of the “Funeral of Brezhnev Game,” wherein children march through streets with a coffin, reenacting the procession they saw on TV.
Ruslan also recalls seeing tanks in Moscow’s streets in 1991, and laments that Naiv’s singer Sasha Ivanov worked in a bank (“What was a bank in the 1990s anyway?”, he asks, “Just a giant pipe that sucked all the money out of Russia and sent it to the West”). Now, he and Boris drink in the Meyersons’ kitchen. Now playing music in subway tunnels, Ruslan sighs, “How can you play music just for money?”
My Perestroika shows the perpetual disjunctions between official history and lived experiences. Boris describes his shift in thinking: “By eighth or ninth grade,” he says, “It became apparent that people around you were saying things that didn’t correspond at all with reality,” a result of a system “in crisis.” Now he sees that no lessons have been learned, that Putin’s efforts are similarly geared toward managing expectations and maintaining power dynamics. “But with the internet,” Boris notes, “It’s impossible to have a monopoly on information. And information means a lot.” It does, but what might come of it? The frame shows young badminton players, then (in black and white) and now (in color). Then and now, the birdie bounces back and forth. More information might yield more informed choices, even if they do remain illusory.