Gen X from Glasnost to Putin
AFS Documentary Tour: 'My Perestroika'
Filmmaker Robin Hessman has been obsessed with things Soviet since she was a kid growing up in the Seventies, riveted by what she saw on TV about life in the USSR, from the incessant showboating of missiles and tanks in Red Square to the red neck scarves (remember those?) worn by Iron Curtain youth. At 10, she made do with her subscription to the brown-paper-wrapped Soviet Life, but as an 18-year-old college freshman, following the early Nineties' Communist bloc upheavals, Hessman could restrain herself no longer: She booked a flight to Leningrad. She ended up staying eight years, receiving a "red diploma" of honors from a film-directing program in Moscow, and, most importantly, taking in the economic and political tumult happening all around her.
Upon returning to the U.S., Hessman was struck by this country's information gap with respect to the new realities of post-Soviet life and decided to remedy this by making a film about how the Soviet Generation X had adapted to its new circumstances. My Perestroika follows five people in this transitional age group because, Hessman explained in an e-mail from her home in Massachusetts: "This group had lived through distinct chapters in life in very different surroundings: They had completely normal Soviet childhoods, growing up in a country they imagined would always be the same. They were teenagers when Gorbachev came to power, so were undergoing their own personal period of transition just as the country was changing in profound and rapid ways for the first time in their lives. Then, they graduated from college, just as the USSR collapsed, and had to navigate the world of being a young adult in a brand-new society, with no models to follow."
The film, shot from 2005 to 2008, mostly by Hessman, takes us into the homes, work places, home movies, and analytic reflections of these folks, all of it intercut with excellent – by now almost kitschy – archival Soviet-era footage. For those of us whose recollections of that time in history may be fading, it would have been nice to have that political chronology fleshed out a bit more; still, it's amazing to see how similar their backstories are to ours, despite what was going on at the Kremlin or in Red Square.
Austin Chronicle: How would you articulate the different "perestroikas" experienced by your five subjects, as the country moved beyond Communism and the Soviet system, twisting and turning through Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Glasnost, Perestroika, Yeltsin, and on to Putin and Medvedev?
Robin Hessman: One thing I love about the five people in the film is how different they are – their perspectives, their experiences. When I was growing up here in the U.S., I certainly was given the impression that everyone in the USSR believed the same things. Borya and Lyuba, who are now married and teach history at a school in Moscow, grew up across the street from each other, but had extremely different backgrounds as far as their families and early politics go. Lyuba goes through the most significant "perestroika" of everyone in the film. As a child she believed in her country with a pure heart and a feeling of patriotic pride. During Gorbachev's Glasnost, when the archives began to be opened up and alternate views of events in Soviet past came to light, it was really shocking for her. She told me a story of going to a photo exhibit in the late 80s put on by the human rights group, Memorial, which showed the "Soviet Occupation of the Baltics." This was startling to her as she had believed what they were told in school, that the three Baltic republics had all enthusiastically wanted to join the USSR after WWII. She certainly went through the biggest shift of consciousness of the five of them.
Borya had a smoother "perestroika" since he had fewer illusions about the Soviet state than Lyuba did in the 1980s, but certainly he has undergone a degree of disillusionment following the 1991 coup – Russia has not evolved in the way that he hoped it would.
Olga has suffered through some set-backs in her personal life that were directly a result of the transitions happening in the country, but although she lives in more modest surroundings than some of her friends, she has managed to take care of herself and her son independently, as well as travel extensively. Most recently she has talked about going on a safari in Kenya. I think her "perestroika" has led her to becoming a modern, self-sufficient woman.
Andrei has been able to work independently as a businessman in the new Post-Soviet Russian economy, but I imagine that even in the Soviet State, he would have found a way to exist comfortably and have a fair amount of autonomy in his work life. He is smart in a way that makes him able to adapt to the situation at hand, whatever it may be.
Ruslan has had the hardest time adapting. As a musician and as an artist, he can't fathom how people have made this shift to a society whose very core is the antithesis of the values he was raised with. ... Ruslan simply can't bring himself to suck up to people who would help his career. But he considers himself a free person, beholden to none.
AC: Do you think your film would have been different had you followed an older generation? Would they have gone as easily with the flow of economic and political change?
RH: That depends to a degree on personality and experience. If people had skills that transferred, or were lucky in getting jobs in the new economy, it wasn't as difficult, at least in a practical, day-to-day way. Of course, it was difficult emotionally for those people who had believed deeply in the ideas and ideals at the foundation of the USSR and had been brought up to believe in the evils of capitalism. Certainly psychologically it was a shock for some people. But as Olga says in the film, daily life continued. ... I think if I had been in the U.S. during all of those years I would have imagined people sitting in their rooms, shaking their heads in paralyzed disbelief over the rapid changes happening in the country. But living through it, there is daily life to take care of – and often no time to stop and see what is really happening with any perspective
My Perestroika screens Wednesday, Jan. 12, at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, with filmmaker Robin Hessman in attendance. See www.austinfilm.org for more.