Monday, June 20, 2011

My Perestroika

MPAA (unrated) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -

My Perestroika (directed by Robin Hessman) is a remarkable documentary in which five ordinary Muscovites who were all young adults at the time when Soviet Communism collapsed were asked to recall the tumultuous events of their lives from their Soviet childhoods to the present.  Since I was also a young adult at that time, I found the documentary particularly fascinating because all these folks are basically my age, except that they literally grew-up “on the other side of the wall” during the Cold War.

The five -- a businessman (today), a married couple who are both high school history teachers, a musician, and a single mother who’s today an employee of a vending company – all recalled the stilted conformity of their childhoods, when everybody was a pioneer (the Communist version of the scouts) in grade school and a member of the Communist youth organization COMSOMOL in high school.  The young men then all served in the Soviet army and everyone either went to the university or to work, but in any case understood that it was probably to their benefit to join the Communist Party. 

That’s how it was at least until the ascendancy of Gorbachev in 1985.  In 1982 when Leonid Brezhnev died, the five remembered that pioneer groups all over the country play acted funerals for Brezhnev, so that even if the children could not participate in the actual funeral of their leader, they could at least pretend that they were there.  The five also recalled that just like in there are writing or science competitions in grade schools everywhere, in the Soviet Union there were regional propaganda poster competitions in grade school as well.  COMSOMOL projects were remembered as being both somewhat boring but also activities that at least “kept everybody busy.” 

The three men, however (and as far as I could tell, except for the married couple, none were friends or knew each other), all recalled the clear break with the past that came with the early Gorbachev years.  All three men recalled “entering the army while being in one nation, and returning to a completely different one.”  (The phraseology that they used actually sounded very much like that used by U.S. servicemen returning after serving in Vietnam in the mid/late 1960s.  At that time, the United States also seemed to change almost overnight).  One of the men recalled walking through the Arbat (a famous pedestrian district in Moscow) just after finishing his military service in 1987 and seeing youths "dressed as punks, even punks with full mohawks” and the authorities not bothering them.  That had been unheard of previously.  The man who today was a businessman recalled that near the end of his military service in 1985 he had petitioned to join the Communist Party and was refused because the selection committee was worried that upon leaving military service “he may commit a crime” (post traumatic stress?) and that could make the Party look bad.  He noted with some pride/glee that later in 1987 when he was studying economics in the university he was asked to join the Party and then (still smarting from their refusal to accept him 2 years earlier) he told them “to go to hell,” noting that _by then_ "it was okay to say that" ;-).

To a person, all five enjoyed the new found freedom of Gorbachev’s Glasnost era and beyond, though all noted that with the beginning of the Gorbachev era the economy basically collapsed, that the stores were suddenly empty.  The couple that today teach history in particular enjoyed that particular time (and most of the time since).  During the 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev the two had responded to Yeltsin’s call to come defend the Russian Parliament Building (the Russian White House).  Even though the wife recalled that at least one of her professors then had called the young crowd that had defended the parliament building at the time as “a drunken mob, ” since she had been there she could not but chafe at that uninformed description recalling it instead in glowing terms as “the purest expression of freedom experienced in Russia until that time.”

What of the years since?  Most recognized the corruption and criminality of the Yeltsin era.  One recalled the Yeltsin era as “a giant pipeline that just sucked Russia’s money out of the country.”  The woman who now works for a vending machine company had apparently landed a rich boyfriend/fiancé at the time, who ended up being murdered along with his driver in an apparent mafia style hit.  In a day she and her daughter “lost everything” from living well to living “literally on the street” with no job, no home, and little future.  Eventually a friend got her the vending machine job that she holds to this day.

Regarding the current Putin era, all but one of the five in the documentary were _proud_ that they _did not_ vote in the last Russian election.  And the woman who worked in the vending machine job voted not for Putin’s candidate Medvedev but for (ultranationalist) Zhirinovsky in what she herself likened to a protest vote (so that I knew that my vote counted).  All were convinced that the last Russian election had been rigged or a foregone conclusion.  All considered “the only real elections” in Russia to have been in the 1990s. 

The two history teachers also chafed at the new Russian history books that were being published by the Putin government, the husband noting that “perhaps there is a place to teach patriotism, perhaps even in school, but our history department will never teach patriotism rather than history again.”  And throwing a frisbee with his son at what appeared to be his family’s dacha (summer cottage), he added that perhaps the internet will ultimately secure Russia’s democratic future.  “With the internet, it’s very difficult to maintain a monopoly on information.  And information is important.  Our young people are smart.  They are all potential hackers.  They know how to bypass any firewall.  I don’t know how to do that.  But our young people do.”  I honestly hope he’s right.

And as one who grew-up “on the other side of the wall” at the same time that they did, I do wish all five of them well.  We too have something to learn of their own “suspicion of unbridled patriotism” as well.  For none of us is without flaws or perfect, but we all do wish to be (and remain) free.

Finally, I deeply appreciate Robin Hessman's presentation of these five remarkable (and ordinary) Muscovites to audiences around the world.  This is documentary film-making at its best.  None of us can travel everywhere.  But through attempts such as this, we get a chance to get to know each other better nonetheless.  Thank you!

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