by Jamie Bushell
May 10, 2011
History constantly rewrites itself, mythologizing and idealizing specific aspects and events that occur. But the rewriting process for Russia’s history seems more complex and unpredictable than that of other countries (by no means am I a history guru or Russian history expert, nor does this film act as a history lesson. In fact, the film focuses on personal stories, giving only moderate amounts of historical context).
Present day Russia may seem drastically different than the narrow-minded regime of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s and 80s, there was great emphasis on communism, community, collectivity and a clear rejection of individualism. Today, more than twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when this history may be fading more into the depths of the history books, we see certain apparent changes, both for better and for worse. Modern day Russian society has begun embracing more Western practices. Acquiring wealth and individual power, as a result of what many attribute to the influence of American imperialism and capitalism, has gained in popularity. But does life in Russia today really differ that much from that of the past?
In Robin Hessman’s film, My Perestroika, (“Restructuring,” a play on the movement within the community party initiated by Gorbachev,) Hessman documents the personal histories of five ex-classmates who grew up during the political turbulence of the Soviet Union and follows them as they experience their own personal journey through such a radical cultural transformation. The film not only depicts the restructuring of an entire nation, but grants insight into personal transformations providing for a more intimate, microcosmic story of the individuals who experienced a complete transformation of life as they once knew it.
Borya and Lyuba are a married couple living with their young son in the same apartment where Borya grew up. During the Communist regime, Borya was always a rebel, demonstrating opposition to the party, whereas his wife, Lyuba, was more of an obedient conformist. In the film, she now laughs at the memory of herself, stating how “normal” her life seemed, going to school, eating dinner, and singing patriotic songs in front of the television screen. Despite their differing political standpoints in the 70s, both of them now teach history at a local school in Moscow. Borya’s best friend, Ruslan, continues to live on the fringe of society. An ex-punk-rocker turned street musician, Ruslan took the less traditional path after the fall of Communism. He still does not own a credit card nor does he pay taxes, only earning his income by the money he receives performing on the streets. Andrei, on the other hand, a direct product of the adoption of American capitalism, is now a wealthy entrepreneur who owns a men’s shirt and tie franchise. Lastly, Olga, an apolitical, single mom living just above the poverty line, seems to be the most bitter of all the classmates when it comes to the failure of the ideologies of her country to guarantee equality for the middle class.
The stories of these classmates weave together in such a way that portrays a complete spectrum of political and personal perspectives. Hessman juxtaposes historical events and communist propaganda with images from personal home videos and present day interviews. The combination of such footage intimately depicts the struggles and identity crises of, not just an entire nation, but of specific individuals who were at once prepared for a life of Communism, only to discover in their teenage years, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, that their ideals would change drastically, for better or for worse.
Their childhoods were unique in that they grew up in a government-controlled culture that promoted conformity and rejected any form of individualism. Shortages of food, soap and housing posed a large threat to people’s lifestyles. Most people worked on industrial labor farms that were run by governmental unions, therefore forcing farmers to give up their land and work against their will. The fact that archival footage shows children playing the “Funeral of Breshnev,” a game that children played at the time of Breshnev’s death demonstrates the government’s enforcement of obedience to the state through patriotism, even at such a young age. Additionally, the Soviet Union started broadcasting “Swan Lake” on television every time an important political event occurred. This tactic seemed normal at the time, however, the true absurdity of the action is exemplified by the rapidly changing screenshots of “Swan Lake” and images of tanks entering Russia during the failed 1991 coup. The childhood naïveté and idealism that resulted crumpled at the same time the Soviet Union collapsed. By the mid 1980s when Gorbachev headed the Communist party, anti-soviet protests became more common and with the introduction of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring), Russians were encouraged to begin speaking the truth about the benefits of democracy and capitalism. No longer were people’s careers predetermined the government. Some people took this as an opportunity, but others struggled tremendously with this change in ideals.
As is stated in the film by one of the central figures, “political confusion makes the soul feel empty.” It is obvious from the classmates’ accounts of their childhood in the Soviet Union, that they remain full of disbelief at what their government was capable of, but at the same time they retain a certain sense of nostalgia for that period of time when many aspects of their lives were simpler. During the personal interviews, each classmate exhibits reverence towards his or her youth. For instance, when Borya and Lyuba discuss the deceptive nature of the Soviet Union and the limitations that existed in terms of the availability of food and other commodities, their memories are also full of blissful moments. Lyuba laments just how satisfied she was during the time of Communism: “I guess I had such a good life back then that for a long time, life in the West didn’t interest me at all. And when the TV showed shootings and protests over there, I would see that and think, ‘Oh my God!’ I am so lucky I live in the Soviet Union!’” When Hessman redirects the film to the present day, we see Lyuba smoking a cigarette, sitting at her kitchen table, with a rather despondent and contemplative look on her face. Her demeanor is not unique; in fact, all of the classmates seem depressed and regretful for the simpler lives they lived during Communism. Most obvious is the present day loss of faith in the credibility of their current political system. While no longer under the rule of communism, the loss of faith and political confusion has resulted in a rather complex, dark state of mind for many citizens.
While all cultures go through changes, presumably for the better, it becomes evident in this film that people are deeply affected by personal and political memories. The past becomes imbued with an irrepressible sense of nostalgia that often results in a psychological inability to transcend certain ideals. The past is also inescapable in the sense that usually, history repeats itself. And just as history repeats itself, the film repeats itself as well. It begins and ends the same way with alternating footage from the 70s and current day Moscow, on September 1st, the traditional first day of school. We see children walking briskly, holding elaborate bouquets of flowers in one hand and their mothers’ tight grip in the other. The nervous energy and anticipation of the first day of school seems to transcend both time and space. The images of the young schoolgirl (in both present day and archival footage) ringing the bell to initiate the start of the school year seems to transcend time. Perhaps such repetition of a seemingly banal tradition is meant to leave us with the idea that while much happens over many years, history and culture, in essence, stay the same. It can be rewritten and revised from varying perspectives, but in the end, humans are traditionalists in nature, and regardless of the political ideologies of the time, certain things will remain cyclical. And that, unlike the politics of our time, is comforting.
Jamie Bushell graduated from Hamilton College as a Comparative Literature major in 2009. She is currently working as an Editorial Assistant at Pearson Education in Boston, MA. Jamie enjoys attending and writing about authentic and honest cultural events throughout the city.
Copyright 2011 Jamie Bushell/ The New Vilna Review.
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