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Documentarian Hessman discusses ‘My Perestroika’

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

April 15, 2011

exploring the soviet past Filmmaker Robin Hessman (second from right) discusses her documentary “My Perestroika” with, from left, ESL program coordinator Feruza Aripova, Professor Irina Dubinina and Professor Sabine von Mering.
PHOTO BY Nate Rosenbloom/the Hoot

In your average high school history textbook, you’re likely to read all about how some combination of leadership, momentum and political reform brought down the Soviet Union, or what Ronald Reagan termed the “evil empire.” Rarely do you get any mention of how the Soviet collapse affected ordinary Russians at the time, much less how they continue to impact Russian society today.

Filmmaker Robin Hessman attempts to add this human dimension to the post-Cold War narrative through her new documentary, “My Perestroika.” Hessman visited Brandeis on Monday for a screening of the documentary, which was followed by a discussion between her and members of the Brandeis faculty.

“My Perestroika” focuses on five people living in Moscow, all of whom came of age just as the Soviet Union underwent perestroika, the famous political and economic restructuring of the Soviet system under Mikhail Gorbachev.

For decades, Soviet authorities had vigorously imposed one-party rule but, with increasing economic stagnation, Gorbachev felt the need for change.

Perestroika thus provided for limited privatization and allowed for greater dissent. These reforms set in place a chain of events that led to the death of the Soviet Union rather than its reform.

Hessman’s documentary ultimately does not place its emphasis on perestroika, or at least not on this simplistic account of it. Instead, her focus is squarely on the “my” of the title: She wants to explore the effects of the macro on the micro.

To accomplish this, she zooms her camera in on Borya, Lyuba, Andrei, Ruslan and Olga, four of whom attended the same elementary school. It is in school that all their stories begin; much time is devoted to each discussing their own recollections of their Soviet childhoods—significant since they were of the last generation to grow up behind the Iron Curtain.

As Borya explains, “it was childhood, so it was a good time—despite the whole USSR.” And their childhoods indeed appear happy, at least based on the home video footage Hessman weaves in. References to the Soviet Pioneer troupes—a kind of communist version of the Boy Scouts—abound.

This shared trajectory continues until perestroika, when suddenly the Soviet system they all knew and not quite loved vanishes. Jobs and pensions are no longer guaranteed; instead, they jump headfirst into the capitalist ’90s, a chaotic time for Russia. Each of them fares differently: Andrei opens a high-end men’s clothing store, while Ruslan finds it hard to adjust. Olga laments that there is “no real middle class in Russia.”

When asked to consider the present state of affairs, their outlooks aren’t much different. At one point, Olga reminisces with her hairdresser about the days when elections didn’t seem so prearranged. Virtually everyone else in the documentary seems to share this sentiment.

Rather than present all this as a kind of rote history of Russia, Hessman successfully ties the personal and the political together onscreen. Yes, her documentary features the requisite clips of Gorbachev and Putin, but it prefers focusing on the five subjects at hand.

Hessman presents clips from the funeral of longtime Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, but she’s really interested in the home videos, one of which shows children leading a mock funeral procession for Brezhnev as a kind of game.

To Hessman, these people are more than mere talking heads; in fact, they’re the entire movie.

Following the screening, Hessman discussed why she made the film, first delving into outside perceptions of the Soviet Union.

“I felt that people [outside the Soviet Union] had one of two narratives: either of an evil empire … or a socialist utopia,” she said.

She thought both views were gross oversimplifications and unrepresentative of how Russians viewed their past.

“Within every individual I know, there are conflicting emotions,” Hessman said.

She noted that many Russians had embraced greater political freedom, but—as exemplified by Olga in her film—they mourned the stability provided by the Soviet Union.

She focused her film on a group of former classmates because she believed this would give a more accurate representation of how events had unfolded and continue to unfold in Russia.

“What we read in the headlines might be in the background for people,” she said, noting that the extreme political changes in the Soviet Union had played out as her subjects tried to live their everyday lives.

Her use of frequent home video clips was meant in part to emphasize this, as the fusion of new and archival footage created a “constant dialogue between the past and present.”

She specifically focused on residents of Moscow because she considered the city a “symbol of change.”

“Everything in Moscow is so intense … everything is more easily felt there. It’s where the tanks were on the streets [during the 1991 coup attempt],” Hessman said.

Hessman was joined by Professor Irina Dubinina (GRALL) and ESL program coordinator Feruza Aripova, both of whom grew up in the Soviet Union. Their discussion was moderated by Professor Sabine von Mering (GRALL).

“Perestroika filled me with so many conflicting emotions,” Dubinina said.

“As a straight-A student, I was a conformist. I had a happy childhood. I couldn’t think of anything I was missing terribly.”

Aripova echoed these thoughts.

“I was happy to be a little Pioneer,” Aripova said.

She noted that the Soviet authorities had rapidly advanced the cause of women’s rights in her native Uzbekistan and that she was disappointed by recent reversals in gender equality there.

“Things have not changed. They have gotten so much worse … so many women have gone back to the traditional gender roles,” she said.

“It’s foreign to me.”

Both acknowledged that reactions to the Soviet Union’s dissolution varied depending on one’s location. Having lived in Lithuania for several years, Aripova compared her own experience with the general Lithuanian reaction to independence.

“They’ve been happier being European,” she said.

“[Living there] helped me see that other narrative.”

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