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‘My Perestroika’ Reveals Personal History of Last Soviet Generation

June 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In "My Perestroika," filmmaker Robin Hessman traces the last generation raised in the Soviet Union through the eyes of five Muscovties, from childhoods filled with propaganda to life in the new Russia. The documentary is part of a series of independently produced films aired in partnership between The Economist and The NewsHour.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a film about the Soviet Union’s past and Russia today. It’s part of The Economist Film Project, a NewsHour collaboration with “The Economist” magazine. Together, we showcase independently produced documentaries that take us places we don’t ordinarily get to go.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: The story of the collapse of the Soviet Union has been told many times, but not quite the way it is in the new documentary film “My Perestroika.”

Here, we get a ground-up view, as five ordinary Muscovites talk about the extraordinary changes they lived through, from 1970s childhoods filled with communist-era propaganda, to their adult lives today, as they make their ways, some successfully, some not, in the new Russia.

The filmmaker is Robin Hessman, an American who lived in Moscow in the 1990s.

Welcome to you.

ROBIN HESSMAN, “My Perestroika”: Hi.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why did you decide to tell this story this way, through real people? What were you after?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Well, I lived in Russia from ’91 to ’99. And there were extraordinary changes that were happening every day.

When I moved back to the States at the end of ’99, it seemed that, despite the fact that the Cold War had ended, and my impression had been that that entire decade, there had been a lot of free-flowing investigation to the States, it still seemed that none of my friends back home had really any idea of what it had been like for ordinary people.

They had seen the gangsters and the oligarchs and the kind of really destitute people in short news clip, but it seemed that there were no — there was no opportunity for them to hear the real voices of kind of the more — quote, unquote — “ordinary people” and the people that I had lived there with.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you want people to know about what you had experienced and what has happened in Russia?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Well, that it’s a very complicated thing to make that kind of transition, that there’s no one-sentence takeaway and conclusion to make about the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia today, from their striving toward communism to the capitalist world.

I have the feeling that it’s of course very — it’s lot simpler and people like to have kind of the one-sentence takeaway. But for every individual, it was a complicated process, and still is today. There are many conflicting feelings about the changes and the effects of those changes on their everyday lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so there’s five main characters. Tell us briefly about them. How did you find them, and who are they?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Well, the five main characters.

There’s Borya and Lyuba Meyerson. They’re a married couple who teach history in School 57 in Moscow. And there’s Ruslan Stupin, who was a former punk musician. He’s now in a punk bluegrass band, a very free spirit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who would have thought, right, in the Soviet Union to Russia, right?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Who would have thought.

And there’s Olga, who is a single mother who works for a billiard table company. And she rents out billiard tables to pubs and casinos all over Moscow.

And the fifth is Andrei, who sells expensive French men’s dress shirts. He has a chain. When I started filming, he had only three stores. And, by the end of it, he had 17 stores all over Russia. It’s a French chain called Cafe Coton.

And they were all childhood classmates growing up. One of the things I thought about as I thought how to approach telling the story of a generation — and this generation, in particular, I should say, is very interesting, in that it — they straddle both worlds. They had completely normal Soviet childhoods, and they were just coming of age when Gorbachev came. And they graduated from college the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

So, they were not assigned a job in a workplace for the rest of their lives. And they all had to navigate this new world with no models to follow.

JEFFREY BROWN: All went in different directions, and some, as I said, successfully, some less so.

There’s a — there’s a clip. Let’s look at this clip. So, this is four of the five talking about their — looking back at their childhood, right?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Let’s run that.

BORYA MEYERSON, Russia (through translator): If you look at newsreels from the early ’80s, they talk about the great successes building socialism, though, by that time, no one really cared. But we were still kids. And, at school, they were trying to turn us into upstanding citizens of Soviet society.

ANDREI YEVGRAFOV, Russia (through translator): Yes, sure, Lenin, the party, pioneers. You wore a red tie on your neck. But were we thinking about Lenin every day? Of course not.

OLGA DURIKOVA, Russia (through translator): What fun was it being a Komsomol leader at school? I don’t understand who could have enjoyed it. It meant you had more responsibilities. You had to hold meetings with your Komsomol group, decide what kind of community service you were going to do.

It was so much extra work. But, on the other hand, I suppose it was actually a good thing, because these kids — I mean, all of us, we were always kept busy.

MAN (through translator): Working together, working with friends is always fun and interesting, especially today when not only your class and not only your school, but the entire country is working together on communist cleanup day.

LYUBA MEYERSON, Russia (through translator): Well I was very obedient at home, but, out in the world, this obedience of mine turned into conformism. So, I was a straight-A student and a good child, and, of course, I was a perfect Pioneer, and, sometimes, it got pretty ridiculous.

WOMAN (through translator): Pioneers, to struggle for the goals of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, be prepared.

CHILDREN: Always prepared.

LYUBA MEYERSON (through translator): I remember once when I was little, the television was on, and I heard the first notes of the Soviet national anthem. So, I stood up right there in front of the TV screen and gave my best Pioneer salute, while the Soviet anthem played. What a nightmare. It was just awful. But I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. What was there to feel so emotional about? I have no idea.

BORYA MEYERSON (through translator): Somehow, by eighth or ninth grade, it became clear that people all around you were saying things that didn’t correspond at all with reality, because, by then, the system was altogether in such a crisis, that everybody knew it. So you saw with your own eyes that they say one thing, do something else, and what was really going on was something altogether different.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s great, cause you see the contradictions of their lives, right, the enforced conformism, which was — in a way, was quite comforting. And then you have Lyuba laughing about — what did she call herself, a perfect Pioneer?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Well, it’s true that also we got the impression that it was a lot more — that it was something very frightening. And for these kids growing up, it was in a sense like the Scouts. It was really kind a normal part of their everyday life that they didn’t question, and for a lot of — to a large extent, didn’t really think about the politics of it. It was just what children did.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, at the same time, her husband then at the end is saying there was a point where you could see that the system just — there was no “there” there in a sense, or there were bigger problems.

ROBIN HESSMAN: Certainly, as he got older. And one wonderful difference between the two of them is, for Lyuba, that — so, Borya’s family would listen to “Voice of America” with the faucets running, so the neighbors couldn’t hear. And he was pretty much aware of the sort of sham exterior before some of his other classmates.

For Lyuba, it was perestroika and glasnost. It was under Gorbachev for the first time, when she was in her late teens, that she, all of a sudden, was told that everything wasn’t as she been taught. And it was a real shock for her. She is the one of the five that really did go through the most profound transition when — during the changes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, personally, as a — professionally, as a filmmaker, what do you — what do you look for in trying to tell a story? What’s important? What does it have to have?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Well, with this kind of story, where so much is based on the characters, as you say, the five people of the film, you look for — you look at them. And are they good storytellers? Are they open? Will they — will they…

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re the storytellers here.

ROBIN HESSMAN: They really are the storytellers. And the film is made up of both their — of interviews with them and conversations with them.

And I tried very much to make them very informal. And it feels more like sitting at someone’s table having a conversation the interviews. But it’s also me observing them as a fly on the wall. So it was — it was — I first found Borya and Lyuba and then, from there, met their childhood classmates. Because people in Russia were together with the same 20, 25 people from first grade through the end of high school, these people have had an enormous shared experience together.

JEFFREY BROWN: They tell the stories, but, of course, then you have to weave it together. And that is where you come in, right?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Yes, along with — along with the editors.

JEFFREY BROWN: The art of filmmaking.

ROBIN HESSMAN: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new film is “My Perestroika.”

Robin Hessman, filmmaker, nice to talk to you.

ROBIN HESSMAN: Nice to talk to you, too.

GWEN IFILL: “My Perestroika” airs on the PBS series “POV” on June 28. Check your local listings.

Translation in the feature film of “My Perestroika” is done with subtitles, not voiceover.

And you can learn more about The Economist Film Project or submit your own film at film.economist.com.