The 1970s-era home movies featuring well-scrubbed, rosy-cheeked kids playing in the snow or at the beach would not be out of place in an American family. Even the 1977 parade of children through Red Square in uniforms that are evocative of American scouting outfits does not appear alien. It takes one child’s resoundingly enthusiastic salute, thanking “Dear Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev . . . for the fact that we live in the Country of Happy Childhood!” to remind us that we are gazing into the looking-glass world of the last years of the Soviet Union.
And nobody knows more about that world — and its sudden, spectacular crumbling — than the generation of children pictured in the opening sequences of My Perestroika. “I simply was like everyone else,” says Lyuba Meyerson, one of the women profiled in the film. “I was completely satisfied with my beautiful Soviet reality.”
Woven from nearly 200 hours of footage of former Russian schoolmates filmed from 2005 to 2008, hundreds of reels of home movies from the 1970s and 1980s and dozens of Soviet propaganda films of the era, My Perestroika is a nuanced account of a tumultuous time — the last years of the Soviet system — as experienced by a generation coming of age just as its country broke apart. The film is also an affecting portrait of the paths five young people took when their world turned upside down.
Lyuba, her husband, Boris Meyerson, and neighbors Olga Durikova, Andrei Yevgrafov and Ruslan Stupin, now in their early forties, grew up in the Brezhnev era, known as the “Period of Stagnation.” But stagnation had a positive side. The youngsters were well-fed and well-clothed, and their families took summer vacations at the beach. Safe and carefree, they played outside together after school. Olga, like Lyuba, remembers “such wonderful times.” Ruslan, a self-declared outsider who went on to become a punk rocker, agrees, “My childhood was fine.” Even Borya, who has Jewish roots and grew up more suspicious of the system, says, “It was childhood, so it was a happy time despite the whole USSR.”
Growing up in typical Soviet fashion, the five progressed through the hierarchy of youth organizations, but for some of them, the innocence of childhood gave way to the skepticism of adolescence. “By eighth or ninth grade,” says Borya, “it became clear that people all around you were saying things that didn’t correspond with reality.” But at age 14 they all joined the Komsomol, the Communist youth group that was the final stage before joining the Party, since it was simply unthinkable not to join. In 1984, Borya, Andrei and Ruslan went off for two years of mandatory service in the Soviet Army.
By the time Mikhail Gorbachev launched his programs of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in 1986, in an effort to liberalize Soviet society, the five were young adults. “We came back to a totally different country,” says Ruslan of his return from the army, seeing that punks with Mohawks were no longer arrested and he could play his music freely. For Lyuba, a self-described conformist, “I only felt the changes when I was told, ‘Lyuba, look around! Everything isn’t what you were taught!’” When Communist hardliners deposed Gorbachev in 1991 and tried to re-impose Soviet dictatorship, Borya and Lyuba rallied along with thousands to support Boris Yeltsin’s call to save democracy. But in the troubled Yeltsin years and under the increasingly autocratic regime of Vladimir Putin, Russia has not had the future the couple imagined.
One of the fascinating things about viewing My Perestroika is seeing how five different temperaments, revealed first in Soviet times, evolved as the Iron Curtain lifted. Lyuba and Borya, both history teachers at Moscow School No. 57, are married with a precocious child. They tell stories of two very different childhoods: Lyuba, the follower, once saluted the television when the Soviet anthem played, while Borya, who still sports a beard and ponytail, preferred to subvert the system whenever possible. Their political paths came together just as their lives as idealistic college students did, but they are both dismayed as their hopes for a genuinely democratic and just society have been dashed.
Single mother Olga, who was the prettiest girl in the class, lives in her childhood apartment with her sister and their adult children. She works for a company that rents out billiard tables to Moscow clubs, and though many of her friends have “fancier” homes, she’s surprised to learn that officially she and her sister rank just above the official poverty line. Andrei has been successful in the new Russia. He just opened his 17th store selling exclusive French men’s shirts and ties. Living with his wife and children in a luxury condo, he is the only one of the group who moved out of his childhood home. But he, too, is frustrated by the country’s regressive turn, and is impatient with the fact that Russia has not yet become a Western, European-style society.
For Ruslan, whose own sensitive, poetry-writing 8-year-old son is following in his footsteps, life has taken more than one surprising turn. In the 1990s, he rose to fame as a member of the wildly popular punk rock group NAIV. But as the music world became dependent on consumer culture, he quit the group in disgust at what he felt was its commercialization. “How can you play music just for the money?” he asks. These days, he gives banjo lessons and plays in the Moscow metro to make a living.
“What we had before — that was beyond the pale, beyond good and evil. It needed to be destroyed, and thank God it was,” says Borya. Looking at his son, he remarks, “Of course these kids don't understand that — and thank God they don’t . . . . I don’t know what’s going to happen, but with the Internet, it’s impossible to have a monopoly on information. And information means a lot.”