My Perestroika

PBS Premiere: June 28, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

I have been curious about Russia and the Soviet Union for as long as I can remember.

It was my interest in learning more about this purportedly diabolical country that led me to subscribe to Soviet Life magazine at age 10. As children of the McCarthy era, my parents were concerned about the repercussions for my future, but I pleaded and they gave in. The magazine came each month in a brown paper wrapper so the mailman couldn’t see what I was receiving.

I can’t say that I read it very closely. It was, after all, published by the Soviet Foreign Ministry and filled with dry and somewhat poorly translated articles about new Soviet technological achievements and grain harvests. But the photographs fascinated me. They were a far cry from the images on the nightly news my parents watched that showed missiles and tanks parading through Red Square, or people dressed in gray waiting in lines to buy bread. The photographs of children especially intrigued me. They were like me, but different. They wore red kerchiefs around their necks, or stood in deepest Siberia in dark glasses getting vitamin D from glowing green lamps. They also played Chinese jump rope, just as I did. They certainly didn’t look evil.

In my senior year of high school, the Berlin Wall fell. I had been reading Russian history and literature and had just started studying the language. I wanted to go the USSR right away and experience the seismic changes that were occurring for myself. So, at age 18 I went to Leningrad. It was January 1991.

Although there was no food in the city (we were handed ration coupons when we arrived), there was a palpable sense of hope and optimism. The Soviet Union was opening up. What had been forbidden was now allowed. It actually felt at that time as if world peace was at hand! Wandering around the timeless, snow-filled streets, where stores called MILK or MEAT or BAKERY #32 announced what they sold (or not — a joke from that era: A man goes into a store. “Don’t you have any meat?” he asks. “No, we don’t have any fish. The store that doesn’t have any meat is across the street.”), I was surprised that nothing I had read over the years had prepared me for what being there would actually be like.

I stayed in the USSR through the summer and got a job at LENFILM, the Leningrad film studios. One day, I arrived at work only to be sent home. The reason? “Military coup.” It was August 1991.

Throngs of agitated people filled the streets, and strangers debated each other on every street corner. I wandered around and listened to passionate expressions of hope dueling with fatalistic resignation. I will never forget being surrounded by thousands of people in Palace Square after it became clear that the coup had failed. The euphoria and confidence in the future were overwhelming.

For almost the entire rest of the decade, I lived in Moscow. I went through the five-year directing program at VGIK, the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography, and made my first short films. For several years I produced Ulitsa Sezam, the Russian Sesame Street. My community of friends included people who had grown up all over the USSR, and I found myself completely integrated into a world that once had seemed foreign to me.

All the while, inflation spiked and fell, Western stores like The Great Canadian Bagel appeared and disappeared, prime ministers were sacked, governments dissolved, bombs were set off and currency was devalued. All of that was the backdrop to everyday life. For a long time, Moscow was home.

I returned to live in the United States in the fall of 1999. Although the Cold War had ended, information about contemporary Russia was scarce here. Friends wanted an easy summary of what it was like, or how Russians had weathered the changes. But the complexity of Russia and its people was impossible for me to sum up in a few words.

I began to think about a film that might answer those questions in a more complicated way — a film that could bring the experiences of that place, in the past and the present, to audiences. I thought about my generation of Russians. They had completely Soviet childhoods in a world no one imagined would ever change. When they were teenagers, society’s very foundations were shaken. Everything they had assumed to be true was now in question. And then, as they graduated from college, the USSR collapsed. They had to navigate an already difficult transition to adulthood while their society was in flux.

In early 2005, I returned to Russia. I spent hours in the state film archive outside of Moscow watching newsreels of the 1970s and 1980s. I searched for home movies of the period. I began to interview dozens of 30-somethings from all walks of life. I found myself thinking a lot about the constant rewriting of history in Russia and decided to speak with history teachers of my generation. That’s when I found Borya and Lyuba Meyerson.

The Meyersons were unselfconscious and were passionate about history. Although they grew up across the street from each other, they had completely different childhoods. Both Borya and Lyuba had a wonderful way of tying their larger understanding of what had happened in their country to small, personal details of the effects it had had on them. And their 9-year-old son, Mark, was precocious and funny and even went to the school where they taught. The icing on the cake was that when I asked, as I always did, if they knew anyone who had home movies from the 1970s or 1980s, Borya opened up a closet stacked with 8mm film cans. His father had been obsessed with making home movies. From there I met the classmates: Ruslan, Olga and Andrei.

I had always planned to film former classmates because in the USSR (and in Russia today) people usually are in class with the same 20 or so schoolmates from first grade through the end of high school. Whether or not they remained close, I thought that filming former classmates would provide valuable insights into each subject’s path. I began filming all five of them at home, at work and with their families. From 2005 to 2008 I filmed just under 200 hours of material, spending three to seven months in Russia each year. I also gathered 200 reels of 8mm home movies from the Meyersons and people all over the former Soviet Union. These films came via friends of friends, bloggers, online communities and train conductors from Siberia. I also visited several Russian archives to look through official footage.

Weaving together these different kinds of footage, the personal stories of five protagonists and the history of Russia itself over the past 40 years was quite a challenge. I was lucky to work with two very talented editors over the course of 18 months of post-production. What was important to me all along was to maintain the intimacy of the personal stories in the foreground of the film. My hope was to bring the audience into the homes, the kitchens and the memories of these five childhood friends in order to share the complexities of their experiences, their triumphs, their dreams and their disillusionment.

In a sense, this film is also about how politics and government — the headline-making events of history that happen during particular moments in our lifetimes — have profound effects on each of us. Although political events are really in the background of our private lives, they certainly influence us in ways we could never predict and sometimes don’t even realize. Only at this point, in my thirties, can I really see that had I not come of age at the end of the Cold War, my life would have turned out completely differently.

— Robin Hessman, Director