The Collapse of an Empire Seen from the Kitchen Window: A Review of My Perestroika
Directed by Robin Hessman, 87 minutes, Unrated, now playing at the West End Cinema
My Perestroika is an extraordinary documentary, providing an intimate portrait of a group of five classmates who came of age as the Soviet Union collapsed. Director Robin Hessman collects interviews with the now 40-somethings, interweaving their life stories with documentary footage of key historical events, home movies of their childhoods, and popular songs and television shows through the years.
It’s consistently and brilliantly striking how normal their memories seem – the glowing nostalgia for carefree youth, the pressures of grade-school conformity, the rebellion of teen years, the frightening freedom of young adulthood, and the gradual disillusionment and increasing isolation of approaching middle age.
The key difference being, of course, the placement of these memories, vividly illustrated, in a time of a stagnating empire, imminent global nuclear annihilation, wrenching revolution, and the gradual emergence of normality in Russian life. That, and the music, used throughout the film to illustrate the changing times.
Lyubya and Borya, childhood classmates and now married with a son, were raised as opposites – she a devout communist and conformist, he an outsider (both Jewish and westernized in his tastes). They now lead simple lives, teaching and raising their son in the same flat Borya occupied as a child.
The washed out yellows, greens and browns of all of the home movies are still omnipresent, though jarringly juxtaposed with the emerging glass and steel commercial structures of a growing Moscow. In a revealing shot early in the film, neither can stand to watch a talk show extolling the virtues of life under Putin. Their tolerance for propaganda has worn thin.
The movie turns to Olga, the camera panning to her smiling face in the class picture, whose experience of change included her sister’s witness to the 1991 coup attempt and her banker husband’s murder by a gang in the mid-90s. Her regret is simple and unfussy – the line between her current circumstances, living in a dilapidated flat, raising her children with her sister, and that of her potential fabulously wealthy future with her banker husband – is the straight trajectory of an assassin’s bullet. Through the film, we see her in her job as a pool table rental manager, travelling to pool halls, and then finally getting ready to go out on the town. It is achingly sad and engaging, yet never demands your pity.
Andrei comes off the worst – a vacuous man who owns a successful dress shirt and tie franchise, whose greatest aspiration as a child was to serve as a border guard. One comical interlude has Andrei miked up but behind closed doors in a scene reminiscent of “The Office,” insistently working over his store manager to institute a “western” dress code among staff. The alien concept is doomed to failure. An earlier home movie shows him gleefully pointing a toy AK-47 at his infant brother’s face, cut with current footage of him driving his nice car to his upper-middle-class condo and westernized family.
Finally, we meet Ruslan – the rebel of the group, who founded a wildly successful punk band (NAIV) that is still going today. He walked away from it to teach music and busk rather than sell out – just eking out an existence with his son. The scenes of his band’s emergence into the chaos of the end of the Soviet Union are strikingly familiar to anyone who has seen Julian Temple’s films about Joe Strummer and the Pistols. He was an angry punk, fighting the conformity by inherit another country’s discarded conformity, and, in a hilarious sequence, singing about the oppression of the West and NATO.
Ruslan has the most moving sequences in the film – the first set, ironically, in a Pizza Hut, where his young son is sad about being an outcast, and Ruslan assures him that things will get better for him. As a viewer, I wasn’t sure I believed him, but Ruslan’s love and desire for his son to be happy was truly heartbreaking. The second is backstage at NAIV’s reunion show, where the later, more commercially successful lineup of the band is playing to a packed house. Ruslan sits with a friend, backstage, ashamed at the band for selling out, and a little ashamed of himself for showing up to join them for a song.
The political commentary of the film is kept to an absolute minimum. Communism is displayed as a simple fact of the children’s daily existence – not an ideological choice any more than going to church, camp, and Sunday school is in the States. The momentous events that sweep past them – the death of Brezhnev, the rise of the plain-talking and well-intentioned Gorbachev, the coup attempt, the rise of Yeltsin, the collapse of the 1990s economy, the rise of mystics and the Orthodox Church, and finally, the ascendency of Putin – are the background and context for their decidedly normal lives.
The movie gave me a strange hope – these are not angry people, waiting for a dictator to entreat them to join in Soviet-era nostalgia. Ultimately, being Russians, they are cynics, and, while willing to hold forth on nearly any topic, they reduce their lives to what they know – who they love, and what they want from themselves and their children.