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Young Soviet Pioneers in a 1977 Red Square May Day demonstration in MY PERESTROIKA (Photo: International Film Circuit)

Directed by Robin Hessman
Produced by
Hessman & Rachel Wexler
Released by International Film Circuit
Russian with English subtitles
USA/UK/Russia. 87 min. Not Rated

It’s 20 years on, and for many the Soviet Union—with its bread lines and May Day parades—is softly fading into history. Aside from the undisturbed flow of Vodka and corruption, the Russia of today may seem worlds away from the insular Soviet regime that fed so many fears and fables. The Soviets, who worshiped their books and leaders, have become Russians worshiping cash and glitz, and the crime has spread from the Kremlin into the streets. While it’s fun to indulge in these sweeping generalizations in the West, My Perestroika wants to know what Russians think about this seismic shift and how their lives have changed in its wake.

Robin Hessman, the American-born director of this insightful documentary, unobtrusively interviews five childhood classmates whose teenage years coincided with the political and economic reform (known as Perestroika) which heralded the U.S.S.R.’s collapse. There is no voice-over narrative, expert testimony, or audible interview questions. Instead, Hessman discretely interjects herself into the lives of Olga, Andrei, Borya, Lyuba, and Ruslan as they go about their daily lives and occasionally pause to share their stories. While Olga struggles as a single mom living just above the poverty line by Moscow standards, Andrei opens his 17th store selling high-end men’s dress shirts. Husband and wife Borya and Lyuba live modestly on their teaching salaries while Ruslan, once a famous punk rocker, now serenades passengers on the Moscow underground.

Their disparate fates aren’t remarkable in themselves. But their memories of childhood—equally nostalgic for those like Borya and Ruslan, who resisted the regime, and Lyuba, who revered it—provide rare and beautiful insight into life behind the Iron Curtain. Home videos, emotionally interwoven into the present-day footage, show happy, fur-bundled children gliding on sleds, and document the excitement of the first day of school. A well-chosen medley of traditional folk songs and pivotal underground rock (most notably, the band Akvarium) accompany the images, helping them seem even more glorified and emotive.

In the same breath as they wistfully recall their childhoods, these subjects remind us that life was no picnic. But My Perestroika is not a history lesson. In fact, aside from some mention of empty store shelves, it fails to convey precisely what made life in the Soviet Union so intolerable or why it suddenly collapsed. Still, the film is fascinating, especially in showing us that modern Russians look at their Communist past with almost as much wonder and disbelief as we do. Yana Litovsky
March 23, 2011



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