Fear of a Bloc Planet
Published on March 23rd, 2011 | by Daniel Guzmán1
No fear was so greatly exploited by 20th Century American pop culture than the fear of Communism. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, it was not only the cessation of 50 years of political tensions, but also the creative bankruptcy of a very lucrative money-making trope for American entertainment. To focus on just one notable sign of Hollywood’s not-too-subtle withdrawal symptoms, consider the way in which the James Bond franchise suffered in the years after the dismantling of the Soviet Bloc. Without the larger-than-life Iron Curtain to lean on, Mr. Bond spiraled into a martini-fueled bender for about a decade, fighting Rupert Murdoch parodies and bedding Charlie Sheen’s sloppy seconds.
It’s easy now for Americans to think back on the movies and TV shows of that era and laugh at the absurdity of those old Red fears (while still stealing nervous glances at the Muslim in the aisle seat – but, I digress). If there is one thing that the years of paranoia showed was that while never entirely harmless, the bogeymen we fear is a composite of both truth and fiction, an inflated distortion of ourselves.
What makes Robin Hessman’s “My Perestroika” such a unique documentary is that the director knows this fact all too well, having spent time living both in the United States and Russia. In her film, Hessman attempts to show a side of the former USSR rarely seen by Western audiences, going beyond the convenient stereotypes generated by decades of glaring back and forth over a cold (war) shoulder, and focusing instead on the lives of those Russians who came of age at the very moment that their world changed.
The film begins with black and white footage of schoolchildren marching before members of the government. From these stock propaganda images, the film shifts into color, narrowing its scope to examine the lives of five Moscow schoolmates, now adults, and the ways in which their lives changed alongside the country of their birth. At the center of the group is Borya and Lyuba Meyerson, classroom sweethearts now with a son of their own and working as teachers at Moscow’s School #57. Through their relationship, we come to know the other Muscovites that form the tapestry of Hessman’s work — Olga (“the prettiest girl in the class,” now a single mother struggling to make a living), Ruslan (the uncompromising musician, who, in one concert, is introduced as “Ruslan, from the Soviet Union”) and Andrei (the hardworking businessman frustrated by Russia’s reluctance to be more like Western capitalism). Rather than offering up talking heads and other experts to discuss the tumultuous era both during and after the 1980’s Perestroika (“Reconstruction”), Hessman allows her featured people to tell the tale, sometimes veering into personal anecdotes of their lives, sometimes speculating on the past and present faults of their countrymen and the world.
The result is a miniature People’s History of Russia, revealing some startling views into the minds of the average citizen. Gone is the mythic notions of the heroic factory worker, the steadfast milkmaid. The truth behind these national symbols eerily reflects that of the American machinations behind, say, Uncle Sam or American flag pins – that is, of a bombastic image factory trying to instill a singular us-or-them narrative for the people to follow.
The characters reminisce of the school days where they sang songs for peace and wrote letters to the American president in hopes of convincing him not to attack. The US was their Evil Empire, run by capitalist cowboys similar to the cast of “Dr. Strangelove.” In the eyes of Russian children, the Soviet government was like any other organization run by old men, be it school or church – a source of both adoration and ridicule. In one clip, we see kids playing a game version of the funeral procession of Leonid Brezhnev, former General Secretary of the USSR. As they dump their makeshift coffin into the snowy earth, we understand that they are neither acting in protest or patriotism. Like the grainy footage, reality is never entirely black or white, just shades of gray.
Hessman’s film succeeds by spending as much time on the characters’ lives as it does on the historic events that mark different points in their adult development. Through such ordinary scenes as Olga discussing her job at a billiard rental company to Ruslan preparing to perform with his old band, we learn just how the Soviet collapse has affected even the most isolated of activities. We learn that Olga is a single mother because her husband, a vice president of a bank, was killed by gangs during the tumultuous decade following the ’91 coup, and that Ruslan, while deriding the old regime, laments the loss of Russian identity in the wake of American-style commercialism.
As each individual’s story is told, we see how all revolutions are dependent on people. In the film, this leads to such stirring moments as the characters sharing their humorous experiences involving the change in government (ex: whenever there was the risk of social unrest, the TV stations showed “Swan Lake” on every channel, such as during Brezhnev’s death and the ’91 coup), as well as sobering accounts of the void that came during the power shift (KGB creating fake nightclubs to attract subversive bands and audiences, crazy faith healers manipulating citizens with the promise of restored health and financial gains). Gorbachev is discussed often, constantly noted for how he “talked like a real person.” Here was a man who veered from the script portrayed both by the propaganda of the Soviets and the fear-mongering of the Americans. He paused, he stuttered, he introduced Glasnost, an act that lead to many fights between conservative parents and liberal children.
The film begins and ends with the Russian school tradition known as First of September. Children gather in front of their school holding flowers, while the faculty welcomes the start of a new year of learning. A bell rings, and the 11th graders take the hand of the 1st graders, entering the school together. Hessman’s choice of centering her film on the two schoolteachers gives these moments even greater impact. At one point, Borya talks of his relief that his son didn’t grow up in the era of Perestroika. He believes that in this, there is the possibility for an enduring change for the better. However, one must always be mindful of the “little saplings” that spring up from the remains of the old ways, nurtured by men like Putin and Medyedev. While miniscule, Borya warns that these saplings “can grow into an unpleasant tree.”
For now, Hessman indicates, there is hope. Not a hope created by banners or stirring music. Rather, one that is built by the people, like in any revolution, American, Russian or Arabic. Hessman’s film reminds viewers that true change comes from within, from a desire to live a life of dignity and community, inflated archetypes be damned.