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Arts and Culture

Their ‘Perestroika’

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Posted on Mar 26, 2011
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Uniformed schoolchildren line up in a scene from the film “My Perestroika.”

By Richard Schickel

They are representative of the last generation of students to pass through the old, rigid, heavily politicized Stalinoid school system in Russia—a married couple who now teach in the same school from which they long ago graduated, a street musician who once played in a hot punk band, a single mom with a dead-end job servicing pool tables scattered all over Moscow, and an entrepreneur who has, in a few years, built up a prospering chain of haberdashery stores. In Robin Hessman’s fascinating documentary “My Perestroika,” they reflect—ultimately rather glumly—on the changes they have witnessed since the early 1980s, when perestroika (literally: “restructuring”) began to reshape their lives.

The film is full of surprises, beginning with the fact that their schooling appears not to have been as restrictive as we might imagine. Sure, they were always obliged to sing songs hymning the glories of the Soviet state and to deplore the “evil empire”—that is to say, the United States—to join youth organizations like the Komsomol, a good record in which was essential to obtaining higher education and good jobs later in life. But they were, after all, just kids, full of mischief and minor rebelliousness, and Hessman has uncovered a rich trove of home movies that make their young lives seem not appreciably more repressive than they might have been elsewhere in the world. They seem to look back on those years with a sort of shrugging nostalgia.

Which is nothing compared to their feelings when, in 1991, citizens loyal to the reformist premier Mikhail Gorbachev beat back an attempted coup by hard-line communists intent on restoring the old Stalinist style of governance. Some of Hessman’s witnesses were in the streets, confronting elements of an army that, in the end, refused to support the hard-liners. Some of them were not. But that’s not the point. It was the spirit of those heady days that still moves these witnesses. It was a time when, briefly, everything seemed possible to them—freedom of speech and opinion, freedom to embrace some form of capitalist enterprise, freedom to enjoy the slighty wacky carryings-on of Boris Yeltsin (“eternally young and eternally drunk”). 

That spirit could not long continue. There was a power vacuum, into which hard-edged, hard-eyed men like Vladimir Putin flowed. There was also the fact that ordinary citizens could not long live in a state of high political excitement. This is not a point that Hessman overtly stresses, but it is implicit everywhere in her film. There are careers to be made (or, in the case of the street musician, unmade), tragedies to be overcome—the loss of her lover, the father of her child, in the case of the pool table functionary—dachas to be acquired—all the quotidian distractions that ordinary life imposes on us, in Russia no less than everywhere else in the world.

But here’s what’s most interesting about the film: Hessman collected these recollections in Putin’s Russia, and their dominant tone is one of profound cynicism. There is nothing comparable to that spirit elsewhere in the film—even when, as kids, these people are more or less cheerfully faking their enthusiasm for militant communism, certainly not when perestroika makes something like authentic freedom seem possible. Now, however, most of them do not even bother to vote in the election that places at least nominal power in the hands of Putin’s creature, Dimitry Medvedev. Most of them, indeed, are convinced that the election was rigged from the outset, which it may well have been.

Democracy is ever a fragile thing, especially in states that have no tradition of democratic rule and have, instead, a tradition of self-serving rule by self-appointed and often brutal elites. Even idealists, like Hessman’s schoolteachers, are reduced to mild complaints as, basically, they tend to their own gardens. You can see little flickers of hope spring up in them as a new term begins and the shiny-faced kids gather enthusiastically in the yard of a school that has been graduating classes for 131 years, very few of which have produced classes vibrant with idealism. Now, it seems, they will eventually produce one or two millionaires and huge numbers of decent, passive people getting along by going along. I don’t think we should feel too smug about that. Isn’t that pretty much what schools turn out everywhere in economically advanced—or advancing—societies?  As Pogo might once have put it, “We have met the [former] enemy and he is us.”


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Shenonymous's avatar

By Shenonymous, March 28, 2011 at 6:51 pm Link to this comment

“Hard-eyed” men like Vladimir Putin always flow into a society
where people are intentionally kept unconscious to the hardly
perceptible but shrewd and calculating unscrupulous.  The
general population of America is busy carving out a life and
most do not intellectualize the political scene.  They just react
to what is reported on TV.  And how the news is presented is
what they take away from watching the reports and come to
their own provincial conclusions. 

The bevy of disaffected with America on this forum is
astounding.  There is no comparison between America and
the former or present Russia.  Regardless of how many of you try
to accuse America, it does not have a tradition of self-serving rule
and does not have self-appointed rulers.  While there is a class of
brutal elites, it is economically brutal not in the same sense as the
writer is describing the physical brutatlity of the early 80s Soviet
Russia.  And we have the right to protest in spite of the fascist
attempt by Republicans to squash that effort.  85,000 and a 3-
week unprecedented protest in Wisconsin just last month testifies
to that.  Those teachers are nothing like Hessman’s schoolteachers
who shrug into “mild complaints.” The Wisconsin teachers are not
tending to their own personal gardens like the ones in Russia, but
tending to a public and collective garden just as are all the other
protests happening as stimulated by the actions in Wisconsin.  It is
in those gardens that American will be regrown.  There are
protests going on all over America.  Unions have received a fresh
blood transfusion and a dawning has begun that cuts an
inexorable path to replace the self-serving Republicans and usher
in a new era of liberalism.  You can be the chronic moaning
malcontents, antagonistisc and denigraters as much as is your
penchant to do so, it is your right, but you are wrong in my mind
and I do not believe most of America is as alienated from this
country as you make it out to be.  While they are not contented
they are still desirous of this country to succeed in the ways as has
always been its unique promise.  The middle class are still
planning vacations, many to exotic places, others more modified
and modest, but going to go nevertheless.  They are still involved
in their entertainments, baseball, basketball, sports up the wazoo. 
Not to mention the absolute consumers of electronic equipment.  It
is so easy to take potshots at the big kid on the block.  It becomes
group think and that is what I see, as usual fare from truthdippers,
has happened on this forum.

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By The Blog Fodder, March 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm Link to this comment

I live in Ukraine.  DavidByron, you have a lot of it right.  If the GOP has its way America will look very much like Ukraine in a few years.
The Stalin thing bothers me as the history of the FSU is pretty much still written by the Kremlin and anyone investigating further even in independent Ukraine finds themselves in serious trouble over faked “national security” or some such.  As long as people are ignorant of the true Stalin, they hero worship him.

My wife’s great grandfather was Polish.  The Siberian village she was born and grew up in was visited by the NKVD in 1938 and all men with a Polish family name were “disappeared”.  Her family escaped as the “informer” was married into the family so left them off the list.  Her grandfather and his two brothers died fighting the Germans.

I should like to see this movie.

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DavidByron's avatar

By DavidByron, March 28, 2011 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment

The usual American jingoism, knee-jerk anti-communism and utter lack of self-awareness.  Its actually a comedy piece.

He’s describing the US of course, but fails to realise it.  He sees what he wants to see in Russia, not realising for example that most Russians think Stalin was a national hero - which he was - so “Stalinist” is not exactly an insult.

Apparently without intended irony he puts scare quotes around “evil empire” as if wink wink, dont we know all of us, that they are charmingly wrong in saying the US is evil.  History and indeed the present side with the Russians of course.  the American is too brainwashed to know any of it.

“dead-end job” the capitalist description of a job intended to oppress, with the carrot of an unattainable promotion, in a society where it is considered normal for some to be paid 1000 times more than others.  In a communist society there are no dead end jobs of course.  The American doesn’t understand this.  Economic oppression is normalized for him.

He concentrates on the rich, the success stories of post-communist capitalist Russia, to try and convince himself against what the Russians know well - that communism was better, yes even corrupt communism suffering under constant economic warfare from the US, was better than capitalism.

He chides the Russians for not voting (forgetting most Americans don’t either) but of course in realising the elections are rigged they are advanced beyond America’s electorate.  He recognises their (never his!) elections probably are rigged but somehow they should vote anyway.  The state religion of the US tells him it is a sin to not vote even for a rigged election.

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By bilgibank, March 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

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By bilgibank, March 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

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By bilgibank, March 27, 2011 at 2:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

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By California Ray, March 27, 2011 at 2:35 pm Link to this comment

Postscript: they grew up; moved to the United States; bought some stocks and real
estate; and lost their money.

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By gerard, March 26, 2011 at 12:06 pm Link to this comment

—-“a tradition of self-serving rule by self-appointed and often brutal elites”.  Just what we have here, in spite of our vaunted “tradition”  of democratic rule.  Pot and kettle, no less. Except that, having known some semblance of “democracy” for
decades, we average Joes are giving it up more or less willingly in favor of the bland inertia of TV commercial-watching and a more or less universal turning of blind eyes to what we know we should be doing something about.

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By sofianitz, March 26, 2011 at 5:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“self-serving rule by self-appointed and often brutal elites”
What an apt description of contemporary American society.

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