Robin Hessman grew up with what for
a kid in Reagan’s America was an unhealthy interest in life in the Soviet Union.
Her second grade classmates played a game called USA vs. USSR – the girls were
the Americans, while the boys played the Russians. Curiosity and a natural
contrariness put her with the boys. Soon she was begging her parents to
subscribe to Soviet Life Magazine, superficially a dull propaganda organ
arriving in a brown paper wrapper (much like The Advocate in those days),
she calls it her “political propaganda.” While the prose bled on about ever
increasing grain harvests, the magazine’s pictures, often of kids her age,
wearing odd uniforms, piqued her interest. A freshman college trip led her to
1991 Leningrad, in time for a political coup against liberalizing leader
The failure of the coup led to the
rapid death of the old Soviet Union and the beginning of a veritable
political/cultural earthquake for Robin and her close Russian friends.
personal doc, My Perestroika (opening Friday at the Balboa), is a
without precedent, candid look at an American Russophile’s friendship circle:
five of Hessman’s friends share their life stories, home movies and political
opinions. Because the visual power of the piece derives from super 8 home
movies, there is a bias towards those who came from a relatively privileged
Communist Party background. The five friends also share the fate of having
attended the 130-year-old Moscow School #57, so Hessman is able to flash back
and forth between recollections of her nearing middle age friends and rosy
cheeked versions of themselves at school, as members of the Young Communist
Her subjects all reflect the
dizzying emotional vertigo of having virtually everything you were taught as a
kid contradicted, overturned or rendered obsolete. Borya and Lyuba are married
history teachers – overcoming an ancient taboo about Christians marrying Jews
-- who now teach a radically different version of Soviet history than they were
taught. The happiest member of the family is burgeoning teen Mark who seems
comfortable as the first generation who can come and go freely with
relatively boundless career goals.
Andrei is a member of the new
merchant class – his chain of exclusive French clothing stores now has 17
outlets across Russia. Andrei is one of the most critical of the Putin years –
he relates a story of how when he enlisted in the army and applied for
Communist Party membership he was rejected by a timid bureaucrat. Right then he
knew the old system was doomed.
Olga and Ruslan are the odd people
out: Olga is a single, divorced mom eking out a living working in a pool hall.
She chain smokes and seems resigned to a less than prosperous future. Ruslan,
who used the new openness to start a defiantly rebellious punk band, eventually
found his principles compromised even among the punks and now subsists busking
in the subway.
Short on paranoia and dispatches
about Putin inspired crackdowns, My Perestroika is an engaging, nuanced
breath of fresh air where five intelligent citizens can disagree with each
other, and for now at least Big Brother.